Effective communication goes to the core of corporate success: organizations rely on communication to forge relationships and promote their mission. Public relations (PR) is dedicated specifically to promoting the relationship between an organization and its public(s)–customers, partners, investors, or the community at large. PR specialists rely on advanced research and communication strategies to gauge public perception, relay information, and build exposure for the organization.
Public relations today is both a business practice and an academic discipline. PR thought leaders advance the state of the art by developing new theoretical frameworks and research models. PR practitioners apply these frameworks to communicate more effectively in various public spheres: in the workplace, in advertising campaigns, in the media, and in political discourse.
A doctoral degree in business in public relations prepares you to contribute to academic scholarship and advance the professional practice of PR. Attaining this level of mastery requires focus and careful planning. This guide to the PhD or DBA in Public Relations helps you navigate the process, from researching doctoral degree programs to submitting your application.
The PhD in Public Relations
Public relations emerged as a distinct professional practice in the early 1900s. Founders Edward Louis Bernays and Ivy Lee first articulated the discipline of PR as a “management function which tabulates public attitudes, defines the policies, procedures and interests of an organization… followed by executing a program of action to earn public understanding and acceptance.” In 1950, the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) marked the maturity of the discipline by publishing the “Professional Standards for the Practice of Public Relations.”
The 1960s saw the rise of public relations as a field of academic inquiry distinct from marketing, communications, and journalism. Today’s public relations doctorates incorporate various humanities and social science fields, including sociology, anthropology, political science, media studies, linguistics, and rhetoric. For more information about public relations and communications as academic disciplines, consult WorldWideLearn.com’s Guide to Majors.
PhD or DBA?
The status of public relations as both an applied business practice and an academic discipline has given rise to two different doctoral degree options: the PhD and the DBA.
- The PhD in Public Relations follows the tradition of humanities and social science doctorates in its emphasis on academic scholarship. The degree is designed to prepare graduates for an academic career, and to that end emphasizes university teaching and original research in public relations theory.
- The Doctor of Business Administration (DBA) in Public Relations is a newer degree dedicated to deepening the professional practice of public relations. Equal in rigor and status to the PhD, the DBA emphasizes the application of existing PR scholarship to a particular area or issue in professional practice.
You’ll find further explanation of the distinctions among doctorates in WorldWideLearn.com’s Online PhD Degrees and Doctoral Programs section.
The right doctoral program for you depends on your career ambitions. Though public relations PhDs often find jobs outside the academy, DBA graduates possess a more applied skill set that enables them to negotiate the academic-professional divide. DBAs may find teaching jobs, but professor positions typically require a PhD.
Here’s a closer look at the academic and professional career track for public relations doctoral candidates:
Academic doctorates in public relations are designed to prepare students for university research and teaching careers. The majority of academic PhD graduates take jobs as professors, producing original scholarship and educating the next generation of public relations professionals. One leading PhD program has placed 72 percent of its graduates in academic jobs, with the remainder finding jobs in the private, public, and nonprofit sectors.
Professional doctoral degrees typically serve as a stepping stone to leadership or senior roles in public relations. Some of the professional careers DBA and applied PhD graduates pursue include:
- Nonprofit administrator
- Public relations consultant
- Senior development communications officer for a nonprofit
- Government agency communications director
- Corporate image consultant
- Political campaign manager
- Public relations research specialist
- Senior public relations manager
- Media officer
- Corporate communications trainer
- Press secretary or spokesperson
PhD and DBA degrees in public relations offer infinite opportunity for specialized research. Some programs treat public relations as a specialization within the communications department, but a growing number offers specializations within public relations. Typical areas of concentration focus either on a theoretical issue or an application of public relations.
Functional specializations include:
- Crisis intervention and management
- Strategic public relations management
- Promotional and product public relations
- Corporate image and reputation management
- Public relations research and evaluation
- Internet and technology resources for PR
- Legal foundations of PR
Applied specializations include:
- Public relations in politics and political campaigns
- Public relations media
- Public relations for nonprofit institutions
- Public relations research and evaluation methods
- Public relations in the entertainment industry
- International public relations
Focusing your academic interests builds a foundation for future success, helping you identify programs and faculty mentors aligned with your personal profile.
How to Apply for the PhD in Public Relations
Identifying the right online or on-site PhD in Public Relations takes planning and research. Each program represents a different take on doctoral education and the discipline of public relations. The following steps will help you navigate the research and application process.
The most important and research-intensive step in the application process is determining which PhD or DBA program best fits your academic interests and career goals. Here’s a breakdown of the research process, with a list of online resources to facilitate the search.
Step One: Develop a List of Accredited Doctoral Programs
Goal: Compile a comprehensive list of accredited PhD or DBA programs in public relations.
Online directories and accrediting agency databases can help you identify doctoral programs in public relations. It’s important to make sure that all programs on your list are accredited by an independent agency recognized by the federal government. Accreditation ensures the quality of your education and the value of your degree, and impacts your eligibility for financial aid. The U.S. Department of Education maintains a database of approved national and regional accreditation agencies. Learn more about the accreditation process at WorldWideLearn.com.
WorldWideLearn.com features a database of accredited graduate public relations programs. Search Degrees by Subject to find an online or campus doctorate.
The Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB), the major accrediting agency of graduate business schools, offers a resource for finding business-oriented PhDs and professional business doctorates. Search nearly 600 member institutions worldwide, segmenting the list by program of study (“Business Communications”), degree level, delivery format, and location.
The Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communications (ACEJMC), which accredits journalism graduate schools, can help you identify schools with communications-oriented public relations doctorates.
Step Two: Online or Campus PhD in Public Relations?
Goal: Focus your search by determining which delivery format best suits your learning style, life circumstances, and career goals.
Advances in digital communications technology have made online degrees a viable alternative to campus public relations doctorates.
- Online doctoral degrees. The online format is best suited to professional practice doctorates, which strive to create a productive synergy between education and industry. Many online PhD or DBA students work in public relations already and develop a doctoral project relevant to their professional role.
- Campus degrees. The traditional campus degree remains the preferred format for aspiring academics. Faculty mentorship and teaching assistantships offer important preparation for an academic career. Local residency affords access to campus resources such as data labs and library collections, and allows students to participate more fully in academic community events.
Explore campus and online doctoral program formats at WorldWideLearn.com. The Online Degree Programs and Campus Education sections help you find programs with the delivery format that best meets your circumstances and career goals.
Step Three: Explore Academic Programs
Goal: Identify the academic programs and faculty members most closely aligned with your interests.
Investigate each school’s academic programs, paying particular attention to the work professors and doctoral candidates are doing. Finding a faculty mentor who shares your research interests is critical to your success.
The following factors will give you a sense of a doctoral program’s unique characteristics–its approach to the public relations discipline and support for particular lines of academic inquiry.
- Faculty research and publications
- Graduate student dissertation topics
- Areas of concentration
- Curriculum and course requirements
- Academic facilities: library collections, media archives, computer labs and software for quantitative research
- Special programs: colloquia, publications, centers, community events
WorldWideLearn.com facilitates the research process by matching you with schools that meet your interests and specifications. Fill out an online form indicating your academic program criteria, and a school representative will contact you to answer your questions about the program.
School Web sites present information on degree requirements as well as links to faculty bios, course Web sites, links to research and publications, dissertation project titles, and more.
Informational interviews with potential faculty mentors can help you get a sense of the program’s resources and support for your academic interests.
Academic journals offer an inside look into the world of public relations scholarship, giving you a sense of research possibilities and helping you identify the thought leaders in your field. The major public relations journals include:
- The Public Relations Journal
- International Journal of Communication
- Public Relations Review
- Journal of Public Relations Research
Step Four: Evaluate Program Quality
Goal: Assess the relative merits of your finalists, creating a list of PhD or DBA programs that meet your quality standards without exceeding your competitiveness as an applicant.
Approach the final analysis of your program list with a mix of idealism and pragmatism. The challenge is to select five or six programs that offer the best value and admit students with your academic profile.
Assess programs using the following criteria:
- Graduation rate
- Job placement data
- Career support resources
- Student demographics
Assess your admissions prospects by taking into account:
- Undergraduate GPA
- Standardized test scores
- Faculty support for your application
- Work experience
Rankings can give you a general sense of a school’s reputation and selectivity.
- U.S. News & World Report publishes a list of Best Business Schools, including a specialized ranking for marketing programs
- The National Research Council presents a more rigorous investigation of research PhD programs in communications. Consult the Assessment of Research Doctorate Programs, which includes “Public Relations/Advertising” as a subfield of communications.
School Data Reports offer the most reliable picture of program quality, with information on job placement, degree completion, and graduate student demographics. Ask an admissions counselor or check the school Web site to gauge the school’s selectivity and to find out how graduates fare on the job market.
Preparing for a PhD in Public Relations
Once you’ve settled on a list of PhD or DBA programs, the logistics of the application process become fairly straightforward. Use the checklist below and WorldWideLearn.com’s Education Resources Guide to prepare for the doctorate in public relations. The Education Resources Guide covers practical concerns such as test preparation and financial aid, and points you to resources such as preparation courses and online research tools.
1. Complete Doctoral Program Prerequisites
Standard requirements for a campus or online PhD in Public Relations include:
- Bachelor’s or master’s degree in communication or a related field. Some programs require additional coursework in social science research methods or statistics
- Graduate Record Examination (GRE) and for non-native speakers of English, the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL)
2. Compile and Submit Application Materials
Most doctoral public relations programs require:
- Academic transcripts
- Faculty or professional letters of recommendation
- A written statement of your research interests
- Standardized test scores
3. Secure Financial Aid
You’ll find a number of resources to defray the expense of graduate school. Options include:
- Scholarships & fellowships (private and school-sponsored)
- Teaching and research assistantships
- Research grants
- Loans (federal and private)
Joining the Academic Community
With the applications in the (e)mail, you’re well on your way to becoming a public relations doctoral candidate. It’s not too early to start building relationships within the academic community. Become an academic insider by:
- Subscribing to academic journals and trade magazines
- Attending conferences and industry events
- Joining professional and academic PR associations, such as the International Public Relations Association, the Public Relations Society of America, or the Institute for Public Relations
The PhD or DBA in Public Relations represents not only the pinnacle of academic achievement, but also an opportunity to deepen your engagement with public relations as both an academic discipline and a professional practice. A doctoral education introduces you to a community of peers who share your passion for effective public communication. By cultivating your interests and goals before you arrive in the graduate school classroom, you’re setting yourself up to take full advantage of your doctoral education.
- Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communications, ACEJMC Program Information Center
- National Research Council, Assessment of Research Doctorate Programs
- U.S. News & World Report, Best Business Schools
- U.S. Department of Education, Database of Accredited Postsecondary Institutions and Programs
- University of Maryland, Department of Communication Doctoral Program
- USC Annenberg School of Communication, Graduate Degrees
- Institute of Public Relations
- Public Relations: Critical Debates and Contemporary Practice, by Jacquie L’Etang and Magda Pieczka
- University of Texas, PhD Program
- The Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB)