Ph.D. Requirements

To graduate, each candidate must demonstrate a general understanding of the field of communications as a whole and acquire deep knowledge in an area of concentration through research and coursework in appropriate disciplines ranging from history, sociology or religion to business or international affairs.

Below are the specific requirements for successful completion of the program. The Communications Ph.D. program is administered and funded by the Journalism School, but in most academic matters, including requirements for the dissertation, it follows the academic regulations of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, which formally confers all doctoral degrees at Columbia.

The M.A. and M.Phil. degrees are awarded as part of the normal progress toward the Ph.D. The program does not accept candidates for terminal M.A. or M.Phil. degrees.

Students who enter the program without an applicable master's degree or its equivalent must first earn a Master of Arts in Communications, which requires the completion of 30 graduate‐level points (usually 10 courses in two semesters, of which all but J9900 must be taken for standard A‐F letter‐grade credit), and the submission of an acceptable master's thesis. The thesis is a substantial research paper of at least 20-25 pages, usually building on the student's work in a particular course and overseen by the professor of that course.

Students who enter with an advanced degree from another institution or a different department or school at Columbia may receive up to two Residence Units (i.e. up to two semesters' worth of transfer credit for advanced standing) if the completed M.A. is comparable: it must meet program standards and contribute directly and substantially to the fulfillment of the requirements for the M.Phil. and Ph.D. degrees. Courses deemed wholly "professional" rather than academic, including most courses in the skills and techniques of journalism, are not normally acceptable toward a doctoral degree.

Ph.D. students who have taken graduate-level courses outside Columbia, but have not completed an appropriate M.A. degree program or the equivalent, may receive up to 15 points of transfer credit. Students who have been granted two Residence Units toward the total of six Residence Units are not eligible to receive an M.A. from the Communications Ph.D. program

Final decisions about advanced standing are made by the doctoral subcommittee during the student’s first semester at Columbia. Students who are granted only one semester of transfer credit must complete the remaining requirements for the Columbia M.A.

To earn the M.Phil., which signifies  they have completed all requirements for the doctorate except for the dissertation, students must:

1. Complete 54 additional graduate‐level points in no fewer than four semesters, for a total of 84. At least 36 of those additional points must be for letter‐grade credit (or, in certain specific instances and with the approval of the program director, for P/F credit). Certain limits apply to enrollments in J9900, which is for R credit only: Normally students may not enroll in J9900 in any semester when they’ve already reached the minimum recommended credit total, and they may not normally take more than three credits of J9900 in any one semester. The only exception is that students who have not used all their R credits by their final semester of coursework may take up to 6 credits of J9900 in that semester.

2. Over the course of  their enrollment, complete the five core courses, all of them for letter‐grade credit:

  • Journalism J6030, Journalism and society
  • Journalism J8040, Proseminar in communications
  • Journalism J9042, Communication research problems (the dissertation research seminar)
  • A course on contemporary organizations and/or institutions that is relevant to the study of communications. Approved courses include Business Economics B7217, Media & information management; or Sociology G8200, Economic sociology; or Sociology G8201, New directions in economic sociology; or Sociology G6810, Organization failure. Any other course must be approved by the program director, and in order to encourage interdisciplinary exploration, beginning in fall 2021 no elective course taught or co-taught by any member of the core Communications faculty will qualify for this requirement. The course should address one or both of the following: 1) the internal dynamics of organizations and/or institutions; 2) the relationship between organizations and/or institutions and public policy or public life.
  • A course on comparative politics that is relevant to the study of communications. This course, selected by the student with the approval of the program director, should address one or both of the following: 1) the political frameworks in which media systems or networks evolve; 2) the history, politics, and culture of a region outside of the United States. In order to encourage interdisciplinary exploration, beginning in fall 2021 no elective course taught or co-taught by any member of the core Communications faculty will qualify for this requirement. Note: If the course is not specifically focused on communications, the student is expected to write on a topic in communications. 

J8040 should be taken in the first or second year, J9042 in the second and/or third.

3. Pass a proficiency exam in a language other than English that is used in research. Proficiency exams are regularly administered by the various foreign language departments at Columbia; students should consult with the appropriate department to arrange their exams.

4. If necessary, complete a course or independent work in methodologies appropriate to the research, such as quantitative methods (including experimental or survey methods and social statistics), analytic methods for networks and systems, econometrics, qualitative and historical methods or other tool subjects. This is required only if you are conducting research that requires mastery of a particular methodology.

5. Deliver an oral presentation outlining the proposed dissertation topic and plan of research. This is generally done during an informal gathering of classmates and advisers held during the spring term of the second year of coursework.

6. Pass a comprehensive examination. Students choose ONE of the following options: 1) a set of field exams that assesses the student’s mastery of the significant literature in his or her fields of concentration; or 2) a series of tasks that require the kind of research and teaching preparation normally carried out in an academic career. At least two of the three portfolio requirements or two of the three reading lists should be directly related to the student’s dissertation topic. These options are roughly equivalent in terms of workload, and both are intended to equip students to write their dissertations and to embark on careers in teaching, industry, or consulting. 

In either case, the program chair must approve an advisory committee of three faculty members, at least one and preferably two of whom must be members of the communications Ph.D. faculty subcommittee; if appropriate, the committee may include a member from outside Columbia. Students are strongly encouraged to finish this requirement no later than the end of the semester following the one in which they have finished all coursework, but they must finish the comps by the end of the second semester after coursework.

Option 1:

The goal of the examination is for students to demonstrate that they have the necessary preparation, knowledge, and understanding to proceed with the planned dissertation. The exam consists of a written portion of no more than one day's duration followed within one month by a two‐hour oral portion. Each committee member works individually with the student to define the area covered by the exam and to suggest the appropriate preparation. During the written portion the student answers one question from each adviser; students must earn a grade of either Pass or Contingent for each question in order to proceed to the oral exam, but they may retake any part(s) of the written portion that received a failing grade. During the oral exam, committee members may ask students to clarify, expand on or defend any of their answers. In order for the student to pass the oral portion, the vote of the committee members must be unanimous in the student’s favor. A student who fails the oral portion may retake the entire exam six months later.

Option 2:

Students must complete all of the following requirements. The chair of the student’s advisory committee certifies the completion of each element after meeting with the student.

  1. Submit an article for blind review by a high-quality refereed scholarly journal in an appropriate field. Since academic journals often take many months to respond, notice of the acceptance of the piece is not required, but all three committee members must approve the choice of journal and agree that the article is ready to be sent; they should be able to say that if they were the editors they would be willing to publish the piece. Neither co‐authored works nor articles that have been commissioned or solicited are acceptable for this requirement.
  2. Present a paper (an entirely distinct work from the journal article) at an appropriate scholarly conference for which the submission was accepted in competitive judging. The committee members must agree that a given conference is acceptable – i.e. that it is sufficiently rigorous, competitive, and relevant. Neither co‐authored presentations, presentations at poster sessions, nor presentations at conferences devoted entirely to graduate‐student work are acceptable for this requirement. Because an important facet of any conference is the opportunity to network and to casually meet other attendees, in-person conferences are strongly preferred. (Students whose work has been accepted for presentation at a relevant academic conference may apply for a modest grant towards  their properly documented plane/train/bus and lodging expenses no more than once each academic year. Funds are limited and preference may be given to people who did not receive conference money in the previous year or who are not past their fourth post‐coursework year.)
  3. Prepare a syllabus for a semester‐long course suitable for advanced undergraduates or master’s‐level students on a broad and significant topic in communications. The syllabus should include appropriate readings and assignments as well as a statement of the purpose, goals and scope of the course. Students should conceive of this not as a specialized upper‐level seminar but rather as a wide‐ranging exploration of an interesting and clearly defined subject or theme – something along the lines of, say, “Broadcast Regulation,” which might consist of a historical, comparative, social, legal, economic and political survey of regulatory policy in the U.S. and one or two other countries. Committee members should approve the topic before the project is begun. Students will also be expected to briefly describe their proposed course (15-30 minutes) to their committee and to be prepared to defend the organization of the course, the choices of readings and other matters.

A dissertation embodying original research and its defense before an appropriate committee constitute the major requirement of the Ph.D. During the research and writing stage each student must have three approved faculty advisers, including one who serves as the primary adviser and one, usually the most important secondary adviser, who will act as the “moderator” of the defense. At least once a semester students must submit a written portion of the dissertation-in-progress to their two main advisers and then arrange a meeting where the three of them will discuss the work.

Students must formally defend their dissertation proposal in a meeting with their three advisers by the end of the semester that follows the term in which the comprehensive examinations were taken. The proposal, 15-25 pages, should include:

  • A clear statement of the argument or thesis and how it will be developed
  • A brief review of the relevant literature, describing the contributions this work will make to the field
  • A description of the sources (whether published or human) and research methodologies to be employed
  • A work plan indicating what's already been done, what's expected and any research travel, surveys or other tasks to be carried out, with an estimated schedule
  • Any additional matter the advisers may require

University and federal regulations require that any project that involves research with human subjects be approved beforehand by the Institutional Review Board. The regulations generally apply to research methods such as focus groups, surveys or polls. While one‐on‐one interviews with scholars or experts discussing their specialties probably do not require approval, students are urged to consult with the board if they have any doubt.

When both the student's primary adviser and the defense moderator have approved the draft as acceptable for defense, it may be distributed to the rest of the committee.

Both logistics and courtesy dictate that the defense be scheduled at least four weeks after the date of the distribution so that committee members have ample time to read the dissertation. The semester in which the student distributes the dissertation is the last term in which the student must register and is billed for M&F fees, even if the defense takes place in the succeeding semester. The last day of the fall semester is the Thursday before the beginning of spring term, generally the Thursday before the Martin Luther King holiday; the last day of the spring semester is the Thursday before the beginning of the fall term, generally the Thursday before Labor Day. (There is no summer term or summer registration in the Communications program.)

The Application for the Dissertation Defense form will be submitted to the GSAS Dissertation Office by the program director, not by the student, as soon as the defense has been scheduled. This form must be reviewed and approved by GSAS before the defense may take place. The Dissertation Office will receive this form from the program office at least four weeks--but no fewer than two weeks—before the scheduled defense date. Applications received less than two weeks before the proposed defense date will require that the defense be rescheduled.

The doctoral defense will be conducted by a committee composed of exactly five members. It is the responsibility of the student's adviser and/or defense  moderator, not the student, to choose and invite the final two members of the defense committee. GSAS policy states that students should NOT be put in the position of approaching faculty members about serving on their committee.

In recognition of the increasing interdisciplinarity of work being done in many doctoral programs, GSAS has broadened the definition of "insider" and "outsider" as applied to defense committees. For the Communications program it will allow a committee that has either one or two outsiders and at least two faculty advisers from the Communications subcommittee. The composition of the final defense committee must therefore fulfill all of the following conditions:

  • At least three of the five members, the "insiders," must be from GSAS's list of approved Ph.D. advisers AND
  • At least two of those insiders must be members of the Communications program subcommittee of  faculty advisers, AND
  • At least one (but preferably two) of the five must be an outside examiner, defined as 1) a faculty member, clinician or practitioner who holds a position at another university or research institution; or 2) a full‐time faculty member at Columbia University outside the student's own department or program; or 3) a research scientist at Columbia University outside the student's own department or program; or 4) an adjunct professor at Columbia University outside the student's own department or program; or 5) a full‐time faculty member whose appointment is at Barnard College, Jewish Theological Seminary or Union Theological Seminary; or 6) a full‐time faculty member in the student's interdisciplinary program whose field is outside of the student's dissertation field.

If the student's primary adviser is not a member of the Communications subcommittee, that person will be named a co‐adviser along with an approved  adviser from the Communications program.

Although all five members of the committee will ideally be physically present at the defense, the Dissertation Office will permit up to two members to participate remotely by audio or video conferencing as long as both the adviser and the moderator are present. No funding is available to support travel by examiners from outside New York City; if they plan to attend in person, the defense should be scheduled at a time when other business is already bringing them to the New York area.

More information about the defense process, including how to format and deposit the dissertation, is available on the website of the Dissertation Office.