What Is a Communications Major? Courses, Jobs, Salaries

Female student broadcasting from the university's radio station
andresr / Getty Images

The exact course of study for a communications major can vary from one college to another, but in general, the field focuses on what is described as "the art of effective communication." Communications is a broad, interdisciplinary field in which students typically study public speaking, group communication dynamics, argumentation, rhetorical strategies, and different forms of media.

Key Takeaways: Communications Major

  • Communications is an interdisciplinary field that spans business, media studies, sociology, journalism, rhetoric, and more.
  • Communications majors develop strong skills in speaking, writing, and critical thinking.
  • Possible careers include public relations, law, advertising, and social media management.

Careers in Communications

At the heart of a communications major are broad, transferable skills in critical thinking and the effective conveyance of information. These skills are applicable to a wide range of jobs, so it should come as no surprise that communications majors pursue diverse career paths. This list presents some of the more common career choices, but the list is by no means exhaustive.

  • Journalism: While print journalism is in a state of decline, journalism itself is not. BuzzFeed, The Wall Street Journal, Politico, and a wide a range of large, small, national, and local publications need good writers, researchers, and reporters.
  • Social Media Management: Every company, organization, celebrity, and politician needs an expert on the social media front, and communications majors often have the skills required.
  • Political Consulting: Many communications programs offer specialized courses focused on politics, and all successful political endeavors—whether a campaign or a policy proposal—depends on someone with excellent communication skills.
  • Law: The best attorneys have strong speaking and writing skills, so an undergraduate degree in communications can be excellent preparation for law school.
  • Public Relations: PR specialists are trained to create a positive public image for an organization, and an undergraduate communications major is a natural pathway to the career.
  • Advertising and Marketing: Communication majors often take classes related to business, as the two fields have a lot of overlap. Experts in advertising and marketing are experts in communication; they know how to tell a compelling story using a variety of media.
  • Corporate Communications: Experts in corporate communications have a wide range of skills that can span areas such as public relations, marketing, internal communications, crisis management, and social media management.
  • Counseling: Like law, counseling requires an advanced degree, but many of the skills developed as a communications major are well matched for graduate programs in areas such as counseling and school psychology.

College Coursework in Communications

A communications major often includes many elective courses as well as different options for areas of specialization. Required courses vary for programs in marketing communication, business communication, mass communications, broadcast communication, and media communication.

Typical required core courses include:

  • Introduction to Communications
  • Interpersonal Communications
  • Oral Communication/Public Speaking
  • Media and Mass Communication
  • Computer-Mediated Communication
  • Communication Research Methods

Elective and upper-level coursework might include:

  • Organizational communications
  • Sports Journalism
  • Politics and Communications
  • Communication and the Environment
  • Gender and the Media
  • Intercultural Communication
  • Media Law
  • Science Writing for the Media

Large communications studies programs often have dozens of elective courses from which students can choose, and communications majors often allow great flexibility so that students can customize their coursework to align with their specific educational and career goals.

Students who choose a graduate program in communications cover similar topics, but often with a more specialized focus in areas such as politics, education, or research. The coursework will often be more theoretical and research-focused.

Best Schools for Communications Majors

The majority of four-year colleges and universities offer some form of communications major, although the focus may be limited to subfields such as media or journalism. The schools listed below all have large, highly regarded programs that can lead to a wide range of career and graduate school options.

  • Boston University: BU's College of Communication offers bachelor of science degrees in Advertising, Film & Television, Journalism, Communication, Media Science, and Public Relations. The college also offers 13 graduate programs. Combined, the programs graduate roughly 1,000 students per year.
  • Cornell University: This Ivy League school's Department of Communication has a social science focus and offers a range of internship and international opportunities. While smaller than many programs on this list with under 100 graduates a year, the program consistently ranks among the best in the country.
  • New York University: NYU's Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development is home to the university's highly ranked Department of Media, Culture, and Communication. The program has strengths in digital and global communications, including a degree track with a global public health focus.
  • Northwestern University: With roughly 350 bachelor's and 500 master's degree students graduating annually, the Northwestern School of Communication offers undergraduates dual degree programs with engineering and music. Students can also find modules focused on children, digital media, health, and organizational communications.
  • Stanford University: The most selective university on this list, Stanford's communications major is also the smallest, with roughly 25 bachelor's, 25 master's, and a handful of doctoral students graduating annually. The small size, combined with Stanford's strong focus on research, gives students a wealth of hands-on opportunities.
  • University of California, Berkeley: UC Berkeley graduates about 240 bachelor's degree students in media studies each year. The program is highly interdisciplinary, as it weaves together studies in communication, cultural studies, journalism, political science, anthropology, and sociology.
  • University of Michigan - Ann Arbor: Michigan's Communication and Media Department leverages its extensive alumni network to provide students with valuable "shadowships" in which they can see the profession firsthand. Areas of study include mobile communications, gender and media, health and media, and globalization.
  • University of Pennsylvania: Another selective Ivy League school, Penn's world-renowned Annenberg School for Communication offers undergraduates five concentration options: Advocacy and Activism, Audiences and Persuasion, Culture and Society, Data and Network Science, and Politics and Policy. The program also has a strong public service option.
  • University of Southern California: USC's Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism graduates nearly 900 students annually across the undergraduate and graduate programs. Undergraduates can choose from BA programs in Communication, Journalism, or Public Relations, and the school has 10 graduate degree options.
  • University of Wisconsin - Madison: With a largely undergraduate focus, Wisconsin's Department of Communication Arts offers two tracks for the bachelor's degree: Rhetoric and Communication Science and Radio-TV-Film. Students in other majors can earn a Digital Studies Certificate through the department.

Average Salaries for Communications Majors

Because communication majors go into such a wide range of professions, salaries also vary widely. Students who continue on to earn graduate degrees in fields such as law or counseling have greater earning potential than many students who stop with a bachelor's degree, but undergraduate degrees can certainly lead to lucrative professions. According to PayScale.com, students with business communication degrees have the highest salaries, with a median starting salary of $46,400 and median mid-career pay of $88,500. For a typical communications degree, the median starting salary is $44,300 and the median mid-career salary is $78,400. Students who major in mass communication or broadcast communication may find median salaries slightly below these ranges.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual wage for media and communication occupations was $59,230. Job opportunities vary widely by field, with significant declines in print journalism and broadcast news, but healthy job growth in many technology-focused areas.