Mass communication(s) is a broad field, spanning traditional media to contemporary, technology-driven new media (e.g. web and social media). At its core, mass communication is messaging that is created for, delivered to and consumed by large audiences. A comprehensive academic discipline, the study of mass communication considers the function and effects of media in its various forms and how it is shaped by and impacts social, cultural, political, and social institutions.

Whether it is the study of how media influences social activities and trends or how consumer behavior informs advertising methods, doctoral-level studies in mass communication integrate communication theory, research methods, and critical analysis. The Ph.D. in mass communication prepares students to become academics, teachers, and researchers, but may also offer them pathways to careers in media-related industries, such as public relations, journalism, advertising, and mass media.

Classification of Mass Communications Doctorate Programs

At the Ph.D. level, students in mass communication programs gain a foundation in the core principles of mass communication theories and research methodologies that prepare them not only for independent research opportunities, but also to teach at institutions of higher education. Typically, mass communication programs are housed in schools and departments of communication, mass communication, and journalism. Many are offered through joint programs in schools of journalism and mass communication, including the following:

Through their Ph.D. programs, students can specialize their academic studies in diverse areas, such as the following:

  • Advertising and marketing
  • Civic and political communication
  • Health and environmental communication
  • Information technology
  • Intercultural/international communication
  • Journalism studies
  • Media law and ethics
  • Public relations
  • Sports and media

Admissions Information for Ph.D. in Mass Communication Programs

Applicants to doctoral programs in mass communication are usually expected to have a demonstrated interest in communication research by completing a master’s degree in communications or a related field. However, depending on the communication research specialization (e.g. science, politics), some programs may accept students with a graduate degree in other fields, such as biology or political science. Students should note that some Ph.D. programs require applicants to have completed a thesis as part of their master’s program as opposed to an applied project or passing a comprehensive exam.

There are some Ph.D. programs in mass communication that accept post-baccalaureate students without a master’s degree. However, these programs are not as common as traditional Ph.D. programs in mass communication that require a master’s degree for admission. Programs that admit students with only a bachelor’s degree typically require students to enroll in a master’s-level curricula plan, comprised of master’s level courses that students would have taken had they completed a master’s degree in mass communication. Once they complete this foundational coursework, student take a qualifying examination to gain entrance into the doctoral program. If they fail that examination, students earn a master’s degree and exit the communications program.

Although admission requirements vary, most mass communication programs share common admission elements, including the following:

  • Master’s degree or equivalent advanced degree (bachelor’s degree for schools that offer a post-baccalaureate Ph.D. program)
  • Minimum GPA requirements (typically a 3.5 GPA on a 4.0 scale) in master’s-level study
  • Statement of purpose or personal essay
  • GRE scores (typically within the past four to five years)
  • Official transcripts
  • CV or resume
  • Letters of recommendation (usually three letters)
  • TOEFL or IELTS, if international
  • Academic writing sample

Curriculum Details for Doctorate in Mass Communication Programs

The curriculum in a Ph.D. in mass communication program is divided between required core coursework (which typically includes classes in research methods), specialized coursework, secondary expertise coursework, and a dissertation. Mass communication is inherently interdisciplinary, bringing together mass media and messaging, including journalism, mass advertising, and social media, and other disciplines, such as health, cultural studies, and technology. Due to this discipline’s complexity, doctorate programs in mass communication typically have classes and seminars that cover mass communication principles and research competencies, as well as their relevance in the social sciences, politics, health care, and other fields. Scholars of mass communication may explore the relationship between mass communication and public health outcomes, or the connection between mass communication and the public’s perception of political figures and policies.

The core curriculum introduces students to research design and methodology in mass communication, covering topics such as mass communication theory, communication research methods, and communication pedagogy. Traditionally speaking, the core curriculum is usually offered in a three-to-four course cycle that prepares students to transition into their primary doctoral coursework in their selected academic concentration, such as information technology or entertainment media.

Depending on the institution, students complete research methodology classes (typically two to three classes) to learn how to conduct research and use historical and traditional inquiry models to mature as a systematic researcher who can contribute original research and thought to the mass communication field. After gaining an understanding of qualitative and quantitative research methodologies, students complete their second year of study in concentration-specific coursework. Concentration and elective classes vary by program, but usually require five to eight courses to satisfy graduation requirements.

After their first two years of study, students complete preliminary written and oral examinations prior to transitioning into full doctoral program candidacy to complete a dissertation. Once they pass their examinations, students spend the remainder of their time in the program planning their dissertation prospectus, conducting research, and finally writing their dissertation.

The list below highlights example courses students may encounter while completing a Ph.D. in mass communication.

  • Quantitative Methodology: An advanced examination of the research methodologies, statistical software, and analysis used in social sciences, including experiments and surveys.
  • Classical Rhetorical Theory: The study of historical rhetorical theory, covering the major historical figures of antiquity (e.g. Plato, Aristotle) and later influences (e.g. St. Augustine).
  • Communication Theory: A review of communication theory’s role across communication research, including how theoretical concepts shape and inform research in different domains, such as mass, intercultural, and health communication.
  • Teaching Communication: An overview of educational best practices in communication education, teaching students how to design syllabi, master in-classroom instructional techniques, and conduct grading assessments.
  • Analysis of Mass Media: An introduction to the various literary, sociological, cultural, and historical methods used to analyze media, including an assessment of how various communication theories have influenced modern media.
  • New Media Technology: The study of emerging communication forms (e.g. social media and the internet), exploring how they are shaping the economic, social, cultural and political dimensions of contemporary media.

The doctorate in mass communication, in general, is designed to be completed in three- to four-years of full-time study. However, many graduate programs may extend the timeline to finish, which (in most cases) is eight years of study. Some students may also decide to extend their program in order to give themselves more time to publish academic papers to improve their job prospects post-graduation. Because students typically enter a doctoral program with a master’s degree, they can generally transfer up to 30 credits of study to satisfy graduation requirements within the Ph.D. program.

Students typically must complete between 45 and 65 credit hours of study (including dissertation credits) beyond their master’s degree to graduate with a Ph.D. in mass communication. For example, in a four-year program, the first two and half years (5 semesters) are dedicated to completing core classwork, one year is reserved for preliminary examinations and a dissertation proposal, and the final year is spent researching, writing, and defending the dissertation.

The table below is a sample of how a four-year doctoral program in mass communication (master’s required), with a focus on new media communication, could be structured. In reality, curriculum plans vary by program, specialization, and even by student, so this should be used for example purposes only. In addition, some students take more than one year to write their thesis.

Fall Term
Spring Term
Year 1
  • Concepts in Mass Communication
  • Research Methods in Mass Communications I
  • Introduction to Data Analysis in Communications
  • Pedagogy in Communications
  • Research Methods in Mass Communications II
  • Data Models in Communications
Year 2
  • Communications Colloquium
  • Quantitative Content Research
  • Digital Media Communications Case Studies
  • Analyzing New Media Messages
  • Social Media Research
  • International Communication
Year 3
  • Cultural Foundations of New Media Communication
  • Dissertation Prospectus and Research
  • Qualifying Examination
Year 4
  • Dissertation
  • Dissertation
  • Dissertation Defense

Preliminary Examinations for a Ph.D. in Mass Communications

Upon completing their core classes, students must complete preliminary examinations to be fully admitted into candidacy for the doctoral degree in mass communication. These examinations vary, but typically take two formats: written and oral.

Preliminary written examinations are designed to test a student’s grasp and mastery of their field of communications and may cover the student’s dissertation prospectus and research methodologies. These examinations gauge a student’s ability to develop unique research critiques, analyze and evaluate communication theories, methodologies, and literatures, and discuss specific areas of research within their field of study.

After finishing their written examinations, students schedule an oral examination with their committee members. The oral examination, like the written examination, varies by institution. This examination tests the student’s professional knowledge and ability to think and critically respond in an open environment. Depending on the program, students may also be asked to submit a summary of their proposed dissertation research and respond to questions about its goals and structure.

Master’s in Mass Communication Versus the Ph.D. in Mass Communication

Although the master’s in mass communication and Ph.D. in mass communication share common classwork subjects, they are different programs both in their learning objectives and career outcomes. For master’s in mass communication programs, there are both applied and theory-based programs. Applied mass communications programs are designed for public relations, marketing, and new media professionals who desire to enhance their multimedia, research, and analytical skills to craft messaging and media products to reach large audiences. Applied mass communication programs are typically for students who do not plan to pursue a doctorate in communication. There are also research or theory-based programs designed to prepare students for further study at the doctoral level, and which have more courses in mass communication research and theory, as well as courses that encourage students to investigate mass communication’s relevance to human society and its development.

Both applied and theory-based master’s programs introduce students to the theoretical principles of communication. The core curriculum for these programs generally covers the major concepts in mass communication, including topics such as mass communication theory, the history of mass communication, research and writing methods in mass communication, as well as media management strategies, strategic communication principles, and technology and mass media. From there, applied programs typically cover communication strategies and practices used in multiple professional arenas including journalism, broadcasting, digital media, global/intercultural media, advertising, public relations, and media management. For example, an applied master’s program in mass communication may have classes in integrated marketing communication, strategic marketing, news media, political communication, cross-cultural communication, new and digital media, visual communication, and more.

Master’s programs in mass communication with a research and theory focus have electives that prepare students to enter doctoral-level studies in this field. Such courses allow students to delve into advanced and specialized research in specific areas within mass communication, such as mass communication for social change, mass communication and its effects on consumer behavior, mass messaging and its role in political outcomes, and the role of mass media in public health and consumer lifestyle choices.

In contrast to master’s in mass communication programs that have an applied industry focus, the Ph.D. in mass communication largely concentrates on graduating scholars with the ability to become independent researchers in the field. These programs are designed for individuals interested in teaching and research careers in higher education, as well as leadership positions in mass media, government and nonprofit, corporate communications, marketing, and more.

The Ph.D. in mass communication offers a greater level of specialized study that allows students to craft specialized academic tracks that go beyond what is offered at the master’s level. The core curriculum exposes students to doctoral level study in mass communication theory, qualitative and quantitative research methods, professional writing, and cultural considerations in mass media communication practices. Through this exploration of fundamental concepts in communication, students develop a broad knowledge of the literature, models and methodologies, strategic practices, and research methods in mass communications. They are also encouraged to build off of their research interests that they have developed in previous graduate work to deepen their understanding of mass communication and its intersection with different issues such as interpersonal relationships, cultural phenomena, political outcomes, and more.

With their doctoral-level knowledge, students are then encouraged to pursue and create their own methodological approach and apply it to a specialized area of study in mass communication research. Whether they work through a cultural studies lens or historical model of inquiry, students use their elective classes to conceptualize and develop an original research approach to developing new knowledge in mass communications.

These topics may cover any number of areas, such as political and social communication, health communication, media messaging, media ethics, media production and processes, or intercultural communication. Depending on their focus, students may study how media is used and consumed, and/or how audiences process messaging in different environments. Their research may examine how governments and politicians develop and distribute messages through different media channels to persuade public opinion, or it may consider how mass messaging through social marketing can positively impact health-related behaviors and practices, such as reducing the use of tobacco.

Students considering an education in mass communication should review the curriculum in both master’s and Ph.D. in mass communication programs to decide which path better suits their academic needs and professional goals.

Career Paths for Graduates with a Ph.D. in Mass Communication

The most common career path for Ph.D. students is to pursue tenure-track academic positions at institutions of higher education, both in the United States and abroad. Yet, graduates of doctoral-level studies in this field can go beyond becoming a research or educator in the field. Individuals with a Ph.D. in mass communication develop knowledge and skills that can be applied in any number of fields, including statistics, politics, public relations, marketing and more.

Mass communication graduates can consider career paths outside of academia, in areas such as advertising agencies, non-profits, research firms and think tanks, public relations firms, and more. Below is a snapshot of academic and non-academic employment avenues individuals with a Ph.D. in mass communication may want to consider:

  • Professor: Tenure-track professors work at institutions of higher education, conducting original research, teaching classes, and performing campus services, such as serving on committees, attending conferences, and advising students.
  • Community College Professor: Professors who teach at the community college level do not have to conduct or publish research in their area of expertise, and instead focus on developing curricula and teaching students about the theory and practice of mass communication.
  • Corporate Communications Director: Corporate communications directors manage a company or organization’s messaging, branding, and public relations, executing strategic initiatives to meet internal and external communications and marketing goals.
  • Marketing Director: Marketing directors oversee the marketing and brand strategy for companies and organizations, devising an integrated marketing and communications strategy across public relations initiatives, campaigns, digital marketing, and more.
  • Media Consultant: Media consultants work in public relations and marketing, providing strategic communications guidance to clients and businesses to garner positive press coverage, deliver consistent messaging, and promote products and services alike.