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What Can You Do with a PhD in Communication? (Almost) Anything You Want!

The crisis of employment for doctorate holders is no longer academia’s dirty little secret.

Even major outlets from Slate to The New York Times report on how the glut of PhDs seeking secure positions in higher ed made the tenure track professoriate the new golden ticket. Both the humanities and hard sciences have hundreds of applications for jobs in R1 schools, community colleges, and every university in-between. For the first time, “alt-ac” career options need to become less an alternative and more of the viable path.

In the sea of uncertainty for so many graduate students, those earning a doctorate in Communication may wonder about their career prospects. They’ve likely already received questions from loved ones, and to be fair, the field is often misunderstood by outsiders. 

This ambiguity mixed with the steep odds of joining the professoriate may cause Communication PhDs a lot of stress. What can one possibly do with a degree like this?

Turns out, a lot.

Communication is everywhere

Communication is everything. It is its own field yet holds space in other fields. It’s the very definition of interdisciplinary.

There are communication experts in every industry you could imagine. Communication has its own subgenres such as Health Communication, Science Communication, and Tech Communication, just to name a few. I studied Gender Communication, which examines how we express gender identity and roles through language, body, and behavior. My research borrowed heavily from sexuality, sociology, psychology, and rhetoricism. Many aspects of my study were useful when I became an Editorial Director at a research institute that studied relationships.

And then we can’t forget the formalized industries of Communication that include film and television production, marketing, journalism, and public relations. Even social media management needs a certain degree of understanding about how messages are successfully sent and received by an audience. It’s all communication, and you need a mastery of it to use it well. Such a specialized degree shows hiring teams that’s exactly what you can do.

Is a PhD in Communication valuable?

There’s always a concern that non-academic companies don’t value the terminal degree. Dr. Ed Smallwood, Senior Director, Pricing and Data for Spectrum Reach (Charter Communications), saw the benefits that a PhD brought to the corporate world even if it wasn’t always readily recognizable to others. “I thought the PhD would help me in future career endeavors,” Dr. Smallwood says.  “… I’ve been pleasantly surprised in the way many of my colleagues appreciate my experiences and education.  Even in introductions, bios, etc., the degree certainly carries an extra level of import.”

While some like Dr. Smallwood found a doctorate in Communication could further their corporate careers, others blazed new trails with a graduate degree as their guide. Just ask Dr. Tiffany Eurich. Before she started her own public relations business, she was a professor earning her doctorate in Communication as a requirement for tenure. “Completing a PhD while teaching full-time, I was constantly refining my time management skills, increasing my discipline for self-motivation, and learning to ‘triage’ my creative ideas,” she says, “all important skills for getting my business off the ground.” She left the Ivory Tower to form Tiffany Eurich Communications, utilizing everything she learned for a competitive edge.

Completing a PhD while teaching full-time, I was constantly refining my time management skills, increasing my discipline for self-motivation, and learning to “triage” my creative ideas, all important skills for getting my business off the ground.

Dr. Tiffany Eurich

“Working on my PhD taught me how to absorb, appraise, and distill large amounts of information quickly.  In the daily work of running a business, this is essential,” she explains.  “Similarly, doctoral training helps me add layers of value to client work, because I’m able to move through data, market research, and new options at a depth and pace that others often don’t provide.”

How to leverage your Communication degree

Graduate students don’t have to wait to see how their education will empower their long-term career goals. If you’re still in the midst of your coursework, you have choices in graduate school that can make you a well-rounded future candidate for non-academic jobs.

Dr. Eurich believes part of her success is that she studied what she was teaching at the time. It allowed her to build her own skillset while helping students as well. Also, her research interests were applicable outside of higher education. She says, “I wanted my knowledge and skillsets to be marketable.”

Likewise, Dr. Smallwood researched impression-based advertising, which coincided with his corporate work. “I’ve been invited to serve on a transformational project regarding impression-based advertising for my company, which has led to senior-level exposure and other opportunities,” he says. Going into your program with a plan minimizes the uncertainty of where to turn when you’re finished.

Also, communication industries thrive on freelancers and project-based experience. As a graduate student, you can pitch articles and manuscripts to media outlets outside of research journals to broaden your portfolio. Work on short-term projects that showcase your skills such as a podcast series, a short film, a limited-run theater production, or a news package. While the degree is impressive, what you can produce speaks volumes.

For those with a degree in hand, looking for a way out of the exploitative cycle of adjuncting, it’s important to use what you’ve been trained to do for a parallel non-academic role. For example, when I was on the job market, I highlighted skills that I learned in graduate school and teaching to fit the responsibilities of the job.

Writing, editing, and researching are valued both in and out of academia. Teaching lends itself to public speaking and presentation experience. Student engagement signals your interpersonal and management skills.

A PhD in Communication is not a magic wand, but it can conjure up the skills and abilities to take you where you want to go. So, think big and broad. Ask yourself what you want and see how the degree can serve those dreams.

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Jennifer Scott, PhD

As a writer and multi-media journalist, Jennifer Scott has produced online content across multiple platforms for more than 20 years. She holds a PhD in Communication, a Master of Arts in Journalism, and a Master of Education degree. With this extensive training, she taught writing, speech, and marketing classes on both the undergraduate and Masters level. Currently, she leads a team of content creators as Editorial Director at The Gottman Institute. She is an innovative thought leader who excels in this diverse, global environment.

Read more on Jen’s work at her website.

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