Graduate Student Handbook


Getting to Know the Department of Communication Studies

Department of Communication Studies
Lincoln Hall 302
Communication Studies Graduate Faculty


About the Program

Communication studies focuses both on the practice and developing skills for competent communication, as well as analyzing and studying how people create shared meanings and interpretations of the world around them. As a discipline, communication studies focuses on how political, cultural and social discourses create meaning, distribute resources and organize behavior. In the spirit of the liberal arts, the study of communication cultivates the qualities necessary to be effective citizens by developing problem-solving and advocacy skills, as well as fostering an understanding and appreciation of the multiple perspectives, cultures, and individuals that constitute democracy. The Communication Studies Department is a member of the School of Social Research and Justice Studies that is part of the College of Liberal Arts

Communication Studies M.A. Program Description

The M.A. Program in Communication Studies prepares students to create responsible communication to achieve greater equity and inclusion in interpersonal relationships, workplaces, and society. The curriculum prepares students for careers in academia or for careers as socially conscious workers in non- or for-profit organizations. Students will leave with expertise in Communication Studies grounded in social justice theories and techniques for effective advocacy, just policy development, and ethical interpersonal interactions.

Program Objectives

  1. Students will be able to identify theories, concepts, and figures in the communication studies discipline and how the study of communication is applied to academic and non-academic settings with emphasis on social justice.
  2. Students will be able to explain different communication contexts and situations as well as appropriate communication strategies to understand difference and analyze power.
  3. Students will be able to integrate and synthesize theory and research from across disciplines in order to make ethical social justice interventions.
  4. Students will be able to apply systematic inquiry and research methods specific to communication studies in developing and answering questions related to social justice and related communication topics.
  5. Students will be able to examine their own communication preferences and biases and demonstrate reflexivity in order to engage in ethically-based communication.

Degree Requirements

Consult the University Catalog for the most up-to-date information on program requirements and listing of courses.

Required Courses: 12-15 units

  • COM 701 - Introduction to Graduate Studies in Communication (3 units)
  • COM 760 - Seminar: Communication Theory (3 units)
  • One approved Research Methods Course within or external to department (3 units)
    • Department method course electives include:
      • COM 700 - Research Methods (3 units)
      • COM 740 – Rhetorical Criticism (3 units)
      • SRJS 725 - Research Methods in the Social Sciences (3 units)
        Method courses taken external to department may be approved by student’s advisor.
  • Plan A (Thesis) students require at least 6 units in COM 797 – Thesis (1 to 6 units)
  • Plan B (Comprehensive Exam) students require at least 3 units in COM 795 Comprehensive Examination (1 to 3 units)

Electives: 15-18 additional units

  • Students with a teaching assistantship are required to take COM 705: Critical Pedagogy. Any student interested in teaching are encouraged to take COM 705: Critical Pedagogy
  • Students may take electives within communication studies or other departments. Students should speak with their advisor on appropriate courses.
  • Students in the program typically take outside elective courses from the following: CJR, ENG, GRI, JM, JOUR, SOC, SRJS
  • Students may also pursue graduate certificate programs as part of their electives. Students in the program have received certificates in Gender, Race, and Identity or Social Justice.
    • A maximum of 18 graduate credits completed from a relevant University of Nevada, Reno graduate certificate may be applied to a master’s degree program of study.

Total units needed: A minimum of 30 graduate level credits at the 600-700 level must be taken. Additionally,

  • For Plan A students, at least 9 units, exclusive of thesis credits (COM 797), must be at the 700 level. For Plan B students, at least 12 credits must be at the 700 level.
  • At least 18 of the 30 credits must be designated COM.

All graduate courses must be completed with a grade of "C" or better in order to satisfy graduate program requirements. Grades of a "C-" or below are considered failing grades in graduate school and will not count in a student's program of study. 

See Academic Standing policies.

Transfer Credits

A maximum of 12 credits can be transferred into the degree program through Graduate Special Status or transfer credit.

These are credits transferred from another institution. Credits completed at UNR in another program or as a graduate special do not need to be transferred. Transfer credit can be requested on the Graduate Credit Transfer Evaluation Request form available on Graduate School website, and must be signed by the student, major advisor, and graduate director. Transfer credits applied to a master’s program must comply with the time limitation on master’s work (6 years). Thus, if a student took a course five years prior to admission, they would have to complete the degree within one year for the course to apply to the degree. Credits from a completed master’s degree will be exempt from the 8-year time limitation for those students pursuing a doctoral degree.

Plan A: Thesis

Students completing the thesis option must complete original, independent research, applied, or performance type project that investigates a problem, issue, or question regarding communication. Graduate students who intend to complete the thesis option should identify their research interests and ask a faculty member who shares their research interests to serve as their advisor. Students wishing to pursue a PhD are advised to consider the thesis plan as projects can lead to publishable research. The thesis plan consists of an orally defended research prospectus/proposal, written thesis, and final oral presentation/defense with the thesis committee (see page 13 for details about committees). Students completing the thesis option are encouraged to start the process by the end of the first year in order to have time to complete the necessary data gathering, analysis, and writing required of independent research. More information about the applied or performance project options can be found under the thesis section.

Plan B: Comprehensive Exams

The Comprehensive Exam option is designed for students to demonstrate the knowledge in their chosen specialization areas. Students will develop reading lists around topics in their specializations from course work and additional resources. Students will be asked to respond to questions developed from the specialization areas/reading lists and typically are designed to show expertise in a theoretical area, methodological approach, communication context, and/or sub-discipline area. The comprehensive exam consists of written exams and/or presentation and oral defense with the examination committee. Students should be prepared to do the equivalent of a regular graduate course in terms of reading and organizing information in preparation for the written exams. More information on this process can be found under the comprehensive exams section.


Semester-by-Semester Checklist to Degree Completion

Before Classes Begin

  • Get Wolf Card ID
  • Register for classes on MyNevada
  • Activate NetID and UNR student email
  • Attend Graduate School Orientation [optional], Graduate School TA training (GRAD 701) [required for TAs], and Department Orientation
First Semester
  • Take up to 9 credits, including COM 701: Introduction to Graduate Studies in Communication. COM 760: Seminar Communication Theory is also typically offered in Fall
  • Students with a teaching assistantship are required to take COM 705.
  • Meet with potential advisors/get to know graduate faculty in the program.
  • Start considering research/specialization topics for your thesis or comprehensive exams.
  • Meet with your advisor or graduate studies director to plan courses for the following semester.
Second Semester
  • Take up to 9 credits, if not already taken, students should explore required methods course options.
  • Formally select an advisor and turn in Declaration of Advisor/Major Advisor/Committee Chair form by the end of the semester.
  • With your advisor, select the rest of your committee.
  • If you plan to write a thesis that involves human participant research, you should work with your advisor to complete required IRB approval.
Third Semester
  • Take up to 9 credits, if not already taken, students should take a required methods course or COM 760: Theory. Students can decide if they wish to take some of their thesis and/or comprehensive exam credits in this semester.
  • Have your thesis/comprehensive exam committee identified; meet with members of your committee.
  • By the end of the third semester (often in conjunction with a thesis prospectus defense or comprehensive exam meeting), complete and turn in the Program of Study form.
  • If you are writing a thesis:
    • Write your prospectus.
    • Schedule the prospectus defense at least two weeks after sending the prospectus to your committee.
    • Decide whether or not you would like to apply for Ph.D. programs (applications due starting Dec. 1).
  • If you are doing comprehensive exams:
    • Meet with your advisor and committee members to discuss topics, reading lists, and potential questions.
    • Plan the timeline for taking exams in the Spring.
Fourth Semester
  • Take up to 9 credits including thesis/comprehensive exam credits. Note: All required courses should be taken before this semester.
  • Early in the semester, submit your Application for Graduation in MyNevada.
  • If you are writing a thesis:
    • Finish writing your thesis with the guidance of your advisor
    • Schedule the defense at least two weeks after sending the thesis to your committee
    • Successfully defend your thesis
    • Make any necessary revisions
    • Make certain to have your committee sign the Notice of Completion Form and your advisor sign the Final Review Approval Form found on the Thesis Filing Guidelines page.
    • Pay the $85 processing fee. This process is done through MyNevada. Under the Finances section, click on the link “Purchase Miscellaneous Items.” Select the applicable processing fee to pay and complete the transaction. You will receive a receipt that generates overnight. Please keep this item.
    • Turn in the thesis online
  • If you are taking comprehensive exams:
    • Finalize your questions with the committee
    • Schedule your exam
    • Successfully complete your comprehensive exam answers
    • Schedule your exam defense at least two weeks after sending your answers to your committee
    • Successfully defend your comprehensive exams
    • Make certain to have your committee sign the Notice of Completion Form found on the Thesis Filing Guidelines page.
  • Take the Graduate School Exit Survey.

You can find an updated list of forms and requirements on the Graduate School website.


Remaining in Good Standing as a Graduate Student

Academic Status

All graduate students must maintain a cumulative graduate GPA of 3.0. If their GPA drops below 3.0 they are either put on probation or dismissed.

Continuous Enrollment

To maintain “good standing” all graduate students are required to enroll in a minimum of three (3) graduate credits each fall and spring semester until they graduate. International students may be required to enroll in nine (9) graduate credits each fall and spring semester depending on the requirements of their visa. All students holding teaching or research assistantships are required to enroll in a minimum of six (6) graduate credits each semester they hold the assistantship.


Students whose cumulative graduate GPA is between 2.99 and 2.31 are on probation. Students are placed on academic probation for one semester. If they fail to raise their cumulative GPA to 3.0 by the end of one semester, they are dismissed from their graduate program. Keep in mind that thesis, dissertation, undergraduate courses, S/U graded courses, and transfer credits have no impact on a student’s GPA. Students must have a minimum GPA of 3.0 in order to meet graduation eligibility.

Unsatisfactory Progress/Dismissal

If, at any time, a graduate student fails to make satisfactory progress toward the degree, the student may be denied permission to continue in the program. The Communication Studies graduate faculty will meet each spring to discuss the progress of each graduate student and to determine the student’s ability to continue in the program. In addition, the Director of Graduate Studies, course professors, and course directors overseeing funded students will meet regularly to discuss any performance issues.

Students may be dismissed from a graduate program due to inadequate grades or performance, lack of professionalism or unethical conduct, or unsatisfactory performance in a graduate assistantship. This includes failure to pass comprehensive exams and/or successfully defending a thesis. Please see the Graduate School Academic Standing Polices for more information.

Incomplete Grades

If a student is unable to satisfactorily complete the work for a class, but has been demonstrating consistent attendance and a high degree of effort throughout the semester, the student may be allowed to take an incomplete grade. Incompletes are only given for extenuating circumstances beyond the student’s control (such an in the case of serious injury or illness). Whether or not to grant an incomplete is at the discretion of the course professor. If a student is taking an incomplete, they must notify the Director of Graduate Studies.

Incomplete grades must be resolved by the end of the fall or spring semester following the incomplete, or the incomplete will turn into an F. It is the student’s responsibility to find out the professor’s requirements for completing the work and to meet all necessary deadlines.

Leave of Absence/Reinstatement

Students in good standing may request a leave of absence by completing a Leave of Absence Form during which time they are not required to maintain continuous registration. Usually, a leave of absence is approved for one or two semesters. The leave of absence request may be extended by the student filing an additional leave of absence form. Students applying for a leave of absence should not have any “incomplete” grades which could be changed to “F” and have a detrimental impact on their cumulative GPA. Requests for leave of absences must be received by the Graduate School no later than the last day of enrollment for the semester the leave is to begin.

When a student has been absent for one semester or more without an approved leave of absence, he or she may request reinstatement via the Reinstatement Form. This form allows the program the option to recommend the student be re-admitted to their graduate program based on their previous admission OR require the student to re-apply for admission which would require students to submit a new application for admission and pay the application fee. The Notice of Reinstatement to Gradate Standing must be received by the Graduate School no later than the last day of enrollment for the semester the reinstatement is to begin.

All course work must be completed within six years preceding the awarding of the degree. That is, you have six years after completing coursework to complete your thesis or comprehensive exams.


Advisor and Committee Selection

Selecting an Advisor

Perhaps the most important decision you make as a graduate student is the selection of your advisor. A good advisor will help you to reach graduation, will sponsor your thesis or comprehensive exams, helps you select courses, and is an integral part of your professional development—even after graduation. Advisors will often be available for writing letters of recommendation for Ph.D. programs or job applications.

To identify potential advisors, read about each faculty member, take classes with a variety of people, read their publications, and set up meetings with people to discuss your interests and their research or teaching. First and foremost, your advisor should be someone with the expertise to help direct the research you are doing for your thesis or comprehensive exams. In addition, you might consider: whether you would like to go on to a Ph.D. program, into the nonprofit world, or into business with your degree; how much you direction or independence you need; and what kind of feedback is the most useful for you.

After you decide who you would like to be your advisor, schedule an in-person meeting with them to ask whether or not they will advise you. Be prepared to explain your research interests, the potential focus of your thesis or comprehensive exams, and why you think this person would be the best advisor for you and your project. Don’t be discouraged if your first choice says no; they may have too heavy a load of advisees already, or feel they wouldn’t be the best to support you in what you need. Sometimes the best advisor is one that has a similar working style and can guide you to complete your chosen project.

If you select an advisor, but later realize that someone else might be able to support your project better, it is possible to switch advisors. If you would like to do so, have an upfront conversation with your current advisor, to make sure they understand why you would like to change. Talk with the Graduate Program Director about switching advisors and submitting the appropriate forms.

Selecting a Committee

Students must have three graduate faculty on their committees (thesis or exam), including:

  • Their Advisor (faculty member in Communication Studies who serves as the committee chair); co-advisors can also be selected
  • Committee Member (faculty member in Communication Studies)
  • Graduate School Representative (faculty member from UNR but outside of Communication Studies)

Note: Students may wish to add a non-UNR faculty member to the advisory committee. This external member must be approved by the Graduate School Dean. This external faculty cannot be the Graduate School Representative.

The committee members should, like the advisor, be chosen for expertise that supports the thesis or comprehensive exams project. As the advisor should be an expert in the primary area of research study, the best committee members should add depth of knowledge in supplementary aspects undergirding the project. Most faculty who are asked to be on the committee will expect the student to have taken a class with them. Student advisory committees must be approved by the Graduate Director and the Graduate Dean.


Thesis and Comprehensive Exam Process


Purpose: Students choosing the thesis option will complete an independent research project following the conventions and application of appropriate method/methodology of the discipline. Students in our program may complete projects with human participants (in qualitative or quantitative methods) or can complete projects that follow rhetorical, critical/cultural, or performative research traditions. Successful theses will demonstrate students’ understanding of the discipline (concepts, theories, methods) reviewing relevant academic literature, and creating research questions/purposes for their independent research that advance knowledge in the discipline. The nature of the written thesis document will be dependent on the type of project (see below), but still should be theory-driven, grounded in research of the field, and conform to disciplinary standards for the type of project. You are able to look up theses by UNR students through the Knowledge Center to see what other students have researched.

Types of Thesis Projects

Traditional: “Traditional” thesis projects are those that most closely resemble academic journal article original research studies appropriate for the particular sub-discipline/methodology the project fits within. The organization and writing of these projects often follows traditional sections of a research article (lit review, methods, results, discussion), but the thesis allows for the research to extend or go more in-depth than is allowed in the page limit of a journal article.

Applied: Communication studies has a strong tradition of applied research; applied projects might take the form of completing research on behalf of an organization or community group, might be in completing some other deliverable on behalf of an organization (for example a public awareness campaign or event), or as a local problem-solving and/or policy creation project. Some might use this applied approach in the context of pedagogy (in developing curriculum, programming, or organizing co-curricular activities). The written thesis in applied projects includes a “research report” engaging the academic aspects of the project that accompanies the white paper, professional report, and/or created deliverables that were part of the applied project.

Performance: Performative projects include a public presentation/performance. Performances are theory-driven and reflective, following standards of the discipline. The written portion of this type of thesis project will explain the performance in the context of the discipline, interpreted via theory, and with academic reflection. In most cases a recording of the performance and/or scripts/programs will be included as part of the final materials.

General Expectations for Thesis Projects

Students are expected to research beyond readings they have encountered in their courses, and explore in more detail the concepts, theories, and/or problematics in the discipline appropriate to their projects. Students should be able to demonstrate abilities to search and find appropriate literature to construct their projects, to craft positions that support interpretations, and to explain what their project contributes to the discipline.

Students will be expected to write proficiently for academic audiences (e.g., with general clarity, accurate use of sources, citation of sources following specific citation style, and formatting as required by Graduate School and type of project). Proficient writing should also be clearly organized and develop a coherent central theme, purpose, and/or argument throughout the project. The quality of writing should be higher than is expected in a semester seminar paper, as the assumption is that the student has been continually working and revising the thesis before the committee reads it for the defense.

Stages of the Thesis Project

After selecting an advisor and committee members, students should use the summer between their first and second year in the program to begin reading, conceptualizing the study, and/or working with organizations or groups for applied projects. Students working with human participants should also start the IRB process over summer or early in their third semester.

Prospectus: The purpose of a prospectus and prospectus defense with the thesis committee is for the student to receive an initial approval for their projects from their committee. The committee determines when the project is ready to proceed, if the student is capable of the proposed research/project, and/or suggests resources or directions for the student to consider in completing the project. Approval of the project in the defense should be considered a contract of the work to be completed by the student. Any substantial changes to the proposed project should be reviewed by the committee and given new approval to proceed.

The prospectus defense is an opportunity for the student to articulate the project to the committee, answer questions, and receive feedback from the committee geared to help the student in completing the research/project. Committees should have no less than two weeks to review the prospectus and will indicate to the advisor if they believe the project ready for an oral defense. If a committee member sees substantive issues that would require serious reconceptualizations of the project, the student may be advised to postpone the prospectus defense until those issues have been addressed by the student. Minor issues, questions, or feedback from the committee can be addressed in the defense and framed as areas for the student to improve upon in the writing of the thesis.

The typical oral defense begins with the student presenting and explaining the project; usually the student will address any questions or concerns the committee members might have already raised with the advisor (about 15 minutes). The committee then ask the student questions, engage in conversation about the project, and offer suggestions (typically 30-45 minutes). The general spirit of the conversation should be focused on bringing the committee’s expertise to the table to help develop the project in productive ways. After this conversation the student is excused from the group so that the committee can privately discuss approval and/or areas for the advisor to attend to as the student continues on the project. Students should not be worried about “failing” a prospectus defense and should see the prospectus defense as opportunity to become part of the scholarly community with their committee.

Thesis Completion and Defense

Theses should be completed well before the notice of completion form is due to the Graduate School. Students should keep in mind that their committees will need at least two weeks to read the final thesis before the defense, and the student should also plan to have time for any revisions requested by the committee after the defense. Students should send their committee their final thesis only when it is complete and when the advisor deems it “defendable” (that is, anticipating no major objections from the committee and that meet expectations of scholarly work in the discipline). Although some additional proofreading or citation checks might be needed post-defense, the student should not submit a thesis to the committee with major writing, organizational, or formatting issues.

Once the committee is confident the project is ready for defense, the advisor should work with the student and committee to schedule the oral defense. Like the prospectus defense, the oral defense typically starts with the student presenting on the project (about 15 minutes), which can resemble an academic conference presentation of the research and/or to do more to explain the process or areas the committee already identified as needing more attention. Then the committee asks questions and/or engages in discussion with the student on the project (typically 30-45 minutes). The student is then dismissed for the committee to make final deliberations. Students may choose to have an audience for the beginning presentation of the project (a public defense). Those not part of the committee will then be excused until the committee deliberation is concluded.

The committee will determine whether or not the project passes the defense. If the project does not pass, the student can continue to work on the project and then repeat the defense process. If the committee decides that the project does pass the defense, they may request no revisions, minor revisions, or major revisions. In general, a thesis will pass if it exhibits the following criteria:

  • Contribute to knowledge in communication studies with your original research. What does your project do to advance our understanding of communication concepts/theories, processes, functions, forms, or approaches to studying communication?
  • Demonstrate understanding of communication concepts and theories that are the basis of the study. What are the questions, central issues, or status of the field? What conversation is your project joining?
  • Demonstrate understanding of what has been studied/known of the topic/case/interaction of your study (to be able to show gaps/how your study extends or changes what we know).
  • Demonstrate understanding of a method/methodology and accurately/successfully carry out scholarship using that methodology.
  • Demonstrate insight with analysis/interpretation.
Submitting the Thesis to the Graduate School

MA theses are published through ProQuest/UMI Dissertation Publishing. Students own and retain the copyright to the manuscript; theses are submitted by electronic submissions only. Students should also be aware of the thesis processing fee (currently $85).

The advisor is responsible to ensure that no part of the thesis has been plagiarized and that the student has followed Fair Use guidelines on copyrighted materials. When the student submits their thesis, they will need to certify and show permission of use for copyrighted material that extends beyond fair use guidelines. The thesis advisor will compete the Final Review Form once the thesis is ready for this submission.

Incomplete Thesis/Switching to Non-Thesis Option

Some circumstances may require a student to change from the thesis option to non-thesis/comprehensive exams. The advisor and student should discuss this situation and receive approval from the Graduate Director. Students who switch from the thesis to the non-thesis option will have to change their program of study and the student will have to take required comprehensive exam credits. The student may also need to change the composition of the advisory committee to best serve the non-thesis option goals.

Comprehensive Exams


The purpose of the comprehensive exam option is for students to demonstrate knowledge and capabilities acquired through their coursework. It is a means for students to go more in-depth with areas of expertise/specializations (the “mastery” claimed by the degree), and engage with those issues of the discipline beyond what coursework allows. The comprehensive exam differs from a project in that students demonstrate a broader knowledge of the discipline instead of contributing new work to the discipline.

Students should work with their advisor to identify three specialization areas that their exam questions will focus on. Specialization areas are often derived from specific courses or coursework, but a student could utilize comprehensive exams to engage in an area of the discipline not fully covered in their coursework. In defining the specialization areas, students must incorporate methodological and theoretical areas as part. If a student is completing a graduate certificate, one specialization might center on the certificate program area. Thinking ahead to the types of questions a student would respond to in their exams can help think about how to define specializations areas:

  • Synthesis: Students will review, synthesize, and take a position related to a particular theory, method, subdiscipline area of study, concept, research agenda, or other area specific to the specialization area.
  • History of the Discipline: This type of question asks the student to trace the history, development, or change of key theories, concepts, or work of particular scholars in the discipline.
  • Demonstration of Method: Students might be asked to perform a particular methodological skill and/or employ knowledge of methods towards a hypothetical to construct, evaluate, or reconceive a study.
  • Engaging with Issues: Students will be able to employ critical thinking and ability to connect disciplinary concepts/theories to real world problems. This type of question could also be focused on more disciplinary issues or key problematics.
  • Application and/or Proposal: For students that are working professionals (outside of the university), this type of question would allow them to put that experience in conversation with academic coursework. This type of question could also allow a student to work through a hypothetical (creating campaign, proposing a research study and/or how an organization can improve, etc.).
Preparing for Comprehensive Exams

Students can begin to identify areas of specialization as soon as they know the direction they want to focus in, and should begin to create reading lists related to those areas. These lists often draw from course assigned readings and/or additional readings they encountered when doing semester project work, but lists also require students to read additional materials beyond those associated with their courses. For each of the three specialization areas, students should work with their advisor or committee members to create a finalized list of sources that will represent the material students will be accountable for knowing to respond to exam questions.

A reading list typically covers a broad specialization area (e.g., The Rhetoric of Political Movements, qualitative interviewing), with a combination of articles or book sources representative of the area. There is no set number of sources for each reading list (although 50-75 sources total is typical all lists combined). A reading list might incorporate more book related sources and be shorter, or it might be a longer list that incorporates more articles and shorter works. Some other guidelines to consider in constructing a reading list:

  • Include foundational, germinal, or key sources/authors that a student might be expected to know (by others in the subdiscipline area).
  • Include sources that are representational of different models/schools of thought/paradigms in the specialization area.
  • Include sources that are specific to the direction the comp question might take that a student is responding to (e.g., forums or new directions in a given area of research).

Although these reading lists usually focus on communication studies scholars and sources, readings lists can include academic works as appropriate from outside the discipline and/or key works that are not traditional academic sources.

Once the student and advisor agree that a reading list is complete, the student shares the list with the committee for approval and/or additional recommendations. The advisor should set a meeting with the student and committee to discuss the final lists and expectations of the committee for the exams. The committee may also discuss the general direction of the questions for each specialization area to help the student in studying/preparation. Students should meet with their committee prior to or at the beginning of the semester they plan to take comprehensive exams to establish the question formats/types the committee agrees to use.

The student should prepare for exams by studying the sources on the reading lists by re-reading as needed, taking notes, organizing thoughts, and/or meeting with the advisor/committee members to ensure understanding. Students can prepare for questions by outlining/organizing ideas in advance based on the questions determined by the committee.

Comprehensive Exams Format, Process, and Defense

Exam questions and format are contingent on the specialization areas chosen by the student and/or the particular skills/communication practices part of that specialization. The format of the comprehensive exams should also be decided based on student interests and abilities. Standards of rigor, expectations regarding difficulty, and effort required will be essentially the same regardless of format. Students will be required to address one question per specialization area. Students (working with their advisor, and with approval by the committee) can choose from the following formats on how to respond to the question:

  • In-House: Students will receive the full question in-advance and have at least one-month to prepare for responding to the question. Students will schedule blocks of time to take the exam supervised by the Graduate Director and/or other Graduate Faculty member. Questions will be scheduled for 3 hour per question periods, during the time the student will type their response to the question. Students should plan on spending that time fully in writing and revising their answer (not looking up information). Accordingly, although the student should cite sources, it is not expected that fully accurate citations/formatting will be included. Written answers in this format are typically 10-15 pages (no more than 20). Some questions might require the student to have minimal resources available (as required by the committee’s question—for example, a methods question that a student might need to analyze data).
  • Take-Home: Students will work with the committee to have a general idea of the question direction, but will not receive the actual/full question until the scheduled exam time. Students should schedule meeting with the committee to discuss the general orientation of questions at least one-month before taking the exam to have time to prepare. Students can opt to have questions given one-by-one (typically a 3-day window for each question) or have all questions given at one-time to complete over a two-week period. Written answers in this format are typically 10-15 pages, but with an expectation that accurate citation of sources/reference page is part of the writing. Students will still be required to attend courses they are taking even if the exam days overlap.
  • Oral Presentation: Students will have the option to present their response in the form of an oral presentation. Students will work with the committee to determine the question on which the presentation will focus and what information/content will be required to be addressed the committee’s question as part of the presentation. The presentation can either be part of the oral defense or scheduled at a time separately. Presentations will be no more than 20 minutes, and any accompanying visual aids (if used) that should be professional in design, effectively used, and appropriate to content. Students will be expected to cite sources. Students will take questions and answers from committee specific to the presentation question.
Evaluating Comps

Once a student completes all answers (in either the take-home or in-house format), the committee will receive the responses and will have two weeks to review. Although the committee can indicate a general pass/fail at this point, the oral defense is for the final determination and offers the student an opportunity to defend answers/correct weak areas through answering questions of the committee. Committees will evaluate questions based on:

  • Essays demonstrate a comprehensive understanding of field’s history, theories, central issues, and/or future directions based on content areas of reading lists/foci of questions.
  • Essays address the chosen questions thoroughly.
  • Essays together demonstrate comprehensive coverage of student’s reading list
  • Essays observe the conventions of academic analytic essays.
Oral Defense

The purpose of the oral defense is for continued conversation on the written responses and to probe the student further on the written responses or topic area (what the student may not have had time to include in the response or further reflection on their response). The oral defense also gives the student opportunity to demonstrate knowledge in an area that might not have sufficiently come through the written responses.

In the defense, the student can open with a short presentation/discussion on their answers to the committee. This can include an explanation of their approach to the question, address any areas of concern raised by committee before this defense, and/or reflections or considerations on their responses (typically no more than 10 minutes). Then the committee opens to questions/discussion related to the specific written responses including:

  • Any places of clarification or for students to address a portion of their argument
  • Extend any places where the argument was not fully elaborated
  • Any places where student did not directly address a portion of the question prompt and/or include key reading in the response

Following the question/answer period (typically 45-60 minutes), the student leaves the room for the committee to deliberate. The committee will determine based on the written responses (and/or oral presentation) and the student’s abilities to answer questions and discuss during the defense on whether the student passes the full comprehensive exam process.

Failing Exams

The committee should determine if a student passes or fails for each question/specialization area. For any responses that are determined as a fail, the committee can require the student to re-do the failed question (in a take-home or in-house written format) or the committee might request the student respond to an entirely new question in that specialization area. The committee will review the new written responses to determine pass/fail and can opt to have another oral defense for that question. The student will only have one chance to revise a failed exam answer; if the student fails on a question twice, they will be dismissed from the program.

Students who plagiarize their written responses (especially if they constitute level C academic dishonesty levels as prescribed in UAM 6,502) can be automatically failed and subject to possible dismissal from the program. It will be up to the advisor’s discretion with advice from the committee to allow a student to retake their comprehensive exams if plagiarism or dishonesty is present at any level.


Funding and Financial Assistance

Financial assistance is available through graduate assistantships, loans and other programs offered at UNR. Review all funding opportunities on the Graduate School website.

Graduate students in Communication Studies may also be qualified for other assistantships on campus, and should review the assistantship jobs posted on UNR’s jobs website.

The Department of Communication Studies offers a limited number of competitively selected teaching assistantships. An application to the M.A. program in Communication Studies does not automatically place students under consideration for an assistantship. To be considered for a teaching assistantship, students must indicate their interest in their letter of intent upon application. If funding becomes available during an academic year, the Graduate Program Director will solicit applications from current interested students.

Teaching Assistantships

Applicants for teaching assistantships should demonstrate:

  • an interest in teaching communication studies
  • the maturity to assist faculty responsibly
  • an ability to work with students effectively
  • organizational skills essential to balancing academic and graduate assistant duties.

General information for graduate assistantships can be found on the Graduate School Website, and so can the Graduate Assistantship handbook.

In order to keep funding, Teaching Assistants must:

  • maintain a minimum GPA of 3.0
  • take at least 6 credit hours per semester
  • remain in good standing with the department

Teaching assignments will be determined each semester by the Chair, with the advice of the Graduate Director and Communication Core Director.

TA Training

First-time graduate teaching assistants (TAs) are required to satisfy TA training requirements by enrolling in GRAD 701S (Preparing Future Faculty: College Teaching I) during their first semester as a TA. GRAD 701S is an orientation and training session that includes instruction in academic standards and student conduct, professionalism, sexual harassment prevention and FERPA compliance, and is held on the Thursday, the week before the start of classes in both fall and spring semesters. For more information on scheduling, check MyNevada or contact the Graduate School.

All TAs are also required to take COM 705: Critical Communication Pedagogy at least by their first semester as a TA, unless specifically exempted from this requirement by the Communication Core Director (CCD). We also recommend that graduate students who plan to teach during their career or who hope to be selected for a TA position in the future take the class at their earliest opportunity. Students who have successfully passed COM 705 may receive preferential consideration when applying for a TA position.

All TAs must attend an orientation at the beginning of the school year and any meetings set throughout the semester with the CCD. COM 101 TAs will also meet regularly with the CCD as part of their position responsibilities.

Performance/Dismissal from TA Position

Teaching assistantships are valuable learning opportunities for students, and give them valuable experience if they wish to continue teaching university level courses upon graduation or in their Ph.D. program. The position also comes with responsibility whether your position is assisting another faculty member in their course or in teaching your own section of a course. You will be guided by the Communication Core Director and/or the faculty you are assisting, but will be expected to complete the duties assigned to you. If the Communication Core Director or the lead faculty have concerns about your performance (or if your students submit a complaint to the Department Chair), the Department will evaluate whether you can continue serving in your TA position. In cases where issues cannot be improved or adequately addressed, you may be terminated from your TA position. View the termination policy in the University Administrative Manual.

TA resignation

The decision to resign your TA position, especially in the middle of an appointment period, can have significant financial, academic, and personal implications. TAs are encouraged to consult with their supervisor, Department Chair, Program Director, or the Graduate School before making the decision to resign. A written statement is required to resign your appointment and must be sent to the hiring department with a copy sent to the Graduate School. Please cite the effective date of your resignation and, to the extent possible, a reason for the resignation.

Tuition/fees upon termination or resignation

Tuition and fees for terminated assistantships will be prorated based on the number of weeks completed. The department will remain financially responsible for the weeks during which the student was employed in a graduate assistantship. The student will become financially responsible for the prorated portion of the tuition and fees for the remainder of the semester. The department retains the option to pay all or an additional portion of the tuition and fees via an IPO. Any tuition charges that are deemed to be unallowable costs on a sponsored account will become the responsibility of the department that hired the student.


University Policies and Information

Health Insurance

All domestic degree seeking graduate students, who are enrolled in six or more credits (regardless of the course level) in a semester, will be automatically enrolled and billed for the University sponsored health insurance for each term they are eligible (fall & spring/summer). If a student has other comparable coverage and would like to waive out of the student health insurance, it is the student’s responsibility to complete the University online waiver form prior to the deadline. If approved, a health insurance waiver is good for the current academic year only. A new waiver must be submitted each academic year.

All international graduate students are required to carry student health insurance, and the cost will be automatically added to your student account. Any international graduate students with insurance questions must contact the Office of International Students and Scholars (OISS) directly. Please see the Graduate School page on health insurance for more information.

Academic Integrity

Graduate students must adhere to high standards of academic integrity. Plagiarism will not be tolerated. See the UNR policy.

Graduate Student Association (GSA)

The Graduate Student Association (GSA) represents all graduate students and promotes the welfare and interests of the graduate students at the University of Nevada, Reno. The GSA works closely with appropriate university administrative offices, including the Graduate School and Student Services and reports to the President of the University. The GSA government functions through the Council of Representatives, Executive Council, and established committees. See the GSA website for more information.

Graduate School Forms

Necessary forms to progress through the MA and graduate may be found on the Graduate School website.

Links to University Resources

The Graduate School

Remember that all forms you need can be located on the Graduate School website.

Parking Services: Find information here about parking pass, using your WolfCard for Reno Busses, and other transportation information.

Disability Resource Center

Writing and Speaking Center The WSC not only offers consultations to help you improve your papers and presentations, but you can also apply to work as a consultant.

Math Center

Joe Crowley Student Union (“The Joe”) Contains UNR Bookstore, food court, movie theatre, and many resources for students.

Knowledge Center (Library)
Check out the library guide specifically created for graduate students to help you with your research and studying needs.

The Multicultural Center

GradFit (Inclusive Training for Diverse Grad Students)

Office of International Students and Scholars

Graduate Student Clubs and Organizations

Student Health Center

Fitness & Recreational Sports 

Human Resources

Counseling Services

Equal Opportunity and Title IX

Sexual Assault Reporting

UNR Police Services

Dean of Students Office


Professional Communication Organizations

There are numerous professional associations that meet for annual conventions and conferences that may be of interest to you. Most of these associations have student rates for membership and means of volunteering that subsidize or significantly reduce conference registration rates for students. You are encouraged to get involved in the discipline through membership and participation in professional associations. Consider talking with faculty about submitting your course papers to conferences for formal presentation.

Links to Professional Associations

National Communication Association
Submission Date: Mid-March
Conference: Mid-to-late November

International Communication Association
Submission Date: November 1
Conference: Late May, Early June

Western States Communication Association
Submission Date: September 1
Conference: Mid-February

Southern States Communication Association
Submission Date: September 1
Conference: Early April

Eastern Communication Association
Submission Date: October 15
Conference: Late April

Central States Communication Association
Submission Date: October 1
Conference: Mid-April

Rhetoric Society of America
Submission Date: July 15
Biennial Conference: Late May;

Organization for the Study of Communication, Language, and Gender
Submission Date: June 1
Conference: Mid October

Presenting your Research

Research presentations are good for students planning to go on to doctorate programs AND those planning to go into careers after the MA. There are a few ways to present your work at communication conferences.

Competitive Papers

Usually, competitive paper sessions will group together 4-6 papers into a themed panel. Each participant gets 8-12 minutes to present the synopsis and findings of the paper.

Poster Sessions

If your work is selected for a poster session, you will prepare an actual poster to bring to the conference that summarizes the main parts of your project. Poster events are excellent networking opportunities. The event is usually held in a large hall. Poster presenters stand near their posters as visitors walk through the gallery, talking with the participants.

Panel Discussions

Sometimes groups of people submit a proposal for a panel discussion on a particular topic. These kinds of presentations range greatly, but might include 3-5 minutes for 12 people, or the panel chair might provide participants with a list of questions for general (public) discussion.

Solo and Ensemble Performances

Solo/ensemble performances can assume various modes (e.g., critical/cultural, indigenous, queer, feminist, poetic, personal narrative, performance (auto)ethnography, multimedia, digital, etc.), but typically, scholar-artists are invited to submit completed scripts or video clips to be scheduled onto panels throughout the conference. Performance includes, but is not limited to, durational performances, installations, performance interruptions, site-specific performances, community-based performances, and off-site performances.