About Dr. Nancy Rhodes, Ph.D.: Nancy Rhodes became the Director of Michigan State University’s Master of Arts in Health and Risk Communication program in the fall of 2017. In that role, she is responsible for overseeing all aspects of the program. This includes recruiting top students into the program, ensuring that the curriculum is taught by the most qualified faculty, addressing any programmatic changes, and overseeing the review of applicants for admission. As an Associate Professor, Dr. Rhodes also teaches Mass Communication and Public Health, one of the core courses in the program. Her research focuses on media and interpersonal influences on health risk behaviors of adolescents and young adults. For example, she has published research on how laugh tracks in television comedies can make norms for risky driving more salient, and on how pro-smoking norms can make teenagers more resistant to anti-smoking messages.

Dr. Rhodes earned her Ph.D. in Social Psychology and her M.A. in Clinical Psychology at Texas A&M University, and her B.A. in Psychology at the University of Vermont. Her graduate training focused on processes of persuasion and social influence before her transition to health communication.

Interview Questions

[MastersinCommunications.com] Could you please provide an overview of Michigan State University’s Master of Arts in Health and Risk Communication program, and how it is structured? What topics are covered in the core curriculum, and what are the key learning outcomes students can expect from this program?

[Dr. Rhodes] One of the key features of the HRC-MA is its flexibility. We have a limited number of required courses. These are: communicating health through media campaigns, communicating to diverse populations, epidemiology, and research methods, as well as a choice of courses in science and health journalism or public relations. There is a required 3-hour practicum, which is an applied project in the setting of the student’s choosing. Beyond those required 18 hours of coursework, the remainder of the 33-hour program is comprised of electives. This flexibility in coursework allows the student to build a program that matches their interests and career aspirations. Students take coursework in social sciences, humanities, human medicine, and public health. Decisions about appropriate courses are made in consultation with the students’ advisor.

The core courses provide students with the theoretical and methodological background to understand health risk behavior and mechanisms for behavior change. The elective courses give students the flexibility to dig deeper into theory, or to explore applications of theory into more specialized health contexts, and the practicum offers students the opportunity to apply their skills to address a real-world problem.

[MastersinCommunications.com] This program is offered jointly through the College of Communication Arts and Sciences and the College of Human Medicine. Do students take courses from and utilize resources from both Colleges?

All students take core courses in Communication and Human Medicine. Elective courses can be taken in these colleges, and throughout the University. Formal advising typically takes place within the College of Communication Arts & Sciences, although committee members can come from any college in the university. Informal mentoring and career advising is available from any affiliated faculty, and through the Health and Risk Communication Center, in the College of Communication Arts & Sciences.

[MastersinCommunications.com] For their final graduation requirement, students must complete a comprehensive examination. Could you please elaborate on the required components of the exam, and how students can best prepare for it?

[Dr. Rhodes] Students select an advisory committee after their first semester of coursework. The advisory committee is responsible for structuring the comprehensive exam, and works with the student to ensure the exam covers core course material and material relevant to the students’ career interests. The student has ten days to write the exam after receiving the questions. If the student’s written response is not sufficient to convince the faculty of their mastery of the material, the student will have the opportunity to orally defend their responses.

[MastersinCommunications.com] Students are also required to complete a 3-credit hour practicum during which they complete a project that is tailored to their academic focus. Could we have some examples of the types of practicum settings where students have worked, as well as the kinds of projects students have completed?

[Dr. Rhodes] Students select their practicum site in collaboration with their advisor. This is typically a project that gives students practical experience applying their skills. They might, for example, design a health campaign for a state agency or non-profit. They might evaluate an ongoing campaign, or design new methodologies for an existing evaluation. They might conduct an analysis of existing programs in the state to address a health issue, as formative research to inform the development of the campaign. The range of topics and placements are quite broad, and students in the past have engaged in a wide variety of activities in their practicum. Examples of placements include: Centers for Disease Control, World Health Organization, Michigan Department of Community Health, and Michigan Women’s Commission. Students make applications directly to the agency, and once they are selected, they work with their supervisor at the agency and with their faculty advisor to determine the nature and scope of the practicum project.

[MastersinCommunications.com] What role does faculty mentorship play in Michigan State University’s Master of Arts in Health and Risk 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. Rhodes] Faculty advisors work with students throughout the program. Students are assigned a temporary advisor from the affiliated faculty in the program upon entering the program, and they select their permanent advisor after their first semester of coursework. Faculty provide support for students in selecting their elective courses, in finding placements for practicum experiences, and in discussing career development and potential employment opportunities. There is also a strong network of alumni of the program who are welcoming of students to serve as interns for their practica, and to offer career advice. We maintain a directory of alumni, and make this available to students. We are working to build social media networks of alumni and students to facilitate communication.

[MastersinCommunications.com] What advice do you have for prospective students in terms of submitting a competitive application for Michigan State University’s Master of Arts in Health and Risk Communication program?

[Dr. Rhodes] We have a mix of recent college graduates and working professionals in our program, and we try to offer most courses in the evening to accommodate students who have full-time jobs. Whether applicants are fresh out of college or returning students, a strong application will demonstrate the student’s academic potential, but also, will make a strong statement about the student’s interest in and dedication to a career in Health Communication. In evaluating applications it is helpful to see that the student has taken health-related coursework as an undergraduate (although not necessarily in Communication), and perhaps jobs or volunteer work in the health arena since graduation. Students should express their interest in Health Communication in their personal statement. It is helpful if the student’s references can speak to their interest in health as well. Finally, students should take the GRE well in advance of the admission deadline.

[MastersinCommunications.com] What makes Michigan State University’s Master of Arts in Health and Risk Communication program unique, and a particularly strong graduate degree option for students?

[Dr. Rhodes] HRC-MA graduates get jobs. Because students are able to customize the program to meet their needs, our students have been very successful and building the knowledge and skills they need to be successful. There is an extensive network of alumni who are working in a range of health-related positions in the state of Michigan and beyond. Recent examples are:

  • Governmental agencies at the federal and state level (e.g. CDC Health Communication Specialist for National Center on Birth Defects & Developmental Disabilities; CDC, Campaign Manager for CDC Foundation; State Dept. Health Coordinator for Immunizations; Michigan Office of the Surgeon General, Communications Coordinator)
  • Nonprofit organizations (e.g., Public Relations Specialists for Health Alliance Plan, subsidiary of Henry Ford Health System)
  • For-profit organizations (e.g., Healthcare Software Project Manager for Health Net Connect, Inc.; Project Manager for Jekyll and Hyde Advertising & Marketing; Business Development Administrator for Great Lakes Health Connect)
  • Higher Education (continued for PhD in Health & Risk Communication and now are faculty at 4 year universities or colleges in the United States)
  • Research (CDC Fellow for Division of Healthcare Quality Promotion; Research Assistant with Michigan Public Health Institute Center for Healthy Communities)

Thank you, Dr. Rhodes, for your excellent insight into Michigan State University’s Master of Arts in Health and Risk Communication program!