Communication studies, communication science, or just plain communication all refer to an academic discipline that emerged out of research in the behavioral sciences and mass media in the 1950s. The field has grown to encompass practical aspects of organizational management, strategic marketing, and business operations, including concerns about branding, messaging, social media outreach, and online reputation management (ORM). There are numerous areas of focus within communication studies, including public and media relations, marketing and advertising, and digital, political, and corporate communications. Each of these specializations is founded on core theories of how information is synthesized, contextualized, and transmitted; how messages are crafted for different audiences in various mediums; and how best to achieve specific business and/or organizational objectives using the tools of communication.
Master’s in communication degree programs offer instruction in theories of communication as well as in the practical application of these theories in a range of professional settings. Students in these programs cultivate written and verbal communication skills, learn the behavioral science that underpins communication theory, and are introduced to the variety of media that communications professions rely on, including print, broadcast, and digital platforms. In addition, master’s in communication programs focus on specific applications of communication tools and skills in areas like strategic marketing, public relations, advertising, political messaging, human resources management, organizational leadership, and corporate brand building.
Students in these programs typically learn about digital communication technologies and the coordination of multi-media strategies that may include audio, video, and textual components. Issues related to the evolving media landscape, and to the legal and ethical issues surrounding copyright protections, libel, and intellectual property laws are also generally covered as part of a master’s in communication program. The goal of these programs is to prepare students for careers in business, politics, media, and other fields in which effective inter-organizational communications, customer relations, and strategic marketing are priorities.
Online master’s in communication programs offer the equivalent of campus-based master’s in communication programs using distance learning platforms and technologies. They provide students who may not be able to relocate or would prefer not to commute to a campus a more flexible and convenient option for earning a master’s degree in communication. These programs utilize learning management systems that allow students to view lectures, complete assignments, and participate in other class activities without having to regularly attend in-person, campus-based activities. While some online master’s in communications programs may require a limited number of campus visits, many do not.
Communication, or communications as it is also called, is a rapidly evolving, technology-driven, interdisciplinary field that combines knowledge and skills in business management, behavioral science, and media studies. Master’s in communication programs may be housed in schools of business, schools of arts and sciences, schools of professional studies, or schools of communication, media studies, and journalism. These programs may offer optional concentrations or areas of specialization through electives or designated tracks in fields like public relations, new media, strategic marketing, and business, corporate, and health communications. As a result, there is some variation in the names for these programs. Some of the common names for master’s in communication programs include:
OnlineEducation.com conducts independent research and evaluates all programs included on the site based on set criteria and categorizes each program accordingly. All programs included on the site must be offered by non-profit, regionally accredited colleges and universities. For a master’s in communication program to be classified as an online program, it cannot require more than two campus visits per year. Programs that require three or more campus visits per year are considered hybrid programs and are not currently included on the site. In addition, an online master’s in communication program, regardless of its name, must offer a core curriculum that covers theories of communication and their real-world application; communications skills like technical/professional writing and oral presentation; and the utilization of emerging technologies in the field of communication.
A typical master’s in communication degree program has two basic curricular components. The first encompasses an established core curriculum of communication skills (writing, rhetoric, public speaking), and social and behavioral science-based communication theories. These theories create a foundation for understanding how information and ideas are processed by the human brain, how cultural and social factors impact their dissemination, and how this knowledge can be leveraged to persuade, convince, and otherwise improve the effectiveness of interpersonal, organizational, and mass communications.
The second component of a master’s in communications program involves more targeted coursework in specific applications of core communication skills and knowledge, and the use of various media technologies in the field of communications. In some programs, this takes the form of elective coursework in specific areas like public relations or strategic marketing, while other programs offer more formalized specializations or concentrations in advertising, politics, and/or global communication. It is also common for online master’s in communication programs to include a capstone project or thesis that challenges students to apply what they’ve learned to a relevant subject of their choosing.
The table below provides an overview of typical courses that are offered as part of an online master’s in communications degree program.
|Theories of Mass Communication Practices||A survey of relevant theories of mass media and its influence on individuals, organizations, and society.|
|Strategic Communication||The theories and processes of strategic communication and its practice in business, government, politics, and nonprofits in domestic and international arenas.|
|Changing Behavior Through Communication||An examination of individual, interpersonal, and community messaging and how this can change patterns in voting, consumer choice, personal habits, and other behaviors.|
|Communication, Media, and Society||A survey of the interplay between technology, sociology, and theories of communication, including how communication technologies impact the media and the culture at large.|
|Analytics Techniques in Communication Research||The use of quantitative research methods in the field of communication, including how digital analytics and other data tools are used to measure the effectiveness of messaging, marketing, and other forms of strategic communication.|
|Integrated Marketing Communication||The integration of external and internal communication initiatives across traditional and social media channels, and the coordination of public relations, marketing, and advertising strategies.|
|Media Law||An overview of relevant laws and regulations pertaining to libel, privacy, intellectual property, corporate speech, and commercial speech.|
|Brand Building and Reputation Management||An examination of the tools and strategies used to build and maintain a successful brand through messaging, marketing, and reputation management.|
The baseline requirement for admission to an online master’s in communications program is a bachelor’s degree from an accredited college or university. Applicants must provide a transcript, and may be asked to complete and/or meet several other requirements. Many programs require a written personal statement (usually 500-to-1000 words) outlining the candidate’s academic/professional background, future goals, and reasons for pursuing a master’s in communication degree. Some programs request a brief telephone interview as part of the application process and/or the submission of up to three letters of recommendation.
While programs may not insist upon the submission of standardized test scores (usually the Graduate Record Examination, or GRE), some programs will take into account GRE scores if they are submitted. Programs may also have a minimum cumulative undergraduate grade point average (GPA) requirement, which is typically between 2.75 and 3.0, although provisional admissions may be an option for those with a lower GPA. While there are typically no specific undergraduate course or major requirements for admissions to an online master’s in communication program, some programs stress the need for strong writing skills and evidence of relevant prior coursework or professional experience.
In addition to examining a program’s curriculum and its admissions requirements, it is important to consider several key structural features of online master’s in communications programs that may make one program more ideal compared to another one. There are three key areas of difference in the structure of online programs that are worth consideration: instructional methods; course load and time commitment; and required campus visits.
Synchronous vs. Asynchronous Instruction: How online courses are delivered can make a difference in whether a program adequately fits one’s needs. There are two basic methods of online instruction. Asynchronous instruction is the more flexible of the two. It involves providing students with round-the-clock access to lectures and other course materials through the program’s online learning platform. It is important to note that programs that mainly use asynchronous instruction require more self-discipline and self-motivation, as students must be vigilant about keeping up with lectures and submitting assignments by set due dates. Programs that utilize asynchronous instruction may be preferable for students who have signification family or work obligations outside of school.
In contrast, synchronous instruction offers a more formal structure. Students are required to be present at specific times for live online lectures, presentations, and discussions. This may be ideal for students who would prefer online courses that simulate a more traditional classroom experience. While synchronous instruction may not be as flexible as asynchronous instruction, students typically know well in advance when they must attend live sessions and they can still attend them from anywhere they have an Internet connection.
Part-time vs. Full-time Enrollment: Online master’s in communications programs are generally designed to accommodate students who may be working or have other obligations outside of school. Many offer some flexibility in the number of courses taken per term. Depending on the program, students may have the option of enrolling full-time or part-time, which is defined by the number of courses taken per term and the average time to degree completion. Some programs can be completed in a few as 15 months, provided students take classes year-round. In general, a full-time student can graduate from an online master’s in communications program in two years or less, which requires completing the equivalent of three to four courses per traditional academic semester.
Students who enroll in part-time master’s programs take fewer courses per semester (typically one or two), and their time to graduation lengthens accordingly, to three-to-four years. Some programs put a cap on the number of years a student may spend earning a master’s in communications degree; this is usually between five and seven years. Prospective applicants should research programs to find an enrollment option that best suits their needs.
Campus Visits: Another important consideration for students considering an online master’s in communication program concerns campus visits or immersions. These sessions are a required part of the curriculum in the programs that have them. Immersions can be a short as two-to-three days, or last up to a week. During that time, online students are expected to be on campus (or at another location) to participate in a variety of activities, including orientation and networking events, workshops, and other meetings with faculty and classmates. Immersions are not a component of every online master’s in communication program; in fact, many programs do not require any campus visits. While immersion sessions can be a useful part of a program’s curriculum, they can present scheduling conflicts and add expenses (food, travel, and lodging) to an online master’s in communications program. Students who want to meet their classmates and instructors in person and who want hands-on, face-to-face instruction as a part of their online program, may want to consider a program that includes immersion sessions.