DGS Spotlight: Jeff Niederdeppe, Communication

Jeff Niederdeppe

December 9, 2019

Jeff Niederdeppe is an associate professor in the field of communication at Cornell University. His research examines the mechanisms and effects of mass media campaigns, strategic health messages, and news coverage in shaping health behavior, health disparities, and social policy.

How did you first become interested in your field, communication?

I became a communication major in undergrad mostly because I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life, and it seemed broad enough to be widely applicable.

My junior year, I was watching the Simpsons, and this hard-hitting anti-drug ad came on. The ad was about inhalants, methamphetamine, and other substances that had nothing to do with my life experience. I wrote a paper on this campaign. It turned out that Tucson, Arizona, where I went to school, was a test market for what ultimately became a billion dollar campaign that hoped to empower youth to reject illegal drugs. It fascinated me that you could try to “un-sell” a behavior via the media. Later, I worked with a professor whose research was related to this campaign.

When I began thinking about grad school, the professor recommended the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania since that’s where the campaign was being evaluated. At that point, I wasn’t even sure that I wanted a career in the professoriate. I left with a master’s degree. My first post-master’s job was for a not-for-profit research firm (RTI International) that was tasked with evaluating the Truth anti-smoking campaign, which had tried to “un-promote” cigarettes. I loved that work. It felt like people were listening to research. We met with the campaign creators, and I thought, “I want to do this for a living.” After a couple of years working for RTI International I went back to the Annenberg School to complete my PhD studies with a focus on health communication, and the rest is history!

What do you want the public to know about your research? Why is your topic important?

It is easy for people to think they’re experts on communication. We communicate with one another all the time. We see thousands of messages every day, everywhere we go – on billboards, in retail outlets, and most commonly on digital/social media. It’s easy to have an opinion; but, a lot of intuition is incorrect. People overestimate their ability to understand what messaging is going to resonate with diverse audiences. I’d love the public to know that communication is a rigorous science and that we can understand fundamentals about human beings by systematically studying communication.

Congratulations on winning the CALS Research and Extension Award. What does winning this award mean to you?

It’s wonderful to be recognized for the work that we’ve been doing. Almost all of my work is collaborative. My collaborators have made the work better and more impactful to both scholarly communities and general audiences. It’s gratifying to know that the college values this kind of research. None of this happens alone in an office.

What do you enjoy most about being a faculty member at Cornell?

I get to wear many hats. I love research and the scientific endeavor of discovery, but I also love mentoring students and developing junior scholars. Mentoring is one of the most rewarding elements of the job. I get a chance to work with smart people who bring innovative ideas and new ways of thinking to the table.

I also love the culture of my own department, Communication. We have a very collaborative approach.  We celebrate each other’s successes without competing with one another for resources and share a goal of wanting the department and our college to be as strong and impactful as possible. It’s really nice to be in a workplace with a collective identity and shared goals.

Can you describe a situation where you experienced a professional challenge or research set-back? What did you learn from facing this challenge?

Research set-backs are part of the deal. If we had all of the answers, we wouldn’t need to do any research. Not everything works the way you think it’s going to, and figuring out when and why is part of the fun.

My first paper as a first author was rejected. I was pretty devastated and didn’t do anything with it for a couple of years. A wise mentor asked what happened to the paper, and I said I moved on because I didn’t think it was good enough. This mentor encouraged me that it was indeed a good paper, and recommended that I revise it and submit it to another journal. So I revised it, sent it back out, and it’s one of my only papers that was accepted without a second revision.

I’ve published a lot papers and I’ve had a lot rejected. Almost always, you revise them, learn from that process, and it makes the product better. I learned resilience, but mostly that this is part of the research process.

In your opinion, what are the key factors for graduate student success?

A great working relationship with both the advisor and committee is essential at Cornell.  Rarely does a one-size-fits-all mentoring strategy work.

Also, developing strong relationships with peers is important. If something is perplexing, I often reach out to my own grad school peers who have gone onto do all sorts of amazing things, both in academia and beyond. Peer relationships are important and continue to be important throughout a career. Being part of a community, investing in relationships, and finding balance between work and life are tremendously important and reap benefits well beyond graduate study.

If you had a day off and could not use it to catch up on work, what would you do?

I would go to the gym in the morning, then have a big breakfast (with lots of coffee!) afterward. Then I would get a massage and go for a hike in the afternoon. At night I would spend time with my family, go out to dinner so I don’t have to cook or clean, and go to bed nice and early.

Is there anything else you would want graduate students to know?

Finding balance in life is important and makes you both a better person and a better scholar. That’s true at all stages of a life and career. There’s got to be an emphasis on research and training in graduate school of course, but it’s going to be more enjoyable, better work if you find joy in other aspects of life too. I try not to work too late and protect my weekends to spend time with my partner and children. If I didn’t, I would burn out. It’s a long life if you’re lucky, and the balance between work and life is not always going to be a perfect, but finding on average that balance is really, really important.