About Randall Edward Iden, Ph.D.: Randall Edward Iden is a Lecturer and the Faculty Director of the Master of Science in Communication (MSC) program at Northwestern University. As Director, Dr. Iden oversees curriculum development, extracurricular programming, and recruitment and admissions for both the Custom Leadership Program (CLP) and the Hybrid Leadership Program (HLP). He also advises students in the program, manages alumni relations, and teaches courses in strategic communication management, public speaking, and corporate citizenship. In addition, he serves as the primary liaison between the School of Communication and the Department of Communication Studies.

Dr. Iden is a graduate of Northwestern University’s Master of Science in Communication program, and stayed on at Northwestern University to complete his Ph.D. in Rhetoric and Public Culture. His experiences as student, teacher, and Faculty Director of the program have given him a multi-faceted view of the MSC program, which in turn have helped him and his colleagues to continue to improve the program and adapt it to changes in the communication industry. He also holds a JD from the University of Pennsylvania and a Bachelor of Arts in History from Haverford College.

Interview Questions

[MastersinCommunications.com] Could you please provide an overview of Northwestern University’s Master of Science in Communication, and how it is structured? Could you elaborate on the Custom Leadership Program and the Hybrid Leadership Program, and how they are distinct?

[Dr. Iden] Northwestern University’s Master of Science in Communication is one of the oldest professional programs of communication in the country. It was initially thought of as more of an executive program which would allow people with management backgrounds in all different areas, so people who work in communication but also people who work in other industries, to build their skills in leadership through communication. It focused mainly on organizational communication and empowering people to become better communicators.

And the theory going in was that communication is a really important part of what made organizations thrive, and at that time, that wasn’t an idea that was very well publicized or accepted. There were a lot of other aspects of business acumen that people cared about, but as a society and particularly in business leadership we didn’t think much about communication and what has now, in the last several years, been called “soft skills.” So, that was really the insight that started the MSC program: the idea that working people could really benefit from a course sequence devoted to communication and its role in organizational efficacy.

In recent years, communication has gotten more attention as a means of improving and streamlining organizational practices and achieving key business goals. And we have held fairly closely to the basics of our curriculum throughout that whole time, even as we have made major changes as well to keep up with the technological pace of what is involved in modern communication, as well as some of the other ways that the workplace has changed, from the kinds of pressures that are being put on employees moving from organization to organization, to those that employees experiencing organizational changes in their current workplace face.

The three curricular themes that we focus on are Collaborative Leadership, Managing Complexity, and Elegant Communication, and each of those themes is woven into the different classes, so that they combine to teach people how to work and communicate as leaders. And one of the things that is important to understand is that leadership is not just of the people that you supervise; rather, leadership is something that can happen wherever you are in an organization–so you can lead up as well as down, and you can certainly lead across.

Collaborate Leadership is the idea that being a leader is really about being able to bridge the gaps between people and organizational silos, more than it is about directing someone to do something or reviewing their work. Managing Complexity has to do with the fact that all of us are dealing with a more complex world, technologically and socially, considering the aspects of diversity and so forth, and that being able to deal with a difficult situation and to not only find solutions but also be able to implement those solutions is a requirement. Leadership requires you to have really strong communication skills to be able to understand how you can frame a decision so that it gets buy-in from all of the people in the organization.

Elegant Communication concerns how to optimize the transferring of important information, and the changing nature of what that means. It also concerns how the kinds of messages that we create and send say something about us. There is a distinction between the kinds of messages that are persistent, and those that are ephemeral or just have an impact in the moment. One of the things that we examine in our program in particular is the idea of strategic communication, or the idea that an organization’s mission, vision, or brand should infuse every type of communication, from daily communications to the most important communications–all need to be woven together with those same strands in order to have institutional integrity.

[MastersinCommunications.com] Could you elaborate on the differences between the Custom Leadership Program and the Hybrid Leadership Program? What online technologies does Northwestern University use to facilitate students’ interactions with course faculty and peers in the Hybrid Leadership Program?

[Dr. Iden] The Custom Leadership program has changed a lot over the years, but over the last several years it has evolved into an all-day Saturday program, where students take two classes over the course of the day, and so therefore two classes per term. To participate in this program, you need to be here every Saturday for the whole day. Three years ago we developed the Hybrid Leadership program, which is a partially online program primarily aimed at more senior managers. We wanted people in that program to have about ten years or more of experience in management. We recognized that online education is becoming more common and even demanded by a lot of students, but we didn’t want to lose what we felt are the most important things about our program, which is the cohort experience, the bonding and identity that develops through the program.

One of the things that’s always been a highlight of the Custom Leadership program is what you learn from the other people who are in the program, and we didn’t want to lose that. So, for the Hybrid Leadership Program, we set it up so that the bulk of the classes are taken online, but they come to campus four times over the course of the program. For each of these visits, students come for a whole weekend, usually 3 1/2 days of programming, and we find that that gives us the opportunity to do more interactive education, the kinds of things that can’t really be done online. It also gives students the chance to interact with each other, which makes their online experience that much richer. The fact that they know each other personally, the fact that they’ve spent time together and been through fairly intense activities together means that they have a lot more in common when it comes to trying to understand a problem in a team within an online class.

We think our combination of offering the Custom Leadership and Hybrid Leadership programs gives us the best of both worlds–the ability to attract students from a wider geographic range who have a wider range of experiences. We’ve had students in that program from California and the Pacific Northwest, all the way to New York, Boston, and Florida. So, basically the four corners of the country are able to participate in the program, which gives us tremendous opportunity to attract great students and gives people the opportunity to come to Northwestern who might otherwise not be able to.

The technology that we use for the Hybrid Leadership Program are all the state of the art online learning management programs. We use Blue Jeans, which is the conferencing program that allows students to have live discussions. We use Arc for video, and we have a whole bunch of different applications to increase students’ engagement with the course content as well as their peers and faculty. What we’ve really worked to do is try to make our online classes as innovative and up-to-date as possible, and to make students’ experience as rich as it can be.

For the Hybrid Leadership Program, one of the things that we offer is the opportunity for students to receive structured feedback about their professional communication in the form of an external review. This review is based on the idea that, as a manager, you are sometimes not really aware of how you are perceived in your different roles. We gather this data for students so that they learn what their communication strengths and weaknesses are. They are then able to apply these insights to their interactions with their direct reports, as well as the people they work with laterally and their own managers/supervisors. We have a dedicated career services professional on staff, and she is in charge of these reviews.

She puts this all together in a report that helps people to understand their communication style and management style—the things that they’re doing really well, the things that they might need to work on a little bit more. So, it ends up giving the student, relatively early in the program, a sense of the kinds of things that they might want to work on. That is one of the real innovations that we have developed over the course of the program’s history.

When the program first started, it was really designed in an era when there were big companies and many of them would pay for their employees to come to work with us. You wanted to stay away from anything that had to do with career development because the companies would be worried that you’d be training their employees to leave. The way things are now, we all have to be training ourselves, at all times. We all have to be aware of who we are. And so, being able to offer such sophisticated career advice has been invaluable to our students, and it doesn’t necessarily mean that people change jobs. Most people end up staying in the same job they were in when they came into the program, but we are all developing in our career, and so we really think that it’s important that a professional graduate program really allows you to focus on the direction you want your career to be going.

One of the things that’s been really exciting over the past, two or three years is we have really ramped up our co-curricular programming, to the point where we now have programs available almost every week for the CLP. We have programs available for the HLP, either when they’re here for their in-residence programs or from wherever they are. Some of that is individual counseling, career development, resume development, or pushing the idea of value propositions to be able to understand how your skills could be defined and communicated in ways that go beyond the traditional resume structure.

We have panels that come to talk about, different careers, such as change management careers or recruiting or tech-focused careers. We have one event that’s been really popular where we have somebody who is a consultant come in and talk about developing your personal brand. And we now also have on staff two dedicated design professionals to help people with understanding the way graphic design fits in with personal brand development, as well as communication skills that you would use professionally. There is really a wealth of things that we have had going on, and the students have this opportunity to really embrace the things that are most useful to them in addition to the actual in class learning.

[MastersinCommunications.com] For their final graduation requirement, students of both the Custom Leadership Program and the Hybrid Leadership Program complete a Capstone Project. Could you elaborate on this project, and what it entails?

[Dr. Iden] The idea of the capstone is that because our students are working full time, we can’t really expect them to be able to complete, for example, a thesis, but what we want to do is to be able to give students the chance to customize the program to what they’re interested in, as well as produce some work that they can use to show future potential employees or current employers or friends and family what they have been able to achieve through our program.

One of the things that we’re really proud of is how we are a graduate program with true academic rigor and industry relevance—we strike that balance very well. It’s not a participation program or a certificate program, and the capstone gives us the opportunity to show that the students coming into this program are doing real academic reading. For their portfolio, they keep a bibliography of what they’ve read which shows that they’re learning how to read these texts, to interact with them, and rely on sound evidence to make decisions, and to use effective communication to influence other people to move forward.

Students of both the HLP and the CLP must complete a three-part capstone project. The first two components of the project are the same for students in both programs—i.e. an e-portfolio and a value proposition video. The third component is different for CLP and HLP students—the former must complete a case study investigation, while the latter complete either a communication assessment or a training package.

So the first component of their final graduation requirement is the e-portfolio, and within that students have a lot of flexibility to organize the content of the portfolio in a way that is most useful to them. It ends up being a really nice calling card that you can show potential and current employers.

Students are also required do to a value proposition video. This achieves several different objectives. Firstly, it gives people the chance to think about what their value is and to express it succinctly yet eloquently. For most of us, when we write our resume, our value only comes across through what we’re able to write down about our job titles and tasks or responsibilities, and for most people – for everybody – that is not the sum of who you are.

A value proposition video allows you to pull out the issues of character, personality, and outside interests that show a more rounded version of what your value would be to a different organization or group of people. Your value proposition is relevant to a career change, but is also relevant to lifestyle changes, and leading the kind of life you want to live. It gives people the chance to think about their strengths, their core motivations, and the best words and media to communicate these aspects of their identity.

At the same time that students are doing this self-inquiry and exploration, they are also learning how to translate their identity and values into visual rhetoric, and working with new communication technologies. They learn how to design and record short videos and the interdisciplinary skills involved with that process. We have people who help with the on-camera skills, and host workshops that cover what it means to be on camera and what’s the best way to present yourself on camera. We talk about the formation of an effective short presentation, and the kinds of things do you need to do there. The value proposition video gives you the chance to practice a different style of presentation, and it also allows you to think differently about who you are and how you want to communicate that to other people in a variety of circumstances.

There is a third component that is different for CLP students and HLP students. Let me talk about the CLP component first. In the CLP the students have a choice between two options. The first is they can complete a case interview, which is where they are given a fully formed business case that focuses on concepts covered in our curriculum, and they get 24 hours to put together a presentation advising on whatever the subject of the case study is. That gives them a chance to both demonstrate their knowledge of the topics that they’ve learned in the class, and gives them a chance to prepare for a formal presentation in a relatively compressed period of time. Students come in and they give their presentation to a group of people, including faculty, staff, and industry experts. We bring in alumni who come in to also listen to those. And the best part of that is the students get live feedback. So, they give the presentation, they go out of the room and we discuss it and they come back and they will actually get real-time feedback on the kind of presentation they did.

And one of the things that I think students are really craving and not finding in the workplace is feedback, so this option has been really popular—it’s not always popular to hear, but constructive feedback is really useful for people, and gives them a chance to think about the ways that their presentation styles, their ideas, and so forth, are coming across. All of their presentations are taped, so they have the opportunity to watch the tape, to look at the feedback and to think about what kinds of presentations they want to make in the future.

CLP students also have the option to complete a case study of their own organization/place of employment. This one is less common than the option where we give students the complete scenario, as that option requires the least amount of preparation work and for people who are busy, that’s sometimes a real consideration. But for some students who want to do more, we give them the opportunity to do either a case development for a real company or organization. Students usually work with their place of full-time employment, but they can also complete the assignment with an organization with which they have worked as a volunteer, or have other kind of personal involvement with, and they are able to then look at a communication issue and write up a case study on it.

That takes more work, but the students who do that have done some incredible work, trying to understand the way particular styles of communication or particular formats of communication work in different settings. It is fascinating, and we’ve had students examine really important, relevant issues, such as how to improve employee engagement. We’ve had some research projects come out of this option that were ultimately publishable, and seeing students grow and synthesize all of what they have learned in the program is a really fun element of it.

For the HLP, again because our students are coming in with a little bit more management experience and because many of them are looking for problems that they can solve in their existing organization, we give them the choice of two somewhat more involved projects. One is a strategic communication assessment. The other is a training and development package. In both cases, the idea is that they can use whatever they develop in that project, either in their current job, in a new job, or as part of a career change. As much as possible, we want those projects to be really useful for the students. They work with real situations, and real data. We’re trying to get them to see how the concepts, methods, and skills that they learned in their classes can be implemented to make sound decisions with real qualitative and quantitative data.

Students take that data, apply particular kinds of theoretical lenses to it, and then they develop and present recommendations that can be used to make organizations’ communication streams work better, and to find better ways to train or support employees and/or other stakeholders.

One of the things we really stress in our program is the ability to think of training as a communicative activity, so that students are not simply putting information out and expecting the audience to understand what they are saying, but instead are really thinking about, “If you want to transfer information from one place to another, or if you want to create habits of behavior in an organization, what are the kinds of steps that you need to take to make sure that it works? How do you make training more of an interactive, engaging, and therefore informative experience?” Seeing students grapple with these questions in different ways has been really fascinating, and I think students, get a lot out of doing so. In some cases, they get something that is immediately applicable to their current jobs. In other cases, it gives them a chance to practice something that they might be interested in doing either in their current organization or somewhere else.

[MastersinCommunications.com] What role does faculty mentorship play in Northwestern University’s Master of Science in Communication program? Independent of faculty instruction and support, what career development resources and academic services are available to students, and how can students make the most of these mentorship opportunities and support systems while in the program?

[Dr. Iden] We have multiple formal and informal advising avenues for our students. We have a staff member whose primary job is as academic advisor—she has a PhD in Education and Curriculum Design, and she helps students make choices about what classes they want to take, and supports them through any sort of academic struggles they might encounter. On top of that, students have access to all faculty members who serve as advisors for them in classes and outside of them.

The bulk of our faculty, our regular Northwestern Communication Studies professors, have taught in this program for a long time, and therefore they have a lot of resources and connections for students. Students also serve as resources for one another in both the CLP and HLP. In the three electives classes they take, students meet in classes of 20 or fewer, and they develop much closer relationships with faculty and classmates alike. Faculty are able to give each student individualized attention, both during classes and during office hours.

[MastersinCommunications.com] For students interested in Northwestern University’s Master of Science in Communication program, what advice do you have for submitting a competitive application?

[Dr. Iden] I believe one of the strengths of our program is that we have such a diverse student body in the Custom Leadership program. We have students who are recent to the industry, all the way up to senior management. And this diversity lends a richness to all students’ experiences in that they get the opportunity to speak with people who have had vastly different experiences than they have had in industry. For example, we recently had somebody who was a C suite manager of one of the largest banks in Chicago, and they worked alongside students who were recently out of undergrad.

The HLP has mostly been more senior managers, and we are working on finding ways to get more middle level managers– people with three to seven years of experience or three to eight years of experience–into the HLP as well. But traditionally, we ask for ten years of experience minimum for the HLP.

For students applying to either program, I would advise them to think very carefully about how communication affects their ability to do their jobs, to advance in their careers, to understand and take on bigger opportunities. We’re really looking for students who are dynamic, who are change-oriented, who are curious. Our program gives you an opportunity to be exposed to important concepts, while at the same time, staying in your current job and to be able to complete a master’s program in less than a year. So, I guess my encouragement would be if any of that sounds good, please contact us.

The application is the same for both programs, and then you just specify which one of the programs you’re interested. We’ve definitely had students who have applied to both and, and in those cases we can work with them to show the pros and cons and which program we think would be best for them.

[MastersinCommunications.com] What makes Northwestern University’s Master of Science in Communication program unique, and a particularly strong graduate degree option for students?

[Dr. Iden] What makes our program excellent is that you’re able to enter a part-time program while getting the full-time benefits. We have structured the program to maximize your learning, given the understanding that all of our students also have professional and personal/familial responsibilities. We have a program that has worked for a long time, has been tweaked and changed, and has a history of success. We have found that people have been able to make successful career transitions and advancements coming out of our program.

One of our most active alumni is famous for saying that there’s not a day that doesn’t go by that he doesn’t use something he learned in the MSC program. We have people who come from those classes, graduating in the 80’s, who can still remember particular kinds of advice or particular kinds of learning that they got in the program. Our program has a proven track record of being transformative.

We’ve been really pleased with the fact that in both the CLP and HLP cohorts that we’ve had, they have forged very close friendships, both in terms of professional networking and on a personal level. I think that that’s one of the real strengths of the program is that in both cases, and certainly compared with an online program, the relationships that you’re going to make with your instructors and with the other students are much, much stronger in our program, even compared to other live programs. The track record has been that people really forge very close relationships that are as important as anything they learned. And I believe that one of the reasons that our program excels where others do not is that the interactions between students, staff, and faculty are designed to create a sense of involvement and bonding which I think is beyond the range of a lot of other programs.

[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. Iden] It sounds counterintuitive, but making the most of our program definitely involves being respectful of your time, and making sure that you don’t give up any of the important spheres of your life. You’ve got to be able to keep up with whatever your responsibilities at work are. You have to be able to keep up with your family, and you have to be able to keep up with a fairly heavy academic workload.

My advice is to not panic, to remember that, especially in our program, you have resources to help you. And I think my biggest piece of advice, and the advice that I always give to students in my class, is make use of your synergies. By which I mean, if you are doing a project at work that’s really difficult, find a way to use that to write one of your papers. You may be able to use the classwork to make your project better, and the fact that you have a real industry problem or project at work that’s on your mind is going to make your theoretical thinking that much better because you are applying it to a real situation.

And one of the things that I love about teaching an MSC program is the fact that all of our students have a frame of reference that grounds their study. When you teach undergraduates and you teach them a theory and you talk about the contingencies of that theory—i.e. what’s going to happen based on the circumstances you’re talking about—they don’t have any frame of reference generally for what that means.

But our students always have a frame of reference, and so if you tell them that a particular kind of team formation works best, they have a team, they can try it out, they can see if it works best, or they have an experience with teams that tells them what works best. Being able to design the program in your own way so that it focuses on the things that you’re most concerned with, including the things that are happening at your job, is the best way to maximize your resources as you go through the program.

The other key piece of advice I have is, pay attention to the other students. One of the nicest things about our program, and going back to school, is that you get to meet like-minded people from different places and different industries and different situations. All of that is going to give you ideas and make you better. So, to the extent that your schedule allows, engage with the social aspect of the program. For example, often students go out and have a beer after class on Saturdays. We have lunch as part of our program; sit near somebody else and listen to their stories. Make this as much of an exploratory year as you can, and you’ll never know exactly where the insights are going to come that make the biggest difference; leave yourself open to that.

Thank you, Dr. Iden, for your excellent insight into Northwestern University’s Master of Science in Communication program!