At its heart, communication is the study of the human communication process. It is a process that is being constantly reshaped with technological advancements (e.g. internet, social media). That transformation has wide ranging effects not only on how humans consume, analyze, and interpret messages from different media sources, but also how they interact with each other.
Communication is a multidisciplinary field of study, one that attempts to understand human communication process and its relationship to social, cultural, economic, and political institutions and practices. Through instruction in research methodologies and communication theory, the Ph.D. in Communication teaches students to analyze the complex interactions between those institutions – whether the news media or government. With that skill set and knowledge, graduates are prepared to pursue careers in academia as professors and researchers, but also leadership positions throughout communications, in areas such as journalism, public relations, corporate communications, or advertising.
Classification of Communication Doctoral Programs
Through doctoral studies, students in communications programs develop a comprehensive understanding of the foundational principles of communication and its processes, institutions, and research methodologies. This grounding prepares students to pursue careers in academia, conduct independent research, or move into the private sector in the communication industry. Typically, communication programs are offered by schools and departments of communication or journalism. Example programs include the following:
- American University
- Columbia University
- Northwestern University
- The Ohio State University
- University of Colorado Boulder
- University of Massachusetts-Amherst
- University of Southern California
The field of communications has distinct academic elements, each with its own theories, research methodologies, and applications. Common discipline specializations include the following:
- Communication theory
- Cultural studies
- Feminist studies
- Film studies
- Global communication
- Intercultural communication
- Language and social interaction
- Media effects
- Political communication
- Popular culture
- Rhetoric and public discourse
Admissions Information for Ph.D. in Communication Programs
Applicants to doctoral programs in communication are generally encouraged to have a master’s degree or be in the process of completing a master’s degree in communication or a related field, such as journalism. Students should also note that many Ph.D. programs require students to have completed a thesis as part of their master’s program for admission.
However, there are Ph.D. programs in communication that accept students who hold a bachelor’s degree, but not a master’s degree. Unlike traditional programs requiring a master’s degree, M.A./Ph.D. options are not as common. Students admitted to the M.A./Ph.D. program usually start their studies with a masters-level academic plan that includes coursework students would have completed in a master’s in communication program. Once they complete their core classes, students sit for a qualifying examination to gain admission to the Ph.D. program. If they do not pass the examination, students exit the program and graduate with a master’s degree in communication.
Although specific admissions criteria vary by program, most programs share the following requirements:
- Statement of purpose/interest
- Letters of recommendation (usually two to three letters)
- Academic writing sample
- Official GRE scores (generally no older than five years)
- Official transcripts
- Minimum GPA (typically 3.0 for undergraduate work and 3.5 for master’s-level work)
- CV or resume
- IELT or TOEFL scores, if international
Curriculum Details for Ph.D. in Communication Programs
In a communication Ph.D. program, curriculum is split between required core classes, academic concentration coursework, outside electives, and a dissertation. Communication is a broad, interdisciplinary field that combines the study of the social sciences, humanities, media, journalism, the arts, and related disciplines such as technology. Through lecture- and seminar- classes, these programs introduce students to the foundational theories of communication, research methodologies, and academic literature, and their connection to fields such as rhetoric, politics, and media studies. Researchers and scholars in the field may explore how technology is reshaping the modern media system or examine religion’s relationship to political discourse in the United States.
In the first year of study, students are introduced to communication studies at the doctoral level, including a review of the disciplines central theories and concepts. The initial three-to-six classes in the core curriculum orient students to Ph.D. scholarship and prepare them to conduct independent research by teaching them how to conduct literature reviews, ask incisive research questions, and establish methodological designs.
Although classes vary by institution, students typically complete coursework in quantitative and qualitative research methods, scientific approaches to communication, and communication theory (e.g. media or rhetoric). After honing their knowledge of research methodologies and theoretical practice, students transition into a second-year program that includes degree concentration and elective classes. This coursework is specific to the student’s specific research interests, such as media and culture, health communication, or political and public discourse. By the end of the second year, students should have gained an advanced level of competence in their research specialization.
Upon completing their core curriculum and academic concentration coursework, students will form their doctoral dissertation committee and begin their qualifying examinations. Qualifying examinations, both written and oral, typically must be passed for the student to transition into doctoral candidacy to research and write their dissertation. After successfully passing their qualifying examinations, students spend the final year or more developing and defending a dissertation prospectus, conducting independent research, and finally writing and defending their dissertation.
The list below describes a range of sample courses students may take while enrolled in a Ph.D. in Communication program:
- Quantitative Research Methods in Communication: An introduction to the practices of qualitative research, exploring topics such as discourse analysis, historiography, and ethnography.
- Classical Rhetorical Theory: An exploration of rhetorical theory from antiquity through the fifth century, spanning the works of Plato to St. Augustine.
- New Technology Media: A high-level overview of how the rise of digital media, in particular the internet, has reshaped communication, covering related subjects such as virtual spaces and artificial intelligence.
- Feminist Theory in Communication: The study of broad topics in feminist theories in communication, covering areas such as technology and science, the workplace, language, and feminist critiques of media and film.
- Media and Politics: A discussion of the relationship between politics in the United States and mass media, considering subjects such as social media and modern election campaigns, digital media use in political reporting, and the convergence of media and political issues.
Typically, the Ph.D. in Communication is designed for students to graduate after three- to four-years of full-time study. However, most graduate programs allow for a timeline extension, which is–generally–up to eight years of study at the institution. Reasons for extending the time to graduation vary by student, as some may take a break to start a family, while others may take longer to complete additional research for their dissertation, or to have the opportunity to publish their research in academic journals. Students who enter an M.A./Ph.D. program can expect closer to five to six years to complete their program.
To earn their Ph.D. in Communication, students usually must complete 80 to 90 total credit hours of study, including their dissertation and master’s degree credits. In most cases, programs that require a master’s degree for admission allow students to transfer and apply up to approximately 30 credits of their master’s degree to their doctoral graduation requirements. For example, in a three-year program, the first year is spent completing core curriculum. Year two is dedicated to finishing electives and academic concentration classwork, and preparing for and taking qualification examinations, and writing a dissertation prospectus. The final year is spent in research, writing, and defending the dissertation.
The table below serves as an example for how a four-year communication Ph.D. curriculum plan might be structured for a student entering with a master’s degree. Due to the unique nature of doctoral study, curriculum plans vary based on the student, the institution, the plan of study, and the academic concentration. Additionally, most students require more than one year to research and write their dissertation. The following table should be used only for example purposes.
Preliminary Examinations for a Ph.D. in Communication Studies
After finishing their required core coursework, students must pass preliminary examinations to be admitted into candidacy for the doctorate degree and to work on their dissertation. Although specific requirements vary by institution, the two common testing formats are written and oral examinations.
The written and oral examinations cover the student’s understanding of methodology and theoretical core classes, their dissertation research area, as well as related courses in the student’s plan of study. In most cases, the examinations are scheduled when the student’s graduate course work is finished, which is usually either at the end of their second or third year of study.
Master’s in Communication Versus Ph.D. in Communication Programs
The Ph.D. in communication and master’s degree in communication share curriculum similarities, but are different programs in their structure, program objectives, and career outcomes. At the master’s level, there are two common curricula tracks: applied and theoretical. Applied master’s programs in communications are generally geared towards professionals seeking to advance their careers through additional training in communication theories, strategic communication, research, analytics, and written, verbal and visual communication. . The applied option is typically designed for individuals who do not wish to pursue a Ph.D. in communication after earning their master’s degree.
In addition, there are theory- and research-based master’s in communication degree programs designed for students who do plan to pursue a doctorate in communication following graduation. Generally, these programs include additional coursework in communication theory and research methodologies, writing, and literature analysis. While some specializations in communication are inherently more applied, for example, strategic communication or public relations and marketing communication, master’s in communication studies programs typically follow a more theoretical and research-based curriculum.
However, both types of programs traditionally share similar core curriculum, including the study of the principles and practices of communication, professional writing and editing, qualitative and quantitative research methods, message creation, and strategic persuasion techniques. The applied communication track then focuses on developing the student’s skills in critical thinking, writing and presentation, leadership, and interpersonal communication that can be used across the communication industry, including journalism, new media, marketing, public relations, digital media, healthcare, entertainment, and more. While the theoretical track emphasizes the student’s mastery of research skills, preparing them for future study at the doctoral level.
At the doctoral level, the Ph.D. in Communication is traditionally focused on graduating students with the research skills and knowledge required to conduct independent academic scholarship in the field of communication. Beyond careers in academic settings, the Ph.D. program also can prepare students for leadership roles throughout the communications industry, in journalism, advertising and marketing, corporate communications, government and nonprofit, and more.
The curriculum in a Ph.D. in Communication revolves around a specialized, unique program of study. The core curriculum introduces students to the fundamental theories of communication, as well as qualitative and quantitative research methodologies, and strategic communication approaches used by scholars practicing in the field. This study of the core theories and concepts of communication allows students to understand how to read and interpret academic literature, prepare research design methodologies, and write at the doctoral level.
Continuing from their master’s research interests, doctorate students construct their own approach to research methodologies and use it to produce original thought in specific areas of communication. These subjects can broadly cover any diverse number of research areas, such as science and environmental communication, media, society, and politics, organizational communication, health communication, or intercultural communication. For example, students may examine how the relationship between digital technology and media is altering society’s decision-making ability, or how environmental communication impacts public policy surrounding conservation projects.
Before settling on a communication program, prospective students should review the curriculum structure, faculty, and research areas to decide which option best aligns with their academic needs and professional ambitions.
Career Paths for Graduates with a Ph.D. in Communication
The majority of Ph.D. students in communication enter tenure-track career paths in academia following graduation. However, graduates may also pursue employment opportunities in communication industries, applying their knowledge and skill sets in areas such as politics, market research, media and public relations, polling and surveys, and more.
Individuals with a Ph.D. in communication can pursue career avenues outside of higher education, in journalism, advertising and marketing, public relations, entertainment, digital media, web publishing, and more. Below is a sample list of careers within and outside of academia that are open to individuals with a Ph.D. in communication:
- Professor: In colleges and universities, tenure-track professors advance scholarship in communication by teaching classes to undergraduate and graduate students, conducting independent research, writing articles, papers, and books, attending conferences, serving on committees, and more.
- Community College Professor: Instead of research, the primary responsibility for a community college professor is teaching, helping develop course curricula in communication, assisting with learning assessments, and serving on university committees.
- Director of Public Policy: Typically working in nonprofit and education organizations, the director of public policy develops and establishes government relations strategies to further the interests of the organization through legislation and government policies.
- Director of Communications: A director of communications manages an organization’s internal and external communication plans and activities, coordinates media messaging, develops media relationships, and creates targeted communication strategies based on audience or market segmentation.