About Dr. Mary Worley, Ph.D.: Mary Worley is an Assistant Professor at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, teaching courses in Integrated Strategic Communication, emphasizing public relations and crisis communication. She is also the faculty advisor for the UW-Eau Claire chapter of the Public Relations Student Society of America and the campus liaison for the American Democracy Project. One of her favorite things about teaching is building relationships with students and seeing them thrive both inside and outside of the classroom.
Dr. Worley completed what she calls her “Midwestern tour” and received her BA in Communication from Bethel University in Minnesota, MA in Communication from Illinois State University (ISU), and Ph.D. from the University of Missouri. Her research primarily focuses on crisis communication within contexts of college campus safety and community resilience. Dr. Worley academic background (including interpersonal, political, and strategic communication) provides a foundation for understanding the critical need for collaborative conversations about best practices for safer campuses.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Why did you decide to pursue a master’s degree in communication, and why did you ultimately choose the Master’s in Communication program at Illinois State University?
[Dr. Mary Worley] During my undergraduate career, my academic advisor fueled my passion for teaching by providing me with opportunities as a TA and discussing the path to becoming a professor. It was through this relationship that I learned about Illinois State University’s Master’s program and their unique teaching assistantships. I was drawn to this program because of their emphases in interpersonal and mass media communication. At the time, I knew that my research interests were broad and I wanted to be in a space where I could explore different courses. Although I knew I was interested in pursuing my Ph.D., I wanted to be part of a program that focused on Master’s students and provided career opportunities both inside and outside of academia.
The teaching assistantship at ISU was ultimately what solidified my decision. I wanted the opportunity to have autonomy in the classroom and engage with students in hands-on, creative ways. Unlike many other programs, ISU provides their graduate students with extensive teacher training, resources, and mentorship in order to foster independence and confidence in the classroom. My dream was to become the type of professor I had admired as an undergraduate, and I knew ISU would help bring that dream to life.
[MastersinCommunications.com] How is ISU’s program structured, and what concepts did the program emphasize? What skills and strategies did you learn in your classes, and how did you apply them to course assignments?
[Dr. Mary Worley] ISU offers two options for students: thesis or 39-hour project. The traditional thesis option requires students to complete 32 hours of course credit and develop an original research project under the direction of a thesis advisor and committee. Students are able to conduct their thesis projects from a variety of theoretical and methodological approaches, which allows students a chance to further develop ideas that stem from the classroom. ISU has added a second thesis option, which allows students to produce digital documentaries. The 39-hour project option requires students to take additional hours of coursework and complete a meaningful revision of a seminar project under the direction of a project advisor and committee.
Students in this program are required to take two courses during their first year: COM422 (Proseminar/Communication Theory) and COM497 (Quantitative Research Methods). Not only do these courses provide foundational understanding of the discipline, they give students a unique opportunity to learn with members of their cohort who have different interests. It was in both of these courses that I was able to understand communication through others’ perspectives and explore how our interests overlapped. In addition to these required courses, students are able to take courses focused on interpersonal, intercultural, organizational, instructional, mass media, public relations, and rhetorical communication. Furthermore, ISU offers a variety of methods courses (qualitative and rhetorical) and provides students with opportunities for independent studies and professional practice/internships.
I enjoyed that courses at ISU allowed students to analyze content in a variety of ways. While some courses focused on written analyses and reflection, others engaged students through applied projects. For example, in COM496 (Seminar in Rhetorical Theory, topic focus on the rhetoric of magic) our final course assignment was a written analysis encompassing multiple readings throughout the semester as they applied to a topic of our choosing. I wrote about the phrase “the show must go on,” and stretched myself to think about communication in ways I had never done before. This course was one of the coolest (and most challenging) graduate courses I was able to take at ISU. To contrast, COM492 (Seminar in Communication Theory, topic focus on the pedagogy of civic and political engagement) utilized hands-on group projects throughout the course as a way to apply course concepts to real-world experiences. In this course, my group developed materials to promote the Civic Engagement Fair on campus and get our students and faculty involved. Each of my courses helped me gain confidence in my ability to think outside the box and collaborate with others, skills that are incredibly important outside of the classroom.
[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.)?
[Dr. Mary Worley] The process of developing and completing a thesis requires a lot of discipline and focus, but thankfully, the faculty at ISU are incredibly supportive and engaging. Choosing a research topic and narrowing the scope of your ideas takes time, and ultimately the process looks different for everyone. For me, my primary passion in my Master’s program went beyond course content and I wanted my thesis to align with my passion for teaching. My thesis advisor was my ultimate champion, sharing my passion for social media and technology in the classroom while acting as a steady source of encouragement. The other members of my committee had expertise in communication pedagogy and quantitative data analysis and worked with me to deepen my understanding of theory and analytic procedures.
My thesis explored social media (specifically, Twitter) as an educational tool for the classroom and its effects on social media competence, student motivation, affective learning, and perceptions of instructor immediacy. I was able to implement a series of activities into 10 sections of the basic communication course and collected data from both experimental and control groups to assess group differences. Data were primarily quantitative and provided support for social media as a useful educational tool. Following the completion of my thesis, I presented my work to my committee and other members of our program, including peers and faculty members. I felt very prepared for my oral defense and knew that for me, this experience was also preparing me for my doctoral program. Although I did not pursue this same research topic for my doctoral dissertation, I was incredibly prepared to engage in independent research.
[MastersinCommunications.com] What key takeaways, experiences, or connections from Illinois State’s Master’s in Communication program have you found to be the most helpful for you in your career path?
[Dr. Mary Worley] My most valuable experience from ISU was learning how to integrate my teaching, research, and coursework. During my time at ISU, I was able to learn more about social media and other trending communication technologies while implementing new ideas into the classroom. Additionally, I worked with the American Democracy Project and ISU faculty to host “tweet-ups” on our campus, which engaged students in political discussions with other colleges and universities across the country via Twitter. These experiences allowed me to see my graduate coursework, research interests, and classroom teaching come to life in new ways.
As a professor, I need to keep up with new research and industry trends in order to make necessary adjustments to my courses each semester. Additionally, I need to be willing and able to teach a variety of courses in the discipline, which integrate theory and research. I believe that ISU equipped me with the skills to continue learning about communication beyond the graduate school environment. I am grateful that the ISU faculty inspired me to think independently and creatively as a life-long learner.
[MastersinCommunications.com] What advice would you give students just starting ISU’s Master’s Degree in Communication 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 Illinois State or another university?
[Dr. Mary Worley] My advice for prospective students is to get outside your comfort zone. Whether it is the location of your program, type of assistantship experience, or your research/course topic, you should explore new opportunities. Graduate school is a time to not only grow as a scholar, but as an individual. At programs like ISU, you are immersed in a culture that values making learning a fun and engaging experience. This program connects you with graduate students interested in both academic and industry careers, creating a space where multiple perspectives are valued.
I can say with confidence that my time at Illinois State University shaped who I am as a teacher, scholar, and human being. I was given more opportunities than I thought possible and had encouraging mentors to guide me every step of the way. Go Redbirds!
Thank you, Dr. Worley, for your excellent insights on Illinois State University’s Master’s Degree in Communication program!