How to Get a PhD in Communications & Media

The 21st century has emerged as a golden age in communications media. Digital technology is creating innovative new approaches to visual and verbal communication, with a range of new electronic media. Some of the new media transforming mass communications today include streaming audio and video, podcasts and RSS feeds, blogs, satellite radio, video conferencing, and online classrooms.

A PhD in art & design with a specialization in communications & media immerses you in the timeless fundamentals of human communication as well as the exciting possibilities of new media. A leading doctoral program observes that today’s PhD students in communications “are at the scholarly forefront of the communication revolution.” Choose your research area and emerge from the doctoral program a leader in communications scholarship, higher education, or professional practice.

A Guide to the PhD in Communications & Media

Communications emerged as a distinct academic discipline in the mid-twentieth century. A broad and applied discipline, communications sits at the intersection of humanities and social sciences. Early in its development, the field focused on classical rhetoric and political communications. In recent years, communications has evolved to touch a broader range of social science contexts and media applications. New developments in communications scholarship focus on issues in mass communications and digital media, intercultural communication, linguistic theory, and business communication.

To learn more about the communications discipline, visit’s Guide to Majors, where you’ll find a specific section devoted to communications.


Communications is a broad discipline applicable in a variety of contexts. As a doctoral student, you’ll have the opportunity to define a research project within a communications specialty area. The National Communication Association defines the following areas of specialization:

Specialties within the communications & media discipline include:

  • Communication Theory
  • Electronic Media
  • Mass Communication and Media Literacy
  • Visual Communication
  • Rhetoric

Communications specialties with a business or professional application include:

  • Applied Communication (organizational communication)
  • Language and Social Interaction
  • Legal Communication
  • Mediation and Dispute Resolution
  • Public Relations

Interdisciplinary communications specialties typically focus on the intersection of communications and a social science such as psychology, social science, or political science. Examples include:

  • Family Communication (psychology)
  • Gender Communication (psychology, gender studies, sociology)
  • Health Communication (public health)
  • Educational or Classroom Communication (education)
  • Risk and Crisis Communication (political science)
  • Political Communication (political science)
  • International and Intercultural Communication (anthropology, political science, business)

Career Track

A PhD in communication & media can lead to either an academic career or a leadership role in professional communications.

Academic careers center on teaching and research. University professors produce original research advancing scholarship in communications and media studies. In addition, they develop undergraduate courses and train students in communications.

Professional careers can take many shapes, depending on the context and doctoral degree specialty. PhD graduates find jobs at broadcast media companies, business marketing departments, in political campaigns, public health agencies, and more. Sample post-graduate professional job titles include:

  • Program Director, Institute of Community Health Research
  • Manager of Global Research, Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment
  • Senior Consultant for a litigation consulting firm
  • Executive Coach for a corporate training firm
  • Research Director, Independent Film and Television Alliance
  • Senior Research Director for Nickelodeon’s digital marketing analytics program

Plan for a PhD in Communications & Media

A vision of your research interests and career goals is an important prerequisite for applying to PhD programs in communications & media. This perspective will guide your program research and help you develop a plan for completing the PhD.

The following steps take you through the logistics of the application process, from finding the right program to submitting strong applications.

Step One: Find the Right Graduate Communications & Media Program

The most important phase of your graduate school preparation is finding that perfect alignment between your goals and a PhD program’s unique set of resources. The resources should help you zero in on schools that meet your requirements.

1. Find Accredited PhD Programs

First, survey your options by developing a comprehensive list of campus and online PhD programs in communications & media. Make sure all schools on your list are accredited by an independent authority. The U.S. Department of Education maintains a database of approved regional and national accreditation agencies. Accreditation is a mark of program quality; it ensures the value of your PhD to future employers and influences your eligibility for financial aid.


The National Communication Association features a communication program database. Search a comprehensive list of communication programs by degrees offered and program specialization. represents accredited online and campus doctoral programs in communications. Search Degrees by Subject or browse a list of university partners.

Peterson’s publishes Graduate Programs in the Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences, an annually updated guide to graduate degrees in the U.S. The comprehensive directory offers a section on Communication and Media, with specialized sections for media studies, mass communication, Internet and interactive multimedia, rhetoric, corporate and organizational communication, interpersonal communication, publishing, and technical communication.

2. Choose Campus or Online Format

Communications PhD programs have been quicker to embrace online education than most humanities and social science disciplines. The digitally-mediated format offers an object lesson in 21st-century communications as well as a convenient transmission medium.

Campus degrees remain a popular choice among students with academic career ambitions. On-site education offers crucial advantages for aspiring scholars and teachers–namely, access to campus research facilities, close interaction with faculty mentors, undergraduate teaching experience, and unparalleled networking with academic peers. All of these factors play a decisive role in securing a university professor job.

Online degrees offer the advantage of convenience for mid-career adults balancing work and family commitments. The digital format works best for communications students with professional ambitions. Many doctoral candidates take advantage of the independent, flexible online format, devising dissertation projects that engage issues they encounter at work. In this way, online doctoral degrees are creating a dynamic synergy between academic communications and professional practice.

Ultimately, the decision to study online or on campus comes down to your career ambitions, life circumstances, and access to research resources.


To explore campus and online PhD options, check out’s Online Degree Programs and Campus Education sections. The site also features a list of campus doctorates searchable by location.

3. Explore Academic Programs

The breadth of the communications & media discipline demands in-depth research into individual academic programs. The following factors will give you a sense of the program’s academic resources and specialties:

  • Program name (“Communications & media” indicates something different than “communications & journalism”, or simply “communications”)
  • Academic school or division (humanities or social science? Business or journalism? The context of the communications department can tell you a lot about the program’s academic orientation)
  • Faculty research areas
  • Research facilities, including technology labs and library collections
  • Specializations, course curriculum, and PhD degree requirements
  • Special programs (research centers, conferences, publications, etc.)
  • Internship opportunities

This is likely to be the most time-consuming stage of your program research, but don’t cut corners–it’s important to find a program with potential faculty mentors who share your interests and resources to support your research.

Resources helps you save time and cover more ground by automatically matching you with a school that meets your basic requirements. Simply fill out an online form indicating your academic program criteria, and representatives of matching schools will contact you directly to answer your questions.

School Web Sites post much of the information listed above. Look for links to faculty CVs and publications, research centers and special programs, course catalogs and syllabi, student dissertation topics, and more.

Academic Journals help you identify the programs and faculty producing groundbreaking research in your area of interest. Major journals in Communications & Media include:

  • Critical Studies in Media Communication (NCA Journal)
  • Journal of Applied Communication Research (NCA Journal)
  • The Review of Communication (NCA Journal)
  • International Journal of Communication
  • American Communications Journal
  • Journal of Media and Communication Studies

In addition, you’ll find journals representing just about any communications and media specialty, such as the Quarterly Journal of Speech.

4. Evaluate Program Quality

Finally, create a final list of five to ten PhD programs in communications to which you’ll submit an application. The key is to identify respected programs in your field that admit applicants with your academic background.

Assess a school’s quality and reputation on factors such as:

  • Rankings
  • Graduation rate
  • Job placement statistics
  • Applicant admissions data
  • Graduate student demographics

To gauge your own competitiveness as an applicant, take into account your undergraduate GPA, standardized test scores, and letters of recommendation.


Rankings offer a convenient means of comparing the reputation and selectivity of different PhD programs in communications & media. The major rankings include:

  • The National Research Council, Assessment of Research Doctorate Programs. This ranking includes a detailed taxonomy of communications sub-fields, including broadcast/video studies, communications technology and new media, critical and cultural studies, health communication, organization communication, speech and rhetorical studies, and more.
  • The Center for Measuring University Performance, The Top American Research Universities, 2008 Annual Report.
  • U.S. News & World Report is perhaps the best-known ranking, but it does not offer a specific assessment of graduate communications programs. The closest approximation is the Best Graduate Schools–English ranking.

School Admissions Data give you an unvarnished look at selectivity and the value of the PhD degree. Admissions department make available demographic information such as average applicant GPA and test scores, as well as detailed job placement information. Data may include employers, percentage of academic and professional graduates, starting salaries, and tenure rates.

Campus Visits can help you decide among schools. You can meet with potential faculty advisors, tour campus research facilities, talk with graduate students, visit classes, and get a feel for the campus location.

Step Two: Apply to PhD Programs in Communications & Media

Once you’ve decided on a list of schools, the application process becomes fairly straightforward. Application requirements are more or less the same from program to program, with some variations. Expect to encounter the following steps as you prepare your doctoral applications:

1. Complete Prerequisites

Eligibility requirements for the PhD program in communications may include:

  • A bachelor’s or master’s degree in communications or a related field, such as English, rhetoric, journalism, etc. If your degree is in another area, you may have to supplement your background with prerequisite courses in communications and media.
  • Standardized tests such as the GRE and TOEFL (for international students)
  • Work experience and research publications are not requirements, but can carry weight in admissions decisions.’s Education Resources Guide offers information to help you complete your prerequisites–you’ll find online courses, test preparation materials, and more.

2. Prepare Application Materials

Fill out an applicant information form and gather the following materials to support your application:

  • Faculty or professional letters of recommendation. Most schools require two or three.
  • Academic transcripts
  • Standardized test scores
  • Personal statement of research interests
  • Resume, CV, or writing sample, if requested

Be sure to leave plenty of time for materials to arrive ahead of the applications deadline. Letters of recommendation are especially vulnerable to delays, since the writer (a professor or work supervisor) typically submits the document directly to the admission committee.

3. Secure Financial Aid

Finally, line up financial aid to cover the costs of your education. Start with university financial aid applications, which include access to the following types of doctoral funding:

  • University scholarships and grants
  • Federal grants and low-interest student loans
  • Teaching and research assistantships
  • Tuition waivers
  • Work-study programs

If these sources fall short, explore alternate avenues of graduate school funding:

  • Employer tuition grants or sponsorships
  • Private scholarships
  • Private student loans (the last resort)

For more information, visit the following page on graduate education funding.

Step Three: Join the Academic Community

With your applications en route to the admissions committees, you’re free to focus on the real business of becoming a graduate student in communications: joining an intellectual fellowship. You can get your bearings in the academic discourse and make connections with your peers by:

1. Subscribing to journals

The journals listed above give you an inside look into the issues current in your field, and introduce you to the scholars leading the debate.

2. Attending conferences

Conferences offer a ‘live’ venue for experiencing and participating in the intellectual community. Start building relationships with peers and future mentors.

3. Join professional associations

Professional associations in communications and media offer resources, networking opportunities, and valuable industry perspective to orient your academic study. The major communications organization is the National Communications Association. Look for associations in your particular area of interest as well.

A PhD in communications and media offers a ticket into the upper echelons of an exciting and dynamic discipline. You’ll have the opportunity to transform how we communicate, expand our understanding of communication, or train future generations to communicate more effectively. Best of all, you’ll be part of a vibrant community of scholars who share your passion for communications and media.


  • Assessment of Research Doctorate Programs, National Research Council.
  • Best Education Schools, U.S. News & World Report (2009).
  • Communication as an Academic Discipline, National Communication Association.
  • Database of Accredited Postsecondary Institutions and Programs, U.S. Department of Education.
  • Doctoral Program in Communication, USC Annenberg School for Communications & Journalism.
  • Doctor of Philosophy in Communications, The Journalism School, Columbia University.
  • National Communication Association.
  • Peterson’s Graduate Programs in the Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences. Peterson’s: A Nelnet Company (2009).
  • Ph.D. Program in Communications Media and Instructional Technology, Indiana University of Pennsylvania.
  • The Center for Measuring University Performance.
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