Communication is central to all aspects of society, from the political realm to health care and the corporate sphere. Graduates of master’s in communication programs are prepared to craft and mediate important communications between corporations, between the government and the public, between organizations and their members, between companies and their employees, and between companies and consumers. MastersinCommunications.com, provides students interested in master’s in communication programs, including master’s in strategic communication, health communication, corporate and organizational communication, and political communication, with the academic and career information they need to make informed decisions about their graduate education.

Defining Communication and Its Importance: Communication vs. Communications

The field of communication is defined as the creation, dissemination, and mediation of written, oral, and visual communication between different parties. These parties can be as small as the people within a group, or as large as the millions of people reading a website or news article. The field of communication is not to be confused with the field of communications or telecommunications, which typically refers to the development and maintenance of technological systems that transmit information, such as telephone systems, radio transmissions, data transfers, and fiber optics. While communications as a field is focused on technology, communication focuses on human interaction and how to optimize it through effective rhetoric and strategies that employ multiple forms of media.

While the majority of graduate programs in the field of communication are master’s in communication programs, some colleges and universities do use the term master’s in communications or master’s in mass communications to refer to their programs. In addition, in recent years, more programs that focus on communication networks, cross-platform storytelling, and using multiple forms of communication in integrated ways have begun using the term communications in their program titles. For example, master’s in integrated marketing communications and master’s in global strategic communications programs may both have an “S” at the end of their program title to indicate that students will study the nature of communication networks and communication channels at the mass media level, in addition to studying content strategy and other communication dynamics that operate on a smaller scale. For more information on the distinctions between the terms “communication” and “communications” with regards to graduate programs, please refer to our FAQ on the subject.

Effective communication is the foundation of all important interactions and transactions that occur in society, from company negotiations to political advocacy and institutional change. Graduates of master’s in communication programs are prepared to excel in a wide variety of roles. Examples include corporate communication specialists, policy advocates, grant writers, journalists, public relations specialists, medical and health writers, marketing researchers, and more.

Graduate Programs in Communication

For students who are interested in advancing their career in communication, either as a scholar in academia or as a professional in a corporate or non-profit setting, graduate programs in communication are available as master’s programs, doctorate programs, and certificate programs. Each of these options is suitable for different individuals depending on their professional goals, academic interests, previous degrees and work experience, and availability.

  • Master’s Programs in Communication are ideal for individuals who hold a bachelor’s degree from an accredited institution, and who either want to complete a master’s degree for advancement in their profession, or to prepare for a doctorate program in communication or a related field. Master’s in communication programs are the most common graduate program in the field of communication, and there are also an increasing number of online and hybrid master’s in communication programs to accommodate professionals who are interested in earning their degree online while still working full-time or part-time.
  • Doctorate Programs in Communication are for people who wish to conduct research in the field of communication to eventually enter a position of advanced academic research or pedagogy. While most doctorate programs in communication require a master’s degree for admission, there are some programs that offer a Master’s/Ph.D. track that accept students who have completed their baccalaureate degree. Typically, these programs are designed for students to earn both their master’s and Ph.D. and, hence, may not offer a terminal master’s option. In addition, doctorate programs are offered almost exclusively on-campus. Doctorate programs also culminate in a dissertation that represents students’ ability to conduct an advanced research endeavor that adds insight to the field of communication.
  • Certificate Programs in Communication are a strong choice for individuals who do not want to pursue a full master’s program, but who wish to advance their skills and their career in a targeted area of communication, such as organizational communication, public relations, health communication, political communication, social media management, technical communication or a different field. Typically, certificate programs in communication are comprised of a sequence of 3-5 classes that are highly focused on the area in which students wish to learn more immediately applicable skills. Many certificate programs are offered in online and hybrid formats, as their students are generally working professionals. Some certificate programs may also allow students to transfer the credits they have earned towards a master’s degree if they choose to after completing the certificate.

Academic vs. Applied vs. Generalist Master’s in Communication Programs

For students researching master’s degrees in communication, programs can generally be divided into thematic categories that are separate from program specializations. It is important to understand these themes so that students can choose a program that aligns with their professional and career goals. Programs can generally be categorized into three buckets: academic programs, applied communication programs, and “Generalist” programs that offer coursework in both communication theory and applied skill development.

  • Academic Master’s in Communication Programs: Students who want to study communication and conduct social scientific research should look for programs designed to prepare students for doctoral programs in communication. These programs focus on teaching students communication theories and research methodologies designed to prepare them to become communication scholars and/or teach communication at the college level. These programs are typically offered on-campus and follow a traditional two-year master’s program format where students either teach undergraduate courses (through a teaching fellowship) or conduct research (through a research fellowship) while pursuing their master’s degree. Common program names include Master’s in Communication Studies and Master’s in Interpersonal Communication, though specific concentrations for research and scholarship-focused master’s in communication programs will vary.
  • Applied Master’s in Communication Programs: Master’s in applied communication programs focus on preparing students for careers in industry through courses that focus on concrete skills development. Students typically still take core courses in communication theory, communication research methods, and interpersonal communication, but the concepts they learn in these classes are placed in the context of improving communication and media strategies within and for businesses and organizations. For example, depending on the specialization (see below for more information on communication specializations), programs may combine core communication courses with applied courses in organizational communication, organizational leadership, integrated marketing communications, and media and public relations. The goal of these programs it to prepare students to work in industry. As such, while there are traditional on-campus programs, many offer evening courses and/or online courses designed for working professionals. Common applied communication programs include Master’s in Strategic Communication and Master’s in Integrated Marketing Communication.
  • Generalist Master’s in Communication Programs: While there are a handful of academic programs specifically designed to prepare students for doctoral programs, many master’s in communication programs can be thought of as “generalist” programs that combine theoretical and applied concepts in their curricula. These programs are designed to allow students to choose either an academic or professional career path post-graduation. One way this is achieved is by allowing students to customize their program through choosing applied and/or theoretical courses for their elective requirements. Many smaller universities that offer a single master’s in communication program or universities that do not offer a doctoral program in communication will offer a generalist type program.

Important Considerations When Researching Academic vs. Applied Programs

Students should note that while some program specializations are more clearly defined as academic versus applied, for example communication studies versus strategic communication or integrated marketing communications, students may not be able to tell if a program is academic, applied, or generalist based on the specialization and/or program name alone. For example, a master’s in mass communication program may have a professional/applied track in which students learn about different types of media and how to manage media campaigns, and a theory/research track where students study different forms of media and how media is used to impact society. Another example would be master’s in health communication programs which can focus on researching interpersonal communication in healthcare settings (which would be more of an academic program) or marketing and public relations in the healthcare industry (which would be more of an applied program).

Generalist master’s in communication programs may have emphases or areas of focus that are not clearly indicated by their program name. For these programs, focus areas are often determined by the expertise and/or research interests of the faculty who teach in the program. Finally, some programs focus on how to use communication theories and methods to promote social justice. There are both academic and applied communication programs that focus on social advocacy, the difference is that academic programs are typically designed for students who want to study the root causes of social injustice and discrimination from a communication perspective, while applied programs focus on how communication strategies can be used to drive social movements and campaigns designed to promote positive social change. Due to these variances, students should thoroughly research programs to understand the concepts, principles, and methods they can expect to learn before applying.

Note: The program categories outlined above are general and meant to help students better understand the types of programs that are available so that they can choose a program that aligns with their academic and professional goals. Students should think of master’s in communication programs on a spectrum, with fully academic and fully applied programs on each end, and generalist programs that combine academic and applied coursework in the middle to varying degrees, depending on the specific specialization or emphasis of the program. In general, the majority of master’s in communication programs fall somewhere in the middle.

Master’s in Communication Specializations

With the advent of new technologies and forms of media, including social media, smaller independent news outlets, and company and consumer blogs, there are now more ways than ever to make an impact through compelling communication. Master’s in communication programs give students the knowledge and skills to stay abreast of the latest developments in communication, so that they can further their career in a field that is constantly evolving. Many master’s in communication programs offer students different specialization options so they can tailor their graduate education to their professional and career interests. Individuals can now find master’s of communication programs in:

  • Communication Studies, Interpersonal Communication, and Communication Theory
  • Strategic Communication
  • Political Communication
  • Health Communication
  • Business, Corporate and Organizational Communication
  • Global and International Communication
  • Media Communication and Mass Communications (including Digital Communication)
  • Public Relations and Marketing Communication
  • Communication Informatics
  • Technical Communication

Core courses for master’s in communication programs tend to vary by program specialization–in other words, a master’s in technical communication will generally have different core courses than a master’s in marketing communication or a master’s in global communication. However, master’s in communication programs across different specializations tend to have one or two core courses that cover similar fundamental communication theories and methods of communication research. After students complete the core curriculum of their program, they take courses that are either specific to their chosen specialization, or (for more generalist master’s in communication programs) classes that align with their academic and professional interests. Examples of electives that students might choose from, depending on their program and concentration, include persuasive rhetoric, behavior change through communication, public relations communication, strategic communication, marketing, family communication, and political campaign management, just to name a few. To learn more about the common specializations for master’s in communication programs, as well as the typical courses included in these programs, please refer to our Master’s in Communication Specializations section.

Master’s in communication programs are typically comprised of 30-45 course credits, and many offer students both full-time and part-time courses of study. Completion times for master’s in communication degrees can vary; for example, while some programs allow students to finish their degree in as little as 12-15 months, others allow students to complete their program over 2-3 years of full-time or part-time study. Additionally, some online master’s in communication programs allow students to take as many or as few courses as they desire each term, and to even earn their degree over the course of up to 5-8 years if they wish. Due to the variety of program structures available for master’s in communication programs, students should research program options thoroughly to find a program that matches their desired degree completion timeline.

Master's in Communication Specializations

Professor teaching a class of students
Master’s in Communication Studies and Interpersonal Communication

Master’s in Communication Studies programs teach students how to analyze communication’s role in social, economic, and political contexts, and how to apply rhetorical strategies in these settings.

International businessman talking on his cell phone
Master’s in Global Communication and International Communication

Master’s in Global Communication and International Communication train students to be effective communicators in such contexts as global marketing and PR, international politics, and activism.

Health communicator going over information with health care providers
Master’s in Health Communication

Master’s in Health Communication programs teach students how to develop effective health campaigns and educate patients, providers, and the public on health issues.

Three women discussing marketing data at a desk
Master’s in Marketing Communication and Public Relations

Master’s in Marketing Communication and Public Relations programs include courses in marketing and public relations principles and the methods for designing media campaigns.

Tablet with different types of media icons
Master’s in Media and Mass Communication

Master’s in Mass Communication and Media Studies programs teach students the principles of media management, the history and theory of mass communication, and digital storytelling strategies.

Business meeting in a conference room
Master’s in Organizational Communication

Master’s in Organizational and Corporate Communication programs teach students about organizational leadership and communication, including training, crisis management, and public relations.

Politician giving a speech at a podium
Master’s in Political Communication

Master’s in Political Communication programs train students in the fundamentals of political campaign management, policy development and advocacy, and crisis communication.

Women giving a presentation to colleagues
Master’s in Strategic Communication

Master’s in Strategic Communication programs teach students about strategic storytelling and project management in organizational settings, public relations and marketing, and interpersonal communication.

Researcher reading a report at his workbench
Master’s in Technical Communication

Master’s in Technical Communication programs teach students to write, edit, and manage scientific, technical, and medical publications, such as research proposals and instructional materials.

Campus, Hybrid, and Online Master’s in Communication Programs

With advances in distance learning technologies, students can now choose between programs with different course delivery formats that are compatible with their schedule and other professional and personal obligations. Below is a summary of the main types of master’s in communication programs.

campus program icon Campus Programs

Campus programs, as the name suggests, require students to attend classes on a physical campus. For students who live near a college or university that offers a Master’s in Communication program (or who plan to relocate for graduate school), these are traditional on-campus programs that require students to travel to campus to attend live classes and lectures. Campus programs can be particularly beneficial for students who prefer interacting with program faculty and peers in-person, and having the structure of classes on a physical campus. Being a part of a larger campus community and its attendant resources (e.g. career center, library, etc.), can also prove useful and beneficial to students’ learning. However, this type of program tends to be the most limiting in terms of students’ schedules, because students must block off times to travel to campus for classes, examinations, group projects, and meetings with faculty members. In addition, a campus-based program may not be an option for students who do not live near a university that offers a program, or for students who cannot routinely travel to campus for personal reasons (e.g. due to family obligations, financial limitations, disabilities) or professional reasons (e.g. work or travel requirements).

online program icon Online Programs: Fully Online (100%) and Limited Campus Visits

Fully Online Programs: In contrast to campus programs, 100% online programs grant students a great degree of flexibility by removing the need for students to travel to campus to attend classes. Online programs mainly utilize two forms of instruction–asynchronous and synchronous. All online programs have asynchronous components, which are pre-recorded lectures, course modules, and other educational materials that students can access at any time. Synchronous course components include any course element that requires students to be online at a specific time–for example, to participate in a discussion, attend a live lecture or take a live timed exam.

Some online master’s in communication programs contain solely asynchronous components, while others incorporate synchronous elements to enhance student engagement with the content. When deciding between programs that do or do not have synchronous instruction components, students should assess whether they would prefer flexibility in terms of when they listen to course lectures, or would they prefer more live lectures that allow them to ask instructors questions in real-time and discuss course content with their peers. Programs that mainly utilize asynchronous instruction typically use online discussion forums to promote student-instructor and student-student interactions. In addition, instructors may still hold live office hours where students can ask questions either over the phone or through video conferencing.

Online Programs with Limited Campus Visits: Online programs with limited campus visits are similar to fully online programs, except they require students to attend a limited number of on-campus sessions or intensives. These intensives, which typically span a weekend to a week in length, give students the chance to meet their classmates as well as program faculty in-person, and to engage in interactive learning activities and networking events. Campus visits also allow students to feel more a part of a larger academic community; however, they require time and typically travel costs are not included in program tuition and fees. Currently, 5 out of 121 online programs require limited campus visits.

MastersinCommunications.com, defines an online program as one that requires two or fewer visits to campus per year. Any programs that have online courses but which require more than two campus visits per year are classified as hybrid programs.

hybrid program icon Online / Hybrid Programs

Online/Hybrid programs are programs that have the majority of their instruction online, but require students to attend several on-campus sessions each year. Any program that requires 3 to ~5 campus visits per year is defined as an Online/Hybrid program. MastersinCommunications.com created this classification to ensure that students could easily identify online programs with 0-2 versus 3-5 required campus visits per year. This distinction may be important for students considering out-of-state online programs as travel to in-person sessions is often not included in tuition costs or university fees.

campus program icon hybrid program icon Hybrid / Blended Programs

Hybrid programs are programs that mix on-campus and online course components, giving students the benefits of a campus-based program, but with less flexibility than online programs. Hybrid programs encompass a wide range of program types, from programs that have on-campus courses and online courses to programs that have online courses that require students to visit the campus multiple times during the term (for example, once a month). (Programs that require students to visit the campus once per week are classified as campus programs unless they contain the option to take some courses online.)