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More About the PhD in Communication

The growth of the Internet and the proliferation of digital technologies have dramatically altered communications, creating extraordinary challenges and opportunities for communication professionals and scholars. For example, journalism is undergoing a remarkable crisis and rebirth as blogs, cell phones, and other digital media transform an entire industry. Government agencies, nonprofit institutions, and media companies are engaged in major debates over a host of interrelated public policy issues – intellectual property, privacy, media ownership, and network neutrality – whose outcome will determine the nature of the emerging digital media system.  

New media also are reshaping many aspects of contemporary society, fostering innovation in civic engagement and political activism, and significantly affecting public health, the workplace, and the environment. All of the major institutions in our society – from newspapers to nonprofit organizations to businesses to government – are developing new strategies to navigate successfully the rapidly changing media landscape.  

The PhD program in Communication is dedicated to educating the next generation of communication scholars, professors, leaders, and practitioners for the Digital Age.  It fosters scholarship that builds new theory and knowledge, and enhances the ability of institutions, social groups, and professionals to apply that knowledge to undertake salient political and social challenges.  Courses will cover a wide spectrum of issues  – addressing the cultural, technological, economic, and policy forces shaping the media system, and emphasizing the role of new media in civil society and democracy, a theme consistent with the core public service mission of American University.

Interdisciplinary Focus

The doctoral program offers an interdisciplinary course of study solidly rooted in contemporary communications knowledge, theory, research methods, and principles, while drawing from the diverse intellectual resources across the graduate curricula at American University. It combines humanistic and social scientific approaches to the study of communication, tapping into American University’s relationships with NGOs, media companies, foundations, and government institutions in Washington, DC. Students take core and required courses offered within the School of Communication designed specifically to equip them with knowledge and expertise in the major theories and methodologies of the field. They work closely with a faculty advisor to create an individualized program of electives. These include communication classes, as well as courses from other units on campus, organized around the student’s choice of thematic concentration


Students take core and required courses offered within the School of Communication that have been designed specifically to equip graduate students with knowledge and expertise in the major theories and methodologies of the field. They work closely with a faculty advisor to create an individualized program of electives. Courses will include communication classes, as well as courses from other units on campus, organized around the student’s choice of the following thematic concentrations.

Media, Public Issues, and Engagement

This concentration focuses on use of the media and technology for public life, civil society, and for addressing social problems. Areas of interest include: the role of media and technology in evolution of citizen attitudes, preferences, knowledge, and behavior; media and technology as resources for social change, empowering citizens, social movements, and advocacy coalitions; and the function of the media both in shaping and reflecting policy agendas and decisions. Students in this concentration examine the ethics, social contexts, and limits of different models for public engagement, including issues related to citizen participation, persuasion, and coercion. Research and applications span subject areas and sub-fields such as media interactions with science, health, the environment, elections and advocacy campaigns, children and the media, foreign policy, the economy, and social policy. Students are trained in advanced research methods including public opinion and media content research, formative and evaluative research of campaigns, and organizational strategy.

Media Industries and Institutions

The emphasis in this concentration is on the social, economic, political, and technological characteristics of media industry structure and practice. Students in this area investigate the complex interrelationships among nonprofit organizations, news media, government, and business. Research and applications include: the role of digital technologies and public policy in civic participation and in evolving relationships among media content producers and their audiences; social and political implications of changing business models; structures of public media; media industry’s impact on issues of technology, responsibility, and social equity in areas such as personal freedom, diversity, government transparency, social surveillance, privacy, trade, and corporate responsibility. Students are trained in advanced research methods including comparative and historical analysis, quantitative analysis, case study approaches, ethnography, and interviewing.

Media, Technology, and Culture

This concentration features the application of critical theories from the humanities and social sciences to examine the construction of media expression in emerging digital culture, and to create and analyze new forms of media as tools for public life and civil society. Scholarship may combine theoretical approaches from philosophy, history, sociology, film studies, and cultural studies to address a wide spectrum of issues, including: the role of communications media in the construction of identity, stereotypes, and perception; social, economic, and cultural norms of emerging digital media; changing creative practices and their social and policy implications; the interplay of democratic processes and technological change; as well as the significance of media in public ritual, social control, and propaganda. Students are encouraged to combine media theory with production practices in the fields of journalism, documentary film, and social media.


Graduates will be qualified for tenure-track faculty positions at institutions of higher education in Communication, Media Studies, Public Relations, Journalism, Film and Media Arts, and related fields. They will also have the advanced qualifications to work in public policy, research, communication, marketing, and production positions at media, nonprofit, advocacy, government, and industry organizations.

PhD in Communication 3-Year Course Progression

Year 1: 

Students take six 3-credit required courses, three each in the fall and spring semesters. Depending on their past MA coursework and experience, students can petition for credit for methods and or statistics course work, substituting for these classes an advanced methods course or other elective. The teaching seminar is designed to prepare students to work as a teaching assistant in an undergraduate course in the second year of coursework. Students who have prior college teaching experience or have already taken a similar teaching seminar as part of their MA program can place out of this course, substituting an additional elective.

In the summer session immediately following year one, students enroll in one course for credit and participate in research group meetings.

Year 2:  

In the fall, students will take two electives approved by their advisor and the program director along with a teaching seminar.

By the end of their fall semester, students are expected to have gained approval and have finalized the four faculty members of their doctoral committee with at least one member outside of SOC.

At the beginning of their spring semester, students will begin their Qualifying Exams. (See above.) The qualifying exam process is expected to take approximately a month from the assignment of questions to successful written and oral defense. Students will also take a seminar, “Advanced Research and Project Development,” that guides them in developing their dissertation proposal. 

By the end of the spring semester or beginning of the summer, students are expected to have successfully defended their dissertation proposals and to spend the summer focused on dissertation research.

Year 3:  

In the fall and spring semesters, students will register for dissertation research credits and also participate in a seminar titled “Principles of Doctoral Research,” which will provide a collaborative setting to gain feedback, guidance, and mentoring on approaches to project design, data collection, analysis, interpretation, writing, and time management. 

During the fall and spring semesters, students are also expected to be applying and interviewing for jobs, with their research groups serving as outlets for “mock” job talks and other forms of professional development and guidance.