PhD in Communication

Students are admitted to the PhD program after having completed an MA degree. Depending on the extent of students’ prior academic work in communication and their rate of progress, the degree can be achieved in three to four years.

According to Graduate School requirements, PhD students must enroll in residence (i.e., as a full-time student) for at least six semesters beyond the BA degree. Two semesters of residence credit may be allowed for an MA degree from another institution; however, at least four semesters of residence credit, two of which must be consecutive in one academic year, must be earned for work taken at CU-Boulder. One semester’s residency is earned by registering as a full-time student during the fall or spring semesters, or during two summer semesters.

Full-time PhD students must carry one of the following semester course loads: a minimum of 5 credit hours of graduate-level course work before passing the comprehensive examination, or a minimum of 5 dissertation hours after passing the comprehensive examination. PhD students are expected to complete all degree requirements within six years from the semester in which they are admitted and begin coursework in the doctoral program.

Students’ individual course work requirements must be specified in a PhD Plan of Study document that is approved by their advisor and committee members (hereafter, committee); any changes to that document must be approved formally by the student’s advisor, committee members and the DGS. A minimum of 54 graduate credit hours of course work is required, plus 30 hours of dissertation credit, for a minimum total of 84 credit hoursAt least 30 graduate credit hours of course work must be in communication courses. Requirements for PhD courses include:

1. Communication Research and Theory (COMM 6010)
Broad-based background in communication. This requirement usually is satisfied by completing the following graduate courses or their equivalent transferred from another institution: COMM 5210: Readings in Communication Theory, COMM 5320: Readings in Rhetoric, COMM 6020: Quantitative Research Methods, and COMM 6030: Qualitative Research Methods.

2. Advanced expertise in a primary area of specialization. This requirement is satisfied by taking courses, seminars and/or independent studies (including those outside the department) in the primary specialty that is declared in the student’s approved PhD Plan of Study document.

3. Expertise in a secondary area of specialization. This requirement is satisfied by taking courses, seminars and/or independent studies (including those outside the department) in the student’s approved PhD Plan of Study document.

4. Advanced expertise in a primary methodology that is appropriate to the student’s primary area of specialization, such that he or she can conduct competent research that satisfies professional standards in that area. This requirement is satisfied by taking methodology courses in communication and/or cognate disciplines; methodological expertise also can be developed through independent studies and participation in research projects. The methodology may be primarily qualitative (e.g., discourse analysis, ethnography and/or rhetorical criticism) or quantitative (e.g., experimental, survey, content analysis and/or interaction analysis), or it may include a mixture of quantitative and qualitative methods. Although the PhD program requires that students choose two of the three methods courses that are offered, those seeking to claim a scholarly identity as a social scientist (as opposed to a humanist) are strongly encouraged to take both the quantitative (COMM 6020) and qualitative (COMM 6030) research methods courses.

  1. A maximum of 12 transfer credits from prior graduate course work at another institution can be applied to the PhD program if those courses are included in the student’s approved PhD Plan of Study document. Any graduate courses completed at CU-Boulder (including courses completed for the master’s in communication) can be applied to the PhD program if they are included in the student’s approved PhD Plan of Study document. When evaluating prior coursework for transfer and substitution credit, committees typically consider the following criteria: recency (generally, coursework older than five years is not eligible), course content (substance and extent of duplication of courses offered at CU-Boulder) and quality of the institution and instructor (e.g., graduate faculty status). Depending on the focus and relevance of prior coursework to students’ primary or secondary areas of PhD specialization, committees may determine that the PhD Plan of Study document should include more than 54 hours of coursework.

  2. A maximum of 9 independent study and/or internship credit hours combined can be counted toward the PhD degree; however, based on justification, committees may approve a maximum of 18 credit hours.

  3. To achieve and remain in good academic standing, students must satisfy Graduate School residence requirements, make appropriate progress toward completing what is indicated on their PhD Plan of Study document, maintain a minimum grade point average (GPA) of 3.5 and resolve any outstanding incompletes in a timely fashion. Courses in which a grade of C+ or lower is received are not counted toward the PhD degree. Funded students who are taking coursework must complete at least 18 credit hours of courses per year (typically, 9 credit hours per semester) to remain in good academic standing. No more than 15 credit hours of courses can be taken during any semester (with students financially responsible for 3 of those credit hours).

  1. All new PhD students are assigned by the DGS to a temporary advisor. Students should meet regularly with that temporary advisor during their first semester to discuss matters such as selecting a permanent advisor, committee members and courses for the next semester.

  2. Students should select a permanent advisor (co-advisors are permitted) on the basis of shared professional interests and compatibility and, in consultation with the permanent advisor, construct a comprehensive examination committee early in their second semester in residence.

  3. Students work with their advisor to create an identity statement and PhD Plan of Study document (see below), which is approved by their comprehensive examination committee, with a signed copy of that document (by the student, advisor and DGS; see guidelines for constructing that document) submitted to the graduate program assistant.

  4. PhD comprehensive examination committees contain a minimum of five members. Prior to and during the examination period, typically, the five members consist of four department graduate faculty (including the advisor), with an additional department graduate faculty member serving as a “reader” (who typically does not write questions but reads all answers). Students may include an “outside” member (someone from another CU-Boulder department or from a communication department or another department at another institution) as part of their examination committee (including serving as the reader). To successfully complete the comprehensive examination, students must receive affirmative votes from a majority of committee members. Following a successful oral defense, the reader (if from the communication department) usually is replaced by a faculty member from another academic department (there must be at least one member from another academic department). At that point, the comprehensive examination committee is renamed as the “dissertation committee.”

  5. A student’s advisor and comprehensive examination and/or dissertation committee composition may change over time (e.g., if the student’s interests change).

The Identity Statement is a short description (usually 2–3 pages; see below) of students’ academic and professional background, and their goals for the PhD program and beyond. The PhD Plan of Study document (usually 3–5 pages; see below and guidelines for constructing that form) shows how the PhD program is designed to achieve goals articulated in the Identity Statement, describing in detail areas to be pursued in the program, how all degree requirements will be satisfied, courses to be taken at CU-Boulder or transferred from an MA program, independent studies, internships, research projects, teaching experiences and other relevant activities completed or planned.

The Identity Statement and PhD Plan of Study are expected to evolve over the course of the PhD program. An initial version of the statement and plan is prepared for PhD students’ first committee meeting (typically, in the second semester of the program). That initial version undoubtedly will be tentative in some respects. For example, it may list alternative courses or types of courses to be taken, depending on known availability in future semesters.The committee approves the proposed PhD Plan of Study document (or any revised plan that results from that meeting) and a signed copy of that document (without the Identity Statement; see guidelines for constructing that document), signed by the student and by the advisor (with the date of the committee meeting at which the document was approved) and signed by the DGS, is given to the graduate program assistant. Updated versions of the Identity Statement and the PhD Plan of Study document are prepared as needed, with major changes (e.g., a shift to a different specialization area) presented to the committee for approval and the revised document signed (by the student, advisor and the DGS) and submitted to the graduate program assistant.

When the committee meets to plan the comprehensive examination, students’ Identity Statement and PhD Plan of Study document (updated to reflect courses and research projects actually completed, etc.) are the bases for designing and evaluating examination questions.

Students should address the following things in the order noted in their Identity Statement and PhD Plan of Study document:

  1. Identity Statement: Academic and professional background, professional goals, academic and research interests, methodological expertise and teaching philosophy

  2. PhD Plan of Study Document:

    • Identification Information: Names of student, advisor and committee members

    • Transfer Credits Requested (a maximum of 12 credit hours)

    • Course work by Area (course work must equal at least 54 credit hours, with at least 30 of those credit hours being communication courses)

  3. Broad-Based Communication Background (must include COMM 6010 and COMM 5210, or equivalents)

    • Primary Area of Specialization

    • Secondary Area of Specialization

    • Methodological Expertise (must include two of the following courses or their equivalent: COMM 5310, COMM 6020 and COMM 6030

  4. Course work by Chronological Order

  5. Teaching Experiences

  6. Research Projects (at least two must be completed; see research expectations below)

  7. Signatures and Dates: The PhD Plan of Study document is signed by the student and the advisor, using the date of the committee meeting at which that document was approved; it then is signed and dated by the DGS.

  1. PhD students are expected to be involved regularly in research projects (which often transcend, but also can be based on, course work assignments), conducted independently or with faculty members and/or other graduate students. Students should take the initiative to bring about this involvement by meeting with faculty members to discuss common research interests.

  2. Prior to taking the comprehensive examination, PhD students are expected to have completed two research projects of sufficient scholarly quality that they have been selected for conference presentation or publication. Those projects, ideally, are supervised by different faculty members.

To achieve the status of PhD candidate, students must:

  1. Fulfill their Plan of Study document.

  2. Receive final grades for all course work, with no outstanding incompletes.

  3. Meet the research expectations.

  4. Demonstrate other appropriate professional competencies (e.g., teaching, training and development).

  5. Successfully complete the comprehensive examination.

The PhD comprehensive examination assesses students’ areas of scholarly expertise. Students usually take a reduced load of courses (3–6 credit hours) and sign up for 3–10 hours of dissertation credit the semester that they take the examination. Students are expected to complete the comprehensive examination during the semester for which they initially register for those dissertation credit hours. Students must be registered (pass–fail or for credit) on the CU-Boulder campus as regular degree-seeking students when they pass the comprehensive examination. Students must resolve any outstanding incompletes prior to taking the comprehensive examination.

Comprehensive Examination Procedure:

  1. Committee members, in consultation with the PhD student, design written examination questions, totaling 15–16 hours, to assess the student’s knowledge and competence. In the case of previous demonstrations of competence over and above the research expectations, such as numerous publications, the committee may decrease the examination to a minimum of 12 hours. Students may write their examination answers entirely in-house (using no books or notes) or, with the committee’s approval, they may complete up to 50% of those answers at home (using books and notes). Take-home portions of the comprehensive examination must be completed within a two-week period. The entire graduate faculty must approve exceptions to these rules.

  2. Under normal circumstances, students taking the PhD comprehensive examination in-house are expected to compose their answers on a dedicated computer provided by the department that is formatted in a manner consistent with the department’s policy that graduate students not use outside material when writing in-house examination answers. Students should reserve, through the graduate program assistant, a laptop for the dates that they are scheduled to write; that reservation should be made as soon as the comprehensive examination writing dates have been established. In cases where students have documented need for special accommodation relevant to this policy, such as writing their examination answers by hand or using their own laptop (e.g., a Mac), they must present their specific need in a timely fashion to their committee, which makes the final determination of whether and how that need will be accommodated.

  3. The committee orally examines students within two weeks of completing the written PhD comprehensive examination. Students are permitted to have notes for the oral portion of the examination.

  4. Committees determine if and when students have passed the PhD comprehensive examination and can move onto the dissertation proposal. Should the comprehensive examination performance be judged as unsatisfactory (either in whole or in part by more than one committee member), students may retake relevant portions of it; prior to retaking the examination, students may be asked to complete additional coursework or projects. Students retaking the comprehensive examination must repeat the oral defense.

The comprehensive examination can be retaken only once; students who fail it a second time (as judged by more than one committee member) are dismissed from the PhD program.

The Graduate School permits PhD students to begin registering for dissertation hours during the semester that they take the PhD comprehensive examination, but no more than 10 dissertation hours may be taken before completion of that examination. Students must continue to register for dissertation hours, taking no more than 10 hours per semester, for a total of 30 hours. A student who fails to register continuously (as a full-time student, meaning five dissertation hours in the fall and spring semesters of each year, unless the person is offsite, which then means three hours per semester) after passing the comprehensive examination must retake and pass the examination, to regain status as a student in good standing in the Graduate School. The department may require that the student validate coursework more than five years old. At its discretion, the department may petition the Dean of the Graduate School for a time limit for completion of all degree requirements of up to one year after the retaking of the comprehensive examination. The department must petition to Dean of the Graduate School to waive the requirement to retake the comprehensive examination.

PhD Students Taking Only Dissertation Hours
PhD students who are taking only dissertation hours must complete each semester (before the semester’s drop/add deadline) with their advisor a contract that specifies what will be completed that semester with regard to the dissertation (see PhD Dissertation Hours Contract). That contract is signed by the student (advisee), advisor and the DGS and is submitted to the graduate program assistant.

At the end of each semester, advisors evaluate advisees’ completion of the contract as being “satisfactory” or “unsatisfactory.” Two unsatisfactory evaluations result in an automatic formal review of students to decide their continuance in the PhD program.


  1. Students first prepare and present a written proposal of their research project for approval by their dissertation committee, comprised of at least five persons, three of whom must be CU-Boulder graduate faculty, plus another member from another academic discipline. Although the dissertation proposal varies based on the goals of the project and research methods employed, typically, the document ranges from 30 to 70 pages and it includes an introduction to the topic and its significance; a review of literature; research problem(s), issue(s) or question(s) being addressed; methods of gathering and analyzing data; and sequence and content of chapters. Committees meet with students to review the proposal, provide advice and approve the research project. The project should be designed realistically such that it can be completed after admission to candidacy and during students’ final planned year in residence. Some students, in consultation with their advisor and committee, may commence dissertation work (e.g., data collection) prior to that period.

  2. PhD students are expected to make a presentation on their proposed dissertation project in a department colloquium or research occasion. Presentations are to be given as soon as possible following a successful proposal committee meeting.

  3. The faculty does not encourage PhD students to leave the program “ABD” (“all-but-dissertation”).

  4. After the dissertation has been read by committee members, an oral defense of it is conducted in conformity with CU-Boulder’s Graduate School’s rules (e.g., students must notify the Graduate School of their oral defense at least two weeks before their scheduled defense date, and the defense must be scheduled no later than the posted deadline for the semester in which the degree is to be conferred).

  5. More than one dissenting voice disqualifies students in the oral defense of the dissertation. Students who fail the defense may attempt it once more after a period of time that is determined by the committee. Students who fail the defense a second time are dismissed from the PhD program.

  6. The final approved dissertation that is submitted must conform to the Graduate School’s formatting rules.

See the Graduate Program Handbook for more information.

For additional information on the Graduate Program, contact:
Professor Lisa Flores
Associate Chair of Graduate Studies
Department of Communication
University of Colorado Boulder
(303) 492-7136