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Curriculum and Milestones

Our five-year Ph.D. program encourages students to design a course of study that suits their unique interests in the interdisciplinary field of Communication. 

Earning a Ph.D. is a transformative process that can open doors to many different career options. By nature, Communication is highly interdisciplinary, and our faculty and students bring to the school a tremendous diversity of backgrounds and interests.

Unlike programs that direct students into “tracks,” the Annenberg School encourages its students to design a curriculum that suits their own particular interests. It also embraces multimodal scholarship that utilizes forms such as film, audio, visual art, and performance.

The Annenberg Ph.D. program represents a five-year commitment. The classroom experience is designed to help students develop a methodological toolkit that allows them to approach any research question and gain a rigorous theoretical grounding in the field.

From the earliest days of their program, students have the opportunity to partner with faculty on research, and to develop plans for their own. Ultimately, these research projects lead a student to develop their dissertation.

A typical timeline for a student entering ASC without a Master’s degree is:

Continue reading to learn more about the coursework and milestone events involved with earning an Annenberg Ph.D. More detail about each of these can be found in the graduate student handbook.

The Curriculum

The Annenberg Ph.D. program is structured to provide flexibility for students, in regular consultation with their advisors, to design a personalized curriculum tailored to their specific interests. A well-chosen set of courses should provide students with an understanding of the field broadly, coupled with more in-depth knowledge of the theories, methods, and research findings most relevant to their area of specialization. 

Woman seated at a table, smiling at other women seated at the table
Annenberg graduate classes are small, seminar-style classes that allow for deep discussion among students and faculty.

A minimum of Seventeen classes are required for the Ph.D.; up to six of these may be transferred from a previous Master’s program with approval from the student’s academic advisor. 

All students are required to take a Proseminar (COMM 500) in their first semester. This course provides an introduction to the field of Communication and is taught each week by a different member of the graduate faculty, giving students a chance to get to know them further.

Students are also required to take the methods-focused Introduction to Communication Research (COMM 5220) and Qualitative Ways of Knowing (COMM 5230) at Annenberg and an introductory statistics course (most commonly those offered through the Department of Sociology, Political Science or the Wharton School).

While no other specific courses are required, all Ph.D. students must take a course with each of at least five different members of the ASC graduate faculty, with the goal of ensuring students encounter a diverse range of approaches to Communication.

Annenberg offers more than a dozen graduate courses each semester, drawn from a list of 60 courses covering a wide range of topics related to communication and media. These courses are taught by our graduate faculty, as well as visiting faculty from around the globe. 

Unlike programs that direct students into “tracks,” the Annenberg School encourages its students to design a curriculum that suits their own particular interests.

Students may take as many as six courses from outside the Annenberg School. These may be courses students transfer in from other master’s degree programs, or those taken from any of Penn’s 12 graduate and professional schools.

Students typically take three courses per semester, though with permission from their advisor, they may enroll in as many as four.

In order to be considered in good academic standing and be eligible for funding, students must maintain a minimum grade point average of 3.0.

Program Milestones

Selecting an Advisor

Choosing an academic advisor is an important decision for each student to make. The advisor’s primary role is to help the student plan coursework and research suited to the student’s needs in preparation for the comprehensive examination and dissertation. 

Group of people standing in front of a curtain
Faculty and their advisees often have life-long relationships. At a recent conference, Professor Barbie Zelizer met up with many current and former advisees.

While students often enter the program with a sense of which faculty member(s) they might like to work with, the Associate Dean for Graduate Studies serves as the primary academic advisor to all entering graduate students. By the end of the second semester in the program, each student is expected to have chosen a main area of research specialization and to have an advisor, who must be a member of the Annenberg School’s graduate faculty.

First-year students have the opportunity to meet with much of the graduate faculty through Proseminar (COMM 500), a non-credit course designed in part to familiarize students with ongoing faculty research. Once they have begun the program, students are also encouraged to arrange meetings with the faculty members in whose research they are interested to discuss advising possibilities.

The Qualifications Evaluation (QE)

Qualifications Evaluation (QE): At the end of the second year The Graduate Studies Committee, in consultation with the student’s advisor, will evaluate the student’s progress, review their coursework, and evaluate the independent research they’ve conducted. The students turn in a portfolio with papers from coursework and research work from the first two years; the portfolio should also include a statement of what they plan to work on in the future. The advisor will write a letter to the Graduate Studies Committee evaluating the student’s work. The goal is to determine whether students will pass this milestone and remain in the program. After the evaluation, the student receives a letter from the Graduate Dean and Advisor and their master’s degree. 

Third-Year Comprehensive Exam (Comps)

The Comprehensive Exam (Comps) evaluates a student’s knowledge of theory and methods in communication.  Comps will be taken by the end of the fall semester of the third year. Comps will be based on a generated list of broad questions. The student will respond to two essays (open book – over a week) and defend their responses in an oral exam. The student’s Comps committee will review the essays and the oral exam.  

If the student fails any part of the exam, the examining committee will decide whether the student must retake that part of the exam or  take a new exam. Students who fail to pass any component of a retaken exam, whether in whole or in part, will not normally continue in the program except in exceptional circumstances. Once the student has passed the comprehensive exam, they are considered a “doctoral candidate.”

Dissertation Proposal

Before receiving their dissertation research fellowship, which offers funding for the fifth year of the program, and beginning work on the dissertation, each student submits a formal written dissertation proposal and defends it to their dissertation committee. The proposal is a full statement of the research problem, including its theoretical rationale and methodology. 

A student’s dissertation committee, who will evaluate both the proposal and the completed dissertation, consists of three Annenberg standing faculty, plus faculty from other departments where appropriate. The student’s main academic advisor typically serves as the committee’s chair. The committee members serve as resources to the student throughout the dissertation process and offer constructive feedback.

Writing a Dissertation

The writing of a dissertation, which typically takes place over the course of a year or more, is the capstone of the Ph.D. and a monumental achievement. A finished dissertation should make an original contribution to knowledge, building upon the existing research and theories.

Written dissertations can run more than 100 pages in length, though there is no fixed requirement. On occasion, students have been permitted to incorporate film and other multimedia into their dissertation.

Depending on the nature of the research, students do not necessarily need to be in residence at Annenberg while writing a dissertation, though students living elsewhere typically return to complete their defense.

The Dissertation Defense

Man smiling at two other people, one of whom is laughing. The screen behind him reads "Selling the American People"
Students defending their dissertation speak to an audience of their faculty advisors, fellow students, Annenberg staff, friends, and family.

Once the dissertation is completed and submitted to the dissertation committee members for review, the student makes a public presentation followed by a private meeting with the committee in which the student is asked questions. The committee will then decide to accept the dissertation.

The community celebration following a dissertation defense is always a joyous one, honoring the monumental achievement of completing such a significant body of research. Following a successful dissertation, students can begin using the degree letters "Ph.D."  after their names. The defense is fully complete when the student makes the revisions suggested by the committee and "deposits" a written copy with the University. 


Degrees are conferred in May, August, and December of each year, with formal commencement ceremonies taking place in May. The University of Pennsylvania requires students to complete their degree within 10 years of starting the program.

For More Information

More detail about each of the subjects above can be found in the graduate student handbook. The University of Pennsylvania also maintains academic rules for all its Ph.D. programs.

Four graduates in their PhD regalia pose on the steps of 3620 Walnut Street
Four of our 2022 Ph.D. graduates on their graduation day

Student Voices

Tian Yang

Tian Yang

“I feel very lucky to be a part of this community. I have had the opportunity to learn from those big names who repeatedly appear in my reference lists and Communication textbooks, and great support from faculty and staff that gives me the freedom to explore new research, even as a Ph.D. student.”

Sophie Maddocks

Sophie Maddocks

“Before pursuing a Ph.D., everyone told me the most important thing was to find the right advisors. During my first semester at Annenberg I found faculty who cared deeply about my academic progress and personal wellbeing. At school events I was able to dialogue in small groups with leading guest scholars in my field, finding mentors and building a diverse professional network.”

Antoine Haywood

Antoine Haywood

“An outstanding quality of Annenberg’s Ph.D. program is the comradery within the graduate student cohorts. My cohort keeps me connected, grounded, and motivated. Genuine support exceeds superficial competitiveness. I have learned a lot from conversations and brainstorms I’ve shared with peers who are at different stages of the program.”