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Online PhD in Communications Programs

Online PhD programs in communications usually have some on-campus requirements and require a dissertation. Learn more about coursework, the cost of the program, potential job opportunities, and professional resources in the field.

Overview of Online PhD Programs in Communications

Online Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) degree programs in communications are not very common. Due to the vastness of the field, these PhD programs are available in areas like communications, technical communication and rhetoric, or rhetorics, communication, and information design. In general, degree programs in communications examine how humans communicate with each other, either verbally or nonverbally, and are often focused on theories of communication in fields like media, journalism, law or politics.

Some of these online programs can be completed online, but they are more often offered in a hybrid format. These hybrid programs may require an on-campus residency and/or on-site exams and dissertation defenses. Most of these programs do require students to pass comprehensive exams, such as preliminary exams and/or final exams, and complete a dissertation. Despite being in an online format, these PhD programs still place an emphasis on research in the field. Here we discuss various aspects of online PhD programs in communications in greater detail.

Length of Program

Online doctoral programs in communications usually require between 56 and 64 credits. Some of these online programs allow students to complete the program in as little as 3 years. However, for some programs, it may take students 2 to 3 years to complete their coursework and then 1 to 3 years after that to complete their dissertation, depending on their research. Some programs may require students to complete all requirements within 7 years.

Occasionally, online programs in communications offer more courses in the summer to allow students to play catch up and/or get ahead in their coursework. There are also some doctoral programs that allow students to transfer in credit from other institutions, which could decrease the time it takes to complete coursework and move on to a dissertation. Depending on the program, students may be allowed to transfer in up to 15 credits.

Common Courses

Coursework for online doctoral programs in communications vary greatly by school. Core courses may focus on areas in the field like research, pedagogy, or rhetorics and communication.

Some programs may require on-campus seminars or workshops. These on-campus intensives are typically held during the summer either once a year or once for the entire program and may be completed in as little as 2 weeks. Usually, after completing coursework and passing their qualifying exams, students enroll in dissertation seminars or research hours. These programs generally conclude with a dissertation defense of some sort, which may be held on-campus. During the defense, students present their research project and may be asked a series of questions. Some other common course topics for these programs are discussed below.


Students in online PhD programs in communications typically take multiple courses in theory. These courses may explore topics in communication theory, rhetorical theory, or the theory of composition. Typically, these theory courses will provide students with an overview of classical and modern theories in the subject. These courses may also explore the roles of professional communicators in the context of the subject area. Students in these courses may utilize published research in theory and/or examine current trends and issues in the field.

History of Communication

Students also usually take multiple courses in the history of different areas of communication. Some of these courses may explore topics in the history of communication, historical methodologies in the field, the history of rhetoric, or the history of composition. Commonly, these courses focus on written communication and the history of various communication systems and technologies that have changed the way we communicate. Some of these courses may also explore the influence of cultures and societies across history.

Research Methods

Courses like these may cover topics in qualitative research, quantitative research, applied research, and other research methods. These courses are designed to help equip students with the necessary research skills and methodologies used in the field of communications that can also be applied to students' dissertation projects. These courses may also discuss current research trends in the field, how to apply different methodologies depending on the project, and how to conduct original research.

Admissions Requirements

Some online PhD in Communications degree programs may offer multiple start dates for flexibility, so students should be sure to check admissions deadlines before applying. In general, most of these programs require applicants to have a bachelor's degree and/or a master's degree, but they do not necessarily have to be in communications. Some programs may also require that applicants meet a minimum GPA, usually around a 3.0 on a 4.0 scale, but some may be as high as a 3.5 GPA.

Most of these online programs do not require students to take the GRE, but there may be some that do. Some online programs may have an additional agreement that students need to sign that agrees to technology and time requirements. Online students may also be required to secure a letter from their employer that acknowledges the support of the student attending the program and any required on-campus residencies.

Other common application materials for these degree programs include official transcripts, letters of reference, a personal statement, and/or a resume. Some programs may also require a writing sample, portfolio of graduate work, a background questionnaire, a copy of a government-issued ID, and/or any required admissions fees.

How to Choose an Online PhD in Communications

There are several important factors to consider. One factor students should consider is the format of a program. Students who do not live near campus, have a job that would not allow time off, and/or have other reasons that they cannot visit a campus may need to search for a program that is completely online as opposed to programs that require a residency.

Students may also want to consider the elective courses on offer, the available minors, and/or research areas that faculty members in the program are involved in. Some students may want these courses or research opportunities to align more closely with their personal interests and/or research interests for their dissertation. Below, we consider a few other additional factors to consider when choosing an online program.


In general, for any program, students should search for accredited schools and/or programs. Accreditation typically indicates that a school and/or program have met academic standards that are in place to help ensure the quality of education. Although most online PhD programs in communications do not have specialized accreditation, many of these programs are available from colleges and universities that are regionally accredited. These regional accreditation bodies may include groups like the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, the Middle States Commission on Higher Education and the New England Association of Schools and Colleges.

Cost of Program

The tuition rates for online PhD programs in communications may vary by school, in-state versus out-of-state status, and/or online versus on-campus formatting. However, some of these online programs may range from about $500 to $925 per credit hour.

When trying to determine the total cost of a program and compare the cost to other programs, students must be sure they research any additional fees and/or costs associated with a program. For example, some schools may have fees for online students, library courses, and/or on-campus residencies. Students may also need to consider the cost of a computer and/or other technology they may need for online coursework, as well as the cost of any additional course materials and books.

To help make programs more affordable for students, most schools accept and/or offer scholarships and other forms of financial aid. Some schools may even offer scholarships or other forms of funding specifically for graduate students and/or students in certain departments, such as the English department, where most communications programs are housed.

Career Options for Graduates in Communications

Graduates with a PhD in Communications are prepared for a wide range of leadership positions in a variety of settings. Graduates may pursue positions in areas, industries, or organizations like:

  • Research
  • Education
  • Non-profit organizations
  • Media relations
  • Writing
  • The government
  • Consulting

In general, those with a PhD are qualified to take on advanced positions that may carry more responsibilities than entry-level positions. For example, many graduates may take on executive positions or become directors of programs. A few potential job titles for graduates with a PhD in Communications include:

  • Writer
  • Professor
  • University administrator
  • Market analyst
  • Public relations executive
  • Research manager
  • Social media executive

Postsecondary Teachers

In 2018, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported that postsecondary teachers in communications made a median salary of $68,910. These educators also had a job outlook of 5% from 2018 to 2028. Most postsecondary teachers need to have a PhD, and some may need to have work experience in their area of expertise.

Communications teachers at the postsecondary level may teach multiple courses in the field and/or be responsible for conducting research in the field. They may also help advise undergraduate and/or graduate students. Typically, postsecondary teachers need to develop the curriculum, assignments, and assessments for their courses. Other responsibilities may include serving on school committees, creating lesson plans, and assisting students as needed.

Writers and Authors

The BLS reported that writers and authors made a median salary of $62,170 each year, as of 2018. These professionals had a job outlook of 0% from 2018 to 2028, which indicates little to no change in the number of jobs. Usually, full-time writers need to have at least a bachelor's degree and some writing experience.

There are many types of writers and authors, including content writers, speechwriters, biographers, and copywriters. The writing style and subject may vary depending on the kind of writer, but in general, these professionals produce written content for books, websites, magazines, and other forms of media. Writers and authors usually work with an editor and may make changes based on feedback to help prepare their work for publication.

Public Relations Specialists/ Managers

PhD grads in communications might be able to take high-level public relations management and specialist positions. These professionals create an identity for an organization, help them communicate with the public and supervise staff who maintain relations with the public.

According to the BLS, as of 2018, public relations managers make a median annual salary of $114,800 and PR specialists bring home $60,000, with job outlooks at 8% and 6%, respectively.

Professional Organizations in Communications

It is important for professionals in any field to stay connected with other professionals and/or have access to resources in their field. Professional organizations help make this possible, and the field of communications has many from which to choose. Some of these organizations are for the broader field of communication, while others may be for communicators in specific fields, such as business. A few examples of professional organizations in communications include:

  • National Communication Association- The NCA offers membership and several different student organizations for those involved in communications. The organization is involved in advocacy and public engagement activities and hosts several different events and an annual convention. The group's website also provides communications professionals with online publications and academic resources.
  • International Communication Association- Like the NCA, the ICA also offers membership but operates on a larger, international scale. The organization hosts conferences and provides a number of interest groups, communities, and divisions by subject area. Professionals can access online resources, such as job opportunities and publications, from the website.
  • International Association of Business Communicators- The IABC is another international group that focuses on communication in the business world. The group provides corporate membership, online courses and certifications, events, and a world conference. The organization's website also has an entire section dedicated to career certifications, awards, and job searching.
  • Public Relations Society of America- The PRSA provides professional development, learning opportunities and continuing education options for professionals in the public relations field. Memberships come with free access to webinars, discounts on major conferences and awards.