About Jeremy Pesner: Jeremy Pesner is a technologist, researcher, and policy analyst with a background in computer science and web development. He recently spent a year in Israel working as a Data and Policy Analyst for the nonprofit Start-Up Nation Central, which helps promote and connect Israeli tech startups to the rest of the world. Prior to that, Mr. Pesner worked for the Maryland Department of Human Services, as a Data Analyst in their Office of Innovation. His resume also includes positions at Baltimore Corps, International Connector, and GSA.
Mr. Pesner attended Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania for his undergrad, earning a bachelor’s degree in Computer Science. In 2013, he completed his master’s through the Master of Arts in Communication, Culture, and Technology (CCT) program at Georgetown University.
[MastersinCommunications.com] May we please have a brief description of your educational and professional background?
[Jeremy Pesner] I earned my Bachelor’s in Computer Science at Dickinson College in 2009, and began my time at CCT two years after that before graduating in 2013. While at CCT, I took a variety of courses, many of which focused on technology, TA’ed for two classes at the intersection of technology and society, published research on the policy actors involved in the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), served on the committee for a student-run academic conference that my program participates in and wrote a thesis on the National Information Infrastructure, the series of policy initiatives championed by the Clinton administration that helped bring the Internet into widespread use in the 90s.
Since the program, I have worked several jobs in several locations. I worked at the US General Services Administration for a time, focusing on technology governance and project management. I then moved to Baltimore, where I worked for a local government agency while learning how to write code for data analysis. Most recently, I spent a year in Israel working for a nonprofit called Start-Up Nation Central. This organization researches and promotes Israeli tech startups to the rest of the world. I was on the research team, using the data analysis skills I had learned previously to compute statistics and produce graphs to communicate details and trends in the Israeli startup ecosystem. Since then, I have been busy applying for PhD programs. I enjoyed my research while at CCT, and always wanted to leave the door open to pursue that further. At this point, I feel confident enough in my skills and experience to take this next step forward.
I have been involved with several fellowships and communities that have added to my work and given me additional perspectives on topics like social entrepreneurship, racial equity and Jewish history. These include the StartingBloc Fellowship, the Hive Global Leaders Fellowship, the PresenTense Fellowship, the Baltimore Corps Fellowship and the Israel Government Fellowship.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Why did you decide to pursue a master’s degree in communication, and why did you ultimately choose the Master of Arts in Communication, Culture, and Technology (CCT) program at Georgetown University?
[Jeremy Pesner] After two years in the workforce following college, I felt myself becoming stuck. I did not want to be a software engineer – the role that my undergraduate degree had trained me for – but instead to work at the intersection of people and technology. I needed to develop additional skills and understand new perspectives on the role of technology in our society, but wasn’t certain what specific job I wanted. I had felt limited in my undergraduate major, which wasn’t structured for me to seek and combine knowledge from various disciplines. So I was hesitant to pursue a graduate degree focused within another single discipline, for fear of being similarly constrained.
With all those criteria, I didn’t imagine that I would find one program that could check all of those boxes. Luckily, not only did I find it, but was actually invited to apply by a particular professor I had met and struck up a connection with. CCT is very technology-focused – it’s in the name, after all – and was founded a little over 20 years ago, just as the Internet was becoming integrated into broad society. The founder foresaw the profound effect it would have on every aspect of our society, and knew that an interdisciplinary approach would be required to understand these effects. So the program has faculty that come from all sorts of perspectives, including critical theory, media studies, interaction design, law, policy and more. These faculty also understand that the jobs of the future will not be like the jobs of the past, so they encourage students to experiment and try different courses and subjects in order to find what most resonates for them. CCT was a great choice because it does not impose old academic structures on the study of these new phenomena.
[MastersinCommunications.com] How is Georgetown’s CCT program structured, and what concepts did the program emphasize?
[Jeremy Pesner] CCT is a Master’s-only program, meaning that there is no undergraduate or doctoral component. All faculty are fully available to any student, and all students are in the same tier. This helps everyone to focus their efforts on producing meaningful work – whatever that is for a particular student – in a short 2-3 year timeframe. CCT also places a lot of trust in students to determine what that meaningful work is. There are only two required courses in the program: Introduction to CCT and Fundamentals of Technology. The other eleven courses are electives, and there are very few restrictions on what can be chosen. Each student must take at least one research methods course, and if they elect to write a thesis, that stands in for two courses. Otherwise, students can take any course within CCT, and can even take courses in other departments at Georgetown and neighboring universities provided that they meet CCT’s broad learning goals. I myself wrote a thesis, took one course from another Georgetown department, two courses from two different departments at two different nearby universities and one independent study. So I actually only took five CCT electives, two of which focused on research methods.
CCT’s learning goals include five broad concepts: technology, interdisciplinary problem-solving, theory to practice, methodology and thematic foci. The first required course emphasizes this by prompting students to explore what the CCT faculty are interested in and to connect available courses to their own interests and ambitions. The second required course teaches how technology physically works, as well as its role in society, in a very detailed and structured manner, so that even non-technical students will have some understanding of technology on a deeper level. But since the majority of courses are chosen by the student, CCT students can, and often do, have wildly different classes, projects and overall experiences. They put the learning goals together in unique ways, and have researched nearly any technology-related topic one can think of, ranging from social media analytics to new collaborative technologies to spectrum policy to interface design, and much more.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Could you please describe your experience completing your thesis? What was your primary research inquiry, and how did you decide upon it? Could you describe the process you undertook to research your topic and form your final conclusions? What advice do you have for students in terms of completing their thesis (i.e. determining a research topic of appropriate scope, conducting thorough research and analysis, and crafting a strong presentation, etc.)?
[Jeremy Pesner] I decided to write a thesis early on in my first semester. My undergraduate thesis/project did not go well, so I was eager to use this opportunity to conduct research that was more inherently interesting to me, and that I could pursue with more flexibility. I was inspired by a particular presentation I saw when attending a conference, and went to a professor whose class I was in with the idea. She was also excited by the idea, and when I left her office I realized I had just come up with a thesis topic and selected an advisor. Since my topic was so broad, she helped me narrow it down, and eventually we settled on studying the National Information Infrastructure. Both she and one of my other professors had been working in the government on technology issues at that time, so they were both very close to the subject and were able to connect me with people and resources.
On my advisor’s advice, I took a research methods course in my second semester called Grounded Theory. Essentially, it’s a way to derive a particular “theory” of a social phenomenon based on interviews and archival research. Unlike many theories in sociology, this method is data-driven. I had never done qualitative research before, so the course definitely stretched me outside of my comfort zone, but this course taught me how to code interviews and archival research, group them into categories, and ultimately come up with a theory. I undertook a research project around the Stop Online Piracy Act, and was even able to publish the results in my program’s journal.
With that methodology in hand, I set about applying it to the National Information Infrastructure. It was a daunting task, as I had to read many books and go down a lot of rabbit holes to find the myriad of papers and information that had been written about it. One of the most surprising turn of events was when one of my professors discovered that a professor at another university had donated about 15 boxes worth of material related to the National Information Infrastructure to the Drexel library. Before too long, I found myself in Philadelphia, reading through piles and piles of papers and working with the archives staff to carefully make copies I could take with me. In fact, I ended up spending so much time on the reading and archival research that I didn’t allocate enough time to fully analyze the interviews of the various policymakers and academics who had been involved with the process. As a result, I definitely rushed my thesis near the end, and my committee could tell. But nonetheless, I did write over 100 pages of carefully-researched information, and was able to get the opinions and insights of many people who were involved. My defense was a pretty routine affair – the committee knew my research and didn’t ask any questions I wasn’t prepared for. While I didn’t pass my thesis with distinction, I still wrote something that I’m very proud of.
My advice for students considering a thesis is to plan out what you’ll do a little more thoroughly than I did. It was more of a challenge than I anticipated that my thesis advisor actually lacked experience in the research methodology I was using – in retrospect, it may have been more useful for the “methods” professor to be my main advisor, with the other as a secondary. I’d also remind students that a thesis has much more value than just the skills and knowledge you learn from writing it. I don’t anticipate using this methodology or studying this particular policy initiative again, but in the process of doing it, I proved to myself that I could dedicate nearly a year of my life to this kind of intense work, and could go from knowing nothing about this subject to becoming a lay expert in it. Demonstrating that kind of grit and determination is essential for long-term projects of all kinds.
[MastersinCommunications.com] What were some of your favorite courses? What skills and strategies did you learn in these classes, and how did you apply them to course assignments? What key takeaways, experiences, or connections from the CCT program have you found to be the most helpful for you in your career path?
[Jeremy Pesner] One of the best things about my education at CCT was that most of the courses I took were in subjects I didn’t even know existed before. Many programs will have a set of core courses, many of which I’d imagine are common across programs of similar types. But thanks to educational advancements like MOOCs, those types of standard courses are easier to take online, so it makes more sense to spend time and money taking other kinds of courses. With that in mind, I made a point of choosing courses that were less common and could help me stand out. In what other Master’s program could I take courses in subjects as varied as knowledge management, Internet governance, futures studies, national innovation systems, and agent-based modeling? Each course taught me how to think about different concepts in different ways, and since many were taught by adjunct professors, I knew this was material that they found useful to their work outside of academia. Most of the assignments I turned in were writing, whether in the form of posts on a class blog, more traditional research papers or the results of group projects, and in some cases I also gave presentations. A couple of my courses were more coding-oriented, so I did some programming as well. I was relieved to find that most professors were fairly lenient with due dates, so if I was late with turning in an assignment, it didn’t count against me on my final grade.
While I certainly appreciate the intellectual and innovative value that this type of non-traditional, interdisciplinary degree provides, it’s not always easy when navigating the job market. Many employers are used to seeing specific types of degrees and other activities on a resume when hiring for a position, so it becomes critical to learn how to “brand” oneself when putting “Communication, Culture & Technology” on one’s resume. Luckily, one core professor teaches a course in doing just that for graduating students who are job seeking. She was unfortunately not able to teach it during my final semester, but luckily the program coordinator ran a series of seminars instead, and I was able to use those to practice how to talk about myself and even make an informal website for myself where I could advertise my background, interests and capabilities. In the years since I’ve graduated, the administration has done more in this regard, setting up an internship/jobs listserv, inviting employers to the program and even setting up “tech trips” around DC and San Francisco. It may take some concentrated effort for CCT students to define themselves, but they get the unique opportunity to make themselves into whatever they want to be.
[MastersinCommunications.com] What advice would you give students just starting Georgetown University’s Master of Arts in Communication, Culture, and Technology program? More broadly, what advice would you give students who are either considering or starting a master’s in communication program, whether it be at Georgetown or another university?
[Jeremy Pesner] Like most things in life, a balance is required. As a student, you should have some degree of focus when you enter the program – it’s not so helpful to just take random courses with no sense of how they might relate to you beyond a surface-level interest. But you should also not be so rigid that you miss other courses and opportunities that you wouldn’t have even considered being relevant to you. It’s best to be proactive and ask other students, administrators and faculty about these kinds of opportunities: I actually just recently learned of a particular course that was being taught in a different Georgetown department while I was there. But since I didn’t know that such a course was taught, I didn’t know to search for it or ask anyone about it. On the flip side, while in CCT, I once went to an event in DC where a presenter was an adjunct professor at yet another Georgetown department. When I was seeking courses to take, I remembered him, looked up his course and discovered that the first class was that evening. So I went to the classroom, introduced myself and was able to join. Now he’s writing one of my recommendations. Seeking help and advice about these kinds of questions can end up doing a lot to shape your education experience.
Broad fields like communication require a lot from a student. Some programs will spoon-feed students all of their courses and exactly what they need to know in order to graduate. For some students and career options, that makes complete sense. But in this case, we’re often at the cutting edge of questions about how people, technology and society function. No one has The Answer, so a student is as capable as anyone else of exploring, learning and synthesizing material as anyone else. Students should be prepared to take risks, learn fields and methodologies that are unfamiliar to them and come up with creative and innovative solutions to problems that are still in the process of being understood. Students who are not afraid to jump headlong into a messy field like this and create their own boundaries will do just fine.
Thank you, Mr. Pesner, for your excellent insights on Georgetown University’s Master of Arts in Communication, Culture, and Technology program!