About Jennifer Vardeman, Ph.D.: Jennifer Vardeman is the Director of the Master of Arts in Communication program at the University of Houston. As Director, she oversees curriculum development and course scheduling, and also serves as students’ initial advisor during their tenure in the program. In addition, she oversees student recruitment and admissions, supports faculty, and manages curriculum developments and additions.
As an Associate Professor, Dr. Vardeman conducts research in public relations in the public health and healthcare field. Specifically, she investigates how people make decisions about healthcare options that are available to them, and how both interpersonal contact and mass media impact their decisions. Additionally, Dr. Vardeman conducts research in women’s health and decision-making and how it intersects with cultural structures at the community, familial, and individual levels. Dr. Vardeman earned her Ph.D. from the University of Maryland in 2008.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Could you please provide an overview of the University of Houston’s Master of Arts in Communication, and how it is structured? What are the key learning outcomes students can expect from this program?
[Dr. Vardeman] We have three majors, and the theme that runs through all of them is that they address communication from a research and a theoretical standpoint. We are less of an applied program, and more of a research-based program, with the goal of preparing our students for a Ph.D. in communication. That said, we are based in a major metropolitan area and a lot of our students are not interested in pursuing a doctorate degree and are more interested in completing the master’s program as a terminal degree before working in the field of communication. So we have increasingly tried to accommodate students who want to be on this professional track. So for each of the different majors we provide options for students who either want to go the research track or more applied work.
We have three concentrations: mass communication, public relations, and health communication. The public relations and health communication concentrations can be highly applied, with most people in those concentrations going into industry. The mass communication concentration is generally our most research-heavy concentration, and a lot of students who choose that track end up doing a lot of research on how mass communication and mass media affect society. I’ll go into each concentration in turn.
The mass communication concentration is taught by a team of faculty who are from a variety of different countries, and most of whom have an intensive journalism background. So in a way it is international journalism-centric. The classes train students to research and analyze how mass communication affects the public’s perceptions of politics, social circumstances, etc., and how it in turn shapes their decision making in individual and group contexts. For example, students in this concentration investigate how fake news is produced and regulated, as well as media corporations’ role in shaping the structure and dynamics of society. Students take courses in mass communication theory and research, the history of mass communication, international mass communication issues, media content and corporations, and television and the family.
The public relations concentration concerns how to manage communications strategically on behalf of an organization with various stakeholder groups. A lot of the work that we do there is teach students how to go out and use research to inform their direction of an organization’s communication programming to different audiences. The goal of public relations is to create communication strategies that are mutually beneficial to audience/stakeholders and the organization, and which support the organization’s bottom line, whether it is a for-profit or a non-profit organization. Students take classes in public relations management principles, public relations theory, understanding publics, international and global public relations, critical/cultural public relations, and crisis communication.
The health communication concentration is a little different from the mass communication and public relations concentrations (which are pretty mass media focused) in that it spans all types of communication, by which I mean this concentration goes from a very speech and interpersonal communication focus all the way to group communication and group interactions, and then to the mass media level where students look at how to build health campaigns that are conducted on a national or international level. The health communication concentration has classes that give students a very strong background in how to work in hospitals as a communicator, or how to work for any kind of health advocacy group, or to work for non-profits and other organizations that contribute to some kind of public health entity. A lot of our students in this concentration end up doing some kind of work for their county public health department, for example. The classes talk about health campaigns, patient-provider interactions, multicultural health, and health communication theory and research.
Our target learning outcomes for all of our students are: we want students to demonstrate knowledge of communication theory that is relevant to their concentration, and to be able to conduct actionable research in their areas of interest. For our students who wish to work in industry, we want them to be able to apply communication theories directly to practice.
[MastersinCommunications.com] For their final graduation requirement, students of the University of Houston’s Master of Arts in Communication can choose between a master’s thesis, an applied project, and a comprehensive examination. Could you elaborate on these two options, what each entails, and what students should take into consideration when choosing between them?
[Dr. Vardeman] The applied project is a recent development, because we found that students who had been working in the field for a little while wanted to gain a greater understanding of communication particularly from a strategic standpoint, and the thesis did not make as much sense for them and their goals. With the applied project option, students find a current organization and work with them to accomplish a research-based communication goal that the organization needs. It takes about one semester to complete and in the end the student may have a crisis communication plan or they might have implemented some campaign for an organization or they might have developed some kind of training program which enables them to apply their coursework to a real-world situation. And at the end of their project, the organization has a concrete deliverable or plan that they can take away and implement. Since we’ve implemented this option, it has become very popular amongst our students.
The thesis is very much a traditional research project where students investigate a phenomenon in their field of study and contribute to the existing literature on that topic through research and studies that they conduct on their own. Students form a thesis committee comprising of three faculty, and they spend approximately a year conducting research, which usually includes surveying, interviewing, or conducting experiments with people from particular groups. The thesis option requires students to design a theory-based study on their own in their field that attempts to confirm, disconfirm, or elaborate on existing knowledge in the field. If students are going to collect data among people (versus texts, like social media posts or news articles), they are required to obtain Institutional Review Board approval.
The comprehensive exam is a test that students develop in collaboration with their committee, and which they take over the course of a week. For each of the three options, students benefit from the support of a committee of faculty. Students gather input about questions from faculty members, and they are given a question bank from which their committee may draw questions. They are given three questions from their major, two questions from their minor, and a research methods question. They use readings from courses, old syllabi, rubrics, papers, exams, reflective writings, and any other course materials that may be pertinent to questions asked. Students generally spend about 2-4 months studying for comps.
Each semester, we offer a “101” session for all three capstone options: a “Thesis 101,” a “Comps 101,” and an “Applied Project 101” for any graduate student interested in learning more about the process of each. We answer any/all questions for students, and most questions are around what each process looks like and the standards for passing.
[MastersinCommunications.com] What role does faculty mentorship play in the University of Houston’s Master of Arts in 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. Vardeman] All first-year students are required to meet with me their first semester so that we can put together a rough degree plan, and I provide them with guidance in terms of how to navigate the graduate school system, because the first semester is always really intimidating for a lot of our graduate students. I serve as the primary advisor until the end of their second semester, which is when our students select a major advisor whose research expertise aligns with their academic and professional interests.
I also hold a group advising session, because I have found that sometimes students don’t know what their questions are until they start hearing other students talk about their own challenges and questions. I hold about three of these meetings each semester, and during these meetings any student can come in and talk and sometimes the conversation goes from degree planning to talking about what the thesis or comprehensive exams entail to talking about general questions that students have about classes, research, etc.
Our department doesn’t currently have a formal career advising center, but the University of Houston has an annual career workshop sponsored by one of our major donors and partners in the field. In addition, we have funds available for students when they want to submit their work to conferences and present at these events. What we want to do is empower students to continue on their desired research track, and part of being competitive for Ph.D. programs is publishing and presenting research at academic conferences.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Is it common for students to conduct research with faculty outside of their thesis/applied project/class work?
[Dr. Vardeman] Definitely. Something that we prioritize as one of our key learning outcomes is to increase the amount of research that students are doing, and one of the ways in which we achieve that is through student collaborations with faculty members. We have a lot of faculty who are increasingly receiving grant money to fund research assistants. We also have a number of graduate assistantships that we designate specifically for research. We have about three to five graduate students who are now fully funded by research dollars, where they work with faculty to help them develop abstracts for conferences, conduct studies, write up and analyze findings, etc.
[MastersinCommunications.com] For students interested in the University of Houston’s Master of Arts in Communication program, what advice do you have for submitting a competitive application?
[Dr. Vardeman] We expect students to have a strong undergraduate background, and a correspondingly strong GPA. We also require GRE scores so we expect students to score well on that examination. We also look for students who have done their research and are clear on what their particular interests are and the faculty in our department with whom they would like to work while they are here. A strong voice in the personal statement, through which students articulate what they want to accomplish in our program, is also important. Generic arguments for admission are not compelling arguments, so I encourage students to be as specific as possible, both in terms of what they want to get out of the program and what they can contribute to the program. Seeing initiative and commitment in an applicant goes a long way.
I would also advise that students submit writing samples that demonstrate some kind of research or analytical skill. We require a writing sample, and we really like to see one (or both) of two things: a sample that shows a very strong research background or ability to analyze and synthesize information in a critical way, and/or a sample that illustrates the student’s ability to build and execute on a strategic plan within his or her current role, and in doing so demonstrate some higher-level thinking. For example, if you did a kind of strategic communication plan for your current administration in your current role, that would be a great sample to submit because it would show your ability to analyze, design, and execute. Or a news piece that demonstrates the kind of research and analysis you are capable of.
For prospective applicants, I would definitely advise that they talk with me and/or with faculty in our department. That is what we are here for—to give current and prospective students the information they need to make informed decisions. I invite prospective applicants to come in during our office hours, or to set up an appointment with us, or to come and attend one of our classes so that they can see the kinds of conversations we are having and the higher-level thinking that we want them to engage in. We also think it is a great opportunity for them to talk with current students to find out what the workload in the program is like.
For letters of recommendation, they can be a mix of academic and professional references. We do feel that academic references are the strongest indicator of how well students are going to do in our program, but our admissions committee is very committed to considering the whole student, and we don’t admit anyone based on one particular indicator or metric. Nobody is going to get in solely on their GPA, GRE scores, or letters of recommendation. What we look for is a well-rounded student who has a strong understanding of where they want to go and what they want to get out of the program.
[MastersinCommunications.com] What makes the University of Houston’s Master of Arts in Communication program unique, and a particularly strong graduate degree option for students?
[Dr. Vardeman] One of our primary strengths is that we are located in the fourth largest city in the United States, and we have a very strong media market, while also housing major companies in nearly every industry that students can work for. We have energy, arts and culture, sports, healthcare, manufacturing and construction, and so much more. With this diversity and strength of industry is the ability for students to engage in internships or work while they are earning their degree. The multitude of organizations in our region also provide students with so many opportunities for their final project or research. We have faculty who are very supportive of lots of different student backgrounds and interests.
Aside from our location in Houston, our faculty are what really makes our program stand out. Our faculty are conducting advanced research in topics that are highly relevant to our society, and where it is headed. We have faculty who are researching the aging population and how it makes health decisions. We have faculty conducting research in fake news, as well as professors who are investigating how female journalists are being treated in other parts of the world. We have faculty who are conducting research on how people communicate about race, class, and gender. All of our faculty members’ work has some kind of application to the real world, and to where the field is going. The application of theory is something that is increasingly being viewed as important at universities, and that is something that has been a central tenet for our program since its beginning.
[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. Vardeman] I would say about two-thirds work in some capacity outside of their role as a student, and about a third to a half of students actually have full-time jobs outside of our program. So we really have quite a lot of students who are juggling a lot—on top of families, for many of them.
Given all of the above, a lot of our students come to us with strategies already in terms of how to balance their work, their personal obligations, and their professional obligations. As their initial primary advisor, I try to prepare them for the transition by telling them that graduate work is entirely different from undergraduate work, and that working with each other—collaboration amongst students—is one of the best ways to ensure success.
I encourage students to communicate with their professors early and often. When you know that work or family obligations might intervene with academic obligations in a given semester, insofar as you can communicate that to your professors, because they are happy to work with you to provide support and accommodations as needed. We as a faculty team are there to help students succeed. We very consciously hire faculty who are committed to students’ experience, and who want to support students wherever they are.
Thank you, Dr. Vardeman, for your excellent insight into the University of Houston’s Master of Arts in Communication program!