About Arabella Pollack, MBA: Arabella Pollack is the Deputy Academic Director of the Master of Science in Strategic Communication program and Executive Master of Science in Strategic Communication program at Columbia University. As Director, she helps manage the administration of the program, oversees curriculum development, supports students and faculty, and teaches courses in the program. From 2016 to 2018, Ms. Pollack served as the Academic Director of both programs, and helped to build the program’s enrollment and both curricular and extracurricular programming.

Prior to her role at Columbia University, Ms. Pollack worked in brand development, and founded the company Greystoke Insights, an organization that applies consumer research insights to the design and execution of targeted solutions to business challenges. Before founding Greystoke Insights, Ms. Pollack was the Director of Consumer Insights at Pernod Ricard USA, where she managed consumer research initiatives for brands such as Absolut Vodka. She brings her extensive background in consumer research, branding, and strategic communication to her role as Academic Director at Columbia University, and to the classes she teaches, which include Strategic Communication Management and Communication Research & Insights.

Ms. Pollack earned her Master of Arts from Cambridge University and her MBA from the University of Virginia’s Darden Business School.

Interview Question

[MastersinCommunications.com] Could you please provide an overview of Columbia University’s Master of Science in Strategic Communication program? What are the key learning outcomes for this program, and how does its scholar-practitioner approach prepare students optimally for career advancement and leadership roles in strategic communication?

[Arabella Pollack] The Master of Science in Strategic Communication program at Columbia provides students with exceptional skills in communication management, strategy development, and leadership in organizations of all sizes. Students in our program learn to think strategically about the problems that communication leaders face, to be persuasive in written and spoken media, to deliver on organizational objectives through internal and external communication, and to apply qualitative and quantitative research insights to the development of effective communication strategies.

The Master of Science in Strategic Communication’s curriculum is made up of seven core courses that are designed to equip our students with the critical thinking, strategic skills and subject matter-specific knowledge. These core classes are Strategic Communication Management, Principles in Persuasion, The Compelling Communicator, and Industry Insider, which students take their first term, followed by Communication Research and Insights, The Reflective Leader, and Digital Media and Analytics which students take in their second term. The Industry Insights class, in which students visit various organizations and companies and complete assignments that give them insight into the types of careers that are possible in strategic communication leadership, is only required for our full-time students; our part-time students can replace this course with an elective of their choice.

After completing their core courses, students customize their experience through their choice of electives to reflect whatever their particular passion area is, whether it’s a certain industry or a certain aspect of communication. Examples of electives in our program include Leadership Development, Cross Cultural Communication, The Value of Brand: Making the Business Case, The Master Narrative, Communication and Global Brands, and Content Strategy: Achieving Business Goals Through Content Strategy.

One of the nice things about the elective portion of the program is, in addition to the electives that we offer within the program, our students have the opportunity to take electives at other schools or other programs in Columbia University, provided they meet certain criteria. This provides additional breadth of opportunity for our students to take a class at the Business School, the School of International Public Affairs or from other types of programs to round out their studies. After completing their electives, all students come back together for a final Capstone.

In terms of learning outcomes, we firmly believe that what we are teaching is a way of thinking about communication as leadership. The industry has changed a lot and is continuing to evolve. The types of jobs that our students are going into today are not going to be types of jobs that are going to be available in 5 to 10 years or even 20 years. So, rather than providing students with very specific, time-stamped skillsets that apply to specific jobs and roles, we supply our students with a way of thinking about strategic communication that is durable and translatable across various fields. We then supplement this foundational knowledge with concrete skill building and applied projects so that students are well prepared for whatever roles they wish to take on once they graduate. One of the most important things we do is we ensure our students start with a foundation in understanding an organization’s underlying mission, vision, and objectives. Without this understanding, the projects or initiatives you push forward may be out of line with your organization and therefore not deliver optimal value. We prioritize teaching students communication strategies within the context of an organization’s complex business objectives.

The scholar-practitioner model comes into play because we want to blend the best of both fields. As an Ivy League university, our academic rigor is very important to us. So we ensure that all our courses are grounded in academic theory. But, in addition to that, we focus tirelessly on how these academic theories apply to the real world. What are the constraints that come up when using these theories? What are the opportunities? Our faculty all have both academic and practitioner credentials, so that they can help the students to make those connections, to understand how best to apply advanced academic theory to drive outcomes in the real world.

All of our students go through a half day of training with simulations of real business leadership collaborations and responsibilities. For example, we have a segment on how to read and understand financial reports, which is a really important skill—to be able to have the right language and the right concepts to have discussions with senior leadership around the financial implications of a particular initiative, whether you’re going to the for-profit or non-profit sector. We also make sure students understand the C-Suite perspective on business. Not to the extent that an MBA might cover, but enough so that at the end of the day they keep that context in mind and are thinking about communication strategy and how it all fits together with a business’s objectives. Effective strategic communication should always be in service of the overall organizational objective.

Another key aspect for us is grounding our strategic communication recommendations in research wherever possible. For example, our students take a core course in researching insights, in which they learn how to be educated users of research and how to conduct good qualitative and quantitative research themselves. The focus of the course isn’t just on learning that skillset but really on, “How does that help you make better decisions? How can you understand more about your audience, and use this understanding to reach them effectively and motivate them to act?” These kinds of questions and the critical thinking that they involve empower students to deliver recommendations that are grounded in solid organizational and business acumen.

[MastersinCommunications.com] The Master of Science in Strategic Communication program has both full-time and part-time options, and also offers classes on-campus and online. Could you elaborate on these options?

[Arabella Pollack] We offer our Master of Science program in multiple formats to reflect where our students are in their professional career and how much flexibility they are looking for. Students have the flexibility to pursue either a full-time or part-time course of study. Our full-time program is only offered on our New York City campus, while the part-time program is offered both in New York City and in San Francisco. The full-time program is campus-based, though students do have the option of taking some of their classes via online instruction. The most significant number of students we have is in our full-time master’s program. These students come either for 12 months or 16 months, depending on whether they choose to do a summer internship, which we call our project practica program over the summer. This program tends to attract students who are early in their careers. We have about two-thirds international students, and it’s a very much full-time immersive experience, but allows the students just to focus solely on their studies.

Our part-time format is ideal for working professionals, and it can be done either in a predominantly face-to-face evening class approach here on campus in New York City, or it can be done predominantly online, which is our newest offering that is based in San Francisco. For this online option, students visit campus once or twice a semester for an in-person intensive for a few days, which in most cases will be held in San Francisco, and in one case is here in New York on the main campus. This part-time hybrid option is our most flexible option for students who are traveling a lot, as students are only required to visit a campus once a semester, totaling five trips overall over the course of two years. The part-time option here in New York is the most flexible in terms of being able to ramp up or down with the number of courses you take and determine how long you want your degree to last. This option works well for people who maybe have unpredictable workloads or who know at some times of the year are just too busy to take classes, but have more availability other times of the year.

The campus meetings for the hybrid part-time degree track are important because we really want our students to bond and connect with their peers. These connections are one of the most valuable aspects of the program, as our graduates often end up collaborating with one another or even hiring one another for new opportunities. These meetings also allow students to connect with faculty directly, and to complete group and individual projects that are harder to do online. We really see our hybrid program as a way to blend the best of both the classroom and the online experience.

[MastersinCommunications.com] Columbia University also offers an Executive Master of Science in Strategic Communication program. Could you elaborate on the curriculum structure and learning outcomes for this program, and how it differs from the Master of Science in Strategic Communication?

[Arabella Pollack] The Executive Master of Science in Strategic Communication program is designed for senior executives who want to be able to get a degree while they are working. It is an accelerated and advanced program. Most of our students are already at the director level–VP level or higher. They have to have at least six years of professional experience and leadership experience, and I would say the majority of our students have at least 10 or 15 years of experience.

In contrast to our full-time MS in Strategic Communication students, our executive students are not looking to kick off their careers; rather, they are looking to elevate the level of their discussions and their strategic impact on their current organization. The conversations students have in class are C-Suite level, and many of our students want to progress to get a seat at the decision table of their organizations. Communication is central to that progression, and along with teaching them strategic communication skills, we also give students C-level business leadership training.

The format the Executive students follow is a hybrid format, which matches their work schedules. They come onto campus about once a month for class time, and then in between there are online classes. This program, as with our regular MS program, follows a cohort model, so each group of students starts at the same time and finishes at the same time, and it takes them 16 months from start to finish. This program is a very intense and focused experience that centers on the needs and objectives of senior executive students. The cohort model also ensures that students form close relationships with their peers.

As the people in the Executive MS program have more industry and managerial experience, we do not require them to take the Industry Insights core course. The rest of the core curriculum is the same as that of the standard MS program, though these courses are taught differently for our Executive cohorts in that the content and discussions revolve around communication issues faced by management and senior leadership. The conversations and the nature of the projects are higher level than those for our regular MS program, due to the different levels of experience of the students. We don’t spend the same amount of time going over the basics in our Executive cohort because many of our executive students already know them. Instead there will be much more discussion around the complexities of actually applying the material in leadership contexts, how that plays out in different industries. Where are the challenges? How do you deal with them from an organizational standpoint? The Executive program focuses on tackling the types of challenges and questions that these individuals are facing at their level in their professional careers.

We have a very high threshold for students to be eligible to participate in the Executive MS program, in terms of years of professional and leadership experience. This is because our students’ learning outcomes come as much from their interactions with peers as they do from faculty instruction and support. It is important to us that students in our program are able to help push each other, contribute insights that are relevant to their peers’ level of experience, and support one another’s growth. The difference in student body leads to a very different experience in the classroom; because you are dealing with very accomplished leaders, the level of discussions in the classroom and the types of activities we engage in are more sophisticated than perhaps might be the case in some of our classes for students who are earlier in their careers. The other real advantage our students get from joining this program is an incredibly tight-knit network of other senior individuals from around the country and even around the world on whom they can lean for guidance, advice, and professional connections.

For example, one of our executive alumni from a few years back is so passionate about the program and his peers that he has made it his mission to work with every single one of his classmates in some way or another, whether it was bringing them on for consulting projects or having them join a leadership board. Those are the types of connections that we see created among all our cohorts, but especially among the executive students, due to where they are in their lives and the intensity of the experience.

[MastersinCommunications.com] For their final graduation requirement, students of both the Master of Science in Strategic Communication and the Executive Master of Science in Strategic Communication must complete a Capstone Project. Could you elaborate on this requirement, and what it entails?

[Arabella Pollack] The Capstone experience is something that we are very proud of, as it is students’ opportunity to apply what they’re learning to a complex problem facing a real organization. Throughout all our other courses there is a lot of project work, lots of teamwork focusing on real-life scenarios, whether it is case studies or hypothetical situations from their current place of employment or other organizations. Students are constantly thinking about how they put the concepts they learn into practice.

But when it comes to the Capstone we take it to another level. We work with real organizations that have a communication challenge they’re tackling. And students work in small teams to address this problem through guided independent study over the course of a semester. This includes conducting their own primary and secondary research. They conduct focus groups, quantitative and fully representative surveys, and other assessments and deep dives into data. They’re constantly working with the sponsor in an almost consulting relationship (though sponsors do not pay for students’ work). At the end of the semester, students present their findings and recommendations to the sponsor.

It is an intense experience, but incredibly rewarding, and our sponsors tend to be thrilled with the results. Some of the sponsors we have worked with include Doctors Without Borders (who actually wound up taking our student recommendations forward in one of their campaign), The Wall Street Journal, Coach, USA Today, and Barnes & Noble. We tailor the capstone sponsors and the scope and nature of the project/challenge to match the different needs of our MS and Executive MS students.

For early career students, this opportunity to really get more hands-on experience and to have something that they can then talk about in an interview situation is immensely valuable. The capstone project is concrete evidence that they don’t just know the theory, they can actually apply it to a comprehensive communication plan to make a difference. For our more senior students, the capstone is a chance to challenge themselves by working with different industries on really complex problems at the leadership level, and expanding their own network and the possibilities for their future career through their relationship with the sponsor.

We bring in the sponsors ourselves at the program, so we do a lot of screening to make sure that the sponsor is fully on board, excited to work with us, and that the projects are going to be suitable for delivering the learning outcomes we need for our students, while still providing great value to the sponsors.

We as faculty provide a lot of support during the Capstone experience. Each team gets assigned an advisor who is an alumnus of our executive program, and who is with them throughout the semester as a coach, guide, and mentor. They also have a series of workshops through the course of the semester to help them tackle any challenges they come across, and to help guide them through their milestones.

Each class section has a research advisor who is a professional market researcher who works with them to make sure that they’re conducting their primary research appropriately and effectively. This research advisor also works with students to help them really dig into the data and interpret it. So students receive a lot of support that helps them to unearth exceptional insights and incorporate them into their recommendations.

[MastersinCommunications.com] What role does faculty mentorship play in Columbia University’s Master of Science in Strategic Communication and Executive Master of Science in Strategic Communication programs? How can students make the most of these mentorship opportunities and support systems while in the program?

[Arabella Pollack] I know I’m a little bit biased, but our faculty are amazing. Our full-time faculty are academics who have extensive professional experience as well, and are incredibly committed to teaching. They love building relationships in and outside of the classroom. And so the relationships between faculty and students really become very personal dynamics, which I think is special for both our faculty and our students. Our faculty also tend to bring in experts from the field so that students have that additional connection to and insight from the industry.

And because we’re located here in New York City, it’s a real advantage for us because we have so many extraordinary organizations and people right here at our doorstep. So, whether they’re coming in to be speakers or to teach a course, we are able to get the best of the best to interact with our students and help them grow, which is a blessing.

In addition to faculty mentorship, our school has a very well-resourced Career Design Lab, where we have a number of career advisors on staff, including one who specializes in the field of communications and has a lot of experience in helping students at all levels work out what their career path might be in communications. Our Design Lab offers a number of workshops, both in-person and online. Together with them we set up one or two strategic communication career panels each year, focusing on different aspects of the industry. We also have a jobs board specifically for students and alumni of our program.

Our alumni for our program are really passionate, which is something that truly makes our program stand out. A lot of career options come from alumni reaching out to other alumni and saying, “Hey, we have a need for somebody on our team. Do you know anyone who meets this profile?” I think that’s something really special in today’s world.

We also have an alumni-run Facebook group, and it’s a great resource for our students, not only for job leads but also for advice about best practices or connections to helpful resources, such as agency recommendations. It is a wonderful benefit. On top of that, we make sure that twice a year we host events where we bring together our whole community—alumni, students, parents of students, and faculty. It’s very important to us that our students feel they are part of a community and not just while they’re here but actually for the rest of their careers.

We have one mixer that is specifically for our program each December, which is a lot of fun. Then there is one that happens in May, which is actually a school-wide one. The way I like to explain it to students is that they are getting a series of concentric circles in terms of networking. They benefit from an incredibly tight-knit network from the cohort that they’ve joined within the program, as well as from being a part of the strategic communication network. Then they are also part of the School of Professional Studies network through a number of school-wide events for alumni. And finally there is the Columbia University alumni group at large, and opportunities here on campus in which students can participate. So it is incredibly valuable from a networking perspective and in terms of creating connections on a number of different levels.

[MastersinCommunications.com] What makes Columbia University’s Master of Science in Strategic Communication and Executive Master of Science in Strategic Communication programs unique, and particularly strong graduate degree options for students? How do these programs prepare students for advanced careers in communication leadership across a wide variety of fields?

[Arabella Pollack] The way we tightly integrate advanced scholarship with professional practice distinguishes us as a program that equips students particularly well for communication management in a variety of industries. We carefully designed our curriculum to focus on durable, indispensable skillsets that set our students up to be leaders, whether they are looking for entry level positions at this point, or want to propel their careers into the higher echelons of executive management. Our curriculum’s content is proactive in that we anticipate what our students will need to be leaders now and in the future. The highly motivated, high-performing yet close-knit community of both our standard Master of Science in Strategic Communication and our Executive Master of Science in Strategic Communication is also a compelling reason to attend our program. The relationships you make in our program, along with the structures we have set in place to ensure you remain connected with alumni long after you graduate, translates into substantial career growth.

As the field is constantly evolving, we also make sure to stay dynamic and ever improving our program by looking at each of our courses and making sure they stay up to date. Every year we do a curriculum assessment, and the fact that our faculty are industry practitioners as well as academics means that they are tuned into these evolutions. Every few years we go through a much bigger curriculum revision process, where we collaborate with leading professionals, leading academics, current students, and alumni of the program to discuss and implement new program ideas that will best equip our students for success in the professional world.

[MastersinCommunications.com] For students interested in Columbia University’s Master of Science in Strategic Communication or Executive Master of Science in Strategic Communication program, what advice do you have in terms of submitting a competitive application?

[Arabella Pollack] I would say that work experience is a fairly important prerequisite for both of our programs. Even for our regular full-time Master of Science in Strategic Communication program, which is geared towards newer communication professionals who want to accelerate their career growth from the beginning, we prefer some work experience. If an applicant doesn’t have full-time work experience, we are going to take a look at internships, and I would say we require at minimum two really strong internships in a relevant field. A demonstrated track record of work experience in the field is important because it demonstrates passion and also indicates an ability to immediately apply what you learn in our classes to work you have done in the past (as well as work you might be doing currently if you are pursuing the program part-time).

Work experience also allows students to bring more to the classroom because our classrooms are really not about just having a lecture. They are very participatory, and are centered on every student engaging with the material and discussing it and building off of it. Students with work experience have important context that grounds their study of the theoretical concepts we teach in our program.

We want applicants who are clear about why they want to attend this program, who understand what strategic communication is and can articulate clearly and concisely why this program is relevant to their goals. We also expect them to articulate what they are able to bring into the program. And beyond that, we certainly care about academics, and require a cumulative grade point average of 3.0 or higher. Most of our applicants will be required to take a GRE.

We require three letters of recommendation, and they should be a mixture of academic and professional references, due to our prioritization of the scholar-practitioner approach. We want to make sure that you have the academic ability to succeed in our program, tackling complex academic theory and research methods. However, we also want to see that you can understand and discuss how these theories actually play out in the professional world, and how you perform as a professional.

My biggest piece of advice to students is to bring yourself to life as much as you can on the page. We want to know who you are and what makes you special and why you’re going to be a great fit for our program. The statement of purpose is a 500-word essay, and we also require a supplemental essay—in these essays you should give us a clear idea, not only of your academic and professional qualifications, but also your personality and what drives you.

[MastersinCommunications.com] What advice do you have for students in terms of managing their time well and making the most of the experiences provided to them?

[Arabella Pollack] I would say our full-time students have the advantage of being really focused on their studies. They don’t have to juggle class and course assignments with a job, and so for these students I encourage them to take advantage of being a full-time student again in one of the richest cities in the world in terms of experiences. The university life here is incredible, and the full-time program affords students the opportunity to dive into their studies.

For those students who are working in our part-time and executive formats, time management is key. What we have found, particularly with our executive students, is that they have to become exceptionally good at time management. This entails identifying and focusing on your priorities. It’s a finite period of time, and it goes very quickly. So planning for this program and carving out the space and time for it is crucial. Also, I would advise students to lean on the support systems we have in place in the program—leadership skills are never built and applied in a vacuum; rather, they are the result of collaborations and mutual mentorships. We don’t normally have people drop out of our program because the network keeps everybody together and supports everybody.

I would also advise that students take stock of their discretionary “spending” of time. You might not realize it, but those small things such as scrolling social media or watching TV shows add up. In a 12-16 month program, you might have to trim those discretionary areas so that you can get the most out of the experience in our program, and hopefully come away with a lot of learning, a great degree and a lifelong connection with friends and faculty.

Thank you, Arabella Pollack, for your fantastic insight into Columbia University’s Master of Science in Strategic Communication and Executive Master of Science in Strategic Communication programs!