About Bret Shaw, Ph.D.: Bret Shaw is an Associate Professor and Director of Graduate Studies in the Department of Life Sciences Communication (LSC) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He has been a professor with LSC since 2007, and his work focuses on strategic communication to promote environmental conservation and economic development. He earned a B.A. in Journalism from the University of Missouri-Columbia, an M.A. in Journalism and Mass Communications, and a Ph.D. in Mass Communications at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Dr. Shaw reports that one of the things that makes the Department of Life Sciences Communication unique is that it has world-class faculty who focus on some of the most significant current societal issues at the intersection of communication and emerging and controversial science (e.g., biotechnology, gene editing, nanotechnology, climate change), environmental conservation, public health, and economic development. The Department of Life Sciences Communication at UW-Madison is a research leader in science communication with faculty and alumni who are among the most prolific and highly cited researchers in the field of science communication.

Interview Questions

[MastersinCommunications.com] Could you please provide an overview of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Master of Science in Life Sciences Communication program, and how it is structured? What are the key learning outcomes students can expect from this program?

[Dr. Shaw] The Department of Life Sciences Communication (LSC) offers a Master of Science degree program that is comprised of 30 credits. The degree program is highly customizable for students so that they can tailor their program of study to their interests and career goals. We offer two tracks in the program: a thesis-based track and a professional course-based track. Core requirements for both tracks include courses in communication theory, research methods, graduate-level statistics, and the LSC colloquium. Students then select elective courses in consultation with their faculty advisor based on their areas of interest and career goals. Each students’ course of study is customizable, and we get people with scientific interests in a variety of topics such as biotechnology, genetics, agronomy, energy, public health, and technology studies.

Electives from outside the department cover such areas as environmental studies, public health, sociology, political science and technology studies. Examples of skills-based electives within the department include scientific writing, digital video production, documentary photography, narrative science communication, social media for the life sciences, and integrated marketing communication.

In addition to their individual advisor, all students receive the support of a committee consisting of their primary advisor (who serves as committee chair) and two other graduate faculty members. While students’ primary advisor must be a graduate faculty member from LSC, the two other committee members can come from within or outside of LSC, depending on students’ research interests. This gives students the flexibility to choose mentors from a different department and discipline that complements their program of study. Together, the student and his or her advisor determine the student’s program of study, and they meet regularly throughout the student’s tenure in the program.

The professional M.S. is a course-based master’s degree (30 credits total) designed to prepare students for professional careers in science communication and related fields. For their final graduation requirement, students pursuing the professional masters in LSC present a course narrative to their advisory committee at the end of their program, and the committee meets to approve the completed coursework. The thesis-track master’s degree requires 30 credits — 24 course credits plus up to 6 thesis credits. Many but not all students who get a thesis master’s degree from LSC go on to pursue a Ph.D. and a career in research or academia.

[MastersinCommunications.com] Could you elaborate on the master’s thesis requirement for students of the Thesis track, and the steps students must take to fulfill it? Also, could you elaborate on the course narrative that students of the professional track must complete?

[Dr. Shaw] The master’s thesis is a traditional project representing original research that contributes to the body of knowledge of life sciences communication or science communication more broadly speaking. While many of the students who do the thesis track go on to pursue a Ph.D. and a career in research or academia, the advanced research skills and methodologies they learn are applicable to other roles, not only in advanced research and pedagogy, but also think tanks, government agencies, and corporations.

The master’s degree is often a great opportunity for students interested in pursuing a Ph.D. to hone and deepen their research interests and to engage with advanced methodologies. A lot of people modify their research trajectory a bit between their masters and Ph.D. because the process of developing a major research project often clarifies for students what they want to investigate more specifically. The master’s thesis follows a fairly traditional trajectory in that students work with their individual advisor to determine the objective and scope of their research question and formulate a master’s proposal and do their research. Finally, they present and defend their thesis before their committee.

Students on the professional track must take 30 credits of coursework and complete a course narrative. At the start of the program, these students meet with their individual advisor, create their committee, and sit down to establish a course trajectory. At the end of the program, students write a course narrative report that explains their progression through the program, their key learning outcomes, and how what they learned will apply to their career moving forward. They submit this report to their committee, who reviews it and compares it against the established course trajectory. Then students must pass an oral defense of their course narrative. Students will have been working with their faculty mentors on their course trajectory since the beginning of their time in the program, and a primary objective of the course narrative is to justify how all their courses fit together. The flexibility of our program is one of its central benefits, but we also feel that it is important for students to choose their electives carefully and to be able to articulate how their program of study is applicable to their professional goals.

[MastersinCommunications.com] What role does faculty mentorship play in the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Master of Science in Life Sciences Communication program, and how can students make the most of these mentorship opportunities and support systems? Additionally, what career development resources and academic services are available to students of this program?

[Dr. Shaw] As mentioned previously, all students are assigned a graduate faculty advisor to help with their course selections and provide guidance on the student’s thesis if applicable. Before students begin in the program, we match each of them with one of our faculty based on our best sense of their interests and goals in the program. This initial advisor is called students’ “orientation advisor” and typically this advisor ends up being the students’ primary advisor throughout the program. However, sometimes students switch to an advisor who is a better fit, and that’s okay.

Outside of the formal avenues for advising, students in LSC can also take advantage of the close-knit community of LSC faculty whose doors are always open and who are committed to supporting students on their paths to achieve their goals. Every faculty member brings unique strengths to the mentoring experience, and I recommend that students build relationships with several faculty mentors during their graduate career as a variety of expert perspectives and guidance can greatly benefit students’ learning outcomes and career goals.

The mentoring in our program is multifaceted. There are professional development opportunities that are offered by the university and the college. And then we also have graduate assistantship opportunities, which offer students valuable training in research and/or teaching that they can apply to their careers after graduation. Academic and career development support resources are available within the department and with career programming from the UW-Madison Graduate School, which has many professional development opportunities that are specifically designed for graduate students. Many students also participate in a research group led by LSC faculty, and this can also be a valuable mentoring experience.

[MastersinCommunications.com] What advice do you have for prospective students in terms of submitting a competitive application for the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Master of Science in Life Sciences Communication program?

[Dr. Shaw] Graduate applications to the LSC masters’ programs are assessed holistically, taking into account the statement of purpose, transcripts, work experience, GRE scores, and letters of recommendation. All of the pieces are important in different ways. In the statement of purpose, we want to see that there is a good fit between the student and the department. We have a unique focus in our program, and we want to see people who understand what it is that we can offer them, and how they want to use it. For the more quantitative metrics like test scores and GPA, we want to see people that have had some measure of success in their previous academics. Letters of recommendation are also important, and we suggest that your recommenders, be they professional or academic, speak to your ability to handle rigorous research and excel in advanced coursework in communication theory and methods or your potential for being a professional science communicator.

[MastersinCommunications.com] What makes the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Master of Science in Life Sciences Communication program unique, and a particularly strong graduate degree option for students?

[Dr. Shaw] The Master of Science in Life Sciences Communication prepares students for professional and academic careers related to communicating issues about the environment, agriculture, the biological sciences and other topics in an era of rapid technological change and media convergence.

Science communication is a vibrant and expanding field right now. We are seeing an explosion in terms of scientific discoveries and innovation, as well as active discussions about how science, technology, politics, and society intersect. LSC focuses on these and other related topics. Our foundation is an interdisciplinary approach and perspective that empowers students to take their interests in science, technology, health, and engineering further through sound communication skills and understanding of communication research. For example, scientists and researchers who want to improve in public outreach and education benefit a great deal from the concepts we teach in our program. We help our students understand how people process science, health, and environmental information. We are both interdisciplinary and focused on science communication, and because of the depth and breadth of our training, our graduates place very well. Our alumni place very well at organizations such as industry, think tanks, non-profit agencies, government agencies or in higher education.

Many organizations in the sciences need staff who work in public relations or communications. We are always very excited to hear how our students are often getting job offers before they graduate from our program, and that speaks both to the expansion of the life sciences as an industry, and the quality of our curriculum and mentorship opportunities.

We also have faculty who are truly at the top of their fields, people who have conducted cutting edge research and who publish in the top journals across a range of disciplines — and are interviewed regularly in the mass media to comment on matters related to science communication. Our faculty are also involved in several National Academies of Science initiatives. Our students get to meet people who have been deeply enmeshed in real science communication–not just in the scholarly and important academic sense, but also in hands-on, real-world contexts.

We have had lots of people working at government agencies, corporate settings, nonprofit organizations, and academic departments in science and technology. We have a number of people who have landed directly in communications roles such as PR, marketing, or organizational communication management for a science-based organization. We have also seen several entrepreneurs in our cohorts, who apply the concepts and skills they learn in the program to missions in public education, advocacy, and scientific innovation.

Thank you, Dr. Shaw, for your excellent insight into the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Master of Science in Life Sciences Communication program!