Doctor of Philosophy in School of Communication

School of Communication
PhD Communication Studies
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At the Intersection of Media, Technology, and Democracy

The AU School of Communication's Doctor of Philosophy in Communication allows you to research at the intersection of media, technology, and democracy. We study how media and technology interact with democratic culture and politics. Communication creates culture; communication is a vector of power; communication is central to democratic action. Our normative orientation toward a healthier democratic process is a theme consistent with the core public service mission of American University. Internet governance, podcasts as news sources, disinformation on Twitter, digital surveillance, facial recognition and power, racism on social media, and state social-media propaganda are all topics of recent dissertations.

Our focus is at the cutting edge of the field of communication studies today, and our students routinely present at our leading conferences. Our approach is also interdisciplinary, and we benefit from the diverse intellectual resources across American University, such as those showcased at the Internet Governance Lab, the AU Game Centerthe Center for Media & Social Impact, the Center for Latino and Latin American Studies, and the Institute on Disability and Public Policy (IDPP). We also tap into our relationships with NGOs, media companies, foundations, and government institutions throughout the Washington metro area. 

In our doctoral program, you'll produce scholarship, using both quantitative and qualitative approaches, that has real-world connection and impact. Your work will position you well to pick from career options that range from the professoriate to public policy research to media production to government. 

This is a three-year PhD, and from the moment you arrive, you will be working in a highly-structured program toward your dissertation research, building your networks, and developing publishable projects. You will join us in using knowledge to address our most pressing political and social challenges. We welcome your application to become a part of the next generation of communication scholars, professors, leaders, and practitioners.

Financial Info

Demonstrate Your Commitment and Interest

Applicants for the Communication (PhD) degree program must hold an accredited bachelor's degree and a master's degree in communication, or a related field, with a cumulative GPA of 3.30 or higher, unless the applicant demonstrates comparable experience. The degree does not have to be in the field of communication or be research-based, as many of our PhD students have master's degrees in film or journalism. 

Applicants must submit a statement of purpose that outlines the intended research area, what research methods and theories the applicant will use, and which faculty members the applicant hopes to work with.

The candidate must also submit either a master's thesis or another example of substantial research. The GRE is optional. Students should submit their official GRE scores to CEEB code 5007 if desired.

The School of Communication's PhD program operates on a hard deadline. Applications must be received by December 15th. Applications received after the deadline will not be considered.

A complete PhD application consists of the following:

  • Statement of purpose
  • Resume
  • University transcripts from all universities attended (transcripts from outside of the U.S. must be evaluated by a NACES approevd organization)
  • Two letters of recommendation
  • GRE scores (optional)
  • Master's thesis (or another example of substantial research)
  • Proof of English proficiency (100 on the TOEFL, 7.0 on the IELTS, 120 on Duolingo, or a bachelor or master's degree from a university in an English speaking country)

The admissions committee may ask applicants to interview with the program director and affiliated faculty. Interviews are conducted either on campus or virtually.

Financing Your Education

Each year, we welcome several doctoral students with full tuition remission as well as a graduate assistantship. We may also offer admission to top candidates without merit funding. If funding becomes available, students admitted without funding may be eligible to receive a merit package from the school.

The PhD in Communication is 54 credit hours. To estimate the cost of tuition, please see the current cost per credit hour for graduate students.

Students whose funding package includes a graduate assistantship will work as research or teaching assistants for 20 hours per week during the fall and spring semesters. 

The School of Communication offers graduate students both merit-based and need-based financial aid. Merit awards, named scholarships, and fellowships are administered by the SOC Graduate Admissions Office, while need-based awards are administered by the American University Office of Financial Aid. Several prestigious graduate fellowships are also available for students in the Political Communication program. Additional financial support is available for veterans.

Each year, we welcome several doctoral students with full tuition remission as well as a graduate assistantship. We may also offer admission to top candidates without merit funding. If funding becomes available, students admitted without funding may be eligible to receive a merit package from the school. 

All merit awards are based on your academic merit and professional experience, specifically your undergraduate grades and leadership activities as well as career-related accomplishments. Merit awards are valid for one year-they vary in amount, are typically divided evenly between the fall and spring semesters, and are not typically renewable.

Some merit awards come in the form of graduate assistantships, which consist of graduate tuition remission, a stipend, or both. Tuition remission will vary in the number of credits offered. If you are offered a stipend, you must employed as a graduate assistant for a School of Communication faculty member for 10 hours per week.

Graduate Fellowships for Political Communication

The School of Communication offers prestigious merit-based fellowships in partnership with leading Washington, DC-based media organizations. These fellowships provide varying amounts of tuition remission and stipend and allow you to pursue professional projects with some of the finest media organizations while completing your graduate program. Separate applications are required

Research fellowships at academic centers within the School of Communication and throughout the university may also be available.

 Advanced Study at Your Convenience 

The School of Communication makes continuing on for your advanced degree a simple, straightforward process. You may apply for admission to our combined bachelor of arts/master of arts program during the second semester of your junior year (after completing 75 credits, but before you have completed 90 credits). Students in any undergraduate major at AU are eligible for consideration. An undergraduate degree in communication is not required.

You may apply for combined degrees in Political Communication, Strategic Communication, Film and Video, Journalism and Public Affairs, Game Design, or International Media.

More information about admissions requirements can be found here.

PhD Students

Meet Our Students

Our students produce scholarship, using both quantitative and qualitative approaches, that has real-world connection and impact.


The CMSI team poses with the lineup of comedians at Comedy Saves Democracy. Photo by Ari Scott.

Arts ·

Democracy is a Laughing Matter

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Course Progression

Complete your degree in three years

In contrast to the traditional 9-month-per-year schedule, your annual course of study takes place over 11 months, including faculty supervision and mentoring via formal course work, organized research group meetings, and online collaboration. The accelerated structure of your program allows you to complete your degree in three years.

You'll take six required courses, three each in the fall and spring semester. Depending on your past master's coursework and professional experience, you may be able to petition for credit for methods and/or statistics course work, substituting an advanced methods course or other elective. The required teaching seminar prepares you to work as a teaching assistant in an undergraduate course during your second year of coursework. Students who have prior college teaching experience or who have already taken a similar teaching seminar as part of their master's program can place out of this course, substituting an additional elective. In the summer immediately following your first year, you'll enroll in one course for credit and participate in research group meetings.



COMM-704: Media, Technology & Democracy (3) This is a foundation overview course focused on scholarship and analysis concerning the intersections of media, technology, and democracy. It also introduces other core courses and study concentrations for advanced study in these topics.

COMM-750: Advanced Media Theory (3) This course examines a range of theories for explaining the complex interrelationships among media, technology, human behavior, social interaction, and democratic processes. It provides an in-depth comparative analysis of theoretical approaches from a variety of academic fields including mass communication, cultural studies, film criticism, and digital media.

COMM-751: Advanced Media Research Methods (3) This course covers major social scientific, historical, ethnographic, qualitative, and critical approaches to media research, including discussions of epistemology, conceptualization, measurement, and ethics.


COMM-754: Media, Law & Policy (3) This course equips students with a strong grounding in U.S laws, policies, and regulatory infrastructure. It analyzes how public debates and political struggles over policy issues have shaped the culture, structure, and operations of contemporary U.S. media industries and institutions.

COMM-711: Teaching Seminar (3) This course provides students with career preparation knowledge, including understanding the culture and history of higher education, teaching skills, and career skills including submission to journals, book proposals, finding appropriate job opportunities, writing cover letters and doing job interviews. Some individual coaching is also involved.

NOTE: This course begins the Friday BEFORE school starts in spring semester, with attendance at an all-day event, the Ann Ferren Conference. This affects your travel schedule over winter holidays!

Approved graduate statistics or research methods course (3) (by preference) OR

Elective selected in consultation with faculty mentor (3)

Note: Students will work with their faculty mentor, who must have an appropriate terminal degree, to select two electives for the first fall semester.



COMM-755: Research Design in Communication (3). This course strengthens student skills in defining an answerable research questions and finding appropriate methodologies.

In the fall, you'll take two electives and a course to prepare you for the comprehensive examinations. By the end of your fall semester, you'll be expected to have gained approval and to have finalized the four faculty members of your doctoral committee, with at least one member being from outside of the School of Communication. At the beginning of your spring semester, you'll begin your qualifying exams. This process takes approximately one month from the assignment of questions to a successful written and oral defense. You will also take a seminar to guide you in developing your 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.



COMM-860 Seminar in Doctoral Teaching and Research (3) Creation of dissertation literature review and preparation for the comprehensive exam. Introduction to teaching philosophies and strategies, preparation for scholarly career in Communication Studies.

Approved elective courses (6)


Approved graduate statistics or research methods course (3)


Elective selected in consultation with faculty mentor (3)



COMM-861: Advanced Research & Project Development (3) Prepares students for advancing to candidacy by taking the comprehensive exam and preparing a dissertation proposal.

COMM-898: Doctoral Continuing Enrollment (6) May be taken by doctoral students completing coursework, exams or proposals in preparation for advancement to candidacy.

In the fall and spring semesters, you'll register for dissertation research credits. During the fall and spring semesters, you will also probably be applying and interviewing for jobs, drawing upon information from your first-year course, COMM 711 and on your mentors’ advice. By late spring, your dissertation committee expects to have about six weeks to read and respond to a dissertation draft and to read and respond to a revised version.

Frequently Asked Questions

Applicants could be interested in tenure track, faculty positions in academia, or seeking careers at prestigious institutions in government, industry, and/or the nonprofit community.

In addition to the teaching seminars and teaching assistantships that are part of the regular doctoral curriculum, The Art of Teaching is a one-credit course offered each spring semester for PhD students who want to learn more about educational pedagogy. The course was originally designed by American University's former provost, Milton Greenberg.

Previously known as the Greenberg Seminars for Effective Teaching, this course complements the PhD academic experience, providing hands-on, practical introduction to professional development and classroom techniques. PhD students can participate at any time during their PhD program. There is no tuition fee for the course.

Our program is focused on impactful research at the intersection of media, technology, and democracy. Our faculty and students study how media messages and communication technologies shape, and are shaped by, social and governmental processes. Specific sites of research range from Internet governance to music and film culture to social and political organizing to journalism to new media and games. We study communication patterns and their meanings across and between societies on a global scale, including, every continent in addition to indigenous and stateless groups. We draw upon cultural production, critical communication, science and technology studies, law and society perspectives, and other theories, and we use both quantitative and qualitative research methods as well as policy analysis.

Our alumni have found full time and tenure-track jobs at universities throughout the U.S. and around the world, as well as prestigious post-doctoral positions and non-profit and government posts.

You are assigned a mentor when you first arrive, a selection that results from both your stated interests and faculty interest. This assignment can change by request. You can expect to work with your mentor and, potentially, other faculty on research resulting in joint publications and conference presentations. In your second year, you may assist a faculty member with teaching. Several recent alumni have continued to collaborate with SOC faculty and student colleagues after graduation, resulting in dozens of published research articles, book chapters, and policy papers.

The PhD program offers several PhD Symposia throughout the year, offering informal presentations of completed work and work in progress by both students and faculty. The Internet Governance Lab, a joint program in the School of Communication and School of International Service, offers a range of activities throughout the year, putting a spotlight on Internet policy. The Center for Media & Social Impact offers workshops, events, a biannual conference, and research projects for which you can apply as research assistant. The AU Game Center provides a community of scholars and graduate students in numerous programs across the university engaged in the design, production, and study of games, including the cultural and social impact of the medium, with substantial opportunities for collaboration with faculty, staff, and students across multiple related fields and contexts. The Institute for Immersive Designs, Experiences, Applications, and Stories (Institute for IDEAS) offers paid fellowships and research projects for which you can apply as a research assistant, often collaborating with faculty at other institutions. The PhD programs in the School of Communication, School of International Service, and School of Public Affairs jointly host a day-long research conference featuring work in progress by their PhD students, in February. The university-wide Center for Teaching, Research and Learning (CTRL) provides tools and programs throughout the year to help faculty and PhD students with best practices in teaching, and hosts an annual conference on teaching in January. PhD students are welcome, at no cost. CTRL also offers training and access to research tools. Finally, each PhD student receives enough annual funding to attend at least one major scholarly conference or event, anywhere in the world.

Our students have explored a wide diversity of interests with rigorous research, including dissertations such as:

  • Lucy Odigie, “Digital Margins: Digital Technology Use, Social Change and the Empowering Strategies of Domestic Workers of Color in Brooklyn, NY”
  • Isabelle Zaugg, “Ethiopic: Coding for Linguistic Survival in the Face of Digital Extinction”
  • Aras Cosuntuncel, “Networking Authoritarian Neoliberalism: Realigned Strategies of Information Control and Resistance in the Case of Turkey” Dorian Davis, “The Twitter Election? New Perspectives on Agenda-Building during the 2016 Campaign”
  • Louisa Imperiale, “Democracy for Sale: A Critical Examination of the Political-Media Complex at work in Campaign Finance and Political Broadcast Regulation in U.S. Presidential Elections from 1976 to 2016”
  • Fernanda Rosa, “Global Internet Interconnection Infrastructure: Materiality, Concealment and Surveillance in Contemporary Communication”
  • Donte Newman, “Straddling the Fence: How White Facebook Users Express Ambivalence to Navigate the Context Collapse”
  • Emily O’Connell, “Hybrid Systems and Hybrid Genres: Exploring U.S. Political Podcast Framing Tactics and Effects”

Five people are selected each year to join the program, and there are usually about 20 people in the program at any one time.

The program is designed to be full-time.

The SOC PhD program was designed as an interdisciplinary program. We encourage students to take full advantage of the wealth of resources and opportunities across the university, including taking courses and finding expertise in other departments, as well as courses at our partner universities around Washington, DC. Dissertation committees are required to include at least one member outside of the school.

The program is designed to be completed in three years, and more than half of our PhD students accomplish their goal in doing so.

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