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Online Master’s in Communications Programs

Updated on: 7/23/2018
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With the constantly evolving state of technology, so evolves the ways in which we communicate. For that reason, master’s in communications programs around the country are following the trends by ensuring their programs match the ever-changing nature of communication. Likewise, the plethora of high-quality distance learning options makes these programs accessible to working professionals who can put their newfound skills to use almost immediately in the workplace. Graduates of online master’s in communications programs position themselves for career and educational advancement by boosting their leadership skills, honing their strategic thinking and planning abilities, and gaining the ever-important capacity to understand communications technology. If you’re considering an online master’s degree in communications, keep reading to learn about the top schools, what to expect in a program and the potential careers you could pursue post graduation.

Best Online Master’s in Communications 2018-2019

No matter the career path or specific interest, a student can find an online communications program that will fit their professional needs and interests. Because of the advancements in technology, there is an abundance of high-quality programs that can be completed from anywhere in the world. The following are the top communications programs in the United States. Data to complete this list was generated from the Department of Education and the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System, and program descriptions are based on each school’s published information.

What Can I Learn in an Online Master’s in Communications Program

The overarching skill a student can expect to gain from any online master’s in communications program is strategic thinking. While from the outside the term “strategic” could feel arbitrary, it’s essential to a management and senior-level skillset in many careers and is especially important in the field of communications where a professional must be able to think in the long-term, create a cohesive communications plan and be able to effectively analyze the outcomes of the plan. A communications professional, to use an effective cliché, must be able to see the forest through the trees. In other words, while a communications professional has day-to-day responsibilities, they still need to maintain a macro-level perspective. These professionals must also be able to effectively communicate with their various target audiences as well as their internal audiences (e.g. administrators, bosses, executive members).

Coursework for online master’s in communications programs is almost always geared towards some level of strategic thinking, whether it be focused on the workplace, global engagement or technology. As an example, many programs require a foundational marketing course as part of the core curriculum. Students begin by discussing theories around effective marketing campaigns and then engage in a project to learn how to create a communications strategy based on those theories. This type of strategic planning is emphasized in much of the coursework in which students engage.

Using USC’s online master of communication management as an example, core coursework focuses on theory and applied research. Examples of potential courses – or topics since specific course names will vary by school – students may see in a graduate level communications program include:

  • Foundations of effective public relations writing
  • Uses of communication research
  • Communication, attitudes, values and behavior
  • Communication in work settings
  • Managing communication
  • Practicum (other schools may require a thesis or other type of capstone project)

The core curriculum may look a bit different depending on the program or school, but in all cases, coursework is designed to prepare students for their career of interest, whether it’s management, consulting, public relations or marketing.

Additionally, many programs offer concentrations so students can gain highly specialized skills and knowledge in a particular area of interest. Some example specializations include the following (note that the specialization titles, much like course names, may vary by school/program, but these are the overarching topics covered through specific tracks):

Marketing, public relations and advertising

At most colleges, the topics of marketing, public relations and advertising will be separate specializations. While similar in basic theory, the specific outcomes may differ. The coursework for each of these concentrations often focuses on branding (whether it be for an organization, a person or a product) and carrying out an effective marketing, public relations or advertising campaign. In most cases, understanding the audience is essential. These specializations also include an element of data collection and analysis since market research is an important piece of marketing, public relations and advertising.

International, global and intercultural communications

Many programs include specializations in international or intercultural communications, which can apply to almost anyone working in a global environment or with people from a variety of cultural backgrounds. Marketing professionals may want to choose this track if they wish to learn more about appealing to a global audience. Additionally, many master’s programs with this specialization include elements of intercultural communications, which are intended to give students the skills to work effectively with people from all backgrounds.

New media or new communication technologies

Because the nature of communications is dynamic due to the constantly evolving media landscape, online master’s in communications programs have the unique flexibility to shape program coursework to this environment. Colleges do this by providing specializations in new media or new communications technologies which includes tools for connecting a dispersed and globalized workforce, digital branding and marketing in the new media landscape and, in many cases, specializations specifically focused on social media. Because so much information is communicated through social media, communications programs are responding by not only offering courses on social media, but also providing entire concentrations in the medium. In these specializations, students can expect to become up-to-date on effective digital media communications as well as the ethics involved in being a professional communicator in the modern information age.

Health communications

A variety of programs offer specializations designed specifically for professionals in the health sector, which is increasingly relying on communications technology. Students pursuing this concentration could use their skills to work in health at the community level (e.g. community health workers), in hospital administration (e.g. hospital communications directors) or as healthcare providers (e.g. nurses, doctors, physicians assistants, etc.). The specialization is designed to provide a foundation in strategic communications – such as through designing a behavior change campaign around a specific health concern – as well as to understand the nuances of interpersonal communication in all elements of the healthcare system (from doctor-patient interactions to a hospital’s interactions with the surrounding community).

Because most online master’s in communications programs are designed with working professionals in mind, students who are currently employed have the opportunity to immediately apply their new skills. The coursework is often project-based and meant to be applied within the student’s current work context. For example, in a marketing course, a student who is assigned to identify a target audience for an organization and develop a marketing strategy geared toward that audience could utilize their current work as the basis for the assignment.

In the last year, most master’s programs require a final project. If one specific type of final project is not mandated, students usually have a choice for this requirement – typically between a research-focused thesis, an internship or practicum (particularly in programs that are more theory-based) or a final capstone project.

These options are available in a select number of programs. The capstone project, however, is almost universally offered as the final graduation requirement, mostly because of the focus on real-world professional application. Capstone projects are designed by the student with faculty approval and guidance and are a way for students to demonstrate their mastery of a key concept within the field. This ability to immediately put skills into practice can position the student for career advancement almost immediately by way of a promotion at their existing organization/company or to strategically identify and pursue other areas of interest. While a capstone is required in almost all programs (or alternatively, a thesis or internship), there are some programs that require a final professional portfolio, which is essentially a selection of projects completed throughout the program and presented in a professional fashion, such as on a website or other digital source. What is central to all of these options, though, is the outcome – to demonstrate mastery in the field as well as utilize newfound skills in a way that professionally benefits students the most.

Online master’s in communications programs are often self-paced and require between 30-36 credit hours (which equates to between 10 to 15 courses) that could take from one (full-time) to three (part-time) years to complete. While the progression of the program is often up to the student and what courses are available each term, there are consistent elements to almost all communications programs:

  • Core course requirements:

    Most programs have a slate of required core courses (typically three to six), which cover fundamental theories and concepts (e.g. Foundations of Communication or Foundations in Marketing, Communication Ethics, etc.).

  • Electives:

    Outside the core requirements, students may choose electives that suit their interests and supplement their communications education. In some cases, at least one course may be a course offered from a different department (for example, a student may want to take a business course), but typically most electives must be taken within the communications department.

  • Specialization courses:

    These are optional but if a student chooses to pursue a specialization, courses will be targeted to a particular area of the field so students can hone their skills.

  • Final graduation requirement:

    As noted previously, almost all programs have a final capstone (or thesis/internship) credit that is required upon completion of all other coursework.

While this format is typical for most online master’s communications programs, there are a few that do not offer electives and require all students to take the same courses.

What Can I Do with a Master’s in Communications Degree?

Career paths for someone with a master’s in communication are as plentiful as there are means of communication. In fact, the leadership skills gained through a communications degree could be applied to almost any field, but there are a number of areas to which the degree can be directly applied. A master’s degree can open up many possibilities in fields such as the following:

  • Communications Management

    Every organization needs someone to effectively tell their story and get it out into the world and because of that, one can find a communications director or manager position in almost all fields. In most cases, a master’s in communication is not only valued, but may even be required. These positions are largely responsible for overall messaging and creation of communications strategies for a company’s or organization’s brand.

    Because of the constantly evolving state of technology, digital communication is becoming increasingly important. For that reason, students interested in communications management should look into programs that have a strong area of focus on technology and digital communications (which could include website management, social media communications or video and audio production). A strong skill set in digital communications could set an applicant apart from the rest. Another important skillset in communications management is internal communications. In effect, the student learns how to interact with a company’s employees in order to build morale and increase longevity of a workforce. Internal communications is also important to help employees buy in to a company’s mission and values and, in turn, become ambassadors for the company’s brand.

    Associations that may be of interest for someone interested in communications management are The American Communication Association, Communications Media Management Association, the International Association of Business Communicators, the Public Relations Society of America (which also organizes the Association/Non Profit Section for non-profit communicators) and the American Marketing Association.

  • Health Communications

    A career in health communications can include community-based communications as a public health worker or managing an entire hospital’s communications strategies as a hospital administrator. A variety of communications programs offer specific tracks for health communicators. Community-based health workers or public health professionals will benefit from understanding how marketing skills can be applied to health such as designing a behavior change strategy like a smoking cessation campaign.

    Hospital administrators and healthcare communications managers must understand the many ways in which a healthcare institution interacts with the public (e.g. the interactions with the surrounding community, interactions with patients and interactions among and between other institutions in the community). The communications manager must have a strategic vision and understand how to position the hospital to work best with all stakeholders. These skills are central to health communications master’s programs.

    The Society for Health Communication is an excellent resource for those interested in this career path. Additionally, the Public Relations Society of America has a section specifically for the health sector called The Health Academy.

  • Public Relations

    Public relations professionals work on behalf of an organization, company or individual to earn media coverage to get a brand’s story out into the world either through the media or through speaking engagements. Most corporations have an in-house PR person/team or hire an external PR firm to either be the face of the corporation and/or coach representatives or leaders from the company. PR professionals also have an added role of engaging in crisis communication. For example, if a CEO of a company or a politician is involved in a scandal, the public relations officer is often tasked with representing the company or the individual and will work with the media to minimize the damage.

    Because communication is at the heart of the public relations profession, a master’s in communication provides training around building a public relations strategy. Many former journalists enter this profession because of their background in the media, and a master’s degree adds upon their reporting and writing skills to give them the skills to develop a strategic vision. A prospective student interested in public relations but without a journalism background may want to consider a program that is linked to a journalism program. Anyone interested in public relations should look into joining the Public Relations Society of America.

  • Marketing

    Marketing professionals are responsible for building a brand on behalf of a company. They mostly work in paid advertising as opposed to someone working generally in communications management who works on more comprehensive communications campaigns rather than short term, targeted marketing campaigns. Marketing professionals work closely with market research analysts to understand the audience and public’s interest to build a specific campaign. A master’s in communications would give someone interested in marketing the skill to envision an overarching message and carry out a cohesive campaign. Students interested in marketing may also want to look at taking courses in market research to gain insight into how data is gathered and analyzed. The American Marketing Association is a great resource for someone interested in this type of career.

  • Market Research

    Market research analysts are needed in almost every industry to collect and analyze qualitative and quantitative data to promote a brand or sell a product. Advertising agencies work with market research companies to learn how their brand is used to inform advertising campaigns. In politics, market research can be conducted to identify important issues for constituents. And in the non-profit sector, market research can be utilized to understand supporters of an organization’s work and build a communications campaign around that.

    Because market research is designed to inform a strategic communications vision, a master’s degree would give emerging or prospective market research analysts the important skills of analyzing and communicating the data collected in a concise and clear way. Prospective students interested in market research should look for programs with a data collection and analysis concentration. Insights Association is the largest association for the market research field and is a great resource for career advancement. Additionally, because market research is tied closely to marketing, someone interested in this career should look into the American Marketing Association as a resource.

  • Human Resources Management

    Human resources managers and directors are needed in almost any mid- and large-scale company or organization to oversee workforce management and development efforts. The field is large and very diverse – potential areas could include employee recruitment, benefits management, training and employee development among other directions, all of which require top-notch communication skills.

    An example of where a master’s in communications could set someone apart is in recruitment marketing where a recruiter must understand their audience (i.e. potential employees) and what would appeal to them in order to attract the best candidates possible.

    Another emerging area in the human resources field is employer branding which focuses on building a strong company or organization brand that attracts high quality applicants. Because of the importance of technology in communications at any level, human resources managers will be more likely to advance when they have a strong understanding of content marketing as well. This includes, but is not limited to video creation, website development and creative technological strategies to engage an audience.

    Finally, a master’s in communication also helps build internal communication skills, which are essential in employee engagement where human resources managers develop important systems and structures to retain high quality employees and support them in their work. Prospective students interested in this career path should look at programs that emphasize internal communications and marketing technology as part of their coursework. The Society for Human Resources Development is an excellent resource for anyone interested in this field as they not only offer networking opportunities, but additional certifications as well.

Other careers in communications

A master’s in communications can be applied to almost any career and it’s difficult to summarize in just a few descriptions. The following are additional examples of jobs in which a master’s in communications can be applied:

  • Community relations manager
  • Political campaign director
  • Social media director
  • Education administrator
  • Non-profit director
  • Fundraising or development director
  • Foreign service officer
  • International development communications strategist
  • Event planner
  • Copywriter

How Much Money Can I Make with a Master’s in Communications Degree?

With an online master’s in communications, the opportunities for real-time advancement are huge. A student can work towards career advancement while going to school and the following salaries show the earning potential for select careers. These salary statistics are a combined assessment from PayScale and the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ May 2017 employment data.

Career Entry-Level Salary (0-5 years) Mid-Career (5-10 years) Late Career (10-20+ years)
Communications Director $52,000 $72,000 $92,000
Hospital Marketing Director $59,000 $84,000 $120,000
Hospital Administrator $71,000 $94,000 $97,000
Corporate Communications Manager $71,000 $93,000 $117,000
Public Relations Director $54,000 $80,000 $155,000
Marketing Director $51,000 $79,000 $102,000
Market Research Analyst $50,000 $66,000 $69,000
Human Resources Director $59,000 $79,000 $101,000

National data from Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce shows a significant salary difference between a bachelor’s and a master’s degree for people in communications and journalism careers. The following shows the difference in earning potential between a bachelor’s and a master’s for communications graduates in 2015.

Career Median salary for bachelor’s degree Median salary for master’s degree
Advertising and public relations $54,000 $65,000
Communications and mass media $54,000 $67,000
Human resources and personnel management $58,000 $75,000
Business management and administration $62,000 $89,000

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the national employment outlook for careers in communications is trending higher than average (ranging from 9% to 20% growth depending on the position) between 2016 and 2026. When looked at by location, the growth rate of communications careers trends even higher. These are broken down by career path in the table below.

Salary rates in communications fields often depend on the required skills of a position. Prospective students should look at those specific skills and look into programs that will help them develop the required skillset and apply it in their current or future positions.

Communications Director Projected growth rate

10% national employment outlook (May 2017 BLS). PayScale notes the employment outlook as high as 55% in San Francisco and 37% in Dallas.

Skills developed through a master’s in communications program that will positively affect salaries (according to PayScale career analysis)
  • Corporate communications (20%)
  • Strategic planning (9%)
  • People management (8%)
Hospital Administrator Projected growth rate

20% national employment outlook for “Medical and Health Services Managers” (May 2017 BLS).

Skills developed through a master’s in communications program that will positively affect salaries (according to PayScale career analysis)
  • Strategic planning (40%)
  • Operations Management (7%)
Corporate Communications Projected growth rate

14% national employment outlook for “Management Analysts” (May 2017 BLS).

Skills developed through a master’s in communications program that will positively affect salaries (according to PayScale career analysis)
  • Strategic planning (29%)
  • Branding (7%)
Public Relations Director Projected growth rate

10% national employment outlook (May 2017 BLS). Median salary according to PayScale is $82,000, but BLS measures the median income at $111,000

Skills developed through a master’s in communications program that will positively affect salaries (according to PayScale career analysis)
  • Employee relations (5%)
  • Media/public relations (3%)
Marketing Director Projected growth rate

10% national employment outlook (May 2017 BLS). PayScale assesses the outlook between 26-60% outlook in a variety of large metro regions (e.g. Philadelphia, Seattle, Chicago, and San Francisco)

Skills developed through a master’s in communications program that will positively affect salaries (according to PayScale career analysis)
  • Strategic marketing (15%)
  • Strategic planning (8%)
  • Marketing management (2%)
Market Research Analyst Projected growth rate

23% national employment outlook (May 2017 BLS)

Skills developed through a master’s in communications program that will positively affect salaries (according to PayScale career analysis)
  • Presentations (28%)
  • Client interaction (7%)
  • Market analysis (3%)
Human Resources Director Projected growth rate

9% national employment outlook (May 2017 BLS). According to PayScale, the employment outlook for HR managers is even higher (up to 33%) in large metro regions including Boston, New York and San Francisco.

Skills developed through a master’s in communications program that will positively affect salaries (according to PayScale career analysis)
  • Strategic planning (13%)
  • Organizational development (9%)
  • Leadership (8%)
  • Performance management (6%)
Training & Development Director Projected growth rate

10% employment outlook (May 2017 BLS). PayScale shows that the employment outlook is up to 50% in Minneapolis and 40% in Philadelphia.

Skills developed through a master’s in communications program that will positively affect salaries (according to PayScale career analysis)
  • Strategic planning (34%)
  • Team leadership (6%)
  • Training management (3%)
  • Organizational development (2%)

Online Master’s in Communications Program Accreditation

The overarching organization that evaluates and accredits communications and journalism programs and departments for the United States is the Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communications (ACEJMC). There are currently 113 ACEJMC accredited programs and departments around the country.

ACEJMC accredited institutions have a stamp of quality on them. This is important in any program, but it’s essential in an online program as accredited institutions can guarantee a high quality education no matter the method in which it’s pursued.

How to Pay for a Master’s in Communications Degree

Because online master’s in communications degrees have flexible schedules and are built for working students, one can continue working full-time while in school. This is a huge advantage, but it’s just one way of funding a graduate degree. Other options prospective master’s students should look into include:

Employer benefits for education

Many large companies or organizations provide tuition assistance for education and training that’s relevant to one’s current position. Because most master’s in communications programs help you apply the skills developed almost immediately, an employee can pitch the tuition assistance as a way to directly benefit their job performance in real time. Contact someone in the human resources or staff development and training departments to learn more about those benefits. This likely won’t cover all tuition, but it could cover a significant portion.

Communications scholarships

Learn about communications-specific scholarships at Scholarships.com.

Student loan and scholarship opportunities

Just like with any graduate program, student loan assistance is available for anyone seeking a master’s through FAFSA. Check out ACO’s guide on financial aid for graduate students.

Public Service Loan Forgiveness

This government program forgives the remaining balance on federal Direct Loans for those who work for government and 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organizations and meet other specified requirements. To plan ahead or to see if you qualify, visit the U.S. Department of Education.