Guide to College Majors in Communications

By C Nich

The most important thing in communication is to hear what isn't being said.
--Peter Drucker

What Is Communications?

A college degree in communications is based on the Greek and Latin studies of language and rhetoric, and how they could be used as tools to benefit all of society. These ancient teachings are the foundation for many modern societies and form the core of studies in communications, linguistics, archeology, religion, philosophy, art history, fine arts, sociology, ancient history, and law.

In its highest form, rhetoric--or persuasive arguing--was structured using logos (logic), pathos (emotion), or ethos (status of the speaker) to convince an audience to believe the message being delivered. Innovative ideas were discussed through hypothesis, thesis, and antithesis--a structure which allowed scholars to consider and advance practical and theoretical knowledge which could then filter down through all sectors of society. Study any political speech or mass media message today and you'll see this rhetorical structure in use. Walk into any lab or brainstorming session and see how new ideas or processes are thought up, tested, and proven or disproven.

The concept of "communication" itself has been widely studied, debated, and held up as a mirror to culture. Common language, or vernacular, consistently evolves to define communities and to set them apart from another. Think of how hip-hop, l33tspeak, and text messaging are all ways of defining subcultures in Western society, just as the use of Latin set scholars and clergy apart in earlier centuries.

In the modern business world, a major in communications teaches you to combine a convincing argument with the appropriate medium to effectively deliver your message. It's the modern marriage of theory and application.

The information industry is present in all parts of society and employs, in one way or another, 50% of American workers. The highest percentages are seen in the medical and public relations fields.

This is a great career choice for you if:

  • You have an innate desire to understand and synthesize what you hear into a message you or someone else can use
  • You have strong verbal and writing skills
  • You display a caring, helpful attitude; a desire to teach or inform; and a never-ending curiosity about what's going on around you

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Career Education in Communications

A communication major focuses on much of the same coursework as public relations, advertising, journalism, corporate training, marketing, and business management. It's a generalist path with a wide-ranging curriculum that can be tailored to work in a variety of specific industries.

The business community is increasingly demanding a formal liberal arts/communications background for its professional candidates, rather than hiring staff from within. In some cases, an English degree is acceptable in this field since it encompasses a thorough knowledge and understanding of language and communicative arts.

Courses in economics, finance, management, marketing, and sociology can round out your communication studies and help with your entry to or advancement in the workforce. An introduction to specific fields such as engineering, computers, and biotechnology can also be important if you're looking at a career within one of these industries. Familiarity and some expertise with modern media can also be crucial. You'll need to know web design and appropriate language rules if you'll be communicating to your audience via a company webpage. If you'll be working with the media, you should understand the technical aspects of radio, television, or digital imaging.

Associate Degrees in Communication

You can start your education in communications with an Associate in Applied Science - Communication Arts. This will help prepare you for core courses in liberal arts and sciences, combined with courses to develop your critical thinking and communications skills.

Bachelor's Degrees in Communications

An online bachelor's degree in communication can be taken as an interdisciplinary program or as a major in its own right, with specializations in business communication, journalism, speech communication, or technical communication across digital, written, and visual platforms. You'll learn basic communication skills like how to produce and distribute messages, and you can specialize in organizational or mass communications, corporate leadership, management, or strategic communications.

Online Communications Degrees

Constantly evolving technical advances have opened up the playing field for communications majors--not just in terms of their careers but for their studies as well. Online college classes in communications allow working professionals to get the training they need without commuting to a campus, and are becoming increasingly popular at all educational levels.

What Can You Do With a College Major in Communications?

The career choices for communications professionals are incredibly diverse-- every business, sector and industry needs effective communication to succeed. Over $1 billion is spent annually on employee and membership communications, and even more goes toward external communications.

A communications specialist can work in human resources, advertising, publications, research and development, sales and marketing, and training departments. She or he can do contract work as a freelancer, work for a consulting or public relations firm, in the Foreign Service, in all three branches of government, in labor unions, non-profit organizations, in the medical services field, and at colleges, universities, technical and vocational schools.

For a communications career, you should have a natural curiosity and creativity, because you'll constantly be seeking accurate information and adapting it for different audiences. As a technical writer, for example, you'll combine your communications courses with industry-specific classes to learn the processes and terminology of the field you want to enter. If you're working for an engineering firm, then you'll need to talk like an engineer for employee memoranda and newsletters. You'll need to take these terms and translate them like a financial analyst for the Annual Report and shareholders' meetings, and you may need to soften the language and focus on the environmental safeguards for media releases.

Jobs in corporate communications are expected to grow faster than average; growth for non-management public relations professionals will hold steady. Job competition is strong, with preference given to candidates with industry-specific knowledge, communications training, and appropriate internship or volunteer experience.

A public relations specialist works on developing and maintaining a favorable image for an individual or organization. They work for consulting firms or large corporations, doing research and compiling data, writing reports, news releases and promotional pieces, and coordinating special event and meeting opportunities for target groups. If there's a launch for a new product, the public relations person prepares and distributes the information for the media, coordinates the location and logistical aspects of the meeting, writes the speeches and briefs the executives on answering questions, and establishes themselves as the liaison for any further information. They plan for the worst-case scenario by having generic news releases ready for emergency distribution and by educating key personnel on the value of "no comment" until they've had a chance to assess the situation and decide how best to present the information and what information to give. They often specialize in a specific skill, such as crisis management, or industry, such as healthcare. A bachelor's degree is considered the minimum level of education and a master's is generally required for a public relations manager.

Along the same lines, a public information officer works in government communications to gather information and write media releases, speeches, and newsletters to inform the public about certain topics or events. They can also work for zoos, parks, or museums and can advance to higher profile positions by earning a master's degree in communications, journalism, or public relations.

A good publicist knows how to turn scandal into positive publicity. They work to gain coverage for their famous or not-so-famous clients. They might try to generate excitement about a new project a film star is involved in, to indirectly increase that star's earning potential through higher ticket sales. They can organize a merger launch that makes a hostile takeover look like a fabulous opportunity for growth and success. They can turn a long-fought labor dispute into a big-grin, hand-shaking photo opportunity.

A communications director will work with the executive director of a non-profit organization to promote the policies and goals of the group. They perform much of the same types of duties as a public information officer, but will focus more on ways to get the public involved with the organization as a way to develop a higher profile which indirectly increases funding, sponsorship, and opportunities to help more people.

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Certification, Licensure and Associations

Relatively few advertising, marketing, and PR managers are currently certified, but the number of managers who seek professional recognition is expected to grow as the industry becomes more competitive. Comprehensive examinations and presentations of your successful projects can earn you professional accreditation with the Public Relations Society of America, the International Association of Business Communicators, or the Canadian Public Relations Society. The Society for Nonprofit Organizations may be a good networking outlet for communications directors.

About the Author
Contributing writer to World Wide Learn

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