Communications Major Considered

What is a ‘communications’ major, and what do you do with it? A good starting point is the College Board’s Majors and Career Central There you will discover that Communications encompasses a range of subjects: advertising, digital media (anything from website design, ecommerce, to writing for web-based media), journalism (copyediting, magazine writing, broadcast news...), public relations, and radio and television.

Be careful, however, because communications is called many different things. At USC and Stanford they do call it ‘communications’. At Boston University (BU) it is called communication studies, with journalism completely separate. At a big state university, such as Arizona State University, there are separate majors for each ‘communications’ component: advertising, journalism, public relations. While in Pomona or Kalamazoo College they call communications “Media Studies”. Northwestern, like BU, has both a journalism program in its Medill School of Journalism, and a communications major in the Weinstein School of Arts and Sciences. One of the tour guides at Northwestern when asked about the difference between journalism and communications said,  “…journalism is more about the making of communication, while communication studies, as the program is called, is more about the study of communication.” Obviously that guide is still learning to communicate.    

Currently there are fewer than 70,000 reporters, correspondents, and analysts in the US. Over half are working at newspapers, which are at the end of their life cycle; the big employers, as we progress deeper into the decade, will be web-based media. Employment in the world of communications is projected to decline around 6% between now and the end of 2018. You’d expect the number of students contemplating a career in journalism, or communications, to be declining, yet, just the opposite is true: at UCLA, Stanford, and USC, the competition for spots in the Communications department is highly competitive. At UCLA, if you had wanted to declare a major in communications during the last admissions cycle you would have discovered it was impacted. That shouldn’t block you from pursuing the major; after all, you don’t formally declare until the end of your sophomore year.

Generally, communications majors take courses in a range of subjects: public speaking, media, rhetoric, argumentation and public relations for example.  Journalism, at least in Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern, has three tracks to select among: magazine, newspaper, and broadcast. Students then take classes in Reporting and Writing, Web-Based Journalism, and IMC (Integrated Marketing Communications) which is the life blood of all media: advertising.  

Medill College at Northwestern University grants a BSJ degree. Journalism is a field that requires a breadth of general knowledge coupled with writing, oral, and presentation skills and a solid familiarity with a variety of media.  Consequently, the fact students in Medill must take a strong set of general education courses distributed over a range of subjects is important.  

Employers of communication majors (publishing houses, website news bureaus for example) value practical experience above virtually all the other aspects of educational training. In many cases it’s extremely difficult to get a job without a solid portfolio of work to share.  Medill truly excels is in mixing real world experience, through extensive internship programs, with the classroom. There is nothing quite like producing a piece of reporting right before deadline, or directly, live, on the web, or TV.  In Medill’s Chicago Storefront program students spend at least a quarter (11 weeks) doing real reporting at Medill locations throughout Chicago. There is also Journalism Residency for 1 quarter in each of the junior and senior years. This would allow a student to work as a full time reporter at a location for a national (or international) media company.

If communications is in your blood the most important aspect of any program is gaining internships and real world experience. Obviously, great professors, solid coursework, and state-of-the-art studios and facilities are nice, but the critical factor is real experience meeting deadlines with aplomb. Do that well and consistently, and the jobs will come. If you don’t like this reality, don’t kill the messenger; I’m just reporting.