Communication studies, communication science, or just plain communication all refer to an academic discipline that emerged out of research in behavioral science 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). As a result, there are numerous areas of focus within the field of applied communication, including public and media relations, marketing and advertising, and digital, political, and corporate communications.
These communication specializations are grounded in theories that are central to academic research and scholarship in communication science and communication studies. Communication theory informs our understanding of how information is synthesized, contextualized, and transmitted; how communication professionals craft messages in various mediums and target various audiences; and how the tools of communication science can be used to achieve specific business and/or organizational objectives.
A master’s in communication is a graduate degree program that offers instruction in the foundational theories and principles of communication science, the history of communication and media technologies, and the social and behavioral science methodologies that underpin communication research. In addition, there are many types of applied master’s in communication programs. These programs may focus on specific communication proficiencies and technologies, such as written and verbal communication, public speaking, and audio and video production, as well as on the functions of print, broadcast, and digital media platforms.
Many applied master’s in communication programs are further tailored to fit a particular communication specialization, like strategic marketing, public relations, advertising, political messaging, human resources management, organizational leadership, and/or corporate brand building. Students in these programs typically learn about emerging 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 may also be covered in a master’s program curriculum. The goal of these applied programs is to prepare students for careers in business, politics, media, and other fields in which effective communication, customer relations, and strategic marketing are priorities.
Online master’s in communication programs utilizes distance-learning platforms and technologies to offer online students the same basic training and instruction as their campus-based counterparts. An online program provides 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 in communication. All or most of the coursework required for an online master’s in communication program is delivered through learning management systems (LMSs), which allow students to view lectures, complete assignments, and participate in class activities without having to regularly attend in-person, campus-based classes. While some online master’s in communications programs may require a limited number of campus visits, the majority do not.
It should also be noted that most online master’s in communication programs are designed to provide working professionals with practical communication skills that have specific, real-world applications. Some online programs offer a mix of communication theory and applied communication courses, but purely social scientific, research-based communication master’s programs are typically offered on campus rather than online.
Communication, or communications as it is also called, is a rapidly evolving, technology-driven, interdisciplinary field with many subfields and specializations. OnlineEducation.com researches online communication programs and identifies programs that offer all or most of their coursework online. Programs that do not confer a master’s degree in communication, communication studies, communication science, or one of the many subfields of communication listed below, and programs that require students to attend more than two campus visits per academic year are not listed on the site. Programs are then classified based on their curricula and categorized accordingly.
Online 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 include general master’s in communication and communication studies programs that may offer specialized coursework in fields like public relations, new media, strategic marketing, business communication, corporate communication, and/or health communication through electives or designated concentrations. Some of the common designations for these types of programs, which are typically Master of Arts (MA), Master of Science (MS), or Master of Professional Studies (MPS) programs, include:
Finally, because online master’s in communication programs encompass a broad range of theoretical and applied areas of focus and specializations, programs may be grouped into the following categories:
A typical master’s in communication degree program has two basic curricular components. The first, which varies by specialization, encompasses an established core curriculum of communication skills (writing and rhetoric), social and behavioral science-based communication theories and research methodologies, and an overview of established and emerging media and communication technologies. This provides students with a conceptual framework for understanding communication processes, including the socio-cultural and technological factors that impact communication, and the strategies and technologies that may be deployed to facilitate interpersonal, organizational, and mass communications.
The second component of a master’s in communications program involves advanced coursework in communication theory and/or the application of communication theories, skills, and technologies to a particular field or endeavor. In some programs, the applied component of the curriculum may take the form of elective coursework in an area like public relations or strategic marketing. Other programs may offer more formalized specializations or concentrations in fields like integrated marketing communications, health communication, journalism, politics, and/or global communication. It is also common for an online master’s in communication program to include a capstone or thesis project that challenges students to apply what they’ve learned to a relevant subject of their choosing.
The table below provides an overview of common core courses in communication theory, research methodology, and other subject areas that may be offered as part of an online master’s program in communication, communication studies, and many specializations within the field of communication. It is important to note that master’s in applied communication programs, such as master’s in strategic communication programs, master’s in technical communication programs, and master’s in business communication programs, may or may not include classes in all of the areas listed below, and core courses typically vary by specialization.
|Course Title||Course Description|
|Theories of Mass Communication||A survey of relevant theories of mass media and its influence on individuals, organizations, and society.|
|Communication, Media, and Society||An examination of the interplay between technology, society, and media, including how communication technologies impact individuals and cultural groups.|
|Analytics Techniques in Communication Research||The use of quantitative methods in communication research, including how digital analytics and various data tools are used to measure the effectiveness of messaging, marketing, and other forms of strategic communication.|
|Communication Theory and Application||An historical overview of theories of communication and how those theories are used to solve practical problems.|
|Mass Communication: Technology and Society||An examination of the relationship between communication technologies, mass media, and society.|
|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.|
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 and/or 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 some programs require the submission of standardized test scores (usually the Graduate Record Examinations, or GRE), other 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 variations in online master’s in communications programs that may make impact the relative convenience and flexibility of the online learning experience. 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. However, programs that utilize asynchronous instruction may be preferable for students who have signification family or work obligations outside of school.
In contrast, synchronous instruction introduces more formal structure into the online learning experience. With synchronous instruction, students are required to be logged on to a program’s LMS at specific times for live online lectures, presentations, and discussions. This may be ideal for students who prefer online courses that simulate a more traditional classroom experience. While synchronous instruction may not be as flexible as asynchronous instruction, programs typically schedule synchronous activities well in advance or at times that do not conflict with work hours in order to accommodate students who have commitments outside of school.
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. Enrollment status 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 or four or more years. Some programs put a cap on the number of years a student may spend earning a master’s in communications degree, usually at five, six, or eight years. Prospective applicants should research programs to find an enrollment option that best suits their needs.
Campus Visits: Another important consideration for students in an online master’s in communication program concerns campus visits or immersions, which are required by some programs. Immersions may be a short as two or three days, or they may last up to a week to ten days. 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/or meetings with faculty and classmates. Immersions are not a component of every online master’s in communication program; in fact, the majority of programs do not require any campus visits. While on-campus sessions can be a useful part of a program’s curriculum, they may present scheduling conflicts and add expenses (food, travel, and lodging) to an online master’s in communications program. Applicants to online master’s in communication programs who would prefer a program that offers on-campus sessions should examine program requirements carefully prior to submitting an application.