Karen Myers, a great communicator


Karen Myers, winner of the Plous Award for 2010, has been recognized for excellence in teaching, research, and service. Photo by Rod Rolle.

Karen Myers, assistant professor of communication, is a specialist in organizational communication whose research focuses on workplace interaction and assimilation. Her experience at UCSB makes abundantly clear that she is able to translate theory into practice. In the four years since she arrived on campus, Myers has become a stand-out in one of the College’s strongest departments, so much so that she was awarded the 2010 Harold J. Plous Award, one of UCSB’s highest faculty honors, for exceptional achievement in research, teaching, and service to the university. Myers, who will give the annual Plous Lecture on April 1, says she is “proud and pleased” not just to be recognized by the award but by her role as a scholar and teacher. “It is so important that we faculty remember that we are researchers, teachers, and here to serve,” she says.

Her scholarly achievements are especially impressive because academia is Myers’ second career. After completing her B.A. in marketing in 1985, she worked in the business world, eventually owning and operating a successful specialized publishing company. After selling the business in 1999, she began a graduate program in communication because it was a natural extension of her work in publishing and because “communication is so vital to everything we do”. She earned her master’s degree, thinking she might become a teacher, but along the way discovered a passion for research and found she was good at it. After earning her Ph.D. at Arizona State University in 2005 with an award-winning dissertation, Myers held a tenure-track position at Purdue University for a short period before coming to UC Santa Barbara in 2007.

Myers’ broad research interest is organizational communication, defined as any kind of communication involving the organizational process. One of her major focus areas is workplace interaction and communication between co-workers, supervisors and subordinates. She also looks at workplace socialization: how individuals communicate when they enter an organization, or receive new people into an organization, how they negotiate their roles, and how work groups function together to develop performance proficiency. This research has important implications for employers, says Myers, because “between 2.5% and 4% of the U.S. workforce joins a new organization every year. People are more likely to quit in the first few weeks, which could be avoided if people were better integrated in their new organizations, and received recognition from their co-workers and supervisors.” She also has an interest in vocational socialization – how adolescents become interested in occupations, or how adults make the transition to a second or third career.

Another of Myers’s areas of interest concerns the dimensions and processes of assimilation in different types of organizations, specifically how firefighters and other “high reliability” organizations like police departments, the military, or surgical teams, which are themselves tightly integrated, assimilate new members. For four years she studied firefighters and how they establish trust, and communicate, work and live together. Again, the implications of this research are enormous, because of the need for these groups to understand what makes them work well together, and she has shared her research with the firefighters.

The Communication Department is well-known for the quantitative research done by many faculty, but Myers employs what she calls “mixed methods” that combine quantitative and qualitative research. She frequently draws on two types of data (interviews/ surveys and observation). This methodology is becoming increasingly popular and grant-giving institutions are more encouraging more mixed method research, she says.

Like many of her students, Myers was a first-generation college student, something she believes resonates with her students. “I had not given much thought to attending college until a recruiter from Arizona State ̶ like UCSB, a public university ̶ came to my high school and suggested I apply,” she says. She speaks excitedly about the courses she teaches and her methods to engage students. Because communication is one of the largest undergraduate programs, with more than 800 declared majors, upper-division classes are open only to majors, except during summer session. Myers says students are drawn to the major because of its applicability to a variety of careers, including marketing, public relations, law, and human resources.

Myers’ research interests and managerial background influence her courses. A course on micro- and macro-organizational communication (Comm 122) looks at communication within organizations. She requires that students investigate a current news item that is related to organizational issues and give an oral presentation that summarizes the article and applies a theoretical construct to it. The presentations, which are spread throughout the quarter, are a way of getting the students to talk in class (which can be hard to do in a class of 80 students) , and are usually the springboard for discussion. For another assignment, the students must select a recent news article on an issue related to California, and use the communication constructs they are studying to propose a solution to the issue.

In a course on advanced organizational communication (Comm 152), Myers requires her students to undertake empirical research by conducting interviews of people in a career that they may be interested in pursuing. The students must analyze the data and write a paper utilizing class theories or constructs. She says that her class on small group communication (Comm 106) “a tough class on a hugely important, vital subject”, because more organizations are structuring their work around work groups. She organizes the students into small groups for a communication-based empirical study. They gather data, test research hypotheses, present their findings to the class, and write a “reflection paper” on the group experience. They learn about the importance of working together, how to manage their workload, when they need give and take in a group situation, and the importance of leadership. A course on communication and conflict (Comm 121) addresses interpersonal, organizational and intercultural conflict, and teaches students how to manage communication to have more effective conflict.

Like many of her colleagues in the Department of Communication, Myers mentors undergraduates involved in research projects. She involves them as research assistants in her own projects and also acts as an adviser for honors projects.

Myers also advises a number of doctoral students. The Department’s graduate program, one of the most highly ranked in the country, is relatively small by design and stresses small seminars, individualized programs, and extensive student-faculty contact. Myers’ advisees are enthusiastic about her mentorship. Says Bernadette Gailliard, who is completing a dissertation on issues of diversity, identification, and assimilation within corporate organizations under the guidance of Myers and Professor Dave Seibold, “Karen has helped me develop as a scholar through her supportive mentoring, insightful feedback, and continual encouragement to push the limits of my knowledge. She is also a kind person and a great example of what it takes to be successful in this field.” Courtney Davis, another Ph.D. student, adds “Karen has introduced me to a fascinating area of organizational communication, and encouraged me to ask interesting research questions and perform methodologically rigorous research. Perhaps more importantly, Karen has introduced me to the research community, including the conference submission and publication processes, and continues to ask provocative questions about my personal development and my development as a scholar.”

“Mentoring graduate students is without a doubt the best reward for me,” says Myers. “Many graduate students are concerned about taking jobs in research universities because they fear the requirement to publish or perish. As I tell my advisees, for many professors, much of our publishing stems from wanting to involve graduate students in research, and we want them to have publications for their CVs. Benefiting them is the best motivator. I’ve never really worried about whether I’m publishing enough—it just happens. I hope this advice helps them to see an added joy in research.”

March 2011

News Date: 

Tuesday, March 1, 2011