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Introduction to the Communications Career Paths

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Communications is all about getting the word out-and there are as many ways to do that as there are words. Twenty years ago a bachelors degree in English was sufficient to launch a successful career. While English majors still aggressively enter the marketplace, many employers view communications majors as better equipped to contribute to a fast-changing, information-based environment.

Communications opens more doors than any other major. With an understanding of how to penetrate public awareness and mold and respond to public opinion, communications can be public relations. With the knowledge of how to reach and influence consumers, communications can be advertising or publicity and promotion. Through the techniques of writing and editing, communications can be journalism. With problem-solving and group- management skills, communications can be corporate troubleshooting or training. And, for individuals working with communication disorders, communications can be speech-language pathology or audiology.

Communications majors can also use their undergraduate degree as a stepping stone to careers in medicine, education, law, government, or diplomacy. No other major offers as much flexibility.

There are almost as many different names and focuses for communication programs as there are job possibilities. Some common names are: communication studies, communication processes, communication science, speech communication, speech and mass communication, communication arts and speech, and communication disorders.

The colleges and universities that offer communications as a major house those departments in a variety of slots. In some institutions you will find the communications department encased within colleges of liberal arts. Others have separate communications schools. Still others combine communications within the school of journalism, or with advertising, public relations, or other related disciplines. In some universities, you will even find outreach programs, noncredit-bearing, adult education communications departments, whose aim is to teach new skills or upgrade the existing skills of people already out in the workforce.

The program or department name will not always be an accurate clue to its focus. A potential promotional campaign developer would waste precious time enrolling in a communication studies program that emphasized broadcasting or journalism.

As examples, the below university communications department is highlighted here to show how different institutions focus their curriculum.

The University of Florida, Gainesville

The University of Florida's communication studies (CS) program is housed within the Department of Communication Processes and Disorders in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. According to the description in the undergraduate handbook:

The CS program provides students with both a theoretical and practical understanding of symbolic interaction and human communication processes. Communication includes both strategic and inadvertent meaning to those behaviors in transactional contexts. The communication studies program emphasizes theory, research, and practice in a diversity of communication systems, including: interpersonal relationships, small groups engaged in problem solving and decision making, and public communication. These communication systems are found in many contexts and that is reflected in the courses (e.g., the family, personal and social relationships, businesses and organizations, politics, national and intercultural encounters, urban relationships, and health care and promotion).

To simplify the above description, Dr. Anthony Clark, director of undergraduate studies at the University of Florida, Gainesville, talks about the program and its practical applications:

"Our program takes an open-ended approach; were not a career-specific major. Our goal is to turn out an undergraduate student who is marketable, who will be picked up by Westinghouse or Xerox or Coca Cola, and then continue his or her training while on the job. We provide a good, solid grounding in contemporary communication. What we hope is that, when people interview for various careers, the person conducting the interview will sense that 'hey, this is a good bet for us. We can take this person and train him to do what we need,' as opposed to just picking them up and expecting them to hit the ground running.

"There are a lot of other majors, such as speech pathology for example, where the day you walk off the stage with your diploma, you're ready to do your job for the next fifty years. The problem with many other areas in communications is that there's no particular job title. It's almost like with the military-if it doesn't have a name it doesn't exist. If someone is a lawyer or a CPA we have a good idea what he or she does. If you call yourself a communicologist or communications specialist or corporate communicator, it's hard to pinpoint exactly what it is you do. It's hard to identify. But in corporations, they know who they're talking about when they get this kind of person.

"Because it's a relatively new enterprise and because it goes across a wide range of career opportunities, we still need some labelers and identifiers. But we're hoping that by grounding people very thoroughly in the rudiments and then putting some polish on that they will be seen as marketable.

"Although there are others, we have two major tracks: public communications and interpersonal communications.

"The former often leads to work with service organizations. Our graduates develop promotional campaigns for the National Institute of Health or the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta. They work with the American Cancer Society, the American Red Cross, or Easter Seals.

"The majority of our students enter the interpersonal communications track. Most graduates go into business and are hired by large companies, serving the hotel industry, entertainment, and travel, for example.

"We find that communications studies majors are more and more marketable in these areas. Not too long ago, the national headquarters of the Revlon Corporation asked for a list of our graduating seniors. They want people who are skilled in the kinds of areas we teach. The same thing is true with bank chains. They are not interested so much anymore in finance or accounting majors because they have all that machinery and high tech equipment to do much of that work. What they want now are individuals who are trained more in interpersonal skills and who are trained in group problem solving, conflict management, and mediation, which is what we cover in our program."
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