About David Karpf, Ph.D.: David Karpf is an Associate Professor and the Director of The George Washington University’s Master of Arts in Media and Strategic Communication Program. As Director, he serves as students’ primary advisor throughout the program, connects them with faculty mentors within the School of Media & Public Affairs, and engages in curriculum assessment and development for the program. He also teaches courses in the program, including courses in strategic political communication. His research focuses on the intersection of communication technologies, digital media, and politics and political advocacy.

He has published numerous books on his research, including the award-winning The MoveOn Effect: The Unexpected Transformation of American Political Advocacy and Analytic Activism: Digital Listening and the New Political Strategy. Prior to his positions at The George Washington University, Dr. Karpf was an Assistant Professor in the School of Communication and Information at Rutgers University. He earned his Bachelor of Arts in Politics from Oberlin College, and his Master of Arts and Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of Pennsylvania.

Interview Questions

[MastersinCommunications.com] Could you please provide an overview of The George Washington University’s Master of Arts in Media and Strategic Communication program, and how it is structured? What are the key learning outcomes students can expect from this program?

[Dr. Karpf] The George Washington University’s Master of Arts in Media and Strategic Communication focuses on giving students a comprehensive set of skills in media management, campaign development, data analysis, and political communication. This program is aimed at people who work in and adjacent to government. In other words, it is a strong option for individuals who work at the State Department or other government agency in communications and who want to develop a better skill set. It is also ideal for people who are working in advocacy and diplomacy for nonprofits, NGOs, and a wide range of institutions in the D.C. area that, in one way or another, are adjacent to government and governance. Students in our strategic communication program focus on developing the skills that they’re going to use to run communication campaigns that can make a difference in the world.

The core courses include Media Effects, Public Opinion, and Persuasion; Strategic Political Communication, which I teach; Politics and Public Relations Fundamentals; Research Design; and Analytics and Data Analysis for Strategic Communication. In these classes, students learn the main concepts behind strategic communication campaigns, such as campaign design frameworks that they will use in their capstone projects, as well as the theories of political communication and the broader literature around public relations and politics. They also learn the latest data analytics methods and how to use the current tools in this area.

After the core, students progress to the Strategic Communication Skills courses. The skills classes in particular allow students to tailor the program so that they can identify specific competencies that they will be using in either the career that they have or the career that they want to move into. The skills classes include Crisis Communication, Web Essentials, Speechwriting, Public Speaking, and Social Media.

Once students complete their required classes, they take 12 credits worth of electives, which can either be in the School of Media and Public Affairs or in other departments that are relevant to their course of study. Finally, students complete a capstone project, for which they have three options: a Research Thesis, a Strategic Communication Project, and a Media Project.

Our program prepares students for a wide variety of professional paths. Many of our students stay in D.C. to work for government agencies, non-profits, political communication firms, and marketing firms. We have a number of people who have entered public relations management for large companies, and several graduates who have gone to work in pharmaceuticals and health. We also have a fairly strong international student presence–I’d say approximately a quarter of our students are international students—and many of them return home after completing their degree, and work in international political communications or government or advocacy work within their home country.

[MastersinCommunications.com] For their final graduation requirement, students of The George Washington University’s Master of Arts in Media and Strategic Communication program can choose between a Research Thesis, a Strategic Communication Project, and a Media Project. Could you elaborate on these three options, and what each entails?

[Dr. Karpf] What I generally tell students is that we want their capstone experience to be something that fits their portfolio for what they plan to do next. Several of our students are planning to pursue a Ph.D., and for these students I encourage them to write a master’s thesis, because that is going to be an academic work product that they could present at a conference or submit to a journal, and which can serve as proof of their readiness for the rigor of a Ph.D. program.

We have some students who are getting their master’s degree in order to move into media production or to advance their careers within this field. For them, I encourage them to do the media capstone, where they’re producing a piece of strategic media and demonstrating their full competencies and skills set. Then I’d say the majority of the students, probably about 70 percent of them, do the strategic capstone, which is more of a planning assignment, where they’re designing a full-fledged, strategic-communications campaign with some media artifacts that show what it will look like to flesh it out. The strategic capstone demonstrates students’ ability to plan and execute a campaign, and is ideal for people who want to move into campaign-planning operations.

For each of those options, students have an individual advisor and committee; each student assembles his or her own committee of professors with whom they have worked while in the program. I’d say I end up being personally on about a third of those committees, since I teach one of the core courses, and I am also all students’ primary advisor when they start the program.

[MastersinCommunications.com] What role does faculty mentorship play in The George Washington University’s Master of Arts in Media and Strategic Communication program? 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?

[Dr. Karpf] One of the strengths of our program is that we focus exclusively on our master’s students—we don’t have a Ph.D. program. For a lot of programs that have a master’s but also have a Ph.D., the Ph.D. students can often get the bulk of faculty attention. The way we set up our master’s program means that our students get treated the way we would otherwise be treating our Ph.D. students, and particularly for informal advising this is highly beneficial. It means that our faculty’s doors are always open, they’re happy to work with and advise their students, and their attention is solely on mentoring them and helping them develop professionally.

Formally, I provide all of the direct advising when students first start in the program. I help students figure out which classes to take, including the elective courses both within SMPA and throughout the university, that align with their interests and goals. Students have a lot of options, which is fantastic, but can also be overwhelming, and so I help them sort through the different classes and guide them through the process of building a cohesive program of study. I also have conversations with students about what they see as their career trajectory and how this program can help them make the most of their education, so that they start the program with a lot of intention. Once students identify their advisor and committee members, these faculty members serve as additional mentors for students both during their capstone project and in their careers moving forward.

We also provide career guidance for our students who need it. Our program’s classes are typically from 6:00 pm to 8:00 pm, and that is by design so that working professionals can get this master’s as well. Students who are enrolled full-time can also look for internships, and in the course of their first semester, students who don’t already have a job are also speaking with me and speaking with professors that I put them in touch with to help them find an internship or a job in the part of the communications field that they want to get into.

We also have a tutoring center, and there is a career center, but the career center in particular is more focused on undergraduates. We are a small enough program that academic support and professional mentorship are conducted mostly between the students and the faculty. We are small enough that we can help each of our students individually, and I would say this level of support is a definite strength of our program.

[MastersinCommunications.com] For students interested in The George Washington University’s Master of Arts in Media and Strategic Communication, what advice do you have for submitting a competitive application?

[Dr. Karpf] As we are a program that focuses on strategic political communication as opposed to strategic communication more broadly, what I’m really looking for is a sense that the student understands what we offer and that this exactly what they are looking for. We want the clearness of their intent to be apparent in their personal statement and their letters of recommendation. We do require students to submit transcripts of their past undergraduate work, but we do not have a minimum GPA requirement. We have had students who have done exceptionally well in this program, whose GPAs weren’t the greatest but had a clear trajectory and a clear set of goals that we could help them achieve. So what I want to know from applicants is that they are focused in their ambitions and know what we’re offering and how our program can help them achieve their goals.

[MastersinCommunications.com] What makes The George Washington University’s Master of Arts in Media and Strategic Communication program unique, and a particularly strong graduate degree option for students?

[Dr. Karpf] One thing I would like to call out specifically is the strength of our faculty—not only in terms of their own scholarship, but also in terms of the quality of their teaching and mentorship. Up and down the hallways, our faculty are award-winners, either for book awards or article awards or lifetime-achievement career awards.

We have an incredibly strong strategic communication program, one of the strongest programs in the country in this specific discipline, and I believe we’re the only one that offers just a master’s degree, not a Ph.D. As mentioned previously, this means that our program offers students the opportunity to work with top scholars in the world who are committed to helping them learn, grow, and push their boundaries. I think that this level of faculty attention is particularly important in this field, as it is still rapidly changing. The rate of change in the information environment and what that means for political communicators is staggering at times. Our students want to develop skills that empower them to figure out where the political and strategic communication fields are headed, and to lead effective communication strategies and campaigns that stand the test of time. The fact that our program has top-flight researchers who can really pay attention to their students means that those who enroll in our program are ideally situated to learn how to lead in their future professions.

Many of our faculty members are both industry practitioners and accomplished scholars. For example, amongst our core faculty, we have one professor of practice, Peter Loge, who is a longtime political advocacy professional. From him, students get the benefit of his practitioner experience and insight into working in the field, as well as his extensive research experience. We also bring in adjunct professors, both for the skills classes and for a number of the electives, who can provide that direct practitioner insight into communication dynamics in the world right now.

Our alumni network is also quite strong, particularly in the D.C. area. Here, again, we see the strength of being such a small program because it provides students with the opportunity to really bond with their peers and form networks that benefit them throughout their careers moving forward.

[MastersinCommunications.com] Students of master’s in communication programs often must balance work, internships, coursework, and rigorous research projects. What advice do you have for students in terms of successfully navigating their graduate school experience, and making the most of the opportunities presented to them?

[Dr. Karpf] I think it is imperative that students identify what their goals are and what they’re looking for from the program, and to keep that in mind as they navigate their course of study. And if students have several broader interests and are not sure where they want to focus yet, they should invest time in going to all of our events, meeting our faculty, and networking with people to try to figure out what paths they might want to pursue. When you have a clear focus, your studies will be more efficient because you are able to channel your time and energy directly into what will benefit your desired career. I also recommend that students meet with both their formal advisors (both myself and their committee members for their capstone) and informal faculty mentors frequently, and to not be afraid to ask questions. We are a program that is completely devoted to our master’s students and their success.

Thank you, Dr. Karpf, for your excellent insight into The George Washington University’s Master of Arts in Media and Strategic Communication program!