Master’s in communication programs can be roughly divided into three categories based on their curricular focus: theoretical, applied, or “hybrid”. Theoretical or research-based programs are often social scientific programs that examine how humans communicate, including study of verbal and non-verbal communication, and how people create and perceive messages. Applied programs focus on skill development in areas like organizational leadership, strategic communication, marketing, public relations (PR), and more. There are also hybrid programs that either combine instruction or offer coursework in both theoretical and applied communication, so that students have flexibility to explore both areas. (Note: In this context, hybrid is being used to refer to the curriculum and not the type of instruction method used in the program.)

In theoretical/social science communication programs, students might explore how communication can be used for social advocacy or how different populations receive different types of messages. While master’s-level communication programs can go by a range of different names, theoretical programs are often referred to as master’s in communication studies programs, and typically include topics like interpersonal, family, and intercultural communication. While not as common as communication studies programs, there are also theoretical master’s in mass communication programs, which focus on media criticism and how mass media and media industries (e.g. newspapers, television, radio, social media, etc.) influence and impact our society at local, state, national, and international levels.

In applied communication programs, students typically still take courses in communication research methods and areas such as rhetoric and persuasion, however, these concepts are explored in the context of how they can be used to help businesses and other organizations grow or be more efficient. Programs that primarily focus on applied communication include master’s in strategic communication, master’s in integrated marketing communication (IMC), and master’s in technical communication programs. Master’s in health communication and master’s in political communication programs can be theoretical or applied, depending on their curriculum.

To learn more about both theoretical and applied master’s in communication programs, as well as the differences between them, read through the sections below.

Types of Master’s in Communication Programs

Theoretical Master’s in Communication Programs

Students pursuing a master’s in communication through a theoretical program should expect to spend much of their time focused on reading, writing, and thinking about theory and research, as well as designing and conducting academic research of their own. As a result, theoretical programs are often referred to as research-based programs, and these terms are used somewhat interchangeably.

While theoretical programs can prepare students for the workforce, and many students who attend them earn positions in industry upon graduation, that is typically not the core intent of this type of program. Rather, theoretical programs aim to prepare students to conduct their own academic research and further theory in the field. This results in graduates who typically further their education at the PhD level, where they continue learning how to conduct research and build communication theory. After earning their PhD, graduates often obtain faculty positions and continue conducting and publishing research while educating other students. For this reason, most theoretical master’s in communication programs end with the defense of a thesis, as this reflects the type of research expected in a PhD program.

In most cases, the extent to which a program focuses on theory will depend on its particular concentration. For example, specializations such as communication studies, family communication, or interpersonal communication almost always include a heavy focus on theory and research. This is a sliding scale, however, and the degree to which some specializations focus on theory may vary from program to program. Organizational communication, group communication, and health communication, for instance, tend to have a theoretical focus, but there are also many programs that take an applied approach to these concentrations.

Applied Master’s in Communication Programs

Master’s degree programs in communication with an applied focus are designed to prepare students for the workforce. As such, students in applied programs may learn about theory as a basis for their other discussions, but much of their time will be spent analyzing case studies and developing applied projects. The goal of this type of program is to prepare students with the communication skills they need to earn a job in industry or advance their current career upon graduation, and become leaders in their field. In contrast to theoretical programs, applied programs typically culminate with a comprehensive, applied project that illustrates the student’s ability to make an impact in the workplace.

As previously discussed, different concentrations within the field of communication tend to be more geared towards either applied or theoretical master’s programs. For example, programs that focus on corporate communication, IMC, PR, or strategic communication are generally applied programs. In each of these specializations, students learn extensively about the topic and how they can execute that type of work in a professional setting. As a result, students who graduate from an applied program often end up working in marketing, corporate communications, or PR, taking on positions like marketing consultant, digital marketing specialist, brand manager, content marketing strategist, internal communication manager, or public relations specialist.

Theoretical vs. Applied Master’s in Communication Programs

A theoretical master’s in communication program is vastly different from one focused on applied skills. In a theoretical program, students examine academic research and find new ways to expand on existing communication theory by conducting their own studies. The primary goal of this type of master’s program is to prepare graduates for PhD study and to eventually become scholars in the field. On the other hand, applied programs tend to focus on communication case studies and best practices, preparing students with skills they can apply to industry careers after graduation. The primary goal of this type of program is to create graduates who will excel in the workplace and be leaders in their professional field.

Beyond the basic intent of each program, there are other key differences to consider. First, the topics discussed in theoretical and applied programs tend to be different, as certain topics lend themselves better to theory, and others are more suited for application. For example, most courses in family or interpersonal communication are theoretical in nature while courses in integrated marketing communications (IMC) or public relations (PR) focus on applied skills. This is not always a clear distinction, however, as some PR courses may be theoretical, while some interpersonal communication courses may be applied. In addition, programs with the same name may be different depending on the curriculum. For example, Master’s in Political Communication programs can be theoretical (e.g. studying how people perceive political rhetoric and messaging or how social media has changed campaigning) or applied (e.g. teaching students how to manage political campaigns, campaign management, speech writing, and crisis communication).

It is important to note that individual programs are often not entirely theoretical or applied. As noted above, there are also hybrid program options and specializations in the field. These types of programs combine instruction in communication research methods with applied skill development in areas such as mass communication or organizational leadership. An example of a hybrid program might be a mass communication program that combines theoretical coursework in mass communication theory, media criticism, and research methods, with applied coursework in media management and marketing strategies for mass audiences. Another example might be an organizational communication program that includes theoretical coursework in interpersonal and intercultural communication, as well as applied coursework in areas such as organizational management, employee training and development, and public relations. There are also programs that offer a broad range of theoretical and applied courses, allowing students to customize their study plan and thereby resulting in a hybrid-type program.

Students should consider master’s in communication programs on a sliding scale, with theoretical programs on one end, applied communication programs on the other end, and hybrid programs in the middle, and seek programs that best suit their academic and professional goals.

Theoretical vs. Applied Master’s in Communication Programs by Specialization

    • Theory / Social Science
      • Communication Studies
      • Interpersonal Communication
      • Rhetorical Communication
      •  
      •  
      •  
    • Hybrid
      • Global and International Communication
      • Health Communication
      • Mass Communication
      • Media Communication
      • Organizational Communication
      • Political Communication
    • Applied
      • Business Communication
      • Corporate Communication
      • Integrated Marketing Communication
      • Public Relations and Marketing Communication
      • Strategic Communication
      • Technical Communication
  • These categories should only be used as a general guide for exploring programs, as the curricular focus of different specializations varies by school and department. Specializations categorized under Hybrid are more likely to offer coursework in both theoretical and applied communication, or have programs that fall under one or the other depending on their curricula. Communication Studies programs can also be classified under Hybrid depending on the range of courses they offer.

Capstone Requirements in Master’s in Communication Programs: Thesis vs. Applied Project

Most theoretical programs, by their nature, require students to write and defend a thesis before graduating. In completing their thesis, students must conduct original research on an issue currently facing the field of communication. This includes reviewing the current literature around the topic, drafting a study proposal that includes the research methods they will employ (e.g. qualitative, quantitative, rhetorical, mixed methods, etc.) and how this data will be analyzed, and then writing up their research findings into what often exceeds a 100-page document with multiple chapters. Students then typically defend their thesis in front of a thesis committee and potentially their entire department. A thesis is designed to prepare students for research at the doctoral level, where students are often expected to be more independent in their research studies.

In contrast, applied programs generally require completion of an applied project or praxis as their capstone requirement. Examples of the types of projects students might complete include developing a marketing communication plan, creating a training video or instruction manual, designing and building a website, or providing documented consulting services to a local organization. Applied projects give students the chance to take everything they have learned throughout their program and apply it to a real-world communication problem. As a result, they provide students with a tangible product they can show potential future employers. Consequently, it is very rare for an applied communication program to require students to complete a thesis, although some may offer it as an option instead of completing a project.

Key Takeaways

Whether a program is theoretical or applied is an important factor to consider when researching master’s in communication programs. In a sense, these are two very different degree paths. Theoretical programs tend to do an excellent job of preparing students for PhD programs, as graduates will have already had extensive experience conducting the type of research expected of doctoral candidates. In contrast, applied programs are designed to develop effective communication professionals and workplace leaders, with graduates filling advanced roles in a wide range of industries.

Students considering either degree path should be aware that the distinction between the two is often not black and white. There are many programs that fall into the hybrid category, in which students have the ability to learn applied skills while also delving into theory and research. Some hybrid programs might combine instruction in these two areas, while others are simply broad with many course offerings. This allows students to develop a program that best fits their interests based on the electives available. In a program such as this, one student can focus on an applied skillset, taking courses like PR, organizational communication, and leadership, while another can take courses in interpersonal communication, group communication, and family communication. When researching potential programs, students should examine the curriculum, including core (required) and electives courses, to ensure that course offerings match both their academic interests and professional goals.


About the Author: Caleb Malik is a digital marketing strategist. He earned his Master's in Communication from Illinois State University, where he focused on organizational communication and quantitative research methods.

About the Author: Aaron Tooley, Ph.D. is the Founder of MastersinCommunications.com. He uses his background in doctoral research to create truly great resources designed to help students make informed decisions about graduate programs.