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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 focus on the intersection of media, technology, and democracy. Our program is designed for scholars who seek to understand how communication and technology interact with democratic life and participation in an open society, with a particular emphasis on the role of new media in civil society—a theme consistent with the core public service mission of American University. 

Our interdisciplinary course of study is solidly rooted in contemporary communications knowledge, theory, research methods, and principles, while drawing from the diverse intellectual resources across American University. The program offers both humanistic and social scientific approaches to the study of communication, tapping 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. You'll organize your studies around your choice of a thematic concentration. Courses covering a wide spectrum of issues will allow you to explore the cultural, technological, economic, and policy forces shaping the media system. 

The accelerated structure of our program offers an 11-month-per-year mentoring and learning environment, enabling you to complete your degree in three years. Our graduates are 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. You'll also have the advanced qualifications for professional work in public policy, research, communication, marketing, and production at media, nonprofit, advocacy, government, and industry organizations. 

The School of Communication's PhD in Communication advances theory, develops knowledge, and enhances the ability of our institutions, social groups, and professionals to apply that knowledge to address our most pressing political and social challenges today. If you want to be a part of the next generation of communication scholars, professors, leaders, and practitioners for the digital age, this is an ideal program for you.

Demonstrate Your Commitment and Interest

All applicants must hold a master's degree (or be in the process of completing a master's degree) to apply for the PhD in Communication. 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 also required. Students should submit their official GRE scores to CEEB code 5007.

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 WES or ECE)
  • Two letters of recommendation
  • GRE scores
  • Master's thesis
  • Proof of English proficiency (100 on the TOEFL, 7.0 on the IELTS, or a bachelor or master's degree from 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. 

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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.

Courses:

Fall

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.

Spring

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 fall 2021 semester.

 

Summer

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.

 

Fall

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)

OR

Approved graduate statistics or research methods course (3)

and

Elective selected in consultation with faculty mentor (3)

 

Spring

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.

A Passion for Storytelling

There are a lot more opportunities out there to create something that matters.

Nesima Aberra loves storytelling, but believes we need to expand where and how stories are told and who tells them. At AU, she explored how media shapes the way we understand our world through innovative, thoughtful, and relevant stories. Through her Dean's Internship at VOX, she's learned how to find compelling human interest angles in more complex news events. Now she's more excited than ever to use literary journalism to change the way people think and feel and help make our society more informed and empowered.

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. TheInternet 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 Lab 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.

Still have questions? Send us an email: GradComm@american.edu