The Master of Arts (MA) in Public Relations and Advertising program offered by the College of Communication at DePaul University is designed to prepare students to work professionally in the fields of public relations and advertising and/or to continue their studies at the doctoral level. As part of that preparation, students in the program are required to complete either a master’s thesis or a professional portfolio. Students who choose the portfolio pathway enroll in a course titled Personal Branding and Career Strategies and work with program faculty on creating a digital portfolio that showcases their talents and skills. Dr. Sydney Dillard, who teaches in the program and serves as the program’s Academic Director, offers her insights on the digital portfolio creation process and its place in the MA in Public Relations and Advertising’s curriculum.

About Sydney Dillard, Ph.D. : Sydney Dillard is an Associate Professor of Public Relations and Advertising in the College of Communication at DePaul University. In addition to teaching in the Master of Arts (MA) in Public Relations and Advertising program, she serves as the program’s Academic Director. Dr. Dillard’s areas of expertise include visual communication and health campaign development and she is currently the Professional Freedom & Responsibility Chair for the Advertising Division of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC).

Dr. Dillard received her Ph.D. from Purdue University. She holds a Master of Arts in Media Theory and Research and a Bachelor of Arts in Advertising from Southern Illinois University.

Interview Questions

[] As Academic Director of the Public Relations and Advertising master’s program at DePaul, what is your general role?

[Dr. Dillard] Our program is unique in that we have specific roles for different faculty in order to ensure that students who graduate from the program are prepared to enter the industry. We have an Academic Director, which is my position, and we also have a Professional Director and an Associate Director of Graduate Student Services who handles the administrative aspects of the program. Students coming into the program may not be sure what they want to do with their degree once they graduate. Ron Culp, the Professional Director, works with students on those types of goals. He’s had over 30 years of industry experience working in PR at large organizations like Edelman. At the same time, he’s not an academic. So we also have someone like myself who has a Ph.D. and who has worked in the industry as well, but not for as long as Ron has. I direct students toward courses that will help them identify their goals and drill down on accomplishing those goals while they are in the program. He’s more the industry connection, and I am more the academic connection.

Part of my job is to do the planning of the courses and the curriculum. We have lots of different courses that are offered as part of the master’s program. I am always checking in with what is happening in the industry to make sure that our courses are market responsive and that our students are market ready when they graduate. For example, we might notice that we have an influx of students who are really interested in writing and normally we only offer one core course in writing. But we have faculty members who have years of experience in copy editing and copy writing and who we can call on to address the needs of those students. In that way, we are trying to be responsive to the needs of the students as well as to the demands of the industry.

[] In addition to your role as Academic Director, you also teach in the program and your area of specialization is health communication, correct?

[Dr. Dillard] I do teach in the program, and my area is really advertising. My PhD is media technology and society, my master’s in is media as well, and my bachelor’s degree focused on the creative side of advertising. Most of the work I’ve done in the industry has been on the creative side – message design and graphic design. More recently, I’ve taken the concepts that we use in advertising and I have applied them to health communication. There’s a large niche there.

People who earn degrees in public health tend to learn a lot more about policy than about communication. They may not understand communication in the same way that a person in the communication field does. As a result, there’s a lot of work to be done in that area. I’ve had a lot of success working with the Environmental Protection Agency, the CDC, and the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. These are governmental organizations that need assistance with message design and campaign development. In fact, I just finished a campaign in Lake County, Indiana where I was a consultant on a campaign focused on increasing covid-19 vaccinations among underserved populations.

[] The master’s program has a thesis component if you qualify for it, but every student is required to complete a portfolio and submit their portfolio for review prior to graduating. Is that accurate?

[Dr. Dillard] If a student decides to pursue a thesis and they are approved then they are not required to complete a portfolio. The primary difference between the thesis and the portfolio is the research component. The thesis is a lot more labor intensive, and it is mainly for students who intend to pursue a PhD. So we are very selective in terms of who we approve for a thesis. I would say that most of our students are industry professionals who are looking to advance in their career or move from one area within the industry to another. For those students, a thesis isn’t really preferable, but we keep the option open in case students decide to pursue this route.

[] Let’s focus on the portfolio. Is there a portfolio course or a course in which creating a portfolio is the focus?

[Dr. Dillard] Yes. We recently updated the title of the course. It’s called Personal Branding and Career Strategies. I have not taught the course yet though. We have one of our professionals in residence teaching that course at the moment. In the course they spend a substantial amount of time reviewing the coursework they’ve completed in the program, identifying their personal brand based on their interests and their skillsets, and learning how to curate a portfolio that highlights all of that. Students think about their career goals and look at the work they’ve done in order to design a portfolio that reflects those goals and how the work they’ve done relates to those goals.

These portfolios have several sections. They have to have an “about me” section, a section with at least three writing samples, a section with three examples of multimedia or digital design projects that they have completed, and a section with at least three research projects. The contents of those sections vary based on a student’s interests. For example, if we have a student who is interested in data analytics and programming, the student is encouraged to build that interest into their portfolio. The students are encouraged to bring their personalities into the portfolio as part of their personal branding, which means that some portfolios have a more serious tone and others take a more light-hearted approach in the “about me” section.

We want our students to stand out. We spend a lot of time encouraging them to think about who they are and how they want to represent themselves. That includes having a LinkedIn profile that is professional, an up-to-date resumé, and professionally developed social media accounts, like Twitter, as well.

The students know the portfolio is a requirement when they come into the program. Once they’ve matriculated, we have an orientation session in which they learn what will be expected of them. So the topic of the portfolio is something students are introduced to early in the program and that comes up regularly as they progress through the program. We try to keep it in the back of their minds so that by the time they are preparing to graduate they have already been thinking about the portfolio.

Some of our students come into the program knowing that it’s important to have a portfolio and others do not. We have students coming into the program from outside of communication fields, from fields like engineering or even theater and acting. They may not be as familiar with the idea of having a portfolio. Those students may be in the program in order to improve their personal branding skills or to move into another area in which having a personal brand and a portfolio is important.

I should mention that one important part of the portfolio is the “passions” section. We want our students to identify what they are passionate about and to include that in portfolio.

[] Is it fair to say that a communication/public relations/advertising portfolio should, at this point, be primarily or entirely digital?

[Dr. Dillard] Yes. I think it is safe to say that. Initially, when the program began, we may have had two portfolio components: an online component; and a physical portfolio, especially for students who were doing creative work. We still encourage our creatives to have a physical portfolio that they can carry with them to job interviews if need be. But, in terms of what is required of students by the program, we want that to be fully digital. We need it to be easily accessible to employers and that means having it online in a digital format.

[] When you evaluate a student’s portfolio, what are you looking for beyond the basics of the person’s resumé?

[Dr. Dillard] What we are looking for in the content is authenticity. We want the students to authentically brand themselves and authentically present themselves. We don’t want them to say that they are a business professional and have a picture of them wearing a suit and a tie if that’s not really who they are.

Two years ago we did focus groups with a number of the creative directors at large agencies like Leo Burnett and Ogilvy. We spoke to them about what their recruiters were looking for. One of their main points was that they want to get an authentic sense of each candidate, and they want to be able to see how a person thinks. We’ve used that as guidance for students as they progress through the portfolio process. If you’re an energetic person it’s okay to list skydiving as one of your passions. That might not go on the first page, but you should include it.

Some students like to highlight that they like to travel and, even if they aren’t photographers, we might encourage them to include some travel photos that they have taken. I remember being impressed by one student this year who curated a song list on Spotify as part of her portfolio. All of the songs were in keeping with a theme: I think one of the songs was called “Try Me” and another had a title saying, “I’m the best for the job.” It was cool and clever, and it spoke to who she is.

Some students struggle quite a bit with authentically representing who they are. Their mindset is that there’s a particular job they want and there’s a particular way to get that job. We always tell them that they shouldn’t just be trying to fill a position. It’s a reciprocal experience when you are working at an organization: you want to bring something to them, and you want them to bring something to you. The best way to achieve that is through your own authenticity. So, we push our students to not just try to fill a role, but to identify what makes them a good fit for a particular job and how they could fill a number of different roles.

[] Outside of the personal parts of the portfolio, I believe you mentioned three discrete areas of content: three writing samples, three examples of multimedia design, and three research projects. Can you offer details on how students approach those components of the portfolio and is it all work that they complete as part of the master’s program?

[Dr. Dillard] We do not stipulate that the projects in the portfolio all have to be projects they’ve completed in the program. A lot of our students are industry professionals who have projects that they want to include from work they’ve done outside of the program. But we do want the majority of the work – say 80-85% – to be work they’ve completed in the program.

Students in the program have a lot of freedom to choose courses that meet their wants and needs. So, a student might want to only take PR courses or all advertising courses, but most students take a mix of the two. It’s rare that we have a PR student who has never taken a class in which they learn how to do design work. That’s something that they will probably have to do in at least one of their courses so they will have materials to fill out the design component of the portfolio.

The range of what students include in their portfolios is very broad. One of the required courses in the program is a research methods course. In that course they are collecting data, writing about, and visualizing that data. That is an example of something that could fit into the writing samples part of the portfolio because they would have a written research report, and it could also fit into the multimedia design part of the portfolio because of the data visualizations.

Another example comes from a course I teach in which the students have to design social media ads and radio spots and other content of that nature. Everything they do in that course is multimedia design so I know that the students coming out of that course have multiple projects they could include in the multimedia design portion of their portfolio.

If a student takes Writing for PR Professionals, they are likely to have press releases that they have written, opt-ed writing that they have done, and they might even have some speechwriting that they could include in the writing sample part of the portfolio. It’s really up to the students to decide what they want to include. But we know that they should come out of the program’s core courses with enough content to fill a portfolio. Beyond that, they take more specialized courses and that’s what begins to distinguish what a portfolio will look like from student to student.

[] Are there particular portfolio platforms that you encourage the students to experiment with and use?

[Dr. Dillard] I believe the students have the option to choose between Wix and Squarespace. The final portfolio is essentially a website and those are two of the platforms our students use. Weebly is another one, but I haven’t seen a student using that in a while. Wix and Squarespace seem to be most preferred by students.

I don’t think I highlighted this, but the students don’t just submit a portfolio. In addition, we have a portfolio showcase that around 300 industry professionals attend. They come and review the portfolios and vote on them, and we award the best ones. Normally we have a guest speaker from the industry as well. So we are really focused on creating those connections between our program and professionals in the industry. I would say that roughly half of our faculty are industry professionals who are either currently working in the industry or have spent years and years in the industry. The other half of the faculty are PhDs with industry experience as well.

[] Are there other digital tools that are emphasized in your program?

[Dr. Dillard] It depends on the course the students are taking. In our Personal Branding course, I don’t believe the students are required to use any complicated digital tools like Adobe Suite. But, for my Multimedia Design course, they have to use Photoshop and Illustrator and they have to learn about Premiere Pro. Those are the three main tools we use in that course. Some students like to use Canva, but I think that Canva limits their creativity.

I don’t normally allow them to use free software that does layout and design for them. I want them to learn the design process and why a certain design element might work, what grabs people’s attention, and how to create GIFs from beginning to end. I want them designing the GIF themselves. Personally, I feel the same way about other tools made to assist content development such as Grammarly. It can be useful, but if you want to become a great writer then you have to learn how to notice your own mistakes and correct them

In the program the students are also introduced to Brandwatch so that they can learn how to follow social media trends and make recommendations based on data. We also have a media engagement lab that we started about two years ago. That gives students access to eye tracking software and other biometric software that allows you to track a person’s reaction to an ad or a social media post as a way to analyze its effectiveness. We have a lot of technology in our lab.

[] In addition to LinkedIn, are there other social media platforms that you encourage students to incorporate into their portfolios?

[Dr. Dillard] I would say that we emphasize the basics of social media usage, and they learn to distinguish between their personal and their personal-professional persona. We always tell the students that if they have a personal Twitter account, that’s fine. But you should also have a separate account that is more professionally focused and that is curated more carefully than you might for a personal account. And, with LinkedIn now you can’t just have a picture. You have to show your work history, even if all you have is your academic accomplishments and internships.

We do have several courses that are primarily focused on social media engagement and social media content creation. And in one of the program’s courses, students write opinion pieces that are posted on blogs. The idea is that while students are in the program, they will have the opportunity to learn all of these elements of PR and advertising.

[] Getting back to the portfolio in general, it sounds like the primary emphasis is on having the skills to put together a multimedia website, being able to personalize the portfolio in a way that is an authentic reflection of who you are and what you do, and organizing the elements of the portfolio in an accessible way.

[Dr. Dillard] Yes. We are looking at the individual pieces of content in the portfolio and the quality that is represented there, but we are also looking for organization and functionality. And we are looking at the portfolios both from a design point of view and from a professionalism point of view. So, the content is important, but there are other decisions that students have to make about things like color and fonts and other graphic elements. All of that is important.

[] Is it common for students to come into the program with a portfolio already in progress?

[Dr. Dillard] I would say that most of our students coming into the program do not have a portfolio. We have had some students who have been in the industry for twenty years, but that’s rare. A good portion of our students, I would say 15 to 20 percent, are five-years students who are coming directly from the undergraduate program and are adding an additional year in order to get their master’s degree. If you’re coming directly from finishing your bachelor’s program, you probably aren’t going to have a strong portfolio.

We also have students who are looking to change careers. So you might have an account executive who wants to move to the creative side of the industry. Those types of students have a professional resumé, but they don’t have the kind of portfolio that they would be developing in our program.

[] Is there any specific advice you would offer to students who are thinking about starting their own portfolio prior to applying to a master’s program?

[Dr. Dillard] I would say that it isn’t really necessary. When we are reviewing applicants to the program, we are looking for evidence that a candidate has a strong sense of direction in terms of what that candidate is hoping to do with the degree. We also want to see writing samples that demonstrate that an applicant has the ability to handle the kind of writing you have to do in advertising and public relations, as well as the writing skills you need for research projects. We are also looking for candidates who have an undergraduate GPA of 3.0 or higher, although we will sometimes offer accommodations to students who meet other admission requirements but whose GPA is under 3.0. For example, we might ask an applicant to submit GRE test scores in a case like that.

Overall, I think we aren’t too focused on looking at the digital skills an applicant might have coming into the program, because you are going to receive that training in the program. So, while it’s helpful to be familiar, it’s not necessary.

[] Thank you for taking the time to share your insights with us.

[Dr. Dillard] Thanks for having me. I appreciate you reaching out.

Thank you, Dr. Dillard, for your excellent insight into the portfolio building process, as well as your advice for students interested in advancing their careers in communication!

Matt Ashare
About the Author: Matt Ashare is a journalist, writer, and editor who currently resides in Central Virginia. Among his areas of expertise are food, music, culture, and higher education. He has taught journalism and media studies at Randolph College in Lynchburg, VA.