Rhetoric is the study of language across its various formats, including spoken, written, and visual. It considers how language is constructed and shared within social, economic, and cultural practices and institutions. Scholars in the field study how language has the power to produce social change, be used to organize and control, and craft meaning and identity. This type of literacy study has wide-ranging implications across multiple arenas, such as K-12 writing instruction, technical communication, diversity of language, gender and race language, and writing program administration in higher education.

Ph.D. programs in rhetoric focus on the underlying theories in composition, introducing students to contemporary strategies to analyze the relationship between various texts (e.g. visual, written, digital, audio), technology, and literacy practices. Graduates are prepared to pursue teaching and administrative responsibilities in academia and to work in technical communication and writing program administration, as well as media studies and related areas.

Classification of Rhetoric Doctoral Programs

Students in doctoral programs in rhetoric gain an advanced understanding of the core theoretical, methodological, and practical approaches and orientations in rhetoric and composition. Through this education, students are prepared for academic careers focusing on rhetoric theory, the writing process, communication principles, and discourse analysis both within higher education and throughout the private sector. Generally, rhetoric programs are offered by schools and departments of English or rhetoric. Example Ph.D. programs include the following:

Rhetoric is a wide-ranging field that calls upon a variety of technical analysis methods, such as discourse and textual analysis, along with field research to prepare students to examine a variety of pedagogical, civic, political, cultural, and professional topics. These subjects vary by institution, but common academic areas of practice within rhetoric include the following:

  • Technical communication
  • Philosophy and critical theory
  • Text and narrative
  • Gender and sexuality
  • Race and identity
  • Writing pedagogy

Admissions Information for Ph.D. in Rhetoric Programs

The majority of rhetoric Ph.D. programs require students to either hold a master’s degree in rhetoric (or a closely related field, e.g. English) or be in the process of completing their master’s degree prior to enrolling. It is important to note that these programs generally also require students to complete a written thesis as part of their master’s program.

Although not as common, there are some Ph.D. programs in rhetoric that accept post-baccalaureate students who have not earned a master’s degree. These programs, which are sometimes referred to as M.A./Ph.D. programs, allow students to complete a curriculum that includes a master’s-level program of study that mirrors traditional Master’s in Rhetoric degree programs. Upon completing their master’s coursework, students traditionally take a qualification examination that grants full admission to the Ph.D. program in rhetoric. If they do not pass the qualifying examination, students graduate with a master’s degree in rhetoric and exit the program.

Although admission requirements vary by institution, common admission elements include the following:

  • Statement of purpose/interest
  • Letter of application
  • Academic writing sample
  • Letters of recommendation (typically two to three letters)
  • Official transcripts
  • Official GRE scores (generally no older than five years)
  • Minimum GPA (typically 3.5 for master’s-level work)
  • Curriculum vitae/resume
  • IELT or TOEFL scores, if international

Curriculum Details for Ph.D. in Rhetoric Programs

An expansive field of study, rhetoric familiarizes students with discourse analysis, teaching them how language is developed and shared in cultural, social, economic, community, and other contexts. In rhetoric Ph.D. programs, required curriculum is divided between core courses, research methodology classes, academic concentration courses and electives, and a dissertation. Through the study of theory and research methodologies, students can systematically explore the relationship between rhetoric and language theory in various disciplines, such linguistics, science, technology, and more. Rhetoric scholars may research how cultural assumptions about political language influence how people vote or how digital literacy is changing how teenagers construct meaning in cyber spaces.

The core curriculum for these programs generally consists of four-to-six classes that introduce students to doctoral level scholarship, and introduces them to the history of rhetoric, contemporary rhetorical theory, and modern practices in writing instruction. Although specific requirements vary by program, students typically create a plan of study that includes coursework in both qualitative and quantitative research methods as well as writing pedagogy.

After satisfying core curriculum requirements, students transition into their academic concentration and elective classwork. These classes are specific to the student’s chosen research area, such as composition, public speaking, African American rhetoric, community language, or social change. By the conclusion of their specialization coursework, students should be familiar with the literature in their research area, its theory, and its practices.

Traditionally, after finishing their core classes and academic concentration courses at the end of their second year or third year, students will start the qualifying examination process. These examinations must be passed successfully to gain full candidacy to the doctorate program and receive permission to begin work on the dissertation. Once the examinations are complete, students spend the remainder of their time in the program creating a dissertation prospectus, conducting research, writing their dissertation, and defending the dissertation with their committee when complete.

The list below includes a range of example courses students may take while completing a Ph.D. in Rhetoric graduate program:

  • Discourse Analysis: This class explores the methodological approaches used to describe written and spoken text, including how they are shaped by cultural, psychological, and linguistic processes and other influencing factors.
  • Theory and Practice of Writing Instruction: An overview of writing pedagogy, the history of writing instruction and its major theories, this course teaches students about contemporary practices in curriculum design, such as course planning, assignments, and student evaluation.
  • Rhetorical Theory: This course is an introduction to the central contemporary rhetorical theory that is used by researchers and scholars, including a review of the major contributors to the field, such as Kenneth Burke and Richard Rorty.
  • History of Rhetoric: This class focuses on the chief figures and texts in the history of rhetorical theory, tracing rhetorical theory through Plato and Aristotle to the Renaissance thinkers to modern thinkers such as Derrida and Bakhtin.
  • Teaching Professional Writing: This course provides students with a foundational understanding of the core concepts, theories, and practices of professional writing and writing pedagogy, covering subjects such as genre, document design, and professional writing ethics.

Traditionally, the Ph.D. in rhetoric program is designed to be completed in three- to four-years of study. However, the time to completion may be longer as students spend between one to three years writing their dissertation. Overall, most programs require students to complete between 70 to 80 post-baccalaureate credit hours of study, including their master’s degree and dissertation credits. In most cases, students can transfer up to 15 to 30 credit hours of master’s level work into their doctoral plan of study.

For example, the first two years of study may be dedicated to completing the core curriculum, covering major subjects such as theory, language, pedagogy, and research methodologies. Students also complete electives, and seminar-based classes on their research area of interest. During this time, students may also participate in a yearly performance review, be required to present a major paper, and teach courses in reading and writing to undergraduate students.

After completing their core coursework, students prepare to take their qualifying examinations and begin work on their dissertation prospectus. After passing their qualifying exams and defending their dissertation prospectus, students spend the final time in the program researching and writing their dissertation.

Below is a table that shows how a sample Ph.D. course plan for a student with a master’s in rhetoric could be structured. It is important to note that class requirements vary by student, the program, and the area of research. Typically, students require more than one year to research and write a dissertation. The following table is meant to be used for illustrative purposes only.

Fall Term
Spring Term
Year 1
  • History of Rhetoric
  • Introduction to Research Methods in Rhetoric
  • Theory and History of College Composition
  • Contemporary Rhetorical Theory
  • Classical Rhetoric in Written Composition
    Discourse Analysis
  • Language and Writing Ideologies
Year 2
  • Research Design in Rhetoric and Writing
  • Teaching Professional Writing
  • Gender and Writing
  • Composition Theory
  • University Writing Instruction Practice
  • Professional Writing Pedagogy
Year 3
  • Preparation for Qualifying Examination
  • Qualifying Examination
Year 4
  • Dissertation
  • Dissertation
Year 5
  • Dissertation
  • Dissertation
  • Dissertation Defense

Preliminary Examinations for a Ph.D. in Rhetoric

As they finish their required core classwork, students begin preparing to take their preliminary examinations. The purpose of these examinations is to gauge the student’s readiness to transition into dissertation research. Although specifics vary by institution, these examinations generally include written and oral formats, and include questions that test the student’s knowledge of literature in the field and information related to their dissertation. Regardless of the structure, qualifying examinations usually can only be scheduled after the student completes their graduate-level classwork, which usually occurs at the end of their second or third year in the program.

Master’s in Rhetoric Versus Ph.D. in Rhetoric Programs

At their core, the master’s degree in rhetoric and Ph.D. in rhetoric have overlapping curricula, but remain inherently different in their structures, learning outcomes, and graduates’ career trajectories. Most commonly, the curriculum in a master’s in rhetoric program is designed to provide students with a foundational understanding of rhetorical theory and composition, preparing them for continued studies at the doctoral level.

However, there are also curriculum tracks that have a greater applied learning focus, aimed at professionals who want a broader liberal arts education in composition and communication. The applied instructional track is for individuals who do not plan to enter a Ph.D. in Rhetoric program, but wish to advance their career in K-12 education, at the community college level, or in related fields such as nonprofit agencies, marketing, or public relations.

Conversely, there are theoretical and research-focused curriculum options for master’s in rhetoric students who want to enroll in a Ph.D. program following graduation. In these tracks, students can take classes with a greater emphasis on communication research methods (both quantitative and qualitative), communication pedagogy, and rhetorical theory. Whether choosing a more applied- or theory-focused curriculum, the master’s in rhetoric covers the fundamental principles of rhetoric, communication research, communication literacy, professional communication, rhetorical theory, and argumentation and persuasion.

In doctoral programs in rhetoric, the curriculum is designed to prepare students to become independent scholars who can advance scholarship in the field and teach composition in higher education settings. Coursework in these programs centers on the student’s chosen research focus and a core set of classes that introduce students to the central concepts of rhetoric, composition, and research methodologies. Developing this foundational base of knowledge readies students for the rigors of the remainder of their doctorate studies in their academic concentration.

Working with their dissertation advisor, students develop a plan of study that allows them to use a range of rhetorical research models and theories to develop new knowledge in the field. These subjects can be far-reaching, covering research in areas such as narrative and identity, writing centers, gender and race, environmental policy, English-as-a-Second-Language (ESL), economics and politics, healthcare, and more. No matter the research focus, students use their doctoral studies to apply rhetorical analysis to pose challenging questions around the pedagogy and practice of composition and communication. For example, students may research how the modern political environment is reshaping civic discourse or how organizational structures influence the idea of teamwork and workplace communication.

Before choosing an academic path, students should closely review each program’s structure, research concentrations, and faculty to make the best decision that supports their future academic needs and professional goals.

Career Paths for Graduates with a Ph.D. in Rhetoric

Overwhelmingly, most students that graduate with a Ph.D. in rhetoric pursue tenure-track teaching and research positions in Departments of English, rhetoric, and communication. Although it is not as common, individuals with a rhetoric Ph.D. may also consider employment avenues outside of higher education, in both government and the private sector.

With their knowledge of critical theory and skills in technical communication, the Ph.D. graduate could potentially consider roles in marketing, technical writing, information technology, digital media, or public relations. Below is an example list of careers for professionals with a Ph.D. in Rhetoric:

  • Professor: Tenure-track professors work in colleges and universities, conducting research in their area of interest, teaching both undergraduate and graduate courses, serving on department and university committees, attending conferences, and mentoring students.
  • Community College Professor: Instead of a focus on research or scholarship, community college professors concentrate their time in the classroom, developing writing and reading curricula and teaching courses in rhetoric and introductory English.
  • Writing Instructor: Writing instructors develop syllabi and instructional plans to teach reading and writing courses both at the community college level and at four-year institutions, and may spend time assisting students in the university’s or college’s writing center.
  • Director of Composition: Directors of composition typically manage and direct first-year writing programs at universities and colleges, teach both undergraduate and graduate English courses, attend conferences, conduct research, and serve in other administrative capacities for the institution.