Master your professional practice

  • Jo Alexander

Why Unitec’s External Relations manager is also a Masters student.

A serendipitous thing happened on the way to Jo Alexander enrolling for the Master of Applied Practice at Unitec in 2016; she spotted an ad for Unitec’s General Manager of External Relations, applied for the job and got it.

She’s now both a General Manager as well as a student in the Master of Applied Practice, an innovative postgraduate course that allows students to tailor their Masters degree to suit their career and academic aspirations, and in a way that fits in with the day job. For Jo, that means ten hours of self-directed learning each week, and a 90-minute class that she can, if necessary, attend remotely. We talk to her about why she enrolled for the programme, and what she hopes to get out of it.

You’ve got a great job! Why study?

I’ve always enjoyed studying. After doing a BA in political science, I did a diploma in business at the University of Auckland, and a graduate diploma in communications at Unitec. So half of my career has been in marketing, and half of it in corporate communications, both internal communications and media relations. But I’ve always enjoyed studying, and always been comfortable working and studying as I’ve done it twice before — I knew it was entirely manageable.

What is a Masters of Applied Practice? Why not, for instance, a Master of Communication Studies?

I could have done a Master of Communications, but I talked to academic staff about what I should do, and I was asked ‘are you doing a Masters degree to get another job?’ and I said, no. I was then asked ‘are you doing this to contribute to your professional practice’, and I said ‘yes’. After 32 years in marketing and communications I’d acquired an enormous amount of knowledge and know-how, so I wanted to turn my professional experience into something formal. This course allows you to draw on your real-life professional experiences, and give something back to your profession. It’s also a self-directed and flexible programme, so you can study at a pace that suits you.

There must have been easier ways to contribute to your profession?

Well, I could have started writing blogs on LinkedIn, or written a book, or set up a consultancy business and hired myself out as an expert. But the thing about academic research is the rigour and process involved. Also, your research can provide a building block that others can use and build on. So you’re formalising your knowledge, within the structure of academic research.

It’s different for everyone on this course, but for me, getting a Masters on my CV isn’t going to make much of a difference in terms of getting a job. What it will do is ground how I do my work. And I will be knowledgeable about a particular area, which will give me a point of difference.

Have you decided on a research topic?

Yes, I’ve always been interested in whether the existence of multiple sub cultures in an organisation can have an impact on the effectiveness of internal communications.

I’ve a lot of experience in the banking industry, for instance, where the culture of the office staff is different from the culture of the people in the call centre, which is different from the culture of people who work in the branches. They might all be versions of the dominant culture of that organisation, but have similarities and differences. Anyone who has worked in a restaurant, like I have, knows that the culture of the waiting staff is dramatically different form the culture of the people who work in the kitchen, as both are operating under different pressures; for those in kitchen it’s about producing high quality food in a short period of time, which is different from the waiting staff, whose job it is to be charming and pleasant. So I’m looking at how those different cultures might affect communication in an organisation.

What guidance are you getting from academic staff?

My supervisors aren’t experts in communications, so they’re not making a judgment on whether my observations about communications are right or wrong. That was part of the appeal. I didn’t want to be taught by another communications expert; I wanted to explore my own thinking around communications.

One of my supervisors is a mathematician, who can offer advice and guidance on statistics, which is incredibly important if you need to do quantitative research. The other is a counsellor educator who is an internationally recognised expert on Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. So they’re helping me ensure I validate what I say, that I write in an academic way, and can demonstrate that I have successfully researched the topic.

And presumably you’re in some taught classes with students from different disciplines as well?

Yes and I’ve learned loads already, from classmates who work in completely different areas from me. You can learn a lot about yourself from people who aren’t studying the same subject, who are approaching different problems but in a similar way. I’ve found I can be more objective about the way they are trying to resolve an issue, one that I might also have but in a different area, because you’re not distracted by the subject matter, and focusing instead on the process. I really love being able to engage with people who aren’t studying what I’m studying.

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