Communications & Public Relations

What Is a Master’s in Strategic Communications?

What Is a Master’s in Strategic Communications?
The need for strategic communications experts across many fields means that you'll find a highly diverse cohort of students with a range of professional experience. Image from Pexels
Ginny Bartolone profile
Ginny Bartolone December 3, 2021

We all know that it's not only about what you say, but how, when, and where you say it. With a master's in strategic communications, you'll become your organization or company’s go-to expert on messaging.

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The COVID-19 pandemic has thrust the role of the communications expert into the national spotlight. In a period of constantly evolving information, clear and effective messaging from elected officials, public health officials, schools, corporations, local businesses, and others has never been more crucial.

The pandemic also has sparked what has become known as “The Big Quit.” Employees are on the hunt for work-life balance, and are not deterred from leaving their current jobs to find it.

And so, companies have their work cut out for them when communicating internally with their teams and recruiting new employees. PR Newswire highlights how public relations firm Lambert and Co. is handling this mass exodus. CEO Michelle Olson notes, “In addition to a strategic approach, a communication leader must cultivate and share “a clear vision and eye toward the future.” Olson adds, “You have to prepare the team to go there, together.”

So, what does she mean by strategic approach and a communication leader? A master’s degree in strategic communications handles just that. Offered both in-person and online to accommodate busy professionals, these graduate programs tackle one of today’s biggest challenges across industries—how do we reach and effectively communicate with our desired audience?

In this guide, we’ll discuss:

  • What is a strategic communications master’s?
  • Top strategic communications master’s programs
  • Career paths in strategic communications

What is a strategic communications master’s?

First, strategic communications is different from the broader field of communications, which is concerned with the distribution of information. This master’s track is just one of the popular routes within communications, crossing over with degrees in digital marketing, marketing analytics, and human resources management.

A strategic communications master’s prepares you to advance the agenda of a company or organization, often in fields like public relations and marketing. These professionals typically use digital media tools and social media platforms to implement communication campaigns.

A Master of Science or Master of Arts in Strategic Communications gathers together common communication theories and applies them to unique contexts. Students can explore modern digital marketing , mass communication, or even corporate communication, and relate them all back to real-world challenges they may face in their careers.

Who enrolls in this degree program?

The need for strategic communications experts across many fields means that you’ll find a highly diverse cohort of students with a range of professional experience. Marketers, educational leaders, human resources professionals, public officials, and heads of non-profit organizations all benefit from this in-depth form of public relations.

You’ll find concentration and specialization options, as well as programs that aim to supply a more general education with electives in more specialized areas.

On a logistical note, students can often choose either a full-time or part-time coursework, either for an in-person, hybrid, or online master’s program. The online option may be more appropriate for working professionals seeking self-driven, project-based study. You also will find executive master’s degrees geared toward mid-career pros looking for an accelerated timeline.

Overall, the demographics of graduate students in the program represent a wide range of leadership levels, industries, and targeted audiences.

What’s required to be admitted into a strategic communications master’s program?

Unlike a highly technical graduate degree—such as one in information technology or healthcare administration—admissions requirements for strategic communications programs are a bit more inclusive. The application process typically combines an analysis of your undergraduate studies, professional experience, and most importantly, how this degree would further your career goals.

Many programs also require students to submit GRE scores and complete prerequisite coursework if their educational background and resume does cover required topics.

Curriculum and coursework

As we mentioned above, graduate candidates either choose a track at the start of the program or shape their concentrations down the line after completing their core courses. Degree requirements typically range between 30 to 36 credit hours, a comprehensive exam, and a capstone project that applies their research to a practical communication campaign.

Foundational courses include classes in digital media, leadership, organization communication, and both qualitative and quantitative research methods. Electives then relate to the student’s unique career path and include areas like crisis communication, digital strategy, branding, and communication ethics.

Specialization

Such an overarching topic requires specialization, particularly at the graduate level. Programs like the one atRowan Universitybreak their department into three sections: Public Affairs, Corporate Public Relations, and Educational Public Relations.

American University offers concentrations in areas like digital communications, advocacy and social impact, corporate communication, and more. While students aren’t required to choose a direction, this list reflects the common tracks and electives offered by programs today.

Between one-half and one-third of the credits earned toward a degree relate to a student’s specialization, but you will find crossovers between core and elective subjects. Topics that include social media communication, ethical dilemmas, and organizational communication often apply to a wide range of areas.

Top strategic communications master’s programs

Strategic communications programs are becoming more common, though you may find them in a variety of names and formats. Still, some of the top universities in the country currently offer this degree.

Columbia University

Columbia offers a range of both full-time and part-time paths to earning a Masters of Science in Strategic Communications. The program has small class sizes, a highly customizable curriculum, and team faculty from across relevant industries.

Full-time students complete a graduate-level practicum and internship experience. Students have gone on to work for American Airlines, the United Nations, McCann, and Young & Rubicam.

American University

American University’s Washington, DC location makes this a prime school to prepare you for tackling some of today’s top social, political, and ethical communications dilemmas in your future career. In addition to the opportunity to work with a highly experienced faculty, students are paired with alumni mentors to bridge the gap between school and their professional lives.

Additionally, AU offers financial aid in the form of merit-based awards, scholarships, fellowships, and assistantships.

George Washington University

The Master of Arts in Strategic Communications at GWU combines 30 credits of coursework with one of three capstone project options. The school tops several university lists across the country, including US News and World Report’s top universities in the country. Students go on to work for the Department of State, CNN, and Politico.

Online and hybrid options

Many of today’s top communication programs, including Columbia and American, offer online or hybrid options to complete your master’s at a more flexible pace. For example, Columbia’s Executive MS offers weekend classes at their NYC campus with online classes. Students can complete the degree in an accelerated 16-months structure. At American, students still earn 30 credits, but have up to 20 months to complete their course load.

What are your career options in strategic communications?

Public relations may be the first thing that comes to mind when considering a post-graduate career in strategic communication, but this is only one career path. There is a full range of entry-level, mid-level, and leadership professionals that will thrive with this foundation of training. Any area where enhanced communication can help the organization needs these professionals. Let’s look at a few.

Marketing and PR specialists

Everyone from the marketing writing team up to the creative director benefit from marketing communications tactics. Master’s programs explore digital campaigns, target audiences, and reputation analysis.

Educators

Teachers and administrators may explore education public relations tactics for connecting with parents, the community, and the students themselves. Educators in nonprofit roles, particularly those with a prominent voice in the community can also expand their careers with this degree.

Corporate leaders

Large companies succeed best when they form strong initiatives to communicate well with the public and internally with employees. Executive-level leaders, HR professionals, and division heads can explore tools to effectively and ethically convey their mission.

Research and data specialists

One of the most challenging roles of the research team at any company is relaying complex information to the rest of the team. Master’s programs in strategic communication dive deeply into research methods and how to transform findings into a published report.

Political leaders

Programs such as the one at American University explore global communication and international strategy as part of their curriculum. Aspiring or current politicians build a foundation for ethics, international relations, and diversity and culture communication tactics.

Which industries are hiring strategic communications professionals?

If you glance through the list of companies hiring strategic communication grads, you’ll find everything from top public relations firms to the US government. As social media, 24-hour cable news, and globalization continue to expand, nearly all industries will benefit from highly proficient communicators. Here are a few to keep on your radar.

Journalism

Reporters, editors, fact-checkers, and directors of news outlets must have an up-to-date grasp on how to communicate with the world. A master’s in strategic communications pairs well with a bachelor’s in journalism in this case, particularly if you’re looking to take on leadership positions.

Public relations

While this may seem like an obvious direction, the public relations industry is vast, assisting everyone from large corporations to individual public leaders. Roles like digital strategist or creative PR directors may request advanced degrees from a school of communication.

Human resources and recruitment

Fostering a healthy corporate culture is a priority these days, particularly as companies compete to attract and keep top candidates. People management, as many companies call it, need professionals with a plan to both attract and keep teams dedicated to their company.

Nonprofit management

Strategic planning sits at the heart of fundraising for most nonprofits. Attracting major donors requires leaders and development experts that can communicate with constituents, apply for grants, and present a financial plan for the organization’s budget.

In such a vast field, these examples are only a sliver of industries looking for professional communicators. Graduates will find roles within the tech, finance, and healthcare industries, especially within companies with multimedia marketing or PR campaigns.

What are the top strategic communications jobs in each field (and how much do they pay)?

The US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) breaks down the salaries of media and communications professionals featuring everyone from news announcers to public relations specialists. But as we’ve mentioned, strategic communicators with an advanced degree may be called upon to help in a much wider field, particularly in higher-paying leadership roles.

PayScale notes that the average salary of graduates is about $62,000 a year. But highly technical roles and leadership positions easily break into the six-figure range.

  • Public relations director: Directors in New York City make an average of $159,000, according to Salary.com.
  • Human resources director: The head of an HR department also makes around $150,000, with bonuses and additional cash compensation reaching over $200,000 in some companies.
  • Journalist: Journalist salaries range wildly, dipping as low as $40,000 in cities like New York. However, highly sought news outlets and newspapers can pay as high as $126,000.
  • Military strategic communicator: The Department of Defense pays between $93,000 and $108,000, according to Glassdoor.
  • Nonprofit executive director: While salaries vary depending on the size of the organization, ED’s salaries average around $135,000.

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