Completing the MA in Communication Studies

Graduate students in the Department of Communication must decide which of three options they will pursue in order to complete the MA degree: (1) a scholarly thesis or production thesis, (2) a professional paper or project, or (3) a professional internship. Each has its own unique set of advantages and each demands proper planning on the part of the student and his/her faculty mentor in order to complete this final requirement of graduation.

Option 1: The Thesis

A master’s thesis is usually an original research project based on the student's scholarly interests, coursework, and/or future career goals. Occasionally students derive thesis topics from the ongoing research of a faculty member, but usually it is the student who develops the thesis project. The thesis should demonstrate the student's ability to: (1) review and synthesize research literature relevant to the topic, (2) identify appropriate strategies for conducting original research related to the topic, (3) gather and analyze data, and (4) make arguments and offer explanations for the findings of the study.

Students who expect to proceed to doctoral studies or work with research data in their professions are encouraged to write a thesis. Management consultants, media executives, marketing and advertising account executives, and government regulators (e.g. with the FCC) all regularly confront and conduct research, such as Nielsen ratings, consumer surveys, market penetration studies, economic analyses, and employee surveys. Someone with a graduate education should be able to construct and/or make use of such information and make intelligent decisions and recommendations based on it. Writing a thesis is the best way to demonstrate that capability.

The Thesis Committee

The thesis committee consists of a minimum of three Graduate Faculty members: (1) the thesis advisor (who chairs the committee), (2) another member of the graduate faculty of the Department of Communication Studies, and (3) an outside graduate faculty member from another academic department. The outside faculty member of the thesis committee must have BU graduate faculty status. All members of the BU graduate faculty are listed in the most current edition of the BU Graduate School Catalogue. The graduate student (not the graduate faculty member) is responsible for organizing the committee and ensuring that the outside graduate faculty member of the committee has graduate faculty status. The thesis committee must approve the topic a student chooses for the thesis and will eventually decide if the thesis meets the department’s standards and guidelines for graduation.

The student’s thesis advisor should closely supervise the thesis project and the topic of a student’s thesis should reflect the expertise of the student’s advisor. A student contemplating a thesis should make it a point to talk to various faculty members who seem to share the student’s interests. Included at the end of this handbook is a list of graduate faculty members in Communication Studies and their research interests. When asked to be the advisor for a thesis, a faculty member weighs several considerations, among them: (1) Is the topic proposed by the graduate student situated within the discipline of Communication Studies? (2) Is the topic proposed by the graduate student one in which the faculty member has sufficient expertise? (3) Does the graduate student have a coherent plan for successfully conducting the proposed thesis project? (4) Does the faculty member have the time needed to accept responsibility for directing the thesis project?

In addition to a thesis advisor, a student must assemble the rest of the committee. The second faculty committee member from the Department of Communication may be selected because of some particular interest in the thesis subject, the method of analysis to be used in the thesis, or for a variety of other substantive reasons. The third faculty committee member (i.e., the "outside faculty member") is present primarily to ensure that the university’s policies and procedures, including those that protect the student, are adhered to in the thesis process; however, in addition to this important role, the outside graduate faculty member may be asked to play a more substantive role in the design, implementation, and analysis of the thesis project.

The Prospectus Meeting

Graduate students electing the thesis option must defend a prospectus before the proposed thesis committee prior to the execution of the thesis. A prospectus is a formal summary of what the student intends to do with his/her thesis. The form that the prospectus takes varies with the kind of thesis the student proposes to the committee. The prospectus for a survey or experimental study will typically include: (1) the conceptualization of the study including a review of literature and hypotheses and/or research questions, (2) arguments for the significance of the proposed study, (3) description of the sample to be used, (4) description of the methods and variables of interest for the study, (5) copies of instruments and measures to be used, (6) procedures to be followed, and (7) a copy of the questionnaire.

The prospectus for a rhetorical study will typically include: (1) the conceptualization of the study including a review of literature and research questions, (2) the statement of significance, (3) the identification and justification for the texts to be analyzed, and (4) a discussion of the method to be used in the analysis of the texts.

The outcomes of the prospectus meeting vary. The committee may reject the student's prospectus, insisting that the student propose another topic. However, if the student has worked closely with his/her advisor and consulted with other members of the proposed committee, the outcome of the prospectus meeting is usually positive. Typically, the committee endorses the student’s thesis proposal, but usually with recommendations for changes in the conceptualization and/or methodology of the proposed project.

Protection of Human Subjects

Before convening for the prospectus meeting, any student using human subjects as part of his/her data collection must first get approval from the university Institutional Review Board (i.e., the IRB) before circulating questionnaires or conducting experiments. To obtain approval from the IRB, the graduate student must complete the IRB application process found on-line at: The IRB will send written notification of their approval of the thesis project, usually by email. The prospectus meeting must not be held until this written approval has been received.

The Thesis Defense

The graduate student is responsible for scheduling the oral defense of his/her thesis. This is done by arranging a time and place that has the consensus of all committee members. Once the time and place has been decided, the student must complete the Announcement of the Master's Thesis Oral Examination Form and take it to the graduate school. The Graduate School requires this form to be filed with them a minimum of ten working days before the oral defense.

When preparing the thesis for defense, the student must follow the Guidelines for Preparing the Thesis or Dissertation created by the Graduate School. Also, the student must be aware of all deadlines established by the BU graduate school. These deadlines are posted on Baylor’s Graduate School webpage for the fall, spring, and summer semesters. Students planning to graduate in a given semester should know the deadlines for defending their theses and for submitting the departmentally defended copies of the theses to the BU Graduate School.

So that the committee members have an opportunity to review the final draft of the thesis before the oral defense, a final draft of the written thesis must be finished approximately ten days in advance of the oral defense date and presented to the members of the thesis committee. Graduate students must work this deadline out with their committee members, and students should be in regular contact with their committees as the defense date approaches.

When the oral thesis defense has concluded, the committee will ask the student to leave the room so that a decision of pass or fail may be reached by the committee. Committee members advise the Graduate School of its decision by signing the Record of Oral Examination Form. Students have been known to fail their oral examinations. However, most students who work closely with their advisors and incorporate the changes recommended by the committee at the prospectus meeting typically pass the oral examination. It is common after an oral defense for a committee to request changes to the written thesis before passing the student to graduation. These changes can range from small editorial corrections to substantial changes in the analysis or discussion. Once the changes have been made, the student takes the final copy of the thesis, along with the completed Approval of Final Thesis Form to the Graduate School. Thus, students are advised to schedule their defenses as early as possible during the semester in question. If the student fails the thesis defense, another defense may be rescheduled after a four month waiting period.

The Creative Project/Production Thesis

Another option for completing the MA degree is to produce an original creative work, e.g., an original film or video. Successful completion of this requirement involves demonstrating (1) familiarity with the aesthetic tradition in which the project is based, (2) technical competence in the medium, and (3) creative use of the medium. An extensive written analysis of the original work is also required in addition to the original creative product itself.

Students anticipating a career in film, television, interactive multimedia production, technological research and development, and/or a media management career in any of these areas should consider a production thesis. Whether a graduate student intends to make a living as a creative artist or as someone who manages the careers and products of creative artists, demonstrating familiarity with the theory and practice of production is a good way to prepare for such a career.

A Production Thesis Committee

Many of the requirements of a written thesis apply to a production thesis, i.e., one must assemble a committee, choose an advisor, enroll in 6 thesis hours, conduct a prospectus meeting, prepare a presentation of the thesis, and pass the oral defense. Production theses require the same care and planning as do written theses; students contemplating this option are encouraged to begin production plans early by talking to faculty with expertise in media production.

A faculty member considering advising a production thesis weighs several concerns, among them: (1) the student's technical ability to complete the project he or she is describing, (2) the student's realistic appreciation for the nature of the work and time required to complete the project, and (3) the sufficiency and availability of the department's resources to support this project. Any proposal for a creative or production thesis should address these and any other relevant concerns.

As with a written thesis, a second graduate faculty committee member from the Department of Communication is required, as well as an outside graduate faculty member. While the chair of the committee must be an expert in the production techniques employed in the thesis, the second departmental member may not necessarily have such skills. For example, if a student were producing a documentary film about a political campaign, he or she would benefit from the inclusion of a committee member with expertise in media and politics, or an outside member from the Political Science Department.

Defense of the Production Thesis

When appropriate, the graduate student should conduct a public screening or viewing of the completed production thesis project. Additionally, the oral defense of a production thesis will involve questions about the aesthetic and theoretical background of the work, decisions made during the production process, and cultural or social implications of the work. In addition, the student should be prepared to discuss how this work fits into his or her larger interests, both creatively and professionally. As with written theses, students may be asked to revise a production thesis before it is accepted for graduation.

Some media may require more long-term planning than others, therefore, students are encouraged to be aware of this as they plan production theses. The availability of equipment can complicate a production thesis. Demonstrating the ability to manage these additional challenges of the production process is part of what a committee assesses in a production thesis.

Proposed Prospectus/Thesis Project Timeline:

On or before August 31st

1. Finalize the working bibliography of sources

2. Construct an outline of the prospectus, including thesis statement, goal statement, & hypotheses/RQs, lit review, main arguments, and proposed methods section (basically outline the first two sections of the final thesis/paper)

3. Construct questionnaire or interview protocol for the data collection

4. Get the prospectus committee in place (two inside dept/one outside--all grad faculty)

On or before September 30th:

1. Finalize the prospectus

2. Gain IRB approval for the thesis project & data collection

3. Defend the prospectus

On or before December 31st

1. Complete data collection

2. Complete analysis of data

3. Edit prospectus into the introduction/lit review/methods section of the thesis

By Mid-March

1 Defend thesis

2 Complete all graduate school paperwork

Option 2: The Professional Paper/Project

A professional paper is a piece of research that addresses a particular subject and offers original insight into or analysis of the topic; it is usually not an original piece of research nor does it usually involve any original data collection. The professional paper should be suitable for submission to a professional journal or conference with reasonable anticipation that it would be accepted. A professional paper should (1) review research literature relevant to the subject, (2) offer an original interpretation of existing or new data, and (3) introduce new possibilities for future study. A professional paper isn’t as extensive as a thesis and the graduate student is not expected to demonstrate as wide an array of research methodology and analytical skills as with a thesis project. Students who anticipate careers in which they will frequently be called upon to synthesize the research of others or to write reports for clients or executives from existing sources of information/data are encouraged to write a professional paper.

Professional Paper or Thesis?

The differences between a professional paper and thesis are generally differences in scale and scope. For the most part, a thesis is an original research project while the professional paper is simply a synthesis of existing research. A thesis is a more thorough investigation of a problem and calls for more creativity than a professional paper. The range of problems or research questions in a professional paper should be narrower in scope than in a thesis; additionally, the professional paper is judged for its efficiency somewhat more than a thesis. Since its ambitions are more understated than the ambitions of a thesis, a professional paper by itself demonstrates somewhat less skill, creativity, and breadth of knowledge than a thesis. Students should weigh what they want to have demonstrated to the faculty, to future employers and clients, and to themselves as they decide between a professional paper and a thesis. They should also, of course, evaluate their interests, training, and skills as they make this decision, as well as any future educational aspirations, i.e., most graduate students advancing on to a Ph.D. program should write a thesis, not engage a professional paper project.

Plan of Study for a Professional Paper

Unlike a thesis, those writing a professional paper must complete 33 hours of regular coursework and 3 hours of an independent study-style course that resembles the "thesis hours" requirement (i.e., CSS 5V90 or FDM 5V90). These 3 professional paper hours are best saved until the final semester in which the student is enrolled. The deadline imposed by the university graduate school for completion of any oral comprehensive exams is the deadline that applies to completion of (including defense of) the professional paper, usually the last day of class each semester. Students should leave time in the semester for revision of the paper after their defense in the likely event that the committee deems any changes or revisions necessary.

Students may wish to reserve their judgment as to the topic of a professional paper longer than thesis students do. The nature of a thesis generally requires a commitment to a topic fairly early, usually in the second or third semester of the course of study (including summer). Subjects covered in a student’s coursework may inspire a professional paper. Thus a student on this path might wish to wait until he or she has had exposure to a variety of courses (and professors) before making a commitment to a topic.

The Committee and Advisor

As with a thesis, a student writing a professional paper must choose a graduate faculty advisor and a second graduate faculty member from the Department of Communication; additionally, the professional paper oral examination committee must include a graduate faculty member from outside of the department. The roles of the committee members are much the same as on a thesis committee (see above).

Defense of a Professional Paper

Another primary difference between the thesis and professional paper is that with the professional paper process, no formal prospectus meeting is required. However, like a thesis, a professional paper must be defended orally to the student’s committee. The graduate student must take responsibility for scheduling the oral defense of his/her professional paper. This is done by arranging a time and place that has the consensus of his/her committee members. Once the time and place has been decided, the student must complete the Announcement of the Master's Oral Examination Form, attain the required signatures, and submit it to the graduate school. And just like with a thesis, the Graduate School requires this form be submitted a minimum of ten working days before the exam takes place.

Students should be very familiar with the details of their paper and prepared to deliver a cogent and concise summary of the professional paper at their defense. Since not all university departments offer the option of a professional paper to their MA students, the graduate student should effectively brief his/her outside graduate faculty member as to the nature of the professional paper and its requirements before submitting the paper for defense.

When the oral defense has concluded, the committee will ask the student to leave the room so that the committee may reach a decision of pass or fail. Committee members advise the Graduate School of its decision by signing the Record of Oral Examination Form. If the student has worked closely with his/her advisor, he/she typically passes the oral defense of the professional paper. Since the Graduate School does not require a copy of the professional paper, a student's program of study ends with the oral defense and the timely filing of all required forms for graduation, including any Change of Grade forms that need to be submitted.

Scheduling Oral Defenses and Examinations

Students nearly always find it challenging to schedule committee meetings for prospectus and oral defenses/exams. Schedules are usually difficult to coordinate and this becomes more and more true as any semester nears its end. Here is some general advice to consider for scheduling committee meetings:

1. Be flexible. Remember, you can control your own schedule more easily than you can control your committee’s, so do your best to identify periods when you can be more flexible with your time.

2. Get on the calendar early. The sooner you get on your committee members' calendars, the better. But once you’re there don’t take anything for granted. Keep in touch with your committee, reminding them of the approaching meeting.

3. Propose dates. When you begin this process, don’t just ask the committee members when the exam should be. Have several specific dates in mind and propose them one by one, in order of your preference. A message that says, "I’m calling to set up a date for my prospectus meeting" is unlikely to produce quick results.

4. Have a back-up plan. Even after the committee has agreed to a date, have several backup dates in mind. It is not uncommon for one or more persons involved in this process (including the student) to have to break the date originally scheduled. This will always be a hassle, but it will be less stressful if you’ve inquired about some alternatives ahead of time, preferably when you make the initial arrangements. The more familiar you are with the committee members’ general schedules, the more quickly you can reschedule if necessary.

5. Be available. Make sure that your committee members know how to reach you if they need to do so. If there is a problem with your thesis or professional paper, you may be encouraged to delay the oral defense until you’ve had a chance to address any concerns.

Option 3: The Professional Internship

A third option for the satisfactory completion of the MA in Communication Studies is the professional internship. As noted above, this option requires 33 hours of coursework and then three additional hours for the successful engagement of a business or media related internship. Unlike the thesis or professional paper/project options, no graduate faculty committee is necessary, no formal prospectus meeting is required, nor is a final defense meeting mandated. However, the graduate student must have his/her internship approved by both the graduate faculty advisor and the graduate program director before the internship may begin. Furthermore, both the faculty advisor and graduate program director will supervise the internship experience, ensuring that all requirements are being successfully fulfilled. Once the student has completed the 36 hours of required coursework (33 hours plus three hours of internship), all requirements for the successful completion of the MA in Communication Studies will be considered finalized. For the most part, this option is not for those graduate students wishing to pursue additional graduate education (e.g., the Ph.D.) but rather, the internship option is clearly designed for the graduate student who wishes to move directly into a professional position in business and/or media. The graduate faculty strongly encourages the graduate student pursuing this option to conduct the internship during his/her last semester in the MA program.