The Right Online Communications Doctorate for You

Learn the ins and outs of blended and online communications doctorates: what programs look like, who offers them, the best schools, and how to get started

Written by

PhDs.me Staff

Last updated

Feb 12, 2021

The doctorate in communications is a top credential for academics and professionals with their eye on career growth. A degree field with great variety, students can specialize in areas such as mass communication, media studies, technical communication, rhetoric, and more. Blended and online PhD programs in communications have made earning a doctorate even more convenient. Colleges and universities across the country are recognizing the benefit of flexible programs for an increasingly diverse student base.

But which program makes the most sense for me? How do I choose the right track? Can I even afford to earn a PhD in communications online?

This page addresses questions like these and much more. Think of it as a resource to guide you through the key issues you’ll face when considering an online communications doctorate. From general degree information to detailed profiles of the best online and blended programs out there, we have it. Let’s get started.

Top Online Communication Doctorates

You know the details, or at least what’s important and how to find them. And you know the tracks, courses, and milestones you’ll encounter. But which schools offer the best online and blended communications programs at the PhD level? Which have the most affordable tuition, the right admissions requirements, and the flexibility you need to move your career forward. Here’s a list of today’s communications PhDs with online programs and courses. We’ll spotlight some of the best ones below.

Texas Tech University: Online PhD in Technical Communication & Rhetoric (TCR)

This fully online program at Texas Tech is 60 credits with 45 hours beyond the bachelor’s degree. Students can also take 15 electives credits in a related minor field. The TCR program helps prepare students for college and university writing programs, and includes strong coursework in both qualitative and quantitative research methods. Each of the five areas of emphasis represents the program’s focus on rhetoric and technical communication:

1

Technical Communication

2

Rhetoric, Composition, and Technology

3

Technology, Culture, and Rhetoric

4

Rhetorics of Science and Healthcare

5

Visual Rhetoric, New Media, and User-Centered Design

Graduates of the TCR program leave Texas Tech with the ability to publish and present scholarly work, research and analyze documents and other communications from perspectives, and use diverse and effective methodologies in their research and scholarship.

The online TCR uses an annual review system to assess degree progress. During the second semester, students must submit a portfolio to an assigned advisory committee, which includes a revised paper from the year, a list of achievements and plans forward, and evaluations from your instructors. The final step is an interview with the committee. Like other PhD-level programs, the TCR includes a comprehensive examination after coursework has been completed, and a 1-2 dissertation process with guidance from a committee.

The online TCR’s use of Zoom, Skype, and other collaborative technologies makes it a great option for students who need flexibility. Despite being fully online, the program does have specific residency requirements. To maintain “online residency”, a student must (1) be continuously enrolled in at least 4 courses per year and (2) attend a 2-week in-person workshop in May every year until graduation.

  • Cost: $500 per credit hour

To learn more about the program, view admissions requirements, and read through the application process, visit Texas Tech’s TCR page through the department of English.

Clemson University: Blended PhD in Rhetorics, Communication, and Information Design (RCID)

The RCID program from Clemson has a blended delivery that combines the flexibility of online learning with the effectiveness of face-to-face instruction. The main purpose of the program is to ready students for advanced research, teaching, and publication in academic journals. However, the curriculum does prepare students to work within or consult for government entities, various industries within the private sector, and nonprofit organizations.

The program’s core values stem from the Aristotelian approach to knowledge: theoretical, practical, and productive. This foundation informs the RCID’s four stages through which each student must progress:

1

Completion of ten seminars (30 credit hours), which give the student a solid foundation in the knowledge and skills needed to graduate.

2

Completion of two studios (6 credit hours), which help prepare the student for dissertation work.

3

Completion of exams and submission of a dissertation prospectus. Three exams are written and one oral with a multimedia element.

4

Successful defense of a dissertation

All oral exams and dissertation defenses must be done on campus.

  • Cost: $695 per credit hour

Deep Dive: Online PhD in Communications

The doctorate in communication has a wide range of focus areas for students to explore, from rhetoric and technical communication to mass communication and social media (more on these below). The communication PhD represents the educational peak in the field, with graduates positioning themselves for work in academia or to grow in a variety of professional settings. Many go on to careers as professors, researchers, or as executives in business or media-focused organizations.

The online doctorate in communications — or blended programs that combine campus and online elements — gives working students and professionals a more convenient way to earn their degree. This flexibility comes in two different but equally critical areas. First, online and blended programs allow you to collaborate with cohorts and submit coursework from just about anywhere with an internet connection. More and more colleges and universities today are using Blackboard, Skype, Zoom, and GoToMeeting as standard connection systems for their programs and participants. Second, some online and blended options have accommodating calendars where students can earn a degree at their own pace. This can mean taking anywhere between one and three classes per semester. Not all programs offer this level of flexibility, however, so make sure you research program requirements carefully. Let’s look closer at the various online communication PhD options and how they can help you find the right program for you.

Blended vs Online Communication PhDs

Students earning a communications PhD come from a wide range of academic and professional tracks. Some may be full-time students with eyes on a professorship, while others may be part-time learners who want to move into a leadership position in media. This diversity of study can also mean a need for diversity in program delivery. For this reason, colleges are becoming far better and integrating online learning into their communications programs, even at the doctorate level. Here are the two main options if you’re looking to earn your communications PhD online.

1

Blended or “hybrid” programs.
The most common PhD option in communications with an online element. In these programs, some (and in a few cases many) of required classes and electives are available to take online, with the remaining portion taken on campus. Students must also perform a majority of their research and dissertation activities with cohorts and professors face-to-face. That said, in-person classes can take place on nights and on weekends to help students who work during business hours.

  • Best for… Students who want, need, or thrive on face-to-face collaboration. A physical setting can be necessary and energizing for many.

2

Fully online programs.
A less popular yet growing option, the fully online PhD in communications makes all coursework available via distance learning. This even extends to a majority of dissertation activities near the end of the degree program. In these fully online programs at the doctorate level, just a handful of required on-campus activities exist, including a weeklong meet-and-greet at the beginning of each year, and a public defense of your completed dissertation. Requirements can vary, however, so be sure to talk to a program administrator if you’re unsure.

  • Best for… Students who need flexibility more than anything, and/or those who may want, need, or thrive in a more solitary academic setting.

How Long Does It Take to Earn an Online PhD in Communication?

The amount of time it takes to earn an online doctorate in communications depends on program type (full-time or part-time), the school’s calendar system (semester or quarter), and the program itself. That said, many online communication PhDs have similar timelines to completion, which can give you a baseline from which to research and vet specific programs. Here’s an example online program from day one to completion of the dissertation:

Required/core courses

4 (12 credit hours). Mostly taken during year one and the first half of year two.

Specialization courses

8 (24 credit hours). Likely started at the end of year one and taken through year two (and maybe into year three).

Electives

3 courses (9 credit hours). Taken any time during the program, although students likely take these courses after requirements and before heavy dissertation work.

  • Comprehensive exams: While not an actual course, most PhD programs require students to pass a comprehensive examination covering all year one and year two coursework. This can be an oral exam in front of a panel or professors, and/or include a written element. In many cases, students must pass the exam before moving on to substantive dissertation work.
Dissertation

5 courses (15 credit hours). These courses include research time, drafting and submitting a proposal, working with an advisor on drafts and revisions, completion, public defense, and publication. For a full-time student, the dissertation process should take two years to complete, although it can take as long as 5-6 years for part-time students.

Total courses: 20

Total courses: 60

Total courses: 3 – 4

Most campus, blended, and online communication doctorates have credit requirements in the 55 – 65 range, with variation across the number of core, specialization, and dissertation courses needed. You may also see diversity when it comes to timeline to completion. Make sure you ask an admissions or program advisor about the speed at which you need to progress toward your degree. For example, some communication PhDs can be extremely flexible, allowing students to complete coursework within four years and their dissertation within six. Others may have a tighter schedule, making students commit to finishing coursework within three years and their dissertation within five.

Applying to the Online PhD in Communications

Many blended and online PhD programs in communications have similar application requirements: transcripts, a master’s degree in a related field, and a GRE score. We’ll detail those below, but it’s also worth noting that variation does exist across programs, with some having far more rigorous prerequisites than others. For example, some colleges ask for sealed official transcripts from every university you’ve attended, while others are OK with unofficial transcripts in order to make admissions decisions. Let’s see how some of these requirements look, and where they may differ across institutions.

A degree in a related field

For most PhD programs, this means a bachelor’s AND a master’s, no exceptions. Clemson University’s blended PhD in Rhetorics, Communication, and Information Design requires applicants to hold a master’s degree in English, communication studies, media studies, art, professional communication, or a closely related field. Those with a master’s in history, philosophy, or similar disciplines may be required to take master’s level courses upon admission. In contrast, some programs may only require a master’s degree in a writing-intensive discipline, or that a student is working toward their master’s upon application.

GPA

Lots of variation here. Programs with more stringent admissions requirements may ask for a minimum GPA of 3.5. Others will be in the 3.0 – 3.2 range. A handful of programs may avoid specific GPA requirements altogether, instead opting to vet GPAs of candidates as part of the transcript process. Before you apply to a blended or online communications PhD, make sure you have the GPA you need for potential admission.

GRE scores

Some fully online communication doctorates do not require you to submit a GRE score. These programs generally cater to working professionals who haven’t seen a college classroom (or a standardized test) in years. This isn’t typical, however. Most programs do require a GRE score to apply, and one that’s no older than five years from application date.

Writing sample (or portfolio)

Depending on the nature of your communications PhD program, you’ll need to submit a sample of past work. For writing-focused programs, this could be anything from a master’s thesis to a collection of your published works. For programs more visual in nature, this could be a DVD, thumb drive, or another medium through which to showcase advertisements, websites, or other materials you’ve created.

Curriculum vitae

In addition to relevant education and work experience, your CV should highlight past accomplishments, teaching experience, and other items that show you’d be a strong PhD student. Check a program’s admissions page for guidelines on what to include.

Other materials you may need

Letters of recommendation, a personal statement, a letter of interest, proof of citizenship or right to learn in the U.S.

Online Communication Doctorate Tracks

Whether blended or fully online, it’s rare to find a general program that focuses only on “communications”. Most programs at the PhD level have a number of sub-disciplines in which students can specialize. Or, the entire program focuses on a certain aspect of communication and attracts students already working or studying within it. Whether you know your communications niche already, or you just want to see what’s out there, here’s a list of the most popular specializations in today’s communications PhD programs.

Rhetoric

The study of persuasion, expression, and argumentation. At the doctoral level, programs with a focus on rhetoric examine the history of rhetorical practices, the development of theories, detailed analysis of written text, and the production of rhetorical arguments visually and/or in writing. A communications PhD focused on rhetoric can also various sub-disciplines, including rhetoric in the sciences, social issues, and even new media and design.

Technical communication

The study of workplace communication, including reports, manuals, and other technical documents that make a place of business function. This also includes the planning, writing, editing, design, and implementation of such documentation. Some programs may have elements of publishing and publication, as well.

Mass communication

Often connected to a journalism school, doctorate programs in mass communication can be very interdisciplinary in nature. While mass communication sits at the core of the curriculum, it can be applied to a wide range of areas, including: cultural studies, language development, media & business, health and science communication, legal & regulatory issues, and political communication.

Emerging media

Whether emerging media, new media, or a similar title, these programs allow students to research and study communication platforms and practices on the cutting edge. Social & networking media serves as the cornerstone of many programs, although curricula often dive deeper into emerging media’s impact on politics and public policy, and how to collect, analyze, and implement social data at scale.

Customizing Your PhD Path: Where to Start

You’ve seen a few core tracks, and you’ve probably found some on your own, but how to you choose? For some, it’s as easy as finding (1) what piques your interest or (2) what stands to boost your career the most. But for others, it may not be as cut and dry, and a little guidance on how to proceed could go a long way. Read through and really think through the following questions:

1

What energizes you?
When it comes to communications, do you enjoy writing? Maybe a journalism track would make the most sense. Do you gravitate toward documentation and organization? Research programs with a heavy dose of (or all out focus on) technical communication. New and exciting trends interest you? New and social media programs might give you what you need. A PhD program takes a lot of energy, time, and money, make sure you’re engaged and excited about what you’re specializing in.

2

What saps you?
If you don’t have that one thing that inspires or excites you, at least be aware of what saps your energy. If you’re a writer by nature, steer clear of visual communication. If you’re more on the creative side and shy away from organization, technical communication may not be the answer. Knowing what you like and, in this case, what you don’t, is critical before selecting your track.

3

What do trends indicate?
Are certain communication tracks becoming increasing popular with employers? For example, more and more companies today are trying to harness the power of social media and networking to scale business growth. If a fast-track executive career is on your mind, consider a track that fuels that path. But if you’re set on a career in academics and teaching, employment trends may take a backseat to subject matter interest.

Standard Communication PhD Courses

It’s always good to get a handle of your track/direction before applying to a program. If you’re interested in emerging media, find a communication PhD with that option. And if rhetorical studies are more for you, research and vet schools with that track available. But if you’re not sure which specialization makes the most sense, you should at least familiarize yourself with the standard coursework of an online doctorate in communication. This is a key step to understanding whether this academic path is right for you. Let’s examine a few courses that nearly all students will take no matter their track.

Intro to doctoral studies in communication

An introductory course for all doctorate-level communication students. These courses set the foundation for the program and help first-year students learn core skills, knowledge, and concepts they’ll need to succeed as they work toward their dissertation.

Communication theory

In these courses, students both past and current theories of communication, examine recent scholarship, and identify new trends and critical issues in the field. These courses can also be a place where students find a theoretical framework to fuel their dissertation.

Quantitative methodologies

Heavy in social science research, these courses focus on the methodologies and statistics used in the study of communication. These courses may require a certain level of comfort with data collection and data analysis, and with spreadsheets, databases, and data-related software.

Qualitative methodologies

Strong concentration on ethnography, conducting interviews, focus groups, observation, and surveying. Further emphasis on using this information in advanced research projects and scholarly works for publication.

Writing for publication

Studying and preparing for the various stages of academic publication, including research, outlining, drafting, revision, and finalizing papers for publication. Courses also introduce students to drafting conference presentation proposals, delivering presentations, writing for academic journals, and even writing books. These are great foundational courses for the dissertation.

Paying for Your Online Communications Doctorate

Can I afford an online PhD? That’s the most important question you should ask before filling out your applications. Campus-based, online, and blended PhD programs come with a variety of costs that will impact your bank account in both the short- and long-term: tuition, application fees, graduation fees, publication fees, annual seminar attendance, and more. All that said, there are ways to keep these costs manageable, including scholarships, grants, and financial aid packages from Uncle Sam.

Tuition

The primary cost of an online communication doctorate, tuition amounts vary by school, program, and state. For fully online programs like Texas Tech’s, students pay the in-state tuition rate, which saves an estimated $20,000 across the life the degree program. Let’s take a side-by-side look at the tuition rates and total costs of some of today’s popular blended and online PhD programs in communication:

SchoolCost per CreditTotal CreditsSubtotal
Texas Tech University’s TCR$50060$30,000
Clemson University’s RCID$69556$38,920
Regent University – Online$92064$58,880
Ohio University – Blended$508*57$28,956

*Ohio U’s PhD in Mass Communications allows students to transfer up to 53 credits from a master’s degree or from a different PhD program. This makes exact credits for degree completion an estimate.

Tacking all the tuition and fees for an online PhD in communications can be challenging. For detailed information on finding and securing grants, scholarships, and financial aid, please visit our ultimate guide to PhD scholarships. Also see our comprehensive resource on PhD fellowships.

Accreditation

When researching online programs, whether in communications or in other disciplines, always pay attention to accreditation. Each program you consider should hold regional accreditation from one of the twelve active accrediting bodies recognized by the U.S. Department of Education. This is the same accreditation as Harvard, Yale, and other top institutions in the U.S., and the required accreditation to apply for and receive federal student aid. If your potential online communications doctoral program doesn’t have this accreditation, skip it and move on.

Salaries in Communication

In the field of communication, salaries can vary as widely as job opportunities. Those with an advanced degree in communication work in the media, private business, and academia. According to PayScale.com data, the mean annual salary for professionals with a master’s in communication is $61,000. This includes marketing managers ($61550), communications specialists ($55,868), communications managers ($65,2440, and marketing directors ($88,371). But will a PhD in communication mean a larger salary? Here’s how wages for communication doctorate holders compare:

OccupationReported Annual Salary
Associate Professor$73,397
Professor$92,648
Executive Director$89,398
Survey Researcher$71,919
Communications Director$125,000