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How an MS in Health Communication Opened a Student’s Eyes to New Career Opportunities

After John J. Brooks ’17 earned his undergraduate degree in 2011, he entered the working world—first finding employment with a mortgage company and later with a mobile app creator.

“But I didn’t feel any sense of a career, per se,” says Brooks. “Instead, it was a matter of finding a job and surviving the recession.”

As he continued to work, he noticed that his interest in communications was growing—and wondered if this could be his future career path. He had planned to return to school to earn a graduate degree and saw this opportunity as a pivot point.

“I was interested in understanding communication in greater detail,” he explains. “I had done lots of reading, but hadn’t studied communication through the lens of scientific research on everyday interaction.”

As a Northwestern University alum, he didn’t have to look far for a program that aligned with his goals: the MS in Health Communication.

“There were three big draws to the program,” he explains. “It was at Northwestern, it allowed me to explore my interest in communication, and I didn’t have to quit my job.” He recognized health as an expanding field and knew he wanted to do communications work, so 

he saw the MS as an opportunity to study how health and communication interact.

Uncovering a True Calling

After finishing his first two courses—How Interaction Works and The U.S. Healthcare System—Brooks knew he had found his calling.

First, diversity within the student body created an interesting melting pot of experiences that everyone could learn from. From undergraduates just out of school to professionals with years of experience, classes are made up of all types of people with different backgrounds and interests. 

“The classroom experience also opened my eyes to new interests,” he says. “I had a fire lit under me—digging deeply into research was a strong motivation. The program did a great job of pushing people to learn communications concepts and deploy them in the workplace.”

As he moved through the program, Brooks was pulled toward academia and research—something he credits in part to Dr. Courtney Scherr’s Difficult Conversations course.

“Following that experience, I reached out to Dr. Scherr to see if I could do my internship as a research assistant for her,” he explains. “That gave me my first opportunity to conduct research, and later present a poster at an academic conference.”

After earning his MS in Health Communication, Brooks chose to continue his education at Northwestern, where he’s now pursuing a PhD in Media, Technology, and Society through the School of Communication.

As a PhD student, he now conducts research in conjunction with the Center of Media Psychology and Social Influence (COM-PSI) and hopes to define his career based on the subject matters he studies—many of which are driven by his own health experiences.

“Growing up queer in a rural community, there wasn’t a lot of accurate or accessible information about my health,” he explains. “My understanding of my body and my health were complicated by inaccurate information. Today, one of my primary research interests is how health issues impact queer populations.”

For example, he’s currently working on a study about tobacco messaging. Because the LBGTQ+ community uses tobacco products at higher rates than most, Brooks is examining how tailored anti-tobacco messages can reduce tobacco use. He also wants to explore ways to help people become better advocates for their own health—especially when it comes to doctor-patient relationships.

The Career Path Ahead

Today, in addition to his PhD studies, Brooks also serves as a teaching assistant for several classes, including one of his favorite MS in Health Communication courses: Changing Health Behavior.

“As someone who intends to pursue a career in academia, I want to understand how to be an educator while also being able to interact closely with students,” he says. “Being a TA gives me the chance to have a positive impact on student experiences, helping them learn and sharing what I know.”

As Brooks continues his education journey—with an anticipated graduation date of 2023—he’s open to the many career possibilities in front of him. One goal includes running his own lab and advising doctoral students. But, because much of his research centers on the impact of narratives for specific populations, he’s open to other paths as well.

“At the core, I know I’ll find an opportunity to acquire and share knowledge with others,” he says. “That’s my primary motivator.”