About Dr. Blair Thompson, Ph.D.: Blair Thompson is the Graduate Academic Program Coordinator for the Department of Communication at Western Kentucky University, where he also conducts research and teaches classes as an Associate Professor. As Program Coordinator, he advises students and provides administrative support to the program’s faculty. As an Associate Professor, he teaches courses in family communication, instructional communication, communication theory, and interpersonal communication. His research focuses on school crisis communication, parent and student support, and how technological developments are evolving typical pedagogical interactions between students, teachers, and parents.
Dr. Thompson earned his Bachelor of Arts in English and Communication from Concordia College in 1998, and received his Master of Arts in Communication in 2003 from Minnesota State University, Mankato. He earned his Ph.D. in Communication Studies from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in 2007.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Could we have more information on your academic and professional background in communication, and your current responsibilities as Graduate Academic Program Coordinator?
[Dr. Thompson] I came into the communication discipline through forensics and competitive speech. I was involved in speech in both high school and college, where I majored in English with a communication minor. I wanted to coach high school speech and teach English, so after I graduated, that is exactly what I did for three years. I was going to speech tournaments and so forth, where I saw other coaches who were graduate students in communication, and one of the coaches from one of the other teams in Minnesota State Mankato talked to me and said, “You should really consider going for your Masters in Communication.”
So I looked into it, and eventually enrolled in the Master of Arts in Communication program at Minnesota State University. Similarly to Western Kentucky, the program was a mix of people who wanted to go into a Ph.D. program and people who wanted to go straight into industry. I entered the program with the aim of honing my skills as a coach, and maybe coaching speech at the college level. Once I was in the program, however, I got into pure communication courses, like communication theory, interpersonal and intercultural communication, and other areas. And it just opened my eyes, that in-depth study of human interaction and communication, and all the dynamics that went into understanding human relationships and cultures. I got hooked.
The second year of the program was when I needed to decide whether I would prepare to apply for a Ph.D. program or enter the job market. I decided to apply to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s program, and to also apply to college speech coach jobs. I got into Nebraska, and decided to attend, and that is where I really grew with the discipline, started doing research, and began to thoroughly enjoy it. Even though I had a background in education, research up to that point was so distant and foreign to me in terms of actually conducting it. The Ph.D. program really helped me discover and develop my passion for research. After four years at Nebraska, I hit another crossroads–I could go after a tenure track communication professor role, or I could go for college-based speech coach jobs.
And it really wasn’t a hard decision for me at that point, as I was very interested in doing more research and teaching in the areas where I had done research. And that is how I ended up at Western Kentucky University, where I’ve been for the last 11 years. It was a good fit because when I came in I trained our graduate teaching assistants to become teachers because I had such a strong education background.
During my past two years as the Graduate Academic Program Director, I’ve taught courses in the program and have supported the graduate teaching assistants both within and outside of official training sessions. As an Associate Professor, the classes I have taught are our qualitative research methods course, as well as the interpersonal and family communication courses at the graduate level.
[MastersinCommunications.com] May we please have an overview of Western Kentucky University’s Master of Arts in Communication program, and how it is structured?
[Dr. Thompson] Western Kentucky University’s Master of Arts in Organizational Communication is a 33-credit program that focuses on organizational communication and human communication as they relate to different environments and contexts. In terms of core requirements, there are three core courses that everybody in the program must take. There are two research methods courses: Qualitative Research Methods in Communication and Quantitative Research Methods in Communication. And from the beginning, students are asked to engage deeply with course concepts and to conduct hands-on research. For the qualitative course, they actually do a full study. Not with a ton of participants, but it is a very practical course in terms of gathering and analyzing data. For the quantitative research course, students are required to do a study and it is more like a research proposal. Students are also required to take a course called Organizational Communication Theory, where they study human communication dynamics in complex organizations, as well as historical and current approaches to organizational communication processes and research methods.
And while this emphasis on research seems more geared towards students who want to go into a Ph.D. program, it is also highly applicable to students who wish to go into industry. Our students who are going into the business world can apply the insights they gain from the program to develop research-informed communication strategies for clients, stakeholders, etc. Whether it’s in health administration or organizational leadership, or working with non-profits, advanced professionals are going to have to do different types of research, such as conducting interviews, collecting data, and interpreting basic surveys. And I’ve always been surprised when I’ve taught those courses, how much the students who are not on the Ph.D. track have tended to enjoy and learn from them, because it was different from what they’ve done before in terms of approaches. And sometimes that difference is good and informative.
For their electives, students can gain experience in a wide variety of areas in organizational and human communication, including interpersonal communication, cultural communication, health communication, political communication, and international organizational communication, as well as advocacy, crisis communication, and issues management. Students can also take courses outside of our department for their electives, with advisor approval; for example, they can explore education or business or health, as these areas are of course relevant to organizational communication.
Later in the program, students have to decide whether to complete a thesis or take a comprehensive examination. They earn six credits for the thesis, which reduces their course load (though their work on their thesis generally equals the course load of two classes, in terms of time investment and effort). Students who take the comprehensive exams must take more courses.
So they can go either route, and it is pretty evenly split between students who choose each option. Regardless of which option students choose, our aim as a program is to expose them to different ways of thinking about organizational communication, to teach them how to analyze our research, and to show them how to use communication theories to gain a broader view of communication dynamics, their origins, and their effects. We do our best to allow students to tailor their assignments to their research interests.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Students of Western Kentucky University’s Master of Arts in Organizational Communication have two options for their final graduation requirement–a thesis and a comprehensive exam. Could you elaborate on both of these options, and what they entail?
[Dr. Thompson] For students who choose to complete their master’s thesis, discussion around possible research topics can start as early as the end of the first year of the program, but typically, students start working with their advisor on their thesis prospectus at the start of their second year. They then get that prospectus approved, and form their committee in their third semester. Over winter break and into the fourth semester, they focus on analysis and writing. Typically by February or March of their second year is when they have a full draft of their thesis to turn into their advisor and committee.
One of the things that kind of catches students off-guard and which we try and prepare them for is the fact that, for them to graduate on time in May, students really have to have their first drafts done way before that, in order to give the committee time to read and give feedback. Once they get the feedback, students have to do revisions, send the revision to your reader(s)–all these little steps in the process take time. So the more proactive you can be, the better your end result will be.
Once their committee approves their thesis, students prepare for their oral defense, which is usually about 45 minutes and is comprised of a PowerPoint presentation and a question and answer session afterwards. Typically, by the time students are presenting and completing their oral defense, they have passed major checkpoints in terms of the quality of their research and writing, so students at that point should feel fairly prepared.
For students who choose the comprehensive exam, they typically take their exam in the final semester. In general, how the process works for students who choose this option is they will inform their committee about their decision, and their committee members develop an outline of what they want students to have learned in their program, and what their exam’s questions will cover.
The exam itself is comprised of a theoretical question, a context question, and a methods question. A student’s committee members typically create seven or eight questions that they then give to the student a couple weeks ahead of time, so that he or she can prepare adequately. Students don’t know which questions of the ones they are given will be on the exam, but are encouraged to prepare for all of the questions they are given as possibilities. Students come in on a Saturday and type up their responses. They are allowed to bring a bibliography so that they don’t have to memorize their sources.
After they complete their responses, students receive feedback from their committee, and if they have to do revisions they have an opportunity to revise and add to their answers. While there is no oral component to the comprehensive exam, if a student is really struggling with a particular question, sometimes the committee will ask him or her to come in to discuss the question and the response to get clarifications and elaborations.
[MastersinCommunications.com] What role does faculty mentorship play in Western Kentucky University’s Master of Arts in Organizational Communication program?
[Dr. Thompson] I believe that one of the core things that makes our program stellar is that students feel a real connection with the faculty. They feel like we are accessible, that we care about how they’re doing, and I believe that’s why our program has grown. Our class sizes are typically around 10 students, though larger classes may be about 15 students.
And with these small class sizes comes the opportunity for faculty to really connect with students one-on-one. Faculty are friendly, supportive, and are willing to go the extra mile with students and help them to get opportunities to present research and conferences, and to publish with them. And for our students who obtain graduate assistantships, we have many opportunities for them to receive mentorship and guidance as they teach classes and manage the responsibilities of the classroom alongside their own work and research.
When students first enter the program, I as graduate director do all of the overall advising in terms of helping them with everything they need to hit the ground running–registering for classes, understanding the options within the electives, etc. I communicate with them regularly by email, and eventually students get their advisor and select their thesis or exam committee. For their advisors, students typically choose faculty with whom they have had the best connection and who are experts in the areas of content they have found most interesting and applicable to their career goals.
Apart from faculty mentorship, student and staff-led opportunities are also available. We have a Communication Organization for Graduate Students (COGS) program, which is a student-run program where the students connect with each other and can support one another as they progress through the program. COGS hosts orientations and meetings for graduate students to discuss work/life balance in graduate school, tips and tools to succeed, and how to make the most of the program’s many resources. COGS also hosts visiting scholars to come and talk with students about their research and to share professional and academic advice.
When I first took on the role of Advisor, I knew that my predecessor had gone above and beyond for our students. I’ve tried my best to follow in her footsteps, and to make sure that our students are getting the most that they can out of our program. Our faculty our similarly invested, and students make individual connections with faculty members for different types of projects too, outside of their thesis and class work.
Western Kentucky University does have a career center, but I would say it is used more by undergraduates than graduate students. For the graduate students in our department, since the degree program is so focused–either in research or industry career preparation–the career development often happens organically as part of certain classes. For example, in some classes students might have the opportunity to workshop their resumes and curriculum vitaes, as well as explore types of roles available within a given field of organizational communication, and how to market themselves.
For students who want to apply for Ph.D. programs, their career development support system is typically their academic advisor, thesis committee, and/or other faculty mentors with whom they can discuss their research interests. That is kind of self-selective, in that students often research people for their committees, and typically approach faculty to ask them for advice and guidance.
Western Kentucky University also has a program called the Joint Undergraduate-Master’s Program (JUMP), which gives students the opportunity to complete their undergraduate and graduate degree at WKU in five years. These students also receive career support and interview practice, as well as resume workshop services.
[MastersinCommunications.com] For prospective students who are interested in your program, what advice do you have in terms of submitting a competitive application?
[Dr. Thompson] It’s always helpful when a prospective student reaches out to us to express interest and/or learn more about the program. I’m always happy to receive emails from people who want to learn more about our program, and who are driven to take the extra initiative to reach out and engage with us. For their personal statement, students should explain what they want to do, their academic and professional background, and why specifically they want to come to our program. Students also have to meet minimum GPA requirements (2.75) and GRE score requirements, and submit a scholarly writing sample.
For the TAships it becomes more competitive–that is where higher GRE and GPA scores (minimum of 3.5) come into play. Applicants also have to have a more focused letter of interest explaining why they want the TAship and what they plan to do in the future with their teaching experience in the program.
With that said, I want to note that we are a program that is growing, and changing as we grow. As long as our students meet the minimum academic requirements and have an articulate personal statement, there is a good chance they will be admitted. We welcome people with a wide variety of interests, backgrounds, and goals. Where it becomes more competitive is in terms of the TA ships and for the JUMP students too because they as undergraduates have to really demonstrate that they can handle that schedule, because they’re coming in as undergraduate juniors into a master’s program. They have to really be the top students academically, as the average undergraduate student will not be ready for the rigors of our graduate program.
[MastersinCommunications.com] What makes Western Kentucky University’s Master of Arts in Organizational Communication unique, and a particularly strong graduate degree option for students?
[Dr. Thompson] I think the biggest thing that distinguishes our program is its focus on organizational communication, and our commitment to classes that cover the facets of organizational communication and their applications to a wide variety of fields. Because our program is so intensively focused on an area of communication that has such broad applications, our program can provide opportunities for students that a generalist program might not.
Typically at the master’s level, communication programs are not as focused, or will provide more of a generalist program of study. Where you commonly see more focus is in doctoral programs. That is where our program stands out in its concentration on organizational communication. And in the workplace, organizational communication has become a greater force that people are eager to study, analyze, and leverage across different contexts. Whether students want to build a business or be a leader in health administration, organizational communication is instrumental, and is being increasingly recognized as such. While studying general communication is valuable in its own right–whether it is public speaking or mass communication studies–I think that when an organizational context is employed in communication studies, we can see dynamics, parameters, and the value of certain research and methods differently.
I think that employers see that those who understand organizational communication tend to advance more and have a greater understanding of how leadership works, how culture works in organizations, and how you can shape everything from employee-employer communication dynamics to multi-national communication.
Another thing I will note is that some companies in our area have actually sent their employees to our program, and fund their employees’ completion of our master’s program. They hear from fellow employees that they had a really good experience, and the kinds of applications our classes have in industry, whether it is working in an office, international communications, counseling at universities, etc.; word of mouth has been one major way in which our program has grown.
Our JUMP program is also a unique opportunity for our undergraduates to earn their master’s degree in a time-efficient and cost-efficient way. The admissions requirements for this program are rigorous, but individuals who get in get their master’s degree in one year instead of two. JUMP also lends a unique dynamic to the classroom. We started this coterminal program a couple of years ago and we had our first graduates from that program two years back, and we’re now up to double digits in terms of number of JUMP students. Because they are younger and might not have the work experience that many of our older students have, it can definitely be an adjustment for them. But their presence in this environment benefits both sides–the younger students with their fresh perspectives, and the more seasoned working professionals with the expertise and insights they bring to the table. Once our JUMP students get assimilated, we’ve seen that they have no problem speaking up, and many of their observations are quite keen. And they are amongst real industry professionals and advanced scholars of communication who naturally advance their understanding of the field of organizational communication.
Thank you, Dr. Thompson, for your excellent insight into Western Kentucky University’s Master of Arts in Communication program!