About Kaitlin Phillips, Ph.D.: Kaitlin Phillips is an Assistant Professor of Communication Studies at Utah State University. Working in USU’s Languages, Philosophy, and Communication Studies department, she conducts research in the area of Family, Interpersonal, and Intergroup Communication, as well as teaches courses in Interpersonal and Family Communication. Dr. Phillips and her work have been featured in a variety of communication journals, and received top awards from the National Communication Association and Central States Communication Association.
Dr. Phillips holds a Ph.D. in Communication Studies from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with an emphasis in Interpersonal, Family, and Intergroup Communication. She completed both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Texas Christian University, graduating from their Master of Science in Communication Studies program in 2013.
[MastersinCommunications.com] May we please have a brief description of your educational and professional background?
[Dr. Kaitlin Phillips] I started my education journey at a community college, where I earned an associate degree. After completing my associate degree, I transferred to Texas Christian University (TCU). During my time at TCU, I completed a Bachelor of Science in Communication Studies and a Master of Science in Communication Studies. Finally, I completed a Doctor of Philosophy in Communication Studies, with an emphasis in Interpersonal, Family, and Intergroup Communication from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL). During my time at UNL, I received the Presidential Fellowship, which is a University of Nebraska system-wide fellowship that is only awarded to a handful of graduate students each year. It gave me a year where I was able to focus on my research without having to teach.
My first job after graduating from UNL was a Postdoctoral Teaching position in the Languages, Philosophy, and Communication Studies (LPSC) Department at Utah State University (USU). I just completed my one-year position as a post-doc, and then I was offered an Assistant Professor position in Communication Studies at USU. This summer, I officially started my position as an Assistant Professor. My current role includes research, teaching, and service. I conduct research in the area of family, interpersonal, and intergroup communication, which intersects with my teaching. This fall, I will be teaching an interpersonal communication class and a family communication class. Service involves a variety of areas, specifically being involved at the department, college, university, and discipline level.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Why did you decide to pursue a master’s degree in communication, and why did you ultimately choose the Master of Science in Communication Studies program at Texas Christian University?
[Dr. Kaitlin Phillips] I love TCU’s program, and I was extremely happy with my decision to go there for my B.S. In fact, the faculty at TCU were instrumental in my decision to go to graduate school. Many of the faculty there will tell you I talked openly about wanting to go to another program for my Master’s, that I wanted experience in another program, and they helped me craft my list of places to apply. Dr. Paul Witt told me I needed to consider the Program, the People, and the Place. These were words I considered both when deciding on a Master’s program and a Ph.D. program. I was accepted at multiple programs, wonderful programs with excellent faculty. As I went and visited the other programs and thought about who I would work with, and what I wanted to research, TCU kept calling my name. Eventually I had it narrowed down to TCU and one other program. Both programs were amazing options, and I really liked the faculty at both places. Ultimately, what made me decide that TCU was the place I wanted to be were the faculty and the emphasis I could place on family communication—which is my main research area. Specifically, I decided I wanted to work with Dr. Paul Schrodt.
I knew post-graduation that I wanted to go on to a Ph.D. program, and part of what I knew I would get from TCU’s program was an emphasis on research. I knew that they would help prepare me for a Ph.D. program, from the research expectation, to the class expectation, and to helping me make connections with scholars in the discipline. Specifically, I knew that the faculty at TCU would teach me how to conduct research and they would give me specific feedback on how to improve my writing. Finally, I wanted to be a great teacher, I had exceptionally great teachers at TCU and I wanted to be able to have an impact on my own students. I knew at TCU I would get great teacher training, whether it was the best way to put together a syllabus or how to deal with difficult student conversations.
[MastersinCommunications.com] How is TCU’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. Kaitlin Phillips] TCU’s program is structured where you take three classes a semester for your first year, and then in your second year you can choose between a thesis or comprehensive exams—which one you choose changes how many classes you take. There are some classes that are required, and then some classes where you have a choice as to which ones you take. No summer classes, which was really nice. A lot of students worked at a variety of different internships during the summer. Given that TCU is in the DFW metroplex, there are a lot of companies that students had internships at, this was really beneficial for those students who did not want to go on to a Ph.D. program.
Within the program an emphasis was placed on communication theory, research methods, interpersonal communication, and organizational communication. I know the program has grown and expanded a lot since then, so the emphasis might be a little different. I learned a lot of skills in my classes. During my second year, we created signs in the graduate office of different sayings from each of the faculty members. Each of those sayings reminded me of something we learned in their class. Dr. Debi Iba’s was “Clear, Concise, and Cogent,” which was a constant reminder that we should edit our work, and really think about what we were writing. Dr. Paul Schrodt was known for saying “N of 1,” which was a reminder to think about the research as a whole and not just our own perspective.
[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. Kaitlin Phillips] I really enjoyed the experience of completing my thesis. Now don’t get me wrong, like any big project there were moments when I didn’t want to finish it, and thought it would never be done, but in general I learned a lot. Dr. Paul Schrodt was my thesis advisor, and he was constantly reminding me that completing a thesis was about the process and not about the end result. I knew starting the program that I wanted to study family communication, and from there realized that I was really interested in sibling relationships. I have three younger siblings, and so for me it was important to think about how siblings communicate with each other in ways that both help and hinder their relationships. Research is a very iterative process, I remember starting to look at research on siblings and one day coming across an article that looked at what I wanted to look at. On the one hand it was very discouraging, and on the other it was affirmation that I had picked an interesting topic. I ended up looking at how sibling confirmation can help overcome the negative effects of sibling rivalry on the sibling relationship.
It was a long process, from outlining the front half, to collecting data (I did a quantitative survey study), to analyzing the data, to writing up the discussion section. I learned a lot from the process. I had taken a methods class with Dr. Andrew Ledbetter that prepared me to write a methods and results section. I had a very supportive committee, they helped me improve my writing skills, my research skills, and my critical thinking skills. Finishing my thesis and submitting it to my committee was a great moment. It was also right around when I was deciding which Ph.D. program I would attend, so it was a nice transition moment.
I did have to defend my thesis orally. Well nothing ever goes as we plan, so of course I had a tech glitch where my PowerPoint stopped working, and then I almost tripped over a cord and fell. I finally finished presenting and then the questions started. I think orally defending is one of the most beneficial parts of the process, it forces you to think about the research design and analysis decision you’ve made, and to clearly articulate why your research is important. It is the real test of whether you understood what you did in that project and why. I have to say though, my favorite question in my defense was about theorists. In a fight between Darwin and Dr. Kory Floyd, who wins?
Advice for those completing their thesis, always pick the living theorist. It won’t be perfect, there will always be something you wished you had done differently. No matter how many times you proofread, you will still find a typo. Even if you find nothing, you still learned a ton, it is all about the process. When picking an advisor, it is about personality, topic, and method. Obviously, it is beneficial to all involved when your advisor has an expertise in the topic and method, but it is equally important that you pick someone you will work well with. They may drive you crazy, and give you 80 million edits, but they are in your corner and they want you to succeed. So pick someone you can talk to.
[MastersinCommunications.com] What key takeaways, experiences, or connections from TCU’s MS in Communication Studies program have you found to be the most helpful for you in your career path?
[Dr. Kaitlin Phillips] In terms of research, I think the two most beneficial classes I took at TCU were research methods and communication theory. Those two classes not only gave me a strong foundation in how to conduct research, but also how to read research. Sometimes research methods are like learning a new language, and without that skill it is hard to understand what is really happening in the articles we read. I also really appreciated my communication theory class because it helped me see how research is tied to theory, and the benefit of tying it to theory. In addition, Dr. Paul Witt structured his assignments in a way that helped us learn how to craft stronger arguments, and to more clearly articulate the connection between theory and the questions we were asking. When thinking about teaching, looking back I really appreciate the communication education course. At the time, I didn’t realize how much of it would be beneficial to me moving forward. Sometimes the most useful classes are the ones where we don’t see the immediate outcome, and that was certainly the case with Dr. Paul King’s communication education class. I learned a lot from that class about how to structure a class, what makes for good test questions, and it was the first time I had to write a teaching philosophy which proved very useful.
All of the classes I took at TCU and the skills I gained in those classes have helped me in my academic career, both in research and in teaching. However, what benefitted me the most, and continue to be a blessing in my life are the faculty. They are wonderful mentors, and academic collogues, and they continue to offer guidance and advice, and I am so grateful for the friendships I formed while at TCU.
[MastersinCommunications.com] What advice would you give students just starting Texas Christian University’s Master of Science in Communication Studies 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 TCU or another university?
[Dr. Kaitlin Phillips] Don’t burn any bridges, honestly, I think the best piece of advice is that the relationships you build are the most important. Obviously, work hard in your classes, and be a good departmental citizen, but grades aren’t everything. You may learn way more in the class you got a B in, than the class you got an A in. Ask for help, there are graduate students who have already been there a year, and faculty who all want you to succeed. Be collegial, you don’t have to be best friends with everyone, but you do have to work together, and especially if you want to stay in academia, those people may be your colleagues for life. Things will be hard, but remember that when it comes to teaching, you are still learning how to teach, and when it comes to research—if you were like me—as someone once told me: “don’t confuse a lack of skill with a lack of interest in research.”
Thank you, Dr. Phillips, for your excellent insights on Texas Christian University’s Master of Science in Communication Studies program!