About Kristen Olson: Kristen Olson works as a Recruitment Specialist for the College of Health and Human Sciences at Purdue University. Her job entails meeting with prospective students to advise them on the various programs and opportunities the university has to offer. Prior to this position, Ms. Olson held a number of roles in communication and higher education, including Communications Manager at TerraNavigator and Graduate Teaching Assistant in Purdue’s Brian Lamb School of Communication.
Ms. Olson attended Purdue for both her undergraduate and graduate studies. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Human Relations Communication, and graduated from the school’s Masters of Communication program in 2018 with a specialization in Organizational Communication.
[MastersinCommunications.com] May we please have a brief description of your educational and professional background?
[Kristen Olson] I earned both my undergraduate and graduate degrees in communication from Purdue University. My undergraduate studies focused on Interpersonal Communication, while my graduate work looked at Organizational Communication, specifically in workplace settings. Throughout my time as a Purdue student, I completed summer internships in Public Relations, Marketing, and Human Resources, as well as a semester research internship. As a graduate student, I was the primary instructor of seven sections of a presentational speaking course and a teaching assistant for two sections of a television production lab.
After graduating with my Master’s in 2018, I took on a role as the Communications Manager for a renewable energy firm before joining the recruitment team at Purdue in January 2019. My role as the Recruitment Specialist for the College of Health and Human Sciences allows me to utilize my degrees as well as my teaching experience. It combines my love of interpersonal communication with my desire to help develop students into successful undergraduates at Purdue. I typically meet one-on-one with prospective students (often with worried parents in tow) and speak to them about the opportunities available to them in our programs. My role has similarities to academic advising, but I deal primarily with prospective and admitted students rather than current students. On any given day, I am presenting to diverse audiences on campus, attending a variety of Admissions events, or answering inquiries about Medical schools, Nursing programs, Psychology coursework and the like.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Why did you decide to pursue a master’s degree in communication, and why did you ultimately choose the Masters of Communication program at Purdue University?
[Kristen Olson] Although my undergraduate experience was a period of major growth, I felt that I had not deeply explored the areas most attractive to me within the field of communication. And while I loved the higher education atmosphere, I was unsure of where I might find my passion working within it. Though I admired my professors and respected their work, I knew that research and professorship were not the route for me. I settled on a Master’s degree as a means of specializing myself in an area of study and hoped to determine my career path during my graduate work. I also hoped to expand on my leadership and professional skills and confirm my early interest in working with students in some capacity.
As an undergraduate, it was impactful to learn that the areas of interest to me at Purdue had been ranked in the top five in the country at the graduate level. This essentially planted the seed to pursue my Master’s at Purdue, and I was encouraged by my professors to apply to the program. At the Welcome Weekend during the spring of my senior year, I felt the warmth and camaraderie of the current graduate students and started to visualize myself as one of them. Additionally, the department’s focus on teaching excellence was a high point of interest for me and a definite draw to the program.
[MastersinCommunications.com] How is Purdue’s Masters of Communication 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?
[Kristen Olson] The Master’s program in communication at Purdue is structured to provide flexibility to accommodate students’ interests. Within limitations, students are able to specialize their degree to fit their professional or research interests. Aside from your typical directed study option, students can also count an upper-level undergraduate course as part of their curriculum, along with graduate courses in areas outside the department. Additionally, I was able to begin my graduate coursework during my last semester as an undergraduate, which added flexibility to my graduate course load.
Students are required to take a methods course, with the typical first-year student taking quantitative methods. Because of the nature of my thesis project, I also took qualitative methods to help with my analysis. Students take a basic theory course from their area of study (Interpersonal Comm., Organizational Comm., Health Comm., Public Relations, or Media, Technology, & Society) and are able to select other courses to fill out their plan of study (with their advisor’s approval). Students also have a choice of whether to write a thesis or take comprehensive exams. There is technically a third option of completing a project, but it’s rarely chosen.
[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.)?
[Kristen Olson] My experience completing a thesis was this: “If it doesn’t challenge you, it doesn’t change you.” This was an easy lesson to learn and a hard one to appreciate. For my thesis, I undertook a research project on workplace motivation and engagement. I was primarily interested in how employees viewed the purpose of their work and whether beliefs of fulfilling a higher purpose were associated with other measures such as workplace identification. My work involved qualitative analysis of written response data, and I had a truly stellar thesis committee comprised of brilliant and hardworking women who pushed me to examine every thread of potential in my project. Going into my oral defense, it was not a “shoo-in” sort of experience. While I felt that my work had been extremely challenging and my intellectual growth significant, I was not reassured by anyone, “Don’t worry, they’ll pass you regardless.” That’s just not the case at Purdue; exceptional work is the expectation.
My advice to students completing a thesis is to seek out others to ask about their experiences – and do so early on. Choosing a research topic, as well as an advisor, are two of the most important decisions you’ll make during your Master’s program, and students often have to make them within their first two semesters. Gather all the information you can, and learn everything about the process of writing a thesis. Ask second-year Master’s students or PhD students how their thesis topic came about and how it evolved over time. Ask where they made mistakes early in the process as well as later on. Ask what advice they wish they had been given. Ask to read their prospectus and thesis; make comparisons and note how their ideas expanded and shifted. Ask for a rough estimate of the number of iterations their thesis went through (try not to laugh in disbelief!). And always, always write an outline.
[MastersinCommunications.com] What key takeaways, experiences, or connections from Purdue’s graduate communication program have you found to be the most helpful for you in your career path?
[Kristen Olson] I work with students every day, so it goes without saying that every hour of lesson planning, teaching, grading, and responding to student emails has prepared me to excel in this role. Serving as a learning community instructor and as an instructor of an integrated section are just two examples of opportunities that allowed me to grow in my understanding of the undergraduate experience and the scope of the university’s efforts in creating an exceptional environment for students. I wouldn’t trade those experiences for anything.
In my current role, the most valuable part of my Master’s degree is the understanding of graduate work and research that it affords me. Without the experiences I had in my program, I would be ill-equipped to speak about the programs for which I’m meant to be a specialist. My understanding of the undergraduate experience rests heavily on its relation to the graduate experience and expectations; having gone through a challenging program, I can be confident in that knowledge.
The program also developed in me the professional and critical thinking skills that are vital to my success in the workplace. The ability to be adaptable and bounce back from criticism come directly from my thesis experience; everything else I attribute to my time in the classroom in both teaching and learning roles.
[MastersinCommunications.com] What advice would you give students just starting the Masters of Communication program at Purdue University? More broadly, what advice would you give students who are either considering or starting a master’s in communication program, whether it be at Purdue or another university?
[Kristen Olson] Get involved! During my program, I chaired a committee and helped out with various departmental events, but I wish I had found the time to jump into more things. One of the experiences that truly introduced me to the research process was a chance opportunity to transcribe for a research group one semester. You’ll make some amazing memories going to conferences with your friends, but don’t forget to look a little closer to home and see how you can become an active member in your department, as well.
Also, reach out! Looking back on your graduate experience, you won’t want to remember the grueling hours spent in your office or the library. Give yourself a reason to feel nostalgic for those graduate friendships that are unlike any other. During my program, I began an informal “Thesis Support Group” with two other Master’s students. Our Wednesday brunch-time meetings were surprisingly well-structured and highly effective. We committed to meeting for one hour each week to discuss our current stage of prospectus or thesis writing, talk through challenges, share information and advice, and commiserate together. I can’t imagine where I would have been without this group – and it all began with a simple, “I’m grabbing coffee after class. Would you like to come?”
Thank you, Ms. Olson, for your excellent insights on Purdue University’s Masters of Communication program!