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Communication Arts

Administrative Unit:Communication Arts
College/School: College of Letters & Science
Admitting Plans:M.A., Ph.D.
Degrees Offered:M.A., Ph.D.
Minors and Certificates:Doctoral Minor
Specializations: Communication Science, Film, Media and Cultural Studies, Rhetoric Politics and Culture

Faculty: Professors Xenos (chair), Asen, Gray, Hilmes, Howard, Jacobs, Kepley, Lucas, Murphy, Pan, Smith, Zaeske; Associate Professors Conway, Mares, Singer, van Swol; Assistant Professors Belodubrovskaya, Chavez, Johnson, D., Johnson, J., Lopez, McKinnon, Morris, Toma


Students may pursue the master of arts and the doctor of philosophy degrees in communication arts in one of the four areas of study: communication science, film, media and cultural studies, or rhetoric (see descriptions below). Although terminal M.A. degrees may occasionally be awarded, the programs are designed primarily to meet the needs of Ph.D. candidates. The department anticipates that most students will accept positions as academics at the college and university level. To that end, the department seeks to train productive researchers, committed teachers, and engaged public intellectuals who recognize a responsibility to participate actively in the world beyond the university.

Master's Degree

Specific requirements for the master's degree vary among the four areas. Prospective graduate students should consult the department website for specific information on degree requirements in each area.

Ph.D. Degree

Specific requirements for the doctoral degree vary among the four graduate programs. Prospective graduate students should consult the department website for information on degree requirements in each of the four areas. A four-course Ph.D. minor is required, which allows graduate students to integrate study in such overlapping fields as history, ethnic studies, gender studies, sociology, and global studies, or from other areas within the communication arts department.

Communication Science

Communication science is concerned with how people interact with one another in various means, modes, and contexts. It involves social scientific exploration utilizing both quantitative and qualitative methods. Reflecting the multi-faceted nature of the subject matter and a cross-disciplinary orientation of the field, students in communication science typically complete course work both in the department and in other social science fields. Graduate study in communication science is flexible and tailored to the individual. With a low faculty to student ratio and close collaboration with related academic units on campus, students have high access to faculty and with it, opportunities to work closely with faculty on research and broaden their horizon. Students are expected to develop fluency in at least two of the following areas:

  • Social influence that focuses interpersonal interactions, both online and offline, as well as group and organizational dynamics. It examines information exchange, persuasion, and other influence processes in various social contexts.
  • Computer-mediated communication that examines individuals' uses of the media with digital, interactive, and networking features, as well as the effects of such usage on self, relationships, group dynamics, and other social processes.
  • Human development and communication that addresses communication in relation to lifecycle, focusing in particular on lifecycle patterns in the means and modes of communication, as well as the effects of communicative engagement and media usage of youths and aging.
  • Political communication that focuses on patterns and effects of communication, both face-to-face and mediated, on the democratic process. In particular it concerns  how communication shapes the public sphere, how public deliberation over political issues takes place, and how the media may be related to civic and political engagement.

Students in communication science are expected to master two of the four areas.


The study of film concentrates primarily on motion picture history, theory, and criticism, approached through intensive critical analysis of individual films; research into the primary documents of filmmakers and the film industry; and the construction of theoretical models of films forms and styles, national cinemas, film genres, and the economics of the film industry.  The program believes in the connection between film studies and film practice. Courses in film production enhance our understanding of motion picture history, theory, and criticism by revealing the practical decisions filmmakers confront. 

Media and Cultural Studies

The media and cultural studies (MCS) program emphasizes the study of media in their historical, economic, social, and political context. MCS courses examine the cultural forms created and disseminated by media industries and the ways in which they resonate in everyday life, on the individual, national, and global level. Focusing primarily on sound and screen media—television, new media, film, popular music, radio, video games—but reaching out across boundaries, MCS encourages interdisciplinary and transmedia research. MCS courses draw on a broad range of cultural theories spanning a spectrum of concerns all centrally relevant to the functioning of sound and screen media in a diverse and globalizing cultural environment.

Rhetoric, Politics, and Culture

Whether speaking from the podium or chatting on Facebook, people use discourse to craft identities, enact social change, and form a shared sense of community. Seeking to better understand this social force, the study of discourse explores significant themes, trajectories, and transformations in politics and society while considering particular individuals and groups, cultures, eras, genres, and topics. Courses in this area explore issues of power, digital media, citizenship, gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, globalization, religion, inclusion and exclusion, social status, and marginalization.

Graduate work in rhetoric focuses on three interrelated areas: discourse, theory, and method. All three areas of study in Rhetoric, Politics, and Culture are united by a common commitment to understanding the role of discourse in society as we act together to engage in culture and politics. Students are encouraged to investigate a wide range of discursive phenomena as they develop expertise that will empower them to conduct significant research and to take an active role in scholarly communities.

Doctoral Minor

Graduate students from other departments may pursue a doctoral minor in communication arts with study in any one of the four communication arts areas. Requirements are set in consultation with a department advisor. Contact the graduate coordinator for more information.

Financial Aid

The principal types of graduate student financial aid are teaching, research, and project assistantships. Most communication arts graduate students are supported by teaching assistantships and thus a high level of competency in written and spoken English is required. A limited number of fellowships are available. All students are considered for assistantships and fellowships at the time of application. No separate application is necessary.


Applicants must have earned a bachelor's degree from an accredited institution with a minimum overall grade point average of 3.0 on a 4.0 scale, although successful applicants usually have much higher GPAs. Students whose preparation does not meet the requirements of the area of study to which they have been admitted may be required to enroll in specific courses to remedy deficiencies.

Applicants must submit two official copies of transcripts from all institutions attended, three letters of recommendation from academic sources, official Graduate Record Examination (GRE) scores, official TOEFL or IELTS scores for international students whose native language is not English, a statement of purpose for graduate study, and a 15- to 20-page writing sample (in English). Although the department requires no minimum GRE scores, successful candidates typically score well on portions of the examination related to their area of study. Admission to the graduate program in communication arts is highly competitive.

The application deadline is December 15.

For more information: Graduate Program Coordinator, Department of Communication Arts, 6114 Vilas Hall, 821 University Avenue, Madison, WI 53706; 608-262-3398; nbarber@wisc.edu; www.commarts.wisc.edu.