Answer: Due to their similarities and the skills they help students develop, it can be difficult for students to decide between a master’s in communication and an MBA. There are several types of master’s in communication programs, and students interested in acquiring skills to advance their careers in business should consider programs with a focus on applied/corporate communication. While MBA programs and master’s in communication programs may share similar coursework, there is a key difference between the two: MBA programs focus on developing the hard skills needed to make effective business decisions, while master’s in communication programs teach students to look at the world through a communicative lens, a skill that involves understanding communication theory and applying it to challenging problems for effective solutions.
Before comparing master’s in communication and MBA programs, it is important to discuss the different types of master’s in communication programs, only some of which relate to business. Master’s in communication programs can generally be categorized into three buckets based on their curricular focus: research and theory; applied communication; or a hybrid of the two containing coursework in both theory and applied communication skills. As one might expect, each of these types of programs relates to business differently, and program selection depends entirely on the students desired career path. In contrast, the core foundation of an MBA program is focused almost entirely on business administration, including management, leadership, marketing, and finance/accounting.
Master’s in Communication Programs: Theoretical vs. Applied Communication Programs
When deciding between a master’s in communication and an MBA, it is important to understand that master’s in communication programs can be theoretical or applied. A theoretical master’s in communication degree track will be heavily focused on understanding communication theories and testing their assumptions through research. As such, purely theoretical programs are quite different from MBA programs — they are social research. Students can study how people communicate and/or receive messages through both verbal and non-verbal communication. There are even master’s in communication programs that focus on how the field of communication can be used for social advocacy, to promote social change and address social injustice.
On the contrary, applied master’s in communication programs lean on communication theory to teach students skills they can apply in the workforce. In these cases, there is a similarity to MBA programs. Students who are considering either a master’s in communication or an MBA should investigate communication master’s programs that take an applied approach, not theoretical.
Note: As master’s in communication programs adapt to meet the demands of students, many theoretical programs are incorporating applied communication courses and electives into their curriculum to create hybrid-type programs. Therefore, students researching programs should review core and elective courses to discern if the course of study is designed to prepare students for doctoral studies (theoretical), professional careers in industry (applied), or both (hybrid).
Master’s in Communication Programs: Specializations
For both master’s in communication and MBA programs, students have the option to complete a general program or specialize in a specific field of study. There are a number of different concentrations available for master’s in communication programs, including, but not limited to, the following:
- Communication studies
- Mass communication and media studies
- Corporate/business communication (including strategic communication and integrated marketing communication(s) (IMC))
- Health communication
- Political communication
- Technical communication
A master’s in communication studies tends to have a greater breadth of curriculum compared to the other specializations. Students have the opportunity to select courses in an area of interest, such as interpersonal communication, family communication, organizational communication, or group communication. Because of the flexibility offered by many communication studies program, students can develop a course of study that fits their particular academic and professional goals. However, these master’s programs are more likely to be theoretical or hybrid-type communication programs.
A master’s in mass communication gives students the knowledge they need to understand, use, and critique mass media. This degree tends to focus on topics like media law, media management, media effects, gender in the media, and multimedia storytelling. These programs can be theoretical, applied, or hybrid, depending on the curriculum.
There are also master’s in communication programs that focus on business and corporate communication. For students deciding between a master’s in communication and an MBA, these applied programs are the ones they should research.
Students pursuing a master’s degree in strategic communication can expect to learn skills required for careers in corporate communication, public relations, and marketing. Coursework generally focuses on topics like brand development and identity, organizational leadership, content strategy, digital content creation, and visual communication. Master’s in IMC programs, on the other hand, focus primarily on marketing and the many strategies, tactics, and channels that are used in the profession. The curriculum typically includes courses in campaign planning, brand development, social media, direct marketing, digital marketing, and more. Depending on the program, some strategic communication programs may have a very similar curriculum to IMC programs. Both can help prepare students for careers in corporate communications, marketing, PR, or organizational leadership, much like an MBA program.
Master of Business Administration Programs
MBA programs are designed to provide students with advanced knowledge of business administration and management. Some students pursue an MBA for career advancement, while others pursue one to change careers. With numerous degree tracks and specializations available, MBA programs provide prospective students with a wide breadth of options. Students pursuing an MBA can expect to take courses in accounting, economics, marketing, human resources, business ethics, organizational leadership, and more.
In addition, students typically have the option to specialize in a distinct area of business, such as:
- Data Analytics
- Global and International Business
- Healthcare Administration
- Hospitality Management
- Human Resource Management (HRM)
- Organizational Leadership
- Project Management
- Real Estate
It is important to note, however, that while MBA programs do give students the ability to specialize in a distinct area of business, the core curriculum across MBA programs and MBA specializations is similar. As such, students interested in marketing or public relations, for example, are often still required to take courses in accounting, finance, and other aspects of business administration.
Master’s in Applied Communication Programs vs. MBA Programs
Students in a master’s in communication program are required to interpret problems and identify solutions through a communicative lens. This means studying communication theory and using it to assess real world problems to establish successful outcomes. When applied to business, master’s in corporate communication, strategic communication, and integrated marketing communications programs teach students how to use these theories to improve both internal and external corporate communications.
This is an important distinction. In contrast, a student earning an MBA may never learn about communication theory during their program. Instead, MBA coursework focuses on the use of data and best practices to make effective business decisions. This results in a course of study heavily focused on topics like marketing, finance, economics, accounting, and operations. Even in MBA programs with a concentration in communicative specialties like marketing or leadership, students still take classes in topics such as economics and accounting. Conversely, students in master’s in communication programs rarely take classes in areas like accounting or finance, unless they are offered through electives from different departments.
For students considering a master’s in communication or an MBA, this is arguably the greatest difference between the two programs. The core curriculum in a master’s in communication program focuses on communication theories and skills, as opposed to general business knowledge across many different aspects of business administration, as found in an MBA program.
Curricular Differences Between Master’s in Applied Communication and MBA Programs
To illustrate these differences, students should compare the curricula of master’s in corporate communication programs with that of MBA programs. While there are similarities in the coursework, there are also distinct differences. For example, an MBA in marketing usually includes branding courses much like a master’s in IMC. However, there will be a much heavier focus on data with courses like Mathematics and Statistics for Business and Financial Reporting and Analysis.
While MBA programs teach hard skills in greater depth than master’s in communication programs, a master’s in communication often has a deeper focus on soft skills. To illustrate, a student earning a master’s in IMC or strategic communication is much more likely to take classes in creativity, storytelling, or persuasion when compared to an MBA candidate. Furthermore, master’s in corporate communication programs may include courses that are not as common in MBA programs, like crisis communication, communication research methods, visual communication, and ethics and media law.
To get a better idea of the differences between these programs, check out the curriculum comparisons below. Keep in mind, these contain example courses and are merely representative, as actual curricula varies by program.
Master’s in Strategic Communication vs. Master’s in IMC vs. MBA in Marketing
Master’s in Organizational Communication vs. MBA in Organizational Leadership