About Maddie Holmes: Maddie Holmes is a recent graduate currently pursuing a career in social media marketing. Her background in communication includes internships with both the Indiana chapter of the American Red Cross and an urban ministry, as well as work on a number of consulting projects. As an undergraduate, she held a diverse range of research positions, including working as a confederate in a psychology lab and conducting interviews for anthropological study.
Ms. Holmes attended Purdue University for her undergrad, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in General Communication and Anthropology. She completed her master’s at Purdue as well, graduating from their Masters of Communication program in 2019 with a specialization in Organizational Communication.
[MastersinCommunications.com] May we please have a brief description of your educational and professional background?
[Maddie Holmes] I completed my bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Purdue University. I studied general communication and anthropology as an undergrad (I graduated May 2017), then continued straight through to pursue my MA (I graduated May 2019). I technically belonged to Purdue’s Organizational Communication specialization, but my major area of study was “Nonprofit Consulting, Communication, and Organizations” and my minor area was “Global Engagement.” I took graduate coursework related to organizational communication, but also related to methodology, social media, and consulting. I also took courses in applied anthropology, outside the communication department, since I planned on going into industry.
As an undergraduate, I held four research positions, ranging from working as a confederate in a psychology lab, to conducting in-depth interviews for a project housed in anthropology, to coding for a meta-analysis and creating surveys for projects in the Brian Lamb School of Communication. Professionally, I didn’t start gaining “industry experience” until after I graduated undergrad. I started graduate school thinking I wanted to go into the nonprofit sector, so I worked as the communication intern at a local urban ministry. I was in charge of writing newsletters and translating policy jargon-heavy documents into text that was more readable to a wide audience in hopes of getting my community more politically engaged. Last summer (2018), I was the communication intern for the Indiana chapter of the American Red Cross. I created content for social media, was a contact for the press, and designed and launched a social media campaign. Throughout my master’s program, as coursework or side projects, I completed two consulting projects.
Currently, I have not yet accepted a post-graduation position – I’m taking some time to decompress after finishing my thesis. My thesis was about social media marketing, so I am hoping to obtain a job related to social media strategy. I am also interested in recruitment.
[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?
[Maddie Holmes] In undergrad, I switched majors a lot. I started in psychology, then switched to anthropology, then picked up a communication degree to appease my father who was upset with me for switching to anthropology. Purdue offers five undergraduate communication degrees and I started in PR but learned that it was my communication theory classes that really interested me, and not so much my PR ones. I switched to general communication so I could take more theory courses. I got really involved in research as an undergrad, as well. Then, suddenly, I was approaching senior year and was about to graduate with degrees in anthropology and general communication without the slightest clue as to what I wanted to do with my life. I had almost no industry-related professional experience, but lots of research experience. Grad school seemed like the next logical step. I ultimately chose communication over anthropology because I figured a master’s degree in communication would allow for a lot more career options and could be applied to a lot of fields.
I applied to three other programs: University of Illinois, Rutgers, and University of Colorado. I got accepted to two of these programs and wait-listed at the third. Ultimately, my decision came down to funding, ease of transition, and program type. The Brian Lamb School of Communication is really generous with its funding for graduate students, as well as other benefits like travel and professional development funds and summer funding. I felt that other schools just could not compete, and I didn’t want financial stress on top of other grad school-related stress.
Also, as I mentioned, I was involved in research as an undergrad, and was really close to one of my undergrad professors. I wanted to continue my work on these projects and already knew I worked well with this professor, who was willing to be my advisor. Even though as an undergrad student I spent a lot of time with a research, research, research mindset, I wasn’t sure I wanted to pursue a PhD (I was right) and liked that this professor was knowledgeable about industry and would help me be strategic. I wanted to get out of Indiana but ended up choosing to stay because I wouldn’t have to go through a transition period; I could continue what I was already doing in terms of work and relationships with faculty, in addition to not having to transition into a whole new community/town.
Finally, when I was exploring other schools, I took notice of program size and type. I really liked that Purdue was big enough to have a lot of diversity. Graduate students and faculty both studied a really impressive array of topics. Knowing myself, I figured my interests may change (they did) and I liked that I would have someone to support me through narrative theory and ethnography, as I was initially interested in, or through incredibly quantitative work, which is what I ended up doing. At the same time, the program was small enough that I didn’t need to compete for funding or my advisor’s attention, and I was able to form relationships with a lot of our faculty. I also liked Purdue’s structure, which is a perfect transition into the next question…
[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?
[Maddie Holmes] It is structured, yet un-structured. There are quite a few specific requirements, but I felt that I could really choose what I wanted to do and cater my plan of study to my own needs and interests. I really liked that.
Students in Purdue’s MA program can choose to be thesis-track or to take comprehensive exams. It is my understanding from other students that the department seems to promote and value writing a thesis more, but I didn’t personally feel pressure to do one over the other and my advisor was clear about the pros and cons of each, which were balanced. I chose to write a thesis because it worked best for me and would allow me to develop specific skills for going into industry. Those who choose to do exams must take 36 course credits (12 classes, three each semester) and those who choose to write a thesis must take 24 course credits (eight classes) and 12 research credits (basically unstructured time to develop a prospectus, collect data, and write the thesis). This typically involves taking three classes a semester for the first year, then taking two classes during first semester of second year while writing a prospectus, and writing during the final semester. Some students also would take a summer class to help ease their course load while developing their thesis. Most, if not all, students received the funding to do this.
I really don’t know the requirements for students who took comprehensive exams, but for thesis track students, we were required to take at least one methodology course. (This didn’t count toward our major or minor areas of study, just toward the methodology requirement. We were allowed to take more, but they would count toward our areas of study.) Of our remaining seven courses, four counted toward the major area of study and three counted toward a minor area of study. Purdue’s program has six well-known units of communication (organizational, interpersonal, health, media technology & society, PR, and political). Typically, student’s major area of study is one of these units, but the minor area of study is something a little more personalized. However, as long as it gets approved by the Graduate School, the areas of study can be as specific as you’d like.
There also seems to be a culture of Purdue’s program valuing academia more than industry, with PhDs typically accepting jobs as professors, and MAs being trained to get a PhD. I, however, didn’t feel this was the case. Most of my MA cohort is not continuing onto a PhD program, and most of my coursework was really good at preparing me for a job in industry. There were definitely some very theory heavy courses (Identity in Organizations, for example, was a classic “graduate course” were there were multiple academic readings a week, we discussed the readings, then had a conference style paper or proposal due at the end of the semester). The methodology course I took was also really intense. It was a statistics course, but it set the foundation for being able to read and comprehend methods/results sections.
Other than that, I found courses to be whatever students made them to be. I took advantages of using coursework as professional experience instead of using courses to get a lot of CV lines (which is beneficial for some students, and they definitely are able to do!). For example, I took a social media analytics class, which helped me develop skills to use if I pursue careers related to social media strategy. We definitely learned how to structure a “research paper” around the methods learned in the course and had to write a large final paper, but this class helped not only develop my industry-oriented thesis, it helped put transferable skills on my resume.
I was also able to take two courses outside of communication. I took them in applied anthropology because the classes were based on community-oriented, applied projects. We learned methods of community-based, applied data collection, read about and discussed them, then applied these methods to projects with an actual “client.”
Furthermore, given they have the support of a faculty member, Purdue MA students are also able to count two independent studies toward their required coursework. I wanted more consulting experience, so I found a local organization (an immigration clinic), then developed a study that involved reading about consulting and methods for needs assessments, reviewing proposals written in industry, then conducting an actual needs assessment and creating a proposal for the organization I was partnered with. The other independent study I did was to further develop my research skills. I wanted to conduct a content analysis for my thesis, but didn’t know much about the method, so I was able to practice skills related to that. I was able to do a little practice project, but the project that largely came out of that course was my thesis itself.
[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.)?
[Maddie Holmes] My thesis experience was a stressful mess, but also a unique one! I came into my program already convinced that I wanted to write a thesis involving narrative analysis and teachers at high income vs. low income schools. However, after difficult talks with my advisor (and already writing a prospectus!), decided that I needed to be more strategic and choose a more industry-oriented topic that employers could see value in easily. I chose a hashtag on Twitter, but it was too niche, and I wasn’t able to collect enough data. Finally, the third time was a charm and in December of my third semester, after everyone had already defended their prospectus, I had a thesis topic. Someone who had graduated from my program was working for a startup tech company and expressed that he didn’t know what to do in terms of social media marketing, so my project was born: investigating how startup tech companies use Twitter and what is the most effective. Since I was looking into maybe doing social media-related work, it was a strategic decision.
I used Crunchbase to compile a list of startup tech companies that were a similar size and had active Twitter accounts, then I randomly selected 20. I used Tags6.0 to collect six months of Tweets from each organization, then randomly selected 3,000 of those Tweets. I received a grant to hire research assistants, so they helped me collect data related to higher engagement rates (high engagements rates is what I considered effective Tweeting), then we conducted a content analysis. I hypothesized that using engagement tools like URLs, media, mentions, and hashtags were linked to higher engagement rates and that using two-way, non-promotional communication would also be related to higher engagement. I found that the tools were indeed related to engagement, especially media, mentions, and types of hashtags (using branded ones instead of random words). Interestingly though, I found that the Tweets that were promotional or included news about the organization performed better than non-promotional, “interesting” information that was not about the organization. I suspect that is because people don’t follow startup techs to be entertained, but because they want information about the products they use.
In terms of advice, I would try and secure a topic a little earlier than I did. Given I had an unfortunate experience that involved proposing three different projects, I didn’t defend my prospectus until February, then had just over two months to hire research assistants, collect data, and then analyze the data. I defended on the last possible day and it was STRESSFUL. I had to make revisions (which I learned is normal) and the turn-around time to make sure I deposited on time was really quick. I would also be strategic in terms of your future goals, but also in terms of interests.
I would also encourage future thesis-writers to take courses they are interested in and use those courses to develop a thesis project. A lot of graduate coursework requires you to write a conference style paper or project proposal, which is the perfect opportunity to create the literature review for your prospectus. The coursework will also provide you with the foundational literature of that topic, so it’s a really helpful starting point. Furthermore, it’s totally okay for not all of your literature to be from academic journals. No one told me this! I did a thesis related to marketing, so I cited a lot of research done by marketing companies and it went well!
Finally, writing a thesis isn’t supposed to be easy, but your committee won’t let you defend a project that’s not ready to be defended. Don’t stress the defense!!
[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?
[Maddie Holmes] Honestly, it gave me a career path. I started grad school with absolutely no direction – I was just interested in a ton of different things but had no experience. Despite not being known as an applied program, my graduate coursework at Purdue gave me a lot of transferable skills that make me feel prepared for the job market. It also helped me understand what I like and don’t like. For example, working with social media is fun. Writing copy is not something I particularly enjoy though. Thinking critically about the content of a message and how that performs compared to other types of content, then creating a plan based on that is really interesting though. Working with clients to develop a goal and understand what’s preventing the organization from meeting that goal is something I enjoy, also, and is something coursework (my applied classes and independent study) gave me the skills to do.
It also helped me form connections with organizations, which I used to get internships, which I will use to get a job. Will I write 20+ page papers and conduct APA lit reviews in my future career? Probably not, but the skills I’ve developed as a researcher and thinker have really helped me in terms of professional development.
[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?
[Maddie Holmes] For potential master’s students in general:
- If you can get to NCA (National Communication Association conference), go shop around at the graduate fair. It is really hard to gather reliable or understandable information online about things like funding opportunities, program size, acceptance rates, program structures, etc. I didn’t do this, but having most schools in one place would have made deciding where to apply so much easier for me – I really struggled. Also, don’t be afraid to email faculty you’re interested in working with and ask for information! I found that phone calls or video chatting with faculty and staff at the universities I was looking at was really helpful.
- Once in a program, don’t compare yourself to other people. You might have someone in your cohort who published as an undergrad, you might have someone on a cool, flashy fellowship, you might have someone who was in industry for 10 years, and it’s easy to belittle yourself based on them. Everyone has a different path! You got accepted to a program because they wanted you there and you deserve to be there – do your own thing, at your own pace.
- When finding an advisor, don’t just look at research interests. My advisor and I actually had a pretty small overlap in terms of what we study. Your committee can fill gaps. My advisor was really helpful in terms of things like professional development and industry connections. She also was really hands-on, dealt with my emotional problems, and was willing to meet with me very frequently because that’s what I needed. Our personalities went together well. Consider things like this!
- Finally, this is a big thing that I learned: don’t let “graduate student” become your core identity. My first year, I was just a grad student. When people asked me about myself or what I did, I’d just say I’m in school and list off what I study. I stopped being politically engaged (something important to me) and I didn’t have any hobbies. I just worked and hung out with other communication grad students, and we typically only talked about school! My mental health plummeted. Second year, I was really intentional in terms of spending time with friends, in and out of my program, and not letting my social life be controlled by school. I also gave myself one day a week (usually Saturdays), where I did nothing school-related and focused on myself, whether that involved resting and trash TV, or going to do something fun! Do what you need to do for school, but it’s totally okay to prioritize yourself!
For Purdue students:
- There was a lot of gossip about how Purdue only values academic work and thesis-track students. People also seemed to feel that Purdue didn’t value industry-oriented people or support things like internships. This wasn’t the case for me – they even gave me a grant to take an unpaid internship at a nonprofit! You just need A) an advisor who values industry-oriented students and B) to learn how to advocate for yourself. Ask what opportunities exist. Ask about applied courses. Ask about grants.
- Don’t live on campus! Undergrads are crazy and distracting. Also, it’s more expensive.
- West Lafayette, Indiana is not the most wonderful place in the world, but it does grow on you. Find communities not just associated with Purdue. Explore the town and area. Go to the downtown Lafayette bars and restaurants. I’m really sad about leaving!
Thank you, Ms. Holmes, for your excellent insights on Purdue University’s Masters of Communication program!