What Does One Do with a PhD in Mass Communication (of Science)?

14 June 2013 by Paige Brown, posted in Career, Communications, Education

As I travel and meet new people inside and outside of academia, I often get this question. It is a good one, but that I can never seem to answer it in a sufficiently concise answer or one-liner. IS there a simple answer to this question?

One simple answer might be: teach. The common and traditional thinking involves earning a Ph.D. in a particular subject in order to teach that subject to future undergraduate and/or graduate students. For example, once I graduate, I could teach science and environmental writing courses to future university students. But other than learning how to teach what you learned in your own classes as an undergraduate and/or graduate student, what do you do with a Ph.D. in Mass Communication (of science)?

But my Ph.D. goes far beyond teaching my field to others. As a Ph.D. student, I take classes that are likely only ever taught to other aspiring graduate students. Here are just a few of the classes and topics I have learned as a Ph.D. student:

-          Crisis communication: Certainly a topic useful both inside and outside academia, and extremely important to any industry or company faced with a crisis. Crisis communicators are an absolute staple in today’s world of social media and global networks – and to be a crisis communicator, you must know what works, what doesn’t work, and why. And if you come up with new tactics as a crisis communicator, how do you know that they are working, and working better than previous tactics?

-          Research Methods: Conducting a survey? Market research? Probing public opinion on an issue? Learning best practices from elites in a particular field? All these require knowledge of research methods – how to both ask and answer questions with rigorous research.

-          Statistics: Any project that requires analysis of large sets of data, for example a national poll or survey, is going to require someone well-versed in statistics and data analysis.

Image by Paige Brown.

-          Political Communication: Want to investigate or predict voting behavior? Response to a political issue among certain key publics? Yeah, you might want a Ph.D. for that!

-          Public Opinion and Media Effects: How do you tell a science story better to engage the public or change people’s opinion on an important issue such as the need for vaccinations, for example? What attributes of your message are people going to be attentive to? What are they going to tune out, and how do you know? How do your audiences’ pre-conceived notions and knowledge of an issue affect how they interpret your story on climate change? Can a climate change video game really help people learn about the issue and engage in pro-environmental behaviors? How do you know? If you are going to show me the evidence, you’ll probably need a Ph.D. to do it.

I conduct research in the field of mass communication, and my own area of specialty, science communication.  What does that mean? It means I ask the questions how and why behind current practices in science communication. Other journalists may be taught or come to know through experience the norms and routines accepted in the field. Science writers are often experts in their area of science and talented communicators. But how did those norms and routines we accept as journalists come into being? Why do the work, or not work, when applied to science and environmental issues? How do you know what best persuades your readers to engage in pro-science and pro-environmental attitudes and behaviors, if you don’t ask them or observe their subsequent behaviors in a systematic way?

And this is just the tip of the iceberg to my Ph.D. I’ve also learned how to write better, how to present issues ethically, how to interview, and how the media works when it comes to science and environmental issues.

Outside of my Ph.D. research, I love writing about science and environmental issues in any form I can – blogging, journalism, PR, education. Even if I do enter a career as a research professor in science communication, I won’t want to give up my work as a science blogger and freelance journalist.

So what could I do with my Ph.D.? Work for an environmental Think Tank? Conduct public opinion research for a national research center, individual company, non-profit, or university? Consult with science communicators on best practices in the field? Become a research professor? Become a full-time science journalist, editor or science museum communicator? Who knows? But I have a feeling my work and learning as a Ph.D. student in mass communication won’t be lost or wasted on any of these career paths.

If you have other examples of what you’ve done, or seen others do, with a Ph.D. in (science) mass communication, please comment below!

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