Which Specialized Master’s or Communications Master’s Program Is Right for Me?

When Gabriela Acosta ’17 decided it was time to go back to school to obtain her master’s degree, she faced a dilemma many other communications professionals experience: whether to pursue an M.S. in communications with a specialization or a more traditional master’s degree.

“I went back and forth between journalism, communications and marketing programs. I even thought about seeking a documentary or production course,” recalls Acosta, who is currently developing and planning to host a podcast called The Way We Lead that centers on inclusive leadership.

Acosta decided to look for a master’s degree program that would provide a solid foundation, one that could teach proven communications principles and practices, and one that also offered specialized elements within the curriculum that apply specifically to today’s communications careers.

How do you determine which communications master’s program is right for you? Study the curriculums offered by different programs, and consider what your long-term professional goal is: Do you want to work in a large company or your own boutique PR firm? Are you interested in the entertainment field or advertising, or is a communications-related position in a hospital or a state representative’s office more appealing? Selecting an appropriate M.S. in communications or a specialized master’s degree program can help you prepare for the area that interests you most.

Beyond traditional functions in the communications field, such as graphic design, press release writing, storyboarding and television production, and technological advances have truly transformed and expanded communications professionals’ roles across many industries. Opportunities are available for those who can evolve, shift and change with technological innovations.

What Are the Advantages of an M.S. in Communications?

A master’s in communications provides advanced skills and knowledge in how to disseminate information in a compelling way through written or spoken words, printed or broadcast visuals, or via various digital platforms. These skills can be applied in jobs in communications departments within many businesses, nonprofit organizations, government agencies and educational institutions.

According to Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projections, there will be an estimated 6 percent increase in communications jobs between 2016 and 2026. Knowing how to harness specific technologies can be an advantage to those pursuing a career in communications. For example, Fortune reports that information and communication fields will be among the top industries to experience economic growth as a result of the increasing use of A.I.

Learn a Broad Range of Communications Topics to Enhance Your Knowledge

Students in a master’s in communications program will gain skills that can be applied broadly to their jobs, such as how to create campaigns and communication techniques and how to handle real-life business scenarios—both positive and negative ones. They may learn about the psychology of conflict, as well as theories of mediation and negotiation.

A specialization built on a solid communications curriculum can help professionals develop highly targeted skills. Communications@Syracuse, Syracuse University’s online Master’s in Communications program, includes five core courses that equip students with a strong foundation in digital communications. Core courses include multimedia storytelling, social media for public communicators, digital communications systems and media law.

Choosing an Area of Specialization to Build Expertise

An advanced degree with a specialization will provide those who are in the field—and those who want to work in communications—with a deeper knowledge of their chosen field. At Communications@Syracuse, for instance, students have the opportunity to pursue a specializations in three fields to help them better explore their interests:

  • Public Relations
  • Journalism Innovation
  • Advertising

So how do you determine if an M.S. in communications with a specialization is a better choice for you than a traditional M.S. in public relations, advertising, marketing or journalism? Here are some things to consider:

Public Relations: What is the difference between a master’s degree in communications and a public relations master’s degree?

The professional field of public relations is focused on the strategic crafting of intentional public communication for the purpose of building mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their communities. Thanks in large part to the Internet, consumers today receive a constant flow of information from social media platforms, search engines, blogs, news outlets, e-mails and web sites. With every platform, organizations communicate their brand, making public relations an important business function.

A traditional master’s in public relations degree offers core skills that have long been necessary to effectively execute PR functions, including:

  • Campaign design and execution
  • Strategic campaign planning
  • Research best practices
  • Brand development and recognition
  • PR program management
  • Copywriting and editing

With an M.S. in communications with a public relations specialization, these core competencies are complemented with courses that focus on integrating them into the larger landscape of today’s digital media platforms. They include:

  • Social media messaging
  • Web site and other online content
  • Cross-platform project management and strategies
  • Advanced research methods

Public Relations: Careers and Industry Outlook

There are many rewarding careers that benefit from the knowledge obtained with a master’s degree specializing in public relations:

  • Communications manager
  • Community manager
  • Corporate affairs manager
  • Corporate communications director
  • Development director
  • Events manager
  • Internal communications director
  • Investor relations manager
  • Lobbyist
  • Media relations manager
  • Nonprofit manager
  • Press secretary
  • Public affairs manager
  • Public relations director
  • Public relations manager

According to the BLS, jobs in the field of public relations are expected to increase 9 percent from 2016 to 2026, in part due to continued integration of digital media and social media into our daily lives.

Journalism: What is the difference between a master’s in communications and a journalism master’s degree?

Similar to a traditional journalism master’s degree, an M.S. in communications with a journalism specialization focuses on multimedia storytelling, media law and content production. Where it differs from a traditional journalism degree is in its heavy emphasis on using data and new media to create data-driven journalism.

A traditional master’s degree in journalism prepares students with:

  • A strong foundation of journalism principles
  • Expanded fundamental journalism concepts
  • Opportunities to specialize in sub-categories, such as sports, video production or public policy journalism

A master’s in communications with a journalism specialization prepares students for the modern media landscape and teaches them how to critically evaluate how the news is reported. It also helps them build the skills needed to stay ahead of emerging trends and new technologies. Areas of study may include:

  • Web and mobile story production
  • Data-driven journalism
  • I., 360 video, structural data capture and other emerging technology
  • SEO, site traffic analytics and other applied media research tools

Journalism: Careers and Industry Outlook

Both seasoned journalists and those who are interested in breaking into the industry can benefit from a master’s degree. Jobs include:

  • Broadcast journalist
  • Broadcast news analyst
  • Communications editor
  • Content editor
  • Copywriter
  • Executive editor
  • Investigative journalist
  • Multimedia specialist
  • Photojournalist
  • Producer
  • Production manager
  • Reporter
  • Senior correspondent
  • Web content manager

According to the BLS, most reporters, correspondents and broadcast news analysts work full time, and additional hours or changes in schedules in order to follow breaking news or provide needed commentary are common. Jobs in the field are competitive, and opportunities are expected to decline through 2026. 

Advertising: What is the difference between a master’s degree in communications and an advertising master’s degree?

Advertising is a competitive field, which is why many professionals consider an advanced degree to enhance their careers. A master’s degree allows students to explore the approaches and practices essential to creating successful advertising campaigns. A traditional advertising master’s degree program typically places a heavier emphasis on understanding the role of advertising and branding in society from a historical and theoretical perspective. An M.S. degree in advertising focuses on:

  • Strategic branding
  • Marketing strategy
  • Media planning
  • Media relations

An M.S. in communications with an advertising specialization also includes study in these areas, and incorporates additional digital components into the curriculum. They include:

  • Advertising research
  • Multimedia storytelling
  • Content marketing
  • Social media
  • Competition analysis
  • Brand identities and rebranding
  • Creative performance assessment
  • Emerging digital media and technology

Advertising: Careers and Industry Outlook

There are many career paths and specialties within the field of advertising that benefit from a master’s degree:

  • Account manager
  • Advertising director
  • Advertising manager
  • Agency account executive
  • Brand manager
  • Creative director
  • Digital strategist
  • E-commerce manager
  • E-mail marketing manager
  • Marketing manager
  • Market researcher
  • Media director
  • Media planner or researcher
  • Product manager
  • Search engine marketer
  • Social media specialist 

Organizations need communications professionals who can craft and manage a brand that matters to their targeted audiences, which may in part explain why the BLS projects employment for advertising and marketing managers will grow 10 percent from 2016 to 2026.

A Word on Marketing Master’s Degrees

While advertising technically is a specific type of marketing, a master’s degree in marketing is an option that can provide more wide-ranging skills, such as customer service and relationship management.

Marketing: Careers and Industry Outlook

According to the U.S. News & World Report guide to online master’s degrees, an M.S. in marketing can benefit those in advertising, PR, sports marketing, digital media, and market analytics and research.

Some jobs that this type of advanced degree complements:

  • Market research analyst
  • Marketing specialist
  • Marketing and sales manager
  • Marketing manager
  • Product manager
  • SEO specialist
  • Social media manager
  • Supply chain analyst
  • Web content writer

As the field of marketing has become more reliant on the Internet, the demand for marketing professionals with e-commerce and digital training is growing. With a master’s degree, professionals may expect to earn $25,000 to $30,000 more than those with only an undergraduate degree, according to U.S. News & World Report. And according to the BLS, marketing manager jobs are projected to grow by 10 percent from 2016 through 2026.

Acosta can attest to the benefits of earning an online M.S. in communications.

“The Communications@Syracuse program was incredibly practical, providing a ton of updated skills,” she says.

Learn more about the Communications@Syracuse online master’s program, part of The S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University. 


Communications@Syracuse, Syracuse University's online master's in communications.