Proud supporter of not-for-profit colleges and universities

Online Master’s in Communications

Advanced Degree for the Digital Age

Social media, the Internet and emerging technologies are changing the way we communicate. Paper books are giving way to eBooks; magazines are being replaced by blogs. While some lament a world expressed in 140-character tweets, others feel we are on the brink of a new age of communication -- one in which moving effortlessly between old and new ways will be essential to success in diverse fields, from government to marketing to broadcasting. In this digital world, a master’s degree in communications can position you for professional and personal excellence.

Although a bachelor’s degree in communications can lead to many positions, a master’s degree may be ideal for those who want to expand their skills or specialize in a specific niche. An online master’s in communications allows students to earn a graduate degree on a flexible schedule, while also providing hands-on practice in digital communications.

If you already have a bachelor’s degree but aren’t sure if a master’s degree is right for you, this guide can help. Find out what classes you’ll take, how long the program may last, and what jobs are likely to be available after you graduate.

Inside the Online Communications Master’s Degree

Online degrees have fast become a mainstream option for students who either can’t make it to campus or don’t want to be restricted by specific class times. At the graduate level, online master’s degrees make it easy for adults to further their education without having to miss work or sacrifice family time. In addition, some accelerated master’s degrees in communications can be completed in as little as a year.

Before enrolling, students should understand the basics of these degrees and know how to identify the features of an excellent communications program.

Dual communications degree options

While a master’s degree in communications can be valuable on its own, students may find added value by combining their communications studies with another field. Some examples of dual degree options include a master’s in communications earned alongside any of the following:

  • Master of Business Administration (MBA)
  • Juris Doctor (law)
  • Master of Library and Information Science
  • Master of Public Affairs

For students who have not yet earned their bachelor’s degree, some schools offer a combined degree program that allows them to simultaneously earn their bachelor’s and master’s degree in communications in five years.

Curriculum that combines communications theory and practice

An excellent online master’s degree in communications will take a multi-faceted approach to the field of study. It will include classes in communications research and theories, as well as elements of professional development. As students evaluate available programs, they should ensure that the required courses include an appropriate balance of practical and theoretical topics.

Opportunity to specialize

While a general online master’s degree in communications can be useful, those with an undergraduate degree in the field should look for a program that allows them to specialize and hone their skills, with a concentration that most closely aligns to their career goals.

Internship placements with real-world communications experience

Good communication skills are best honed in the field. Master’s degrees in communications, even those offered online, should provide the opportunity for an internship with a firm that can make use of student skills. The best internships don’t just involve filing paperwork or entering data — they offer hands-on experience with the real-world tasks that communications professionals tackle on the job. Look for schools whose internship partners include advertising, marketing and public relations firms.

Now that we’ve covered the first few steps in selecting the right online master’s degree in communications, it’s time to explore what to expect in terms of coursework and concentrations.

Specialization within Communications

Communications is a broad field that can lead to many career paths. While undergraduate studies may be more general, an online communications master’s degree is your opportunity to gain targeted knowledge and skills. To that end, many colleges and universities offer concentrations within their degree programs. Let’s take a closer look at a few of these specializations and their associated careers.

Health Communications

Within the health care industry, there is a need for communications professionals who are well-versed in the field of medicine. Students concentrating in health communications gain the skills needed to perform a wide range of tasks, from coordinating public health messages to educating patients on their care to sharing information with government agencies. Graduates may go on to work as public health professionals, health care marketers, or independent consultants, among other career paths.

Independent Consultant

Works on a contract basis to provide advertising, marketing, or public relations services.

Marketing Manager

Oversees the marketing activities of an organization or corporation. May be responsible for crafting a branding message, identifying potential markets, and/or determining product price points.

Health Educator

Teaches the public about health issues and promotes wellness programs. May work for public health agencies, medical groups, or schools.

Public Relations

As one of the more common concentrations, public relations covers topics such as branding, advertising, and marketing. Students learn how to cultivate media relationships and utilize all available forms of communication to broadcast marketing messages. They can then leverage their skills in a variety of industries, from retail corporations to non-profit entities. An online master’s in communications with a public relations specialization can lead to a job as a public relations specialist, marketer, or promotions manager.

Public Relations Specialist

Responsible for increasing awareness and creating a positive image of a company or entity. May be employed by a public relations firm, work independently, or hold an internal position within an organization.

Marketing Manager

Oversees the marketing activities of an organization or corporation. May be responsible for crafting a branding message, identifying potential markets, and/or determining product price points.

Promotions Manager

Works with an advertising department to create promotions and events that encourage sales or awareness of a particular product or initiative.

Research and Theory

For those interested in the “why” behind communications, a research and theory concentration may be a good choice. These programs are generally not as focused on the practical applications of communications as much as how they work and why they’re effective. Students selecting a research and theory concentration may go on to pursue doctoral studies and eventually work in academia. Others may find jobs in market research.

Postsecondary Teacher

Teaches communication topics to students at a college, university, or technical school.

Market Research Analyst

Conducts research into market trends. Monitors competitor activity and consumer preferences. Uses statistical software to create reports that can be used for product development and marketing

Survey Researcher

Designs and deploys surveys on a variety of subjects. Coordinates data collection and analyzes results. May be employed by postsecondary schools, research firms, corporations, or government agencies.

Technical Communications

This concentration combines scientific knowledge with communications know-how. Graduates of these programs generally have excellent writing skills and can succinctly express complex ideas. They may be responsible for conveying details to other industry professionals, creating technical documents, or distilling information for a lay audience. Variations of these programs may focus specifically on high-tech applications. Professionals in the field may work as technical writers, independent consultants, or public relations specialists.

Technical Writer

Creates instruction manuals, writes scholarly articles, and coordinates the dissemination of technical information to professionals, the government, and the public. May work for companies in technical fields or as an independent contractor.

Independent Consultant

Works on a contract basis to provide advertising, marketing, or public relations services.

Public Relations Specialist

Responsible for increasing awareness and creating a positive image of a company or entity. May be employed by a public relations firm, work independently, or hold an internal position within an organization.

Culture and Media

Students interested in exploring the interaction between media and cultural trends may want to select this concentration. Course curriculum may blend sociology, anthropology, and communications classes, providing an in-depth review of how past and current cultural trends relate to the media. Some online communications master’s degree programs will take a scholarly look at these subjects, while others will provide a more hands-on approach for those who want to work within the landscape of non-stop media coverage and a 24/7 news cycle.

Postsecondary Teacher

Teaches communication topics to students at a college, university, or technical school.

Broadcast News Analyst

Reviews current events and policy decisions for the public. Along with reporters and correspondents, analysts may work for newspapers, television networks, magazines, news websites, or on the radio.

Talent Agent

Represents musicians, actors, authors, and other public figures. Coordinates media requests and promotes a positive public image of clients.

Broadcast News Analyst

Reviews current events and policy decisions for the public. Along with reporters and correspondents, analysts may work for newspapers, television networks, magazines, news websites, or on the radio.

Health Educator

Teaches the public about health issues and promotes wellness programs. May work for public health agencies, medical groups, or schools.

Independent Consultant

Works on a contract basis to provide advertising, marketing, or public relations services.

Marketing Manager

Oversees the marketing activities of an organization or corporation. May be responsible for crafting a branding message, identifying potential markets, and/or determining product price points.

Market Research Analyst

Conducts research into market trends. Monitors competitor activity and consumer preferences. Uses statistical software to create reports that can be used for product development and marketing

Public Relations Specialist

Responsible for increasing awareness and creating a positive image of a company or entity. May be employed by a public relations firm, work independently, or hold an internal position within an organization.

Postsecondary Teacher

Teaches communication topics to students at a college, university, or technical school.

Promotions Manager

Works with an advertising department to create promotions and events that encourage sales or awareness of a particular product or initiative.

Survey Researcher

Designs and deploys surveys on a variety of subjects. Coordinates data collection and analyzes results. May be employed by postsecondary schools, research firms, corporations, or government agencies.

Talent Agent

Represents musicians, actors, authors, and other public figures. Coordinates media requests and promotes a positive public image of clients.

Technical Writer

Creates instruction manuals, writes scholarly articles, and coordinates the dissemination of technical information to professionals, the government, and the public. May work for companies in technical fields or as an independent contractor.

Typical Courses for the Online Master’s in Communications

The concentration only represents a portion of a master’s degree program. In addition to specialized classes, students earning an online communications master’s degree will also take core courses that provide a comprehensive look at the field.

Below are some examples of the core classes you’ll find in graduate communications programs. Although these are real-world examples taken from college and university curriculum guides, each school will have its own requirements.

Theories of Communication and Persuasion

This course offers a review of various communication theories and models. Throughout the semester, students will be exposed to a variety of disciplines, including rhetoric, linguistics, and psychology, to help them gain a deeper understanding of communication methods. They will also learn how these theories can be used in interpersonal, organizational, and mass communication settings.

Communication for Leadership

Designed to apply theories of communication in an organizational setting, this course will help students understand and apply concepts as they pertain to leadership. Students will use hands-on exercises to learn how to cultivate their leadership style through effective communication with a variety of audiences.

Interpersonal Communication

This introductory course focuses on the basics of communication within personal relationships. Students will learn the verbal and nonverbal components of this type of language, how it’s affected by social and cultural constructs, and the role of technology. Other covered topics include conflict management, active listening, and the unspoken rules of human interaction.

Strategic Communication in the New Age

This course delves into how communication is disseminated and received in the modern era. Students will learn how current mass communication methods can impact social, political, and cultural change. One area of focus will be how new forms of communication can reach audiences who were previously inaccessible or disinterested.

Media Relations

Particularly beneficial for those planning careers in public relations, the media relations course teaches students how to effectively broadcast their message. They will learn how to foster relationships with media contacts and use a variety of outlets, including the Internet, to disseminate information.

Crisis Communications

This course provides practical knowledge in how to address crisis situations at the organizational level. Students will learn strategies for evaluating a crisis situation, identifying possible responses, and selecting the appropriate one. In addition, the course covers how to create a crisis management plan in advance and the basics of working with the media during a crisis situation.

Understanding and Leveraging Networks

Students will learn the basics of network relationships, in both real-life situations and virtual networks on the Internet. The coursework will also cover how to create and manage networks effectively.

Strategic Communications and Ethics

Intended to address corporate communications, this course covers the ethical considerations that come with creating a strategic campaign. Participants will learn how to make full use of contemporary and digital communication methods while maintaining the ethical integrity of their organization.

Strategy in the Global Economy

This course covers communication concepts at the global level. Students will learn how cultural norms, customs, and communication styles can impact business relationships. They will also learn how to adjust to these cultural perspectives, even when they seem at odds with normal business practices.

Timeline for the Online Master’s in Communications

Every school has its own curriculum requirements and timeline. Some campus-based programs, such as those offered by Stanford University and Northwestern University, can be completed in a year. However, that accelerated timeline requires a full-time commitment, which may be difficult for students who have jobs or families to support.

For those who need more flexibility, an online master’s in communications gives students more control over academic pace. Again, each school has its own requirements, but a 36-credit program is typical for many graduate communications programs. Students often take 12 courses to earn their degree, with a mix of core requirements and electives geared toward their concentration. Below is a general timeline of a typical online master’s degree in communications.

Year 0

Your path to a master’s degree starts long before your first class, with the research and application process. Finding the right school is crucial to your academic success, so don’t rush the vetting of available programs. Use this nine-step process to find the right one.

1.

Consider your ability to succeed in an online communications program. Are you self-disciplined enough to log into the class website daily and complete assignments on time? Some students mistakenly think online classes are easier than on-campus courses, but virtual programs are just as rigorous as their more traditional counterparts.

2.

Evaluate your equipment. Does it meet the requirements of the program you’re considering? Some communications programs delivered online may require the use of Skype or other apps to coordinate with classmates and instructors. Make sure your devices can handle all technology requirements.

3.

Look at career outcomes for each program. Some communication programs are intended for those who are interested in the theoretical side of the field, and may require a thesis. Others are focused more on the practical side rather than the scholarly. To provide students with hands-on experience in the field, they may require a master’s capstone, seminar, or practicum before graduation. Be sure to select a program that meets your career goals and expectations.

4.

Understand deadline requirements. Some schools operate on a rolling deadline, while others have a strict timeline for accepting and reviewing applications.

5.

Take the GRE, if required. Not all communications degree programs require a graduate admissions exam, but if your selected school does, take the test early enough that you can retake it if your score doesn’t meet expectations.

6.

Investigate tuition costs and financial aid options. Before taking the time to apply, make sure you can afford your chosen school. Talk to the financial aid office to see if funding is available through the school, and complete the FAFSA for federal financial aid.

7.

Complete and mail applications for your top schools. Requirements may vary by institution, but make sure you know every component required and submit each one before the due date.

8.

Review your acceptance letters and inform the schools of your choice. Congratulations! You’re on your way to graduate school!

Year 1

Many online master’s in communications programs run on a semester-based schedule. Depending on the particular program, students may take one core class and two electives each semester or vice versa. During the first year, those core classes will likely cover topics such as communications ethics, interpersonal communications and communication theory. Electives will depend on the concentration, with most schools requiring courses within each concentration. Near the end of the first year, students may meet with an advisor to discuss their thesis topic or capstone plans, if required.

Year 2

During year two, students usually finish up their required core classes and electives. Core classes during this final year include more advanced topics, such as strategic communications, global communications and emerging technologies. In addition to regular coursework, an online communications master’s degree may require a capstone, thesis or practicum. The thesis is most applicable to students planning to go on to doctoral studies or pursue employment in academia. The capstone may be a hands-on project intended to demonstrate competency in communication methods. The practicum may be an internship, or a series of seminars and workshops that delve more deeply into the practical applications of the material.

Interview with a Communications Graduate

Lynn Gonzales holds a Bachelor of Arts in English/Communication Arts and a Master of Arts in Communication Studies. Currently a Senior Account Strategist for a digital marketing agency, she has also worked as a public affairs officer for the military, editor for an educational publisher and a weekly newspaper, college instructor and corporate communications manager. Here are her recommendations for students in a master’s degree program in communication:

Don’t focus on one skill set such as public speaking or writing. Build a diverse skill set instead. There’s no such thing as a communicator who only writes. Communicators use all channels: writing, speaking, social media, etc. Having strong writing skills is the perfect foundation, but it’s not the entire structure needed for a career.

Take a creative writing course. Although journalism and AP style are important, communicators also need to be able to incorporate the fun and fluffy into some pieces.

Start building a portfolio as soon as possible. Consider volunteering at a local nonprofit to gain some real-world experience. Portfolios should be in print and digital format when you enter the workforce.

In-person communication is still the best way to build a relationship. In addition to online studies and participation in discussion groups, make time to attend local networking events. Communications and public relations professionals at these events know how important contacts in the field are to career success.

Money and the Online Master’s in Communications

No discussion of graduate degrees would be complete without a review of the financial aspects. It’s a pressing question for potential students: how much does a degree program cost?

Although it’s important to determine the expense, you should also understand the long-term pay-off. What is the return on your investment? While there is no definite answer to these questions – every school is different, after all – here’s some information to help you decide whether earning an online master’s in communications meshes with your long-term financial and professional goals.

Typical Costs for a Master’s Degree in Communications

The single biggest cost of an online master’s degree program is tuition. Fortunately, today’s schools are now much more transparent with tuition costs. While some schools clearly state the entire expected cost, others only publish the per-credit or per-course price and make you do the math.

A quick review of tuition prices online shows a significant variation in costs between schools. For example, as of this writing, California State University at Long Beach estimates that an in-state student will pay $12,604 to earn its Master of Arts in Communication Studies. Meanwhile, Northeastern University puts a price tag of $26,730 on its Master of Science in Corporate and Organizational Communication.

However, these are the list prices for tuition and do not necessarily represent what you would actually pay for the program. Financial aid is often available to offset costs. In addition, communications students at the graduate level should look into working as a teaching assistant. These positions may be available to students in good standing, and they often provide enough funds to completely cover tuition costs.

Additional factors to consider include room and board, commuting and, if applicable, any child care costs. This is one area in which an online master’s in communication can be a money-saver. When students study from home on their own schedule, some of these costs are eliminated. Also, because they can continue their job while studying, they may be able to pay as they go instead of taking out student loans.

The Payoff

The price of an online master’s in communications is only part of the equation. Also consider how that higher education can enhance career prospects. In many cases, a job candidate with a master’s degree has an advantage over those with a bachelor’s degree, or may be able to command a higher salary.

Salaries for communications professionals vary significantly depending on their occupation. As an example, let’s look at a public relations specialist, a common choice for some communications graduates. Below are salaries for public relations specialists in 2013:

Top 10 % $103,240
Median (50%) $54,940
Bottom 10% $30,790

Now, let’s look at salaries for public relations managers. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, some managerial positions can be filled by those with bachelor’s degrees, while others require that candidates hold a master’s degree. Here’s the type of pay you might see if you get the education and experience needed to move from a specialist to a management position.

Top 10 % $184,290
Median (50%) $98,700
Bottom 10% $53,360

In 2011, the jobs website CareerBliss analyzed 10 jobs in which having a master’s degree would pay off. One of those jobs was a marketing director, another occupation common to communications graduates. CareerBliss found that those with a master’s degree earned an average of 19.95 percent more than their counterparts who held only a bachelor’s degree. That means their salaries averaged $98,849 compared to the $79,133 earned by undergraduates.

Growth Opportunity for Communications Graduates

Isolating growth opportunities in communications may seem a tough task. Graduates in the discipline — whether at the bachelor’s or master’s level — enter a wide range of professional fields. Yet looking at employment estimates for careers that attract the most communications students may be the best place to start. Let’s see how five of today’s top communications-focused occupations stand to grow between 2012 and 2022:

Occupation
Estimated Growth Rate
Technical Writers
15%
Public Relations Managers
13%
Public Relations Specialists
12%
Sound Engineers
9%

Unexpected Career Paths with a Master’s in Communications

While public relations, marketing, and journalism fields are sure to be filled with communications majors, they aren’t the only options. In fact, the skills taught in a communications program can translate into very diverse career paths, ranging from business to politics. Here are a few of the more unexpected occupations.

  • Chief Executive Officer

    All CEOs don’t necessarily come from a business background. An online master’s in communications may include coursework in leadership, interpersonal relationships and organizational communication skills. All of these are essential for anyone who wants to rise to the top in a business environment. CEOs need to know how to strategize, work well with others, and successfully communicate their vision. Bob Iger, the current CEO of The Walt Disney Company, may be the most famous example of a top executive with a communications degree.

  • Employment Recruiter

    Although sometimes overlooked by communications majors, employment recruiting is a natural place for these students to land. In fact, it appears on PayScale.com’s list of top ten jobs with the best income potential for undergraduate communications students. Recruiters must be excellent communicators, both with potential job candidates and the clients who hire them to fill positions. Their jobs entail making connections to find appropriate clients, screening those individuals, and then arranging for them to meet potential employers.

  • Legislative Assistant

    This is another good, although unexpected, fit for those with an online master’s in communications. As they work closely with elected officials, legislative assistants must excel at communicating with other government officials as well as the general public. They must be able to tactfully handle sensitive topics and be adept at verbal and written communication. Communications students may also be well-suited to jobs as lobbyists, communications coordinators, and campaign managers.