About Coy Callison, Ph.D.: Coy Callison is the Associate Dean of Graduate Studies for the College of Media and Communication at Texas Tech University. As Associate Dean, he and the grad office admin team oversees program development, curriculum revisions, and student matriculation. In addition, he helps advise students of the Master of Arts in Mass Communications program and the PhD program. He also serves as faculty internship supervisor for all graduate students who are completing an internship.
As a Professor, Dr. Callison also teaches classes in environmental, scientific, and risk and crisis communication. His research foci include strategic communication as it relates to water scarcity, water as an agricultural resource, and the communication of important resource management principles to various audience groups. He received his Bachelor of Arts in Mass Communication with a focus in Public Relations from Southwest Texas State University, his Master of Arts in Public Relations from the University of Alabama, and his Ph.D. in Communication and Information Sciences from the University of Alabama.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Could you please provide an overview of Texas Tech University’s Master of Arts in Mass Communications program, and how it is structured? What are the key learning outcomes students can expect from this program?
[Dr. Callison] The Master of Arts in Mass Communication is a 30-hour program with three tracks: a General Professional Track, a Sports Media Track, and a Thesis Track. The thesis track is comprised of eight classes, and then six thesis hours. The General Professional Track and the Sports Media Track are both nine classes, and then the final three credit hours are comprised of a final project.
All students, regardless of their chosen track, take two core classes: Research Methods and a Seminar in Mass Communication Theory. These are the only two required courses—the other seven courses you can choose (provided some of the credits meet certain parameters for thesis, final project, and/or internship work, depending on the chosen track). This means that students have a lot of flexibility in terms of tailoring their program to fit the interests they have. I also work with students so that they can optimize their learning outcomes from the program, based off of what their professional and academic background is as well. For example, if you are already very educated in the current state of public relations and you want to learn more about digital production, you can take more classes in that area. We’ve had other students who are very skilled in video editing and video news releases, but want to get more experience in promotional work or advertising, and we help these students establish a plan in the program to tool themselves up.
Students of the Thesis Track must also take a Data Analysis course, and then they complete 15 hours of electives (six of which can come from outside of the College of Media and Communication), and six credit hours of thesis work. Our program is very well respected for launching people into excellent Ph.D. programs, including North Carolina, Penn State, Michigan State, UC Santa Barbara as well as our own. Our thesis track students are generally in the minority, with about 20 percent of our students taking that route, but those who do take this path are very well trained to take advantage of a Ph.D. education.
Students of the General Professional Track take 21 credit hours of electives from the College of Media and Communication (six of those hours can be outside of the College), and a Final Project that focuses on their area(s) of interest within the program.
Students of the Sports Media track must take a Seminar in Media and Sport class, six credit hours of electives specifically in Sports Media, and nine credit hours of electives from the College of Media and Communication. In addition, they must complete a 160-hour (three credit-hours) internship in an approved sports communication setting, which includes submission of weekly reports and a final evaluation. Finally, students complete their Final Project that focuses on sports media. The professional track is what most of our students do—it is probably roughly 80 percent professional track students in our program. It is set up to be completed in a year, but people can also extend it if they need to pursue a part-time course of study.
Our program really centers on data-driven insights directing communication efforts, both in our academic and professionally focused tracks. We teach students that intuition in making decisions is really a way to get off-track and to head down the wrong road. Nobody should come into a boardroom meeting and say, “I had this vision last night about how we should run our ad campaign or how we can attract an audience for this documentary.” Instead, people should approach it by saying, “Here is the data we have collected to suggest why this is going to work.”
I work with a wide array of communication professionals, and my foothold in pragmatic practice all over the world has given me one clear insight: clients, companies, and organizations want data. They don’t want anybody to tell them, “I had a dream come to me or I have a hunch that if we use this spokesperson, it’s going to be great. Or if we have a golf tournament, it will really help promote our organization. Or if we have coffee mugs and t-shirts, it’s sure to get our client elected.” That used to be the way that strategic communication and content development worked 25 years ago. You get a room with a lot of people around a boardroom table, and people would start throwing out ideas, and one of those ideas would prevail, and you’d leave that boardroom with a solution of how you are going to move forward—build a website, launch an ad campaign, etc. And I just don’t believe in this method, and I have seen the industry move away from it as well.
What the industry wants now is for people to make really good educated recommendations. There is still some guesswork involved, but truly informed decisions are what move the needle. For example, if I have a client who comes to me and says, “I want to sell more widgets to this customer base,” I should have data that says I have surveyed this customer base, that I know the types of widgets they prefer, and that I am familiar with the types of media they tune into. From this data I should be able to conclude this customer base’s reaction to various potential social media campaigns. I might determine that this particular target audience is very interested in environmental sustainability, so we could play up that factor and make sure that we live up to our target audience’s expectations of social responsibility.
In our graduate program, the idea of placing data at the center of what we do is an essential theme. When we teach classes in research methods and theory, digital media production, integrated communication campaigns, sports management, and audience analysis, everything we teach is from an angle of, “How would you collect data to better your position in this arena?” So whether it is public opinion polling, social media campaigns, or sports journalism, the classes you take will always be very much about gathering and using insights from data. This approach in our program has led to our graduates going out and working for companies that are immediately blown away that there is someone in the room who is not just making guesses anymore.
What we have also found is our students really gravitate towards this approach as well. Our students love the idea that our program can help them be truly knowledgeable about what they are talking about, and to be able to take the guesswork out of standing up in front of people and explaining a strategy. Students learn to let the data do the talking for them, and they become purveyors of information. We’ve seen it pay off over and over again.
The benefits of really looking at the data are clear whether students take on the thesis or the professional track. In particular for the professional track, students are paired up with an organization that has a real-world communication challenge, and therefore they get very real and relevant experience in analyzing a problem, answering key questions, and making a recommendation to the organization moving forward. Students use all of the skills and insight they have accumulated during their matriculation here, and they gather primary data to determine how an organization should plan, design, and execute key strategies. Many of the students in our program get offered a job by the organization with which they worked for their final project. It’s almost a placement service, in a sense.
[MastersinCommunications.com] The field of mass communications is constantly changing. How does Texas Tech University’s Master of Mass Communications evolve its curriculum to align with advancements in the field? What have been some of the recent and most distinctive additions to the curriculum?
[Dr. Callison] In addition to there being more of an emphasis on data-driven decision-making in the industry, there has also been a movement towards integration across various disciplines. You see fewer Fortune 500 companies with an advertising department, a PR department, and a product or media creation department. You also see fewer newspapers, agencies, and other organizations that really distinguish roles.
What you have now are people who do media and communication more broadly, by which I mean that companies and organizations are now less likely to bring in PR specialists or a web development consultant group that is external to their organization, and what they are looking for is someone who can wear several different hats: they want you to be the photographer, the media buyer, the story writer, and the content producer. As a result, students have had it rougher than they ever have. When I was an undergrad, if you could just do one of those components really well you’d have a nice career. Now you have to be able to work across platforms, and work across the entire spectrum.
And that is what makes me really proud of our program—we really work to prepare you across the spectrum of what it means to be a modern communicator. I’ve seen departmental silos come down everywhere, and we have seen our students thrive in this more open and demanding environment. They get great jobs because they can go to a company and tell them, “I can collect data on your strategic communication activities, I can produce a video documentary because I have the creative and editing skills, and I can also help you build your website, evaluate your SEO strategy, and look at your television and web placement.” With that many skill sets, you can become a valuable asset to your company. You really have to be a jack of all trades in this discipline to advance. Supervisors have the ability to put it all together.
In my advising of students I usually use an analogy to a kitchen scene: you can be the baker or the person who makes the sauces or the person who puts together the side dishes, but usually the head chef does it all, or even if they don’t do it all, they have oversight of all of it. We want to graduate head chef types—practitioners that see how all the components—the meal—comes together. Many students don’t get this kind of training in their undergraduate career. Undergraduate programs tend to be much more department-driven.
[MastersinCommunications.com] For their final graduation requirement, students can choose between completing a thesis or a final capstone project. Could you elaborate on both of these options, and what they entail?
[Dr. Callison] Students who choose the thesis route formulate a research question which they discuss with their advisor, conduct a literature review of existing research in their field, design a study using quantitative and/or qualitative research methods, gather and analyze their results, and write conclusions based off of their findings. The objective of the thesis is to contribute to the existing body of research on a given topic within the field of mass communication.
Regardless of whether they choose the thesis or the final project, students benefit from the guidance of several faculty mentors. Students choose one faculty member to serve as their principal supervisor, and this mentor helps them with any challenges they encounter as they work on their final project or thesis. I help match students to faculty members whose research expertise best meets their interests and goals for their final project. Once students are paired up with a faculty member, their mentor supports them at every stage of their work on their project. Some faculty mentors even help connect students to clients who might have communication needs that align with the student’s skills and interests. That said, at least half of our professional track students don’t need these connections as they come in with the connections they want to use, or they proactively go out and forge those connections.
As for examples of the kinds of projects our students have completed, one of our students developed a crisis communication campaign for one of the local hospitals here in Lubbock, and she dealt directly with how well people at the hospital understood emergency planning. She found that many of the people at the hospital did not know what to do should a crisis happen—everybody at the hospital knew they had a crisis communication plan, but nobody knew what it was and how they were to implement when a crisis occurred. So she put together an extensive campaign that involved all of the constituents from the staff to the nurses, doctors, and vendors. She surveyed all of these teams to learn how they would prefer to receive this information. And she found that depending on the team, the preferred mode of communication/education differed. The nurses wanted it in weekly lunch and learns, the doctors wanted it in an email briefing once every two weeks, and the vendors wanted it in a formal training session. She subsequently put together a comprehensive plan that catered to each team, and the hospital was very happy with it.
A few months later, she happened to be in Hawaii with her fiancé who was stationed in the military, and she decided she wanted to find work at a hospital. So she approached a hospital in Hawaii and asked, “Do you guys have any openings in public relations?” And they told her, “No, we’re really staffed up in terms of PR.” And she said, “I’ve done some work in crisis planning, and let me just leave my booklet, my crisis communication plan, with you.” Two days later she got a call from the hospital saying, “Oh my gosh, we didn’t know we had a problem until we read your plan. When can you start?” And our student became the Crisis Preparedness Director for a major hospital in Honolulu because she had written up a plan through our program that was quite applicable to their situation.
We work very hard to ensure that students get a final project placement that matches their academic focus and career goals. For example, one of my last students was in sports media, and he completed his final project for the University of Miami through their Athletic Department. The Athletic Department was finding that attendance at football games was not as high as they wanted. Part of it was the distance from the University of Miami campus to the stadium, and another part of it was the many other things to do in such a busy metropolitan area. So they brought our student on and asked him to figure out how to improve the game-day experience so that they would have more attendance, participation, and ticket sales.
Chris conducted a major survey of all the people coming to the games. And what he found was that one of the main things keeping people from coming to the games was that there was just not a lot of readily accessible information about seemingly minor but important details, such as where people should park and which gate is the one to go to if you park in a particular lot, and where the hot dog stands are in the stadium. And while surveying he also found that many of the locals hadn’t really established a connection with the players. So as he put together the marketing materials, he also added some background information about the players that would help the local community connect with them better. Content such as, “This certain wide receiver played here in his hometown of Miami, and so if you guys want to come out and support the hometown boy, watch the game this weekend.” And on social media he posted about when the team did community service, encouraging people to come out and support a really good group of guys.
When he made the recommendations to the University of Miami Athletic Department, they immediately saw how it was going to improve their game-day situation and the public interest in the Hurricanes. He completed his final project in conjunction with completing his sports media internship, and so he also got experience helping the Department with video production and other media initiatives. When he got ready to graduate, they told him, “We don’t want you to go back to Lubbock. Graduate and here’s your full-time offer right here.” They offered him a job at the Athletic Director’s office. That’s been a very common experience for students of our program.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Students of the Sports Media track must complete an internship, while students of the General Professional track can also choose to complete an internship. What support does Texas Tech University’s Master of Arts in Mass Communications program provide to students in finding, securing, and completing their internships?
[Dr. Callison] That is a great question. I would say the majority of students in this track do their internship in conjunction with their final project. For the example I provided above of the student who worked with the University of Miami’s Athletic Department; he was able to get internship credit for the experience as well. He moved from Lubbock to Miami, and stayed there for the semester. I should also note that students of the general professional track can also complete an internship for course credit, though it is not required.
To have your work with a client for your final project also count towards your internship, you have to have proof that you are working a minimum number of hours and you also have to have an internship supervisor who agrees to give you graduate-level work. Students in the internship must write weekly progress reports of what they are doing and how they are applying the things they learned in class to their internship. They then also have to write a final report of what they accomplished in their internship, and talk about how communication theory and data analysis methods helped them in their internship. I am the internship supervisor for all the graduate students in the program, so they send their weekly progress reports to me and also ask me any questions as they work through their internship and for help with complex questions and challenges that require critical and interdisciplinary thinking.
While combining the internship and final project in the program is not necessary, it’s a popular option because it is efficient and it also allows students to delve more deeply into a particular organization’s work environment and needs. For example, one of our students did an internship for Southwest Airlines, to help them expand their traffic to Cuba. And her final project was all about consumer retention and excitement about the possibility of traveling to Cuba. She investigated the question, “How could Southwest best promote the opening of Cuba as a vacation destination?” That was the basis of her final project, but on a day-to-day basis, she was also an intern who was involved in everything from doing press conferences to setting up media junkets and engaging in ad campaigns. The result was that she was fully embedded in that organization for over four months, which helped enrich her recommendations for Southwest in terms of how they could expand their reach.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Independent of faculty instruction and support, what career development resources and academic services are available to students, and how can they make the most of these mentorship opportunities and support systems while in the program?
[Dr. Callison] In addition to the faculty mentorship students receive through their classes and thesis/final project, we also have several support systems that they can leverage. There is a Graduate Writing Center on campus to help students with their writing assignments. We also have a Career Services center that helps students with everything from interview tips to resume building and revising. In conjunction with that, we also have job location services. Much of the academic advising is done internally by myself and the Assistant Dean Trent Seltzer. We also have a very active Graduate Student Organization in the College, which hosts a variety of events and workshops encompassing everything from how to interview better and present yourself optimally on your resume to how to make ethical decisions in communication consulting. Furthermore, we have funding of up to $2000 annually for independent student research, and also offer travel funding to students whose work gets accepted at a conference.
At the College, we also offer two other services that are fantastic opportunities. The first is the Center for Communication Research, which houses a lot of excellent equipment, and is considered one of the finest research facilities in the nation. The Center is fully staffed for students who are not familiar with using the tools provided to collect and analyze data. We also have the Thomas Jay Harris Institute for Hispanic and International Communication, which is a full service center that provides additional funding to students who are interested in international issues. In Texas, the Hispanic population is growing, and with that comes the need to find ways of communicating important information to this population about health care services, educational support services, and more.
[MastersinCommunications.com] For students interested in Texas Tech University’s Master of Arts in Mass Communications program, what advice do you have in terms of submitting a competitive application?
[Dr. Callison] In terms of the application components, we require a statement of purpose that explains why you want to attend our program, and why you are qualified for the program. We also require transcripts, a resume, and three letters of recommendation, which are submitted through an online portal. We don’t require the GRE, as we found it doesn’t correlate with students’ performance in the program.
I would say that applicants shouldn’t get overly concerned if they don’t have a background in media and communication. We like seeing people who come from related fields, such as sociology, political science, psychology, and business. One of my best students right now is actually from a dance and theater background—she realized that she is probably not going to be a dancer for the rest of her life, and wanted to get into the journalism and promotional side of her passion, so that she could work as an agent or a marketing specialist.
That said, I do want to see students who have been good students in the past. This is a difficult program to get into, and we’re proud of that. We get a lot of applications and interest in the program within Texas, outside of Texas, and internationally. This program has a good reputation of putting people into the workforce and getting people into PhD programs.
I want hard-working people who realize that this is going to be a roll-your-sleeves-up kind of program. Students who demonstrate an excitement for working outside of a classroom and textbook environment have an edge, because that is exactly what we require you to do for your final project in particular. This isn’t a wallflower type of program. And we look for students who are curious across the spectrum of the discipline.
If students are interested in receiving funding for their program, there is a separate application for those who want to be considered for graduate assistantships. Graduate assistants receive in-state tuition if they are out of state, and it allows them to waive many of their fees, which can cut their program costs in half. Funded students also get a generous stipend that pays a monthly salary.
[MastersinCommunications.com] What makes Texas Tech University’s Master of Arts in Mass Communications program unique, and a particularly strong graduate degree option for students?
[Dr. Callison] We really offer students the chance to get full exposure across the spectrum of media and communication management and strategy. The idea that I am particularly proud of in our program is our movement away from guesswork and towards truly intelligent, data-driven decisions.
What I hear most from our students is that there is a lot of one-on-one interaction here. Our faculty have an open-door policy—if you have questions, you don’t have to go through any chain of command, you can come directly to us. We take students to get coffee, we sit and have lunch, I’ve been known to grab a beer. And this is very much a Texas Tech thing, and it’s one of the reasons I’ve stayed here as long as I have.
There is a West Texas spirit of “Help Your Neighbor” that has a strong historical foundation, but which also is contagious in that both faculty and students come here and get immersed in the positive family atmosphere of genuinely caring people. I hear from students over and over again, “I learned a lot from this program, but I always felt like I was part of something here. You guys always made me feel involved, and I always had the confidence that if I ever needed backup I could get support from the program faculty here.” I know students come from a long way off sometimes to go to graduate school. Know that you’re going to find a home here with us.
Thank you, Dr. Callison, for your excellent insight into Texas Tech University’s Master of Arts in Mass Communications program!