With beginnings in the mid-1900s, communication is a comparatively young field; as a course of study, it has a far shorter history than other subjects, such as philosophy, English, and music. Since the days of Marshall McLuhan, the field has grown quickly, and college students frequently choose communication as a major.
Due to this popularity, colleges offer a variety of major concentrations within their communication departments. These concentrations typically fall under one of two approaches to the field: communication as a technical field, or communication as a social science.
Communication as a technical field
Communication is commonly viewed as a technical field, in which students learn the skills needed to pursue careers in the media. As there are many jobs available within the media today, most undergraduate communication programs emphasize this technical approach.
Many of these programs offer degrees such as Mass Communication, which allow students to pursue a variety of careers in the field. Students in such programs often choose a concentration, such as broadcasting or print media, that is also comparatively broad. Upon graduation, these students may become journalists, public relations specialists, marketing assistants, etc.
Demand for specific skill sets has also resulted in the growth of highly-specialized programs. These allow students to major in a specific field, such as non-profit public relations, science journalism, or health communication, and later pursue a career in their fields of choice. And many schools, of course, offer both general and specific programs.
Admission to such programs can be highly competitive, especially to those regarded as training grounds for the best and brightest media professionals. For example, the Class of 2004 at Boston University's College of Communication has an average SAT score of 1283 and an average high school GPA of 3.511.This is within the range of scores accepted by ivy league schools, indicating the caliber of student drawn to the program2.
Communication as a social science
There is also a social-science approach to communication, which is typical of doctoral level programs. Ph.D. students often focus on the relationship between society and the media, examining media effects on individuals (a psychological perspective) and groups of people (a sociological perspective). Thus, rather than employing technical skills, communication scholars study the influences of these skills3.
As you might guess, there are many more media professionals in the world than there are media scholars. Reflecting this, there are significantly fewer Ph.D. programs in communication than there are master's and bachelor's programs in the United States. Indeed, Ph.D. programs in communication are far and few between: For example, the Ph.D. programs at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and the University of Connecticut at Storrs are the only ones in all of New England, although there are innumerable undergraduate programs throughout the region.
So what happens at the master's level? It depends. In many cases, a department of communication offering an M.S. (master of science) focuses on technical skills, whereas a department offering an M.A. (master of arts) is more theory-based, taking a critical-cultural approach. Of course, many master's programs offer a mix of both, leaving it for the student to decide which courses to take and in what proportions.
Professors of Communication
The next logical question is, Who's teaching these courses? It really depends on the program and the college or university. Schools training media professionals are likely to hire people on the basis of life experience. For example, a well-regarded partner of a P.R. firm may retire early from the firm, and then pass on her knowledge as a professor at an undergraduate or master's-level communication program.
On the other hand, many accredited schools require the majority of their full-time faculty members to hold Ph.D.s. In these cases, faculty members will have typically graduated from schools that take a social-science approach to communication. These professors may or may not have training in the technical aspects such as media writing or filmmaking; therefore, they are likely to teach courses in media criticism, culture, and theory.
Thus, a department offering both technical and theoretical approaches will likely hire people of different backgrounds to teach courses with different emphases. On the other hand, doctoral programs will only hire faculty who have doctorates, reinforcing the social science approach favored by Ph.D programs.
When comparing the two major forms of communication study, it is important to remember that neither is superior to the other! (Some people might try to convince you otherwise, though.) The point is this: Graduates of each type of program serve important roles in our society, as members of the media, and as teachers and critics of the relationship between media and society. Also, there is a great deal of overlap in training within the field, so distinctions are not always so clear-cut.
Most importantly: If you are considering studying communication in college, remember that technical communiation programs and social-science communication programs serve different purposes. Therefore, whether you're looking at undergraduate or graduate institutions, be sure the program you select suits your interests and goals. Also, consider contacting faculty members to see what their interests are, as this has a strong influence on the shape of the program. (This is especially important at the graduate level.)
Enjoy your studies!
1 See COMTalk's alumni notes, available online. [back]
2 Note Harvard's statement about typical incoming SAT scores.
Also, it is important to note that of the eight Ivy League Schools, only three offer programs in communication: Columbia, Cornell, and the University of Pennsylvania. [back]
3 To gain a better understanding of communication at the doctoral level, please view my compilation of graduate programs. [back]
Final note: Also remember that there are thousands of programs in communication in the United States, and this overview cannot capture the rich diversity of the programs being offered. It also does not cover communication science, which often deals with speech pathology and similarly health-science related degrees, as that is not the focus of this site.