Rhetoric, by definition, is about examining and implementing the art of persuasion. Individuals with rhetorical skills are trained in analyzing, critiquing and deconstructing communication, whether it is written, oral or visual. Using rhetorical theory, professionals in the field consider texts in their cultural, social, political and economic contexts, and can show how communication is fashioned and interpreted within and across these contexts.
Rhetoric is a unique, interdisciplinary field of study, one that focuses on advancing our understanding of discourse and its impact on society. Whether in literature, linguistics, politics, philosophy or other areas, rhetorical research and pedagogy can be applied to make sense of how we create, receive, and use discourse to connect with others.
There are a variety of graduate programs in rhetoric studies, offering students an opportunity to pursue an option that meets their future professional goals. Although most master’s programs in rhetoric prepare students to transition into Ph.D.-level studies, there are career paths that go beyond academia in this field.
Classification of Master’s in Rhetoric Studies Programs
As it is applicable to several disciplines, graduate programs in rhetoric are found across departments – from English to Communication. It is important to note that, while similar, these programs can diverge significantly in their curriculum focus. Below is an overview of the three major types of rhetoric studies programs.
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Master’s in English Programs with a Focus in Rhetorical Studies
Within the field of English, rhetoric programs share a common theme – the study of writing, and the teaching of writing. Students in these programs are able to further specialize their studies of writing in areas of personal interest. Common academic specializations include the following:
- Gender and sexuality
- Writing theory
- Cultural theory
- Political rhetoric
Rhetoric programs within the field of English are generally designed for students who plan to pursue a doctoral program of study to teach writing at the college level or who want to move into a career in professional and technical writing. Examples of universities offering a rhetorical studies specialization within a Master of Arts in English degree track include the following:
- Colorado State University: MA in English with a specialization in Rhetoric and Composition
- Boise State University: MA in English, Rhetoric and Composition
- Bowling Green State University: MA in English with a specialization in Professional Writing and Rhetoric
- Wright State University: MA in English, Rhetoric and Writing Concentration
Master’s in Communication Programs with a Focus in Rhetoric
Within communication, rhetoric studies generally focuses on the study of communication theory and rhetorical criticism across different channels and forms of communication. As with Master’s in English programs with a focus in Rhetoric, Master’s in Communication programs with a Rhetoric focus often allow students to further specialize their studies. Below is an example list of possible specializations students could consider:
- Queer theory/criticism
- Visual rhetoric
- Media theory
- Political communication
Graduate communication programs in rhetorical studies can prepare students for future research and studies at the doctoral level, as well as for diverse opportunities in professional fields such as corporate communication, marketing, and technical communication. Examples of universities offering a rhetorical studies specialization within their Master of Arts in Communication include the following:
- Penn State University: MA in Communication Arts and Sciences with a Specialization in Rhetoric
- Syracuse University: MA in Communication and Rhetorical Studies
- Baylor University: MA in Communication with a Concentration in Rhetorical Studies
- University of Georgia: MA in Communication Studies with a Track in Rhetorical Studies
Master’s in Rhetorical Studies Programs
Rhetoric and rhetorical studies is also growing as a standalone academic program at the graduate level. Examples of these programs can be found at the following universities:
- Northern Arizona University: MA in Rhetoric Writing and Digital Media Studies
- University of Arizona: MA in Rhetoric, Composition and the Teaching of English
- Carnegie Mellon University: MA in Rhetoric
- Texas State University: MA in Rhetoric and Composition
These programs generally offer a course of study that emphasizes writing pedagogy, the methodologies of persuasion, and current practices in rhetoric and composition theory, preparing graduates for doctorate-level study and to teach in academia or enter the workplace as a professional communicator.
Curriculum Details for Master’s Programs in Rhetorical Studies
Whether offered as a specialization in an English or communication degree, or as a standalone program, graduate programs in Rhetorical Studies share similar curriculum frameworks in rhetorical and composition theory and research, as well as cultural and social studies.
Through 12 to 15 credits of first-year core courses in pedagogy and theory, students develop an understanding of how to view communication (specifically writing) within broader cultural, social, economic, technological, and political contexts. Gaining skills in discourse analysis, persuasion, and composition, students move into 12 to 18 credits of specialized coursework for their second year of study.
Elective coursework varies significantly based on the type of graduate rhetorical program students select–whether it be in English, communication, or rhetorical studies. Topics may range from writing theory to rhetorical criticism, family communication to visual and verbal design. Graduate programs in rhetorical studies offer students an opportunity to craft a unique program through specialized coursework that teaches them how culture, rhetoric, and sociopolitical systems interact, and which prepares them for doctorate-level study and careers in academia, or careers in industry.
Below is a list of example classes that students in a master’s in rhetorical studies may take during their program:
- Teaching of Writing: An introductory course that discusses the theoretical background of teaching writing, as well as central concepts that can be applied practically in the classroom (e.g. assignment creation, syllabi, grading practices, lecture development, etc.).
- Writing in the Disciplines: Advanced study in graduate-level writing, emphasizing best practices in research, writing, editing for scholarly audiences, and helping students learn how to analyze rhetorical patterns in their chosen area of study.
- Qualitative Research: An introduction to conducting research, reviewing and analyzing qualitative and quantitative research results, and developing research reports for discussion and publication.
- Composition Theory: A review of writing and its essential elements (such as grammar, syntax, and the structure and function of paragraphs, arguments, and evidence). A discussion of critical writing studies concepts and the history of composition theory, which provides students with a greater understanding of what writing is, how it functions in society, and how to teach strong writing skills.
- Introduction to Technical Writing: A practical course that discusses science- and technology-based writing, and teaches students skills in developing clarity of thought, precision of language, and effective messaging for targeted audiences.
- Writing Center Studies: A review of the writing center in university settings, studying the theory and history of writing, administrative issues and modern approaches to advance writing center practices.
- Literary Scholarship: An overview of the theories and methods behind English literature analysis and interpretation, focusing on genre, literary terms, and scholarly practices in the profession.
- Introduction to Discourse Analysis: Introduces students to the relationship between discourse and relationships, including identifying and understanding power dynamics in written and spoken discourse.
As discussed above, master’s in rhetoric studies programs traditionally require students to complete between 30 and 36 credit hours of study to earn their degree. The total number of credits varies based on whether a student chooses a thesis or project/portfolio-based plan of study. Most rhetoric studies graduate programs require students to also pass an oral examination and defense of their portfolio, project or thesis.
Depending on the program focus (e.g. English, communication or rhetorical studies), the curriculum plan of study may differ. Below are sample course plans for the various types of graduate programs with a focus in rhetoric.
Table 1. Sample Course Plan for Master’s in Rhetoric Studies
Table 2. Sample Course Plan for Master’s in Communication, Rhetoric Specialization
Table 3. Sample Course Plan for Master’s in English, Rhetoric Specialization
Comparison of Graduate Programs in Rhetoric
As noted above, master’s in rhetoric programs share similarities in their curriculum. For example, coursework in rhetoric and composition theory, research methods, and discourse analysis are commonly found across graduate programs in rhetoric, regardless of whether they are offered by a department of English, communication, or rhetorical studies. In addition, each track (English with Rhetoric Specialization; Communication with Rhetoric Specialization; and Rhetorical Studies) offers a range of elective options that prepare graduates for careers not only in academia, but also in literacy studies, communication and media, and other related fields.
Yet each track is distinct in its approach to rhetorical study, as illustrated in the differences in their curriculum and influence on how students understand rhetorical theory and gain practical skills in teaching writing, verbal, visual and written communication, and media analysis. Below is a comparison of the central differences between the various types of graduate programs in rhetoric.
English: In the field of English, rhetoric and composition are concerned centrally with writing: how it is learned and how it is taught. In these programs, concentration courses focus on composition pedagogy and the theory of rhetoric, with common subjects including composition theory, research methods in both composition and rhetoric, and writing in rhetoric studies. Rhetoric specialization courses then branch into numerous fields, including professional writing, teaching of writing, writing center administration, literature, rhetorical criticism, rhetorical theory and — in some cases — English as a Second Language (ESL).
Communication: Communication studies is concerned with the methodologies behind and processes of message creation and dissemination between people. Curriculum in these programs examines how this messaging can shape social interaction within socio-economic, political and cultural contexts. Core coursework examines communication theory and methods, covering subjects such as organizational communication, culture and communication, interpersonal communication, and rhetorical theory. After completing core classes, students move into rhetoric-focused concentration classes. These classes largely explore rhetorical frameworks, such as deconstruction, as methods to conduct analysis of written texts, oral texts and visual texts. Concentration subjects range from contemporary rhetorical theory to mass media and politics, rhetoric of digital communication to philosophy of communication.
Rhetoric Studies: Rhetoric studies offers students a conceptual understanding of rhetoric pedagogy, theory and methods. However, these programs diverge from their English and communication counterparts, as students can select from a variety of rhetoric specializations that focus on the process of argumentation in such areas as digital media, composition, or English instruction, and the history of how compelling arguments are formed and communicated across cultures. Curriculum typically begins with core classes in rhetoric and composition (e.g. rhetorical theory, composition theory, composition pedagogy) before moving into electives. Electives vary by specific program, but sample subjects include language and meaning, political rhetoric, and the history of rhetorical theory. Finally, students traditionally complete courses in their related specialization area, such as writing centers, digital literacy and media, or gender and language.
Due to the similarities between these three types of programs, students should closely review each academic path, its required and elective classes, and specialization options. Although career outcomes may be similar — preparing a student for scholarly work in academia and in some cases professional careers in industry — a Master of Arts in English (Rhetoric) may focus on the teaching of writing, while a Master of Arts in Communication Studies (Rhetoric) may concentrate on communications research methods. In the end, students should be sure the curriculum of their chosen rhetoric graduate program meets their future professional needs.
Career Paths for Graduates with a Master’s in Rhetorical Studies
Rhetoric studies graduate programs foster skill development in cultural criticism and rhetorical analysis across various modes of communication, with a focus on writing, speech, and visual arguments. These programs often help students develop communication skills that are applicable to a variety of positions and responsibilities. However, they are not as targeted or practically focused as master’s programs in communication, such as graduate programs in strategic communication, public relations or organizational communication that specifically prepare students to create digital campaigns, write press releases, and/or create strategic communication plans.
Instead, the central focus of master’s in rhetorical studies programs is to provide students with a broad understanding of rhetorical theory and pedagogy, training them to use that knowledge to view communication and writing through a variety of lenses — from post-colonial theory to race and gender. In turn, the goal is to train future scholars in the field to advance research in the field, and to understand the core elements and dynamics of effective argumentation.
Typically speaking, a master’s in rhetorical studies traditionally serves as a springboard to future studies at the doctorate level. However, because of the soft skills acquired in these programs (e.g. critical analysis, cultural criticism, pedagogical and research methodologies), students are prepared to leverage their education into a variety of fields, including the following:
- Academia and higher education
- Technical writing and editing
Although academia is the primary industry for graduates of rhetorical studies programs, students with a master’s degree in rhetoric studies can pursue a variety of careers, such as the following:
- College Professor: Working at community colleges and four-year universities, college professors teach a variety of rhetoric, composition and English classes, and conduct individual research to publish work in scholarly journals and other publications.
- Writing Center Director: Typically found on university campuses, writing center directors supervise undergraduate and graduate peer tutors, hire full-time staff, serve as center administrators, and develop processes to improve the writing center’s performance.
- Technical Writer: Working in diverse industries — from manufacturing to information technology–technical writers gather complex information about a process or product and translate it into digestible, understandable information for how-to materials, operating instructions/manuals, and other educational content.
- Communication Specialist: Using their understanding of crafting audience-based messaging, communication specialists develop collateral for internal (e.g. newsletters) and external (e.g. press releases) audiences for companies, nonprofits, government agencies and other organizations.
- Communication Manager: Working across corporate entities, communication managers develop, plan and implement communication strategies to connect with consumers, share internal company messaging, and promote products or businesses.
- Grant Writer: Typically working for nonprofit and government organizations, grant writers identify funding sources and write grant proposals to secure funding for their organization.