About Lauren Frank, Ph.D.: Lauren Frank is an Associate Professor and the Graduate Program Director for the Master of Science in Communication program at Portland State University. As Director, Dr. Frank advises students in the program, matches students with their faculty mentors, supervises the graduate teaching assistants, and also handles key administrative responsibilities such as curriculum development efforts. Her current research focuses on health communication and public health campaigns, and she teaches courses in health communication campaigns, media effects, and strategic communication in risk reduction. In addition, she teaches core classes in the MS program, including the course on quantitative research methods.
Dr. Frank received her Bachelor of Arts in Psychology from Princeton University and her Master of Health Science from Johns Hopkins University before earning her Ph.D. in Communication from the University of Southern California.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Could you please provide an overview of Portland State University’s Master of Science in Communication, and how it is structured? What core topics are covered in the core curriculum and in the electives, and what are some major themes of the classes offered in this program?
[Dr. Frank] Our Master of Science in Communication program is an excellent program for students interested in working closely with faculty and becoming scholars of communication, or applying their knowledge of the field to a wide variety of industries. The strength of our program comes from the flexibility of the curriculum, the variety of courses we provide, and our emphasis of one-on-one scholarship between students and faculty members.
There are three required courses in the program. The first is a Quantitative Research Methods course, which I currently teach. We also have a required Qualitative Research Methods course, which is currently taught by the Chair of our department, Dr. Jeff Robinson. Finally, we have a required Introduction to Communication Theory course that is currently being taught by Dr. David Richie. Those are the three courses we expect all of our students to come in and take, and we also structure the order in which they take them. We purposefully admit our students in a cohort, and we really use those core classes to help develop that cohort feeling. We encourage collaboration amongst our students, and in their classes our students all work closely with each other. We give them a chance to get to know each other well, and that starts in those core required courses.
After the core, and starting in the second term in winter when they start taking electives, students have a lot more flexibility. At that point, we encourage our students to take any of our variety of electives, and to work with all of our different faculty. We also allow them to take a course outside of our department, if it is relevant to their studies in communication. Our goal is to get to know our students really well, and we work with them to make sure that they can tailor the program to their particular needs.
There is a Research Track and a Professional Track, and the main difference between the two is that the Research Track students complete a thesis, while the Professional Track students complete a comprehensive examination. Students in both tracks have the option to take courses in health communication, environmental and science communication, persuasion and marketing, conversation analysis and language, and political communication.
Within each class, students have the ability to tailor their course assignments according to what interests them the most. We have a small enough graduate program that each of our faculty is able to work individually with the students in his/her classes to make sure that they have the opportunity to explore their interests through their assignments. For example, my own research is health communication, but I had a student who was very interested in working in video-game research. In my health communication class, she completed a project on how video games have been used in health campaigns. And then in another class, she explored how new technology and different kinds of social media are affecting video games. In this particular example, when the student graduated, she was able to go straight to a local video-game research company.
We also offer an apprenticeship course, which we require for our full time students but not for our part-time students (though we encourage all students to take this course). It affords them the opportunity to work specifically with faculty on a project. They work very closely with that faculty on research and get to know what the field looks like in their particular area of interest. Also, as part of the apprenticeship course we host a colloquium each month.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Students of Portland State University’s Master of Science in Communication have the option to complete either a master’s thesis or a three-part comprehensive examination. Could you please elaborate on these two options, and what each entails?
[Dr. Frank] The thesis option is ideal for students who want to pursue further academic study of communication at the doctoral level. Students select a faculty advisor who helps guide them through the process of advanced research. Students also choose two faculty members who review their thesis, provide feedback, and attend their final thesis defense. The student’s advisor and two faculty readers make up a committee that also provides feedback on the student’s final thesis defense.
Thesis students work with their advisor to develop an initial research question and to define the scope of their study. They then submit a prospectus that outlines the nature of their inquiry and the quantitative and/or qualitative research methodologies that they will employ in their study. After defending their prospectus, students conduct their study and write up the results, analysis, and discussion of their findings. Students in our program have studied issues in language and culture, conversation and interpersonal communication, propaganda and persuasion, health communication, political campaigns, media, and technology in communication. For the thesis, they work with their advisor most closely on the research project. It can either be original research of their own design, or they can work with the faculty member on an aspect of the research that the faculty member is already conducting. They write and complete the full thesis, and then they do an oral presentation that is open to the public but especially is a defense with their committee. Students’ work on their thesis counts for six credits in the program.
The comprehensive exam option is ideal for students who wish to enter industry after graduating. The exam itself is comprised of three separate tests: one on methodology, and two on specific theory or topics that align with the student’s individual course of study in the program. The methodology question tends to be pretty standard. Almost all of our students are writing answers to similar kinds of questions. They get to choose which method they want to write on, but if a student’s writing something about a focus-group methodology, the question will look fairly similar across different students.
The topics questions are completely individualized, and we recommend students gear them toward practical problems in their professional area of focus. The exams are an opportunity for students to apply their learning in communication outside of the academic field. Students work with faculty with whom they have taken courses and who are part of their exam committee (students taking exams also have a three-person committee consisting of their individual advisor and other communication faculty members). Together, students and their committee decide what areas they would like to study. We encourage them to think about a problem that they might want to solve in a future job or something that is facing the industry they wish to pursue, and how to take what they’ve been learning and really apply it to solve that problem.
So whether they are on the research or the professional track, all students have both a formal faculty advisor and committee that helps guide their thesis work or exam preparation, and helps them ask relevant questions around how they will apply their academic work to their future careers.
[MastersinCommunications.com] What role does faculty mentorship play in Portland State University’s Master of Science in Communication program? How can students make the most of these mentorship opportunities and support systems while in the program? Independent of faculty instruction and support, what career development resources and academic services are available to students of Portland State University’s Master of Science in Communication program?
[Dr. Frank] When students first come to the program, one of the roles that I have is assigning them a faculty mentor, and that is based on everything that they have said in their application about their interests. I do my best to match them with somebody who will help them meet their goals. That faculty mentor also serves as their faculty member for their apprenticeship course. At the end of students’ first year, they can choose a different advisor if they wish, as this advisor will be the person who supports them through their work on their thesis and/or comprehensive examination preparation. Students also have regular monthly meetings with me about the graduate program.
One of the things that makes us unique is our apprenticeship course, as this is where many our students receive that one-on-one mentorship. Many of our students end up working closely with the faculty and forming a strong working relationship. Being a part of a faculty member’s research is instrumental to our students’ growth, and our faculty serve as advocates for students’ professional development. For example, one of my advisees who just graduated not only assisted me in my research, but also went to conferences with me. I was able to introduce her to a variety of colleagues. And she was able to then use those connections to start choosing what jobs she wanted herself.
As we are in Portland, we have very strong connections to local government departments and also lots of internship opportunities at different companies. These organizations regularly recruit student interns from our graduate student program, as well as recent graduates for their full-time positions. For example, one of my advisees this summer is working on focus groups through an internship that she was able to get through our online career systems, and another is starting an internship at Intel.
As a university, we are able to find these internships through a combination of outreach to organizations, and organizations reaching out to us due to our reputation for training exceptionally capable students. Portland State uses an online resource called Handshake, whose staff work actively to go and recruit companies to post all of their job positions and work with us to recruit our graduates. We also have a variety of university-wide career fairs. At our own department level, faculty have a lot of contacts ourselves from working with a variety of local partners. Our university is one that very much focuses on community engagement and connecting our research to relevant local issues. Our motto is, “Let knowledge serve the city.” So most of us have different connections to local partners and businesses here in the Portland area, and we use those to help our students; when we know what our students want to do next, we get them in contact with possible job opportunities.
In terms of helping prepare students for Ph.D. programs, we do most of that ourselves as faculty. When a student has identified as part of their application that they want to go on to a Ph.D. program, we make sure to give them the support they need in terms of building their research resume and honing their interests. That’s part of why we like having the two separate tracks and ask students to indicate which track they want to go into—that way we can tailor our mentoring to their specific needs. We help them throughout their time here to build the skills, knowledge, and research track record to be quite successful in submitting strong applications.
Our student body does wonderful things with the resources and support they are given. We have students who present at many different conferences. Locally we have had students take their research to the Western States Communication Association and the Western Social Science Association. We have also sent students to the National Communication Association and International Communication Association. A number of my students have also presented at the American Public Health Association.
In addition, there are more niche communication associations where students can present research and meet valuable connections in their specific area of interest. For example, the student I mentioned who was interested in video games went to a specific video-games research conference, and that is where she actually met the people who hired her. Our faculty are well-versed in the associations that relate to their specific area of interest.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Does the Master of Science in Communication program offer graduate assistantships?
[Dr. Frank] Yes, we do, and students can receive financial aid for their work. We give priority to our research-track students for our graduate teaching assistantships, as these GTAships are excellent ways to prepare them for a career in higher education. There are additional opportunities for other graduate assistantships that are available to all of our students, but they tend to be more administrative opportunities with other departments on campus. A lot of the departments on campus know we have very good students and intentionally recruit from amongst our students. For our own GTAs, we look primarily at research-track students. A major benefit of being a GTA in our department is full tuition remission, and there is also a monthly stipend to help students with living expenses. And for students who are interested in going on to a Ph.D. program, we are helping them to have the experience of teaching, empowering them to go forward and have a strong application for a Ph.D. program. We also have a number of our students who come here with the plan of becoming a community-college professor. And so we help students become competitive for these positions through our graduate teaching assistantships as well.
Our GTAs typically assist one of the faculty members. GTAs attend the class, lead sections, have office hours, and grade assignments. The exact responsibilities can vary a bit based on the specific class, but students can self-identify in their application for the GTAship by stating that they are really interested in starting a teaching career. When students notify us of this interest, we give them courses that will give them more opportunities to do more lecturing, more opportunities for running student discussions, and different kinds of higher-level student engagement. Beyond that, we also stay apprised of the kinds of course instructors that community colleges in our area are looking for, and make sure to give our students more teaching opportunities in these subjects.
Additionally, our College of Liberal Arts and Sciences has developed a teaching certificate that our students can achieve over the course of their time here. So when they graduate, they not only have their master’s degree but also a certification indicating that they have teaching experience and have thought deeply about their own pedagogy.
[MastersinCommunications.com] What makes Portland State University’s Master of Science in Communication program unique, and a particularly strong graduate degree option for students? How does the program prepare students for careers in communication research and instruction, as well as roles in industry?
[Dr. Frank] One of the elements that makes us unique is that we work with each of our students individually to ensure that they have the resources and support to explore their academic and career interests to the fullest extent. Secondly, I think that it’s important that we have such a strong cohort model. It’s something that all of our faculty value and we instill this value in our students so that they’re working together with a collaborative mindset throughout the program. And then, most importantly, we train our students extremely well in communication research. They graduate able to go either into a Ph.D. program or any of a variety of different jobs, where they know how to apply advanced skills in research, persuasion, interpersonal communication, political campaigns, strategic communication, and more to roles in medical, governmental, non-profit, corporate, and educational work. The sense of connectedness with and investment in our students endures long after they graduate. We keep in touch with our students, and vice versa. In fact, just today I got an e-mail letting me know that one of our graduate students who finished last year and is now in her first year in a Ph.D. program just got her first journal article accepted based off of her Master’s thesis.
[MastersinCommunications.com] What advice do you have for prospective students in terms of submitting a competitive application for this program?
[Dr. Frank] We are looking for applicants to tailor their application very specifically to our program. We want to know why they want to come here and work with our faculty, and in what areas. I recommend that applicants familiarize themselves with what our graduate faculty study, and what we teach. It also helps if they have an idea that they can express regarding why a master’s degree is right for them. That helps us not only in terms of deciding whether to accept them but also, once they are accepted, to assign them to mentors who will be a good fit and who can give them a tailored experience through the program.
In terms of letters of recommendation, if there is somebody who is fairly recently out of undergraduate program, then we expect that letters of recommendation are from faculty with whom they have a strong relationship. But many of our students are actually coming back after years of working in industry. For those students, we are fine with having letters of recommendation be from the people that they are actually working with at that point. It really helps if those letter-writers can talk a bit about our students’ ability to take constructive criticism, in addition to their writing skills and their strong background of academic or professional performance. One of the things that we really look for is somebody who knows how to be able to take feedback and use that to grow and learn over time.
Thank you, Dr. Frank, for your excellent insight into Portland State University’s Master of Science in Communication program!