About the Department of Communication


The founding of this department in 1957 was a test of an audacious idea. Until that time, academic teaching and research about communication only existed piecemeal. Speech and forensics, journalism and mass communication, interpersonal communication, each subject was taught as if the concepts did not generalize across contexts. The founding of this unit was an attempt to coalesce a single field of communication as a science.1 By hiring and combining scholars from different disciplinary backgrounds, could a new integrative form of social science be created?

Now as then, communication science2 at Michigan State combines contexts of communication (interpersonal, group, organizational, mass, computer mediated, health) as a means to study processes and concepts of common interest such as social influence, behavior change, emotion, and campaign effectiveness. So has the academic experiment from 1958 worked? According to a recent authoritative independent study, the department has a direct link3 to more internationally eminent communication scholars than any other communication department in the world.4 This department is what few if any other academic units at MSU can claim5 to be: The consistently strongest academic department in its field for 50 years.

Unit Description

The Department of Communication has 20 tenure-track faculty6, about 900 undergraduate majors, 30 master's students, and 30 doctoral students, supported by 2.25 FTE staff. The operating budget is approximately $2.3 million. It has formal institutional collaborative agreements with Accounting, Hospitality Business, Management, Marketing, Ag-Bio Research, the College of Engineering, the College of Nursing, and within CAS with all units.

The department's worldwide reputation extends advantages to MSU communication graduates through its alumni and employee network, especially in the US, Korea, China, Taiwan, Japan, Singapore, India, Thailand, Columbia, Chile, Germany, Norway, Sweden, and Nigeria. The unit participates in the CIC Big Ten Communication Chair's group. Faculty and students closely identify with the International Communication Association, and the National Communication Association. Undergraduates are members of the MSU Undergraduate Communication Association; graduate students are members of the MSU Associated Graduate Students in Communication.

Academic Programs and Instruction

The department offers the BA, MA, a linked BA/MA, and PhD in communication, and undergraduate specializations in sales communication, and public relations. Faculty typically teach 2/2 loads with the option of summer teaching. Median GRE scores of 2012-2013 incoming MA students = 540 verbal, 750 quantitative. Median GRE scores of 2012-2013 incoming PhD students = 600 verbal, 790 quantitative. Department faculty accounted for 19,583 student credit hours in AY 2013-14. Graduate teaching assistants and graduate student instructors accounted for 2653 student credit hours during the same time period. The average classroom instructor/student ratio is 1:77 at the undergraduate level, and 1:12 at the graduate level. During AY 2013-14, 87 undergraduate and 29 graduate courses were taught. The numbers during 2014-2015 are projected at 87 undergraduate and 28 graduate courses. Undergraduates have the option of serving as undergraduate TAs and RAs. About 25 percent of our majors complete an internship, an opportunity we have offered since 1982. Masters students choose between a research and a professional track. The department also administers and provides the bulk of the instruction for a college-level master's degree in health and risk communication. All doctoral students begin their full-time study with teaching assistantships. All of them participate in one or more intensive apprentice-like research teams.7 Mentor-mentee relationships between faculty and students are considered the department's greatest resource.

Undergraduate Degree Program

The BA in communication has long been one of the most popular and high-demand majors on the Michigan State University campus. Over the last thirty years, the number of majors has ranged from 800 to 1,500; and for the last few years has held stable at around 900. Although many freshmen specifically declare their major in communication prior to their first steps on campus, others discover the program based on recommendations from their friends, after completing their first introductory communication class, or after reconsidering their originally declared major. This is due in large part to the practical utility of the content taught within the major, as well as the pedagogical excellence of the faculty. The major is organized to produce the T-shaped student through a broad and deep pedagogical experience. All majors have been required to take a series of introductory survey courses, encompassing the major domains of interest within the field of communication. Then majors specialize in a particular track: Interpersonal, organizational or mediated communication.

Master's Degree Program

The MA program in communication has two major directions. The first option is the pre-PhD track and the second option is the career-oriented track. In the pre-PhD track (Plan A - thesis option), students are prepared to conduct quantitative research culminating in a master's thesis. The goal of work in this track is to prepare MA students for application to PhD programs in communication. Course work stresses theory and research. The pre-PhD track is seen as the first step leading to a research career in academe or the private or public sector. The career-oriented track (Plan B - comprehensive examination option) is an applied, career-oriented degree, which culminates in a final written exam over the course work. This track is designed to meet the needs of a person who finds that (a) their ability to communicate, and/or (b) their ability to develop and implement appropriate communication strategies, are critical to their professional performance. Course work stresses communication concepts and theories with experiences in the application of the knowledge to practical work-related problems.

Doctoral Degree Program

The PhD program in communication is designed principally to prepare students to compete for tenure-track jobs in departments of communication, to provide them with the skills necessary to achieve reappointment and tenure in those programs, and to make original contributions to the field of communication science. Though structured primarily for this purpose, the program also prepares students for jobs in public and private enterprises worldwide as researchers, authors, entrepreneurs, and consultants. Specific objectives are guided by our program's goal, which is to perpetuate the highest standards of academic excellence in teaching and research. In order to accomplish this, the program provides training and skills aimed at providing our students with the ability to:

  1. conduct independent, original research;
  2. attract extramural funding;
  3. generate insights that advance the communication discipline and provide solutions to societal problems, and
  4. convey an understanding of communication principles, as well as their practical value, to students, professionals, and lay audiences.

Research and Scholarship

Since its founding, the department has awarded 346 doctoral degrees. PhD graduates now hold full professor positions at universities including Northwestern University, UC Davis, University of Colorado, University of Iowa, University of Pennsylvania, University of Washington, University of Illinois, Stanford University, University of Southern California, and overseas in universities in Korea, Japan, Singapore, India, China and other countries in Africa, Latin America, and Europe. Faculty study societally important issues such as how communication relates to women offender recidivism, voting behavior and political organizing, deception, and food security.

Faculty, former faculty and doctoral graduates have generated more than $200 million in federal grants. Department faculty have active research grants from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, National Science Foundation, National Cancer Institute, and other sponsors. Proposals are under review at NSF, NCI, NIMH, and other potential sponsors.

In 2013, faculty published 56 peer-reviewed articles, 23 non-referred publications and 3 books. Faculty and graduate student articles are published across disciplines in journals including the Proceedings of the National Cancer Institute, Medical Education, Journal of Risk Research, Social Influence, Public Opinion Quarterly, Wildlife Society Bulletin, Journal of Applied Social Psychology, Journal of Public Transportation and Latin American Policy. Department faculty regularly publish in core communication journals. In 2013 these included Human Communication Research, Journal of Applied Communication Research, Journal of Health Communication, and Media Psychology. Co-authorship with students is a department norm.

Outreach and Engagement

The unit embraces the land grant mission of service to society through outreach to nonacademic stakeholders. Faculty programs of research have addressed applied problems in agriculture, jurisprudence, public health, medicine, international development, teaching and learning, engineering and biology, cultural similarities and differences, and other practice domains. On campus this has meant high-profile campaigns to limit drinking and reduce date rape. Consulting with business, professional development and training, advising federal agency program officers, partnering with community-based groups, and providing technical assistance to state department staff all function as ways that department faculty bring communication science to bear on practical societal problems. For example, in 2012-2013, one faculty member worked with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to plan the national roll-out for a new biomedical drug, Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis, to prevent HIV/AIDS.8

Performance of the Department

Research Productivity Rankings

Since its inception the department has been atypical of social science departments. It was atypical in the goals its founders set for itself.9 It was atypical in its rapid growth trajectory in the 1960s and 70s on the basis of federal contracts and grants.10 It was atypical in how its faculty and graduate students combined social change theory with the land-grant mission.11 And it was atypical in the outsized impact it has had on an academic field of study.12

The department has generated and been the home of academic stars. Marshall Scott Poole, an MA alumnus who is an endowed professor at the University of Illinois, is the most highly cited communication researcher in the world.13 Gerald R. Miller was a cornerstone of the department and renowned throughout the field for decades.14 Everett M. Rogers did his most important work on the diffusion of innovations while in the department.15 Several department faculty16 were honored as MSU Distinguished University Professors, most recently Charles K. Atkin.

It is possible that very high-performing individuals would achieve just as much scholarly renown through affiliation with a different academic department. Then again, perhaps a culture of excellence can "lift all boats":

  • The department was a birthplace and 30-year testing ground for what is now broadly acknowledged as the subfield of organizational communication network analysis.17
  • In the late 1980s, three national reputational surveys about communication departments were conducted, all based on the same 5-point scale (1 = distinguished, 5 = marginal). Results were aggregated. The department had both the best grand mean score and the best average ranking across content areas across surveys.18
  • A 1996 reputational survey conducted by the National Communication Association rated the department #1 nationally in four of eight specialties.19
  • A 2004 reputational study repeated by the National Communication Association ranked the department #2 of 34 programs in communication and technology; #3 of 28 programs in health communication; #4 of 37 programs in intercultural-international communication; #7 of 39 programs in interpersonal/small group communication; #3 of 39 programs in mass communication, and #11 of 27 programs in organizational communication.20
  • A 2007 study placed the department #4 of 28 doctoral programs in communication.21
  • A 2008 analysis of communication departments placed the department in the top ten in 42 of 99 research subspecialties.22
  • A 2010 assessment by the National Research Council of research-doctoral programs rated the department #2 of 83 programs in research, and #19 of 83 programs in diversity.23
  • A 2010 network analysis of patterns in faculty hiring showed the department to rank #2 of 102 programs in the quality of placements of its doctoral graduates.24
  • A 2012 study rated the doctoral program #3 of 60 programs by number of citations.25
  • A 2013 analysis based on Google Scholar citations found the department to be #5 of 61 departments. The same study found the department to be #5 in number of graduates currently teaching in doctoral programs, and #1 of 61 in the number of citations to its graduates. Combining multiple measures of productivity, this study found the MSU Department of Communication to rank #2 overall.26

Academic Analytics27 offers another perspective on productivity. The graph below shows department strengths in peer-reviewed article publication, grants, citations, and awards, by comparing MSU Department of Communication faculty productivity to a national median28 based on faculty performance at 144 other communication departments.
Graph of the analyics of communication department  perspective on productivity

Grants and Contracts

In October, 2014, department faculty acting as PIs and co-Is account for $1,997,316 in active grants.29 Sponsors include USDA, NSF, NIH, NIEHS and the State of Michigan. This includes 12 grants won by six faculty. In addition to these funded projects, 14 submitted proposals are actively being considered for funding by USAID, NCI, NSF, NIH, the Department of Justice, the Fish and Wildlife Service, and the American Diabetes Association.

Instructional Productivity

According to data from the MSU Office of Planning and Budgets about the department, time to degree for the BA for the 2011-2012 graduating cohort is 3.97 years. Time to degree for the MA for the 2011-2012 incoming class is 1.88 years (18 of 18 students). Time to degree for the PhD for the 2008-2009 incoming class is 3.66 years (5 of 5 students). The six-year graduation rate for fall 2006 undergraduates is 78.8% for MSU, and 79.2% for the department. Fall 2011 2-year persistence (retention) is 90.3% for MSU, and 90.5% for the department.30 While the university composite SIRS teaching mean for fall, 2013 = 2.58 on a 1-5 scale with 1 = superior, the department composite SIRS mean = 1.75 for this same time period.

Faculty Recruitment and Retention

While the department lost junior and senior tenure stream faculty for varied reasons over the last several years, new faculty at both ranks have been successfully hired. New hires during this period include Assistant Professor Lourdes Martinez (2011), Assistant Professor Jingbo Meng (2014), Assistant Professor Bruno Takahashi (2012), Assistant Professor Brandon Van Der Heide (2014), and at the senior rank Professor Gary Bente (2014) and Professor James Dearing (2013). The department was successful in reappointing Dr. Martinez (2014), and in promoting Associate Professor Daniel Bergan (2013) and Associate Professor Amanda Holmstrom (2014).


A recent prominent award went to faculty member Steven McCornack who won the National Communication Association 2013 Donald H. Ecroyd Award for Outstanding Teaching in Higher Education. The Ecroyd Award is NCA's highest annual honor given to a single active faculty member "who exemplifies superlative teaching." Current and past department faculty who have received the highest award from the International Communication Association as Fellows for lifetime achievement are Charles Atkin, Judee Burgoon, Michael Burgoon, Bradley Greenberg, Randall Harrison, Gerald Miller, Peter Monge, Everett Rogers, Sandi Smith and Joseph Walther.

Department students and faculty have been honored with university level awards at a high rate:

  • Excellence in Teaching Citations: Evan Perrualt (2014); David Keating (2014); Jessica Russell (2013); Samantha Nazione (2013); Matthew Grizzard (2012); Stephanie Tong (2011); Lindsay Neuberger (2011); Hillary Schulman (2010); Nicholas Bowman(2009); Mary Braz (2008); Renee Strom (2006); Merissa Ferrara (2005); Jonathan Bowman (2004); Rachel Smith (2003); Lisa Lindsey (2003); Jennifer Butler Ellis (2001); Lisa Murray-Johnson (2000); Monique Mitchell (1999); Kenzie Cameron (1998); Kelly Morrison (1995); Jerold Hale (1983); Eric Eisenberg (1981); Michael Sunnafrank (1979); Terrance Albrecht (1978); Ted Smith III (1977); David Bender (1974); John Coggins (1969); David Beatty (1969).
  • MSU Alumni Club of Mid-Michigan Quality in Undergraduate Teaching Award: Kelly Morrison (1999); Steve McCornack (2009).
  • Academic Spartan of the Year Award: Sandi Smith (2000).
  • Lilly Teaching Fellows: Lourdes Martinez (2014-2015); Amanda Holmstrom (2011-2012); Khadidiatou Ndiaye (2010-2011); Kami Silk (2006-2007); Kelly Morrison (1997-1998); Sandi Smith (1992-1993); Steven McCornack (1991-1992).
  • Teacher Scholars: Maria Knight Lapinski (2010); Hee Sun Park (2009); Kami Silk (2008); Sandi Smith (1994); Steven McCornack (1994); Judee Burgoon (1980); Cassandra Book (1977); Charles Atkin (1974); Donald Cushman (1973).
  • Distinguished Professors: Timothy Levine (2011); Sandi Smith (2007); Franklin Boster (2003); William Donohue (1999); Charles Atkin (1985); Gerald Miller (1973); Hideya Kumata (1967).
  • University Distinguished Professors: Charles Atkin (1998); Bradley Greenberg (1990); Gerald Miller (1990).

Satisfaction Surveys

Data about doctoral students' satisfaction31 with their experience in the department suggest positive outcomes:

  • 95% of respondents (N = 57) agreed or strongly agreed that the department has a humane environment characterized by mutual respect between students and professors.
  • 92% agreed or strongly agreed that graduate course faculty were highly qualified.
  • 92% felt they had not experienced delay due to inadequate department facilities.
  • 97% agreed that guidelines and requirements in the program were clearly conveyed in writing.
  • 89% felt that their teaching experience at MSU was adequate to prepare for the teaching component of an academic career.

Placement of Graduates

Professional track MA graduates hold titles including senior creative director, executive director, and vice president.32 Thesis track MA graduates regularly go on to funded positions in doctoral programs at universities (in 2014, graduating students received funded offers from UC Santa Barbara, University of Southern California, University of Wisconsin, and other schools). PhD graduates routinely accept offers at universities as assistant professors. Data about undergraduate employment are difficult to interpret with the exception of data about graduates of our sales communication specialization. From fall 2009 - fall 2013, 100% of graduating seniors were employed prior to graduation. This placement rate is largely due to close interactions that our students enjoy with corporate sponsors.

How Important is Our Work?

The Example of USAID. Many of Department of Communication initiatives have had real and lasting impacts, assessed either at the level of an individual student or at a much larger aggregate. Following is an example of one of the latter impacts. Since its founding, the U.S. Agency for International Development has had a goal of a world without hunger. In celebration of its 50th Anniversary in 2011, the agency released USAID's Legacy in Agricultural Development: 50 Years of Progress, in 2013. According to USAID:

While a lot of investments were made in developing the Green Revolution technologies, the speed with which they were adopted and diffused depended on how effectively these technologies were communicated - providing information to change farmers' knowledge, leading to changes in attitudes and acceptance and adoption of new practices.... USAID took two approaches to transferring technology. First, USAID's research project on Diffusion of Innovations in Rural Societies, begun in 1964 through Michigan State University (MSU) and working in Brazil, India and Nigeria, aimed to develop improved research methods for the study of diffusion and adoption of innovations in traditional societies.... Second, as adoption and diffusion also depend on the availability and quality of extension services, USAID... contracted with MSU... to establish a short-term training course to help returning students successfully apply their new knowledge, skills and abilities in their home countries.... MSU conducted communication seminars... [that] provided training in effective communication.... By 1978, MSU had conducted over 550 training seminars and reached 30,000 students.

Using the same MSU model, USAID eventually reached thousands more students from 123 countries.33 This 14-year research and outreach effort, 550 trainings and tens of thousands of students from developing countries was headquartered in the MSU Department of Communication. Other important impacts derived from department initiatives in jurisprudence, television violence and sex, and drinking and driving. Clearly, "whether we do it or not" matters greatly to federal funders and for the lessening of societal problems.

Positive Trends for Communication Graduates

According to several sources, the employment prospects for undergraduates and graduates in communication are brighter than for the graduates of other social science and humanities fields.34 These data suggest increasing demand in the U.S. for holders of the BA, MA, and PhD in communication.

1David K. Berlo (1960). The process of communication. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston; Gerald R. Miller (1966). On defining communication: Another stab. The Journal of Communication XVI(2): 88-98; Wilbur Schramm (1997). The beginnings of communication study in America. Steven H. Chaffee and Everett M. Rogers (eds) Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 161-164.
2Charles R. Berger, Michael E. Roloff, and David R. Roskos-Ewoldsen (1987). What is communication science? In CR Berger, ME Roloff & DR Roskos-Ewoldsen (eds), The handbook of communication science. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 3-20.
3A direct link is defined as a person having earned a graduate degree or having been a tenure stream faculty member in the department.
4Michael Meyen (2012). International Communication Association fellows: A collective biography. International Journal of Communication 6: 2378-2396.
5The 2014 assessment by Quacquarelli Symonds Limited of academic disciplines across universities gave communication the highest worldwide rank of any discipline at Michigan State.
6One of these is visiting professor status but will convert to tenured status in 2017. Six of the 20 faculty are shared or jointly appointed in other units. In addition, the department currently hosts a visiting associate professor, four visiting scholars, and a post-doctoral researcher.
7 Gerald R. Miller (1979). The research team concept: An approach to graduate training. Communication Education 28(4): 322-327.
8 Dawn K. Smith, James W. Dearing, Travis Sanchez, and Ronald H. Goldschmidt (2013), "Introducing Wicked Issues for HIV Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis Implementation in the U.S." American Journal of Preventive Medicine 44(1S2): 59-62.
9 Jack M. Bain (undated). Three decades of planning and progress: A brief history of the Department of Communication at Michigan State University. Unpublished manuscript; Everett M. Rogers (2001). The Department of Communication at Michigan State University as a seed institution for communication study. Communication Studies 52(3): 234-248.
10 Kerry J. Byrnes (2013). NPAC and MSU's communication seminars: Their origin, impact and keeping the spirit alive. Unpublished manuscript.
11 Everett M. Rogers (1988). The intellectual foundation and history of the agricultural extension model. Knowledge: Creation, Diffusion, Utilization 9(4): 492-510.
12 Randall Harrison (1996). Lessons from a learning organization pioneer: The "communication" meme evolves. Paper presented at the International Conference on Organizational Excellence, Honolulu, HI.
13 Mike Allen, John Bourhis, Nancy Burrell, Andrew William Cole, Emily Cramer et al. (2013). Comparing communication doctoral programs, alumni, and faculty: The use of Google Scholar. Journal of the Association for Communication Administration 32(2): 55-68. Joseph Walther, a faculty member in the department until 2014, ranked fifth.
14 Erwin P. Bettinghaus (1999). Gerald R. Miller: A colleague's view. Communication Studies 50(3): 247-250.
15 The Institute for Scientific Information determined Rogers' book Diffusion of Innovations to be a citation classic and the most cited book in the social sciences.
16 UDPs were Gerald Miller (1990), Bradley S. Greenberg (1990), and Charles Atkin (1998).
17 Alex M. Susskind, Donald F. Schwartz, William D. Richards, and J. David Johnson (2006). Evolution and diffusion of the Michigan State University tradition of organizational communication network research. Communication Studies 56(4): 397-418.
18 Charles K. Atkin (2003). Reputational surveys of communication programs. Unpublished report.
19 www.natcom.org.
20 2003-2004 National Communication Association Doctoral Education Committee (2004). Reputational study of doctoral programs in communication. Washington DC: NCA.
21Kimberly A. Neuendorf, Paul D. Skalski, David J. Atkin, Susan E. Kogler-Hill, and Richard M. Perloff (2007). The view from the ivory tower: Evaluating doctoral programs in communication. Communication Reports 20(1): 24-41.
22 www.cios.org.
23Edward L. Fink, Marshall Scott Poole, and Sabine Chai (2011). Analysis of the NRC report on Ph.D. program quality. Spectra 47(2): 16-19.
24George A. Barnett, James A. Danowski, Thomas Hugh Feeley, and Jordan Stalker (2010). Measuring quality in communication doctoral education using network analysis of faculty-hiring patterns. Journal of Communication 60: 388-411.
25Mike Allen, Melissa Maier, and Dennis Green (2012). Evaluating doctoral programs in communication on the basis of citations. The Electronic Journal of Communication 22(1&2): 10 pages.
26 Mike Allen, John Bourhis, Nancy Burrell, Andrew William Cole, Emily Cramer et al. (2013). Comparing communication doctoral programs, alumni, and faculty: The use of Google Scholar. Journal of the Association for Communication Administration 32(2): 55-68.
27 www.academicanalytics.com. Data presented here are drawn from different time periods because of how Academic Analytics organizes its databases: Faculty AY 2012-2013; journal articles 2009-2012; citations 2008-2012; conference proceedings 2009-2012; books 2003-2012; grants 2008-2012; awards varies by award and ranges from the previous 10 to 50 years.
28The national median is graphed at the 50th percentile on this radar graph.
29These are only those portions of funded projects that are credited to the Department of Communication. This total includes total amounts credited to the department for multi-year as well as single year grants and contracts.
30MSU Office of Planning and Budgets.
31The Graduate School (undated). Summary report: The Graduate School exit survey of doctoral students Fall 1996-Spring 2008. Communication. East Lansing, MI: The Graduate School, Michigan State University.
32MSU Alumni Relations (2010). Data run of communication MA graduates.
33United States Agency for International Development (2013). USAID's legacy in agricultural development: 50 years of progress. Washington, DC: U.S. Agency for International Development, iv, 48-49.
34 Jason Schmitt (2014). Communication studies rise to relevance. Huffington Post. Posted and updated 10/22/2014; Scott Jaschik (2014). New data show communication faculty jobs are up. Inside Higher Ed. October 22. www.insidehighered.com/news/2014/10/22/new-data-show-communication-faculty-jobs-are-up; Susan White, Raymond Chu, and Roman Czujko (2014). The 2012-13 survey of humanities departments at four-year institutions: Communication. College Park, MD: Statistical Research Center, American Institute of Physics and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences; National Communication Association (2014). 2013 Academic job listings in communication report. Washington, DC: National Communication Association. www.natcom.org

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