The Department of Communication Arts at the University of Wisconsin in Madison has long been one of the world's leading centers for study and research in communication. It was the first department in the United States to award a Ph.D. degree in the field, and its graduates serve on the faculties of leading universities, in research institutions, and in public and private agencies throughout this country and abroad.

The graduate programs in communication arts are designed to educate research scholars. Through intensive coursework within the department and in other departments, and through close professional association with appropriate faculty, graduate students in communication arts gain proficiency and sophistication in their chosen areas of study. Their attainment of doctoral degrees signifies their readiness to work as independent scholars in their areas and to make original contributions to human knowledge.

Communication Arts offers four distinct areas of graduate study:


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 life cycle, focusing in particular on life cycle 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.


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 film 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. The program is not designed for students whose sole interest is in film production.


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.


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.

Fall Deadline December 15
Spring Deadline This program does not admit in the spring.
Summer Deadline This program does not admit in the summer.
GRE (Graduate Record Examinations) Required.*
English Proficiency Test Every applicant whose native language is not English or whose undergraduate instruction was not in English must provide an English proficiency test score and meet the Graduate School minimum requirements (
Other Test(s) (e.g., GMAT, MCAT) n/a
Letters of Recommendation Required 3

Our graduate program considers students for fall semester admission only.

Applications are due December 15.

Applicants must have earned a master's degree from an accredited institution. The Graduate School minimum GPA is 3.0 on a 4.0 scale. The department likes to see at least a 3.25 in courses relevant to the area in which you apply, although successful applicants usually have much higher GPAs. 

Within the department, students may apply to only one track of study, which must be indicated on the statement of purpose: Communication Science; Film; Media and Cultural Studies; or Rhetoric, Politics, and Culture.

There are five supporting documents which complete the application:

  1. Statement of purpose clearly telling us what you want to study and why you think you can do it here. Although it cannot be said to be the most important part of your application, the statement of purpose is our introduction to you as a student and as such, you will want it to be as professional and persuasive as possible to put your application in the best light.
  2. Three letters of recommendation, preferably from academic sources. Email addresses of recommenders are submitted within the online application.
  3. Official GRE results sent to us from ETS. The department requires no minimum GRE scores; however, successful candidates typically score well on portions of the examination related to their area of study. We don't set absolute numbers because each year's applicants are judged against all others in that year only. UW-Madison is institution #1846; no department code is necessary.
  4. PDFs of transcripts from all post-secondary schools attended after high school. Official transcripts will be requested upon admission.
  5. A writing sample (in English), 15-20 pages long. The best writing sample is an academic paper you wrote for a class related to the area in which you apply. It should have citations and footnotes. You may send a portion of a longer thesis if you wish, but please select a representative sample no longer than 20 pages. Include a cover page identifying it as a chapter or section of a longer work. 

INTERNATIONAL APPLICANTS: An official TOEFL, IELTS or MELAB score sent to us from ETS is required for all applicants whose native language is not English. UW-Madison is institution #1846; no department code is necessary. The minimum scores are as follows:

  • TOEFL: 92 on an internet-based exam; 580 on a paper-based exam
  • IELTS: 7
  • MELAB: 82

We will waive the TOEFL requirement if you have a master's degree from an English-speaking institution.

Graduate School Resources

Resources to help you afford graduate study might include assistantships, fellowships, traineeships, and financial aid. Further funding information is available from the Graduate School. Be sure to check with your program for individual policies and restrictions related to funding.

Program Resources

Beginning Ph.D. students in Communication Arts receive six consecutive semesters of guaranteed funding if they are entering with an M.A. in their area of focus. Students who enter with an M.A. outside of their area of focus may be required to complete an M.A. in their area of focus prior to continuing on to the Ph.D. In these cases, students receive 10 consecutive semesters of guaranteed support. The guaranteed funding package for graduate students includes full tuition remission, monthly compensation, and benefits including health insurance.

Most communication arts graduate students are supported by teaching assistantships (TA). Additional funding comes in the form of research assistantships (RA), project assistantships (PA), senior lecturer appointments (SLA), Graduate School–supported fellowships, dissertation scholarships, departmental awards, and conference travel awards.

Graduate Assistantships

Graduate students who hold an appointment as a TA, RA, or PA will be entitled to remission of tuition in any semester in which their appointment equals at least 33.4% of a full-time appointment for the semester. Graduate assistantships in communication arts are typically offered at the 50% level, which is a full-time appointment for a full-time student. 

Senior Lecturer Appointments

Students are assigned to SLA by faculty each semester based on need. 

Graduate School Supported Fellowships

A limited number of fellowships are available. All students are considered for fellowships at the time of application; no separate application is necessary. These fellowships may be for terms from one semester to two years and include tuition remission and benefits including health insurance.

Dissertation Scholarships

The department awards Elliott Dissertation Scholarships to students who have successfully defended their dissertation proposal no later than 12 months after passing their preliminary exams. This award is designed to facilitate progress on researching and writing the dissertation.

Department Awards

The Department of Communication Arts is pleased to be able to grant yearly monetary awards to graduate students based on scholastic performance. Nominations for the awards are generated by the faculty in the four areas of graduate study. To be eligible for consideration, graduate students must be continuing in the program, must be making satisfactory progress toward their degree, and must not have any incompletes on their transcript. The amount and number of awards vary from year to year depending on funds available. 

Conference Travel Awards

The department provides a once-per-academic-year travel stipend for students to present academic papers at a conference. Students not residing in Madison during the semester in which they present at a conference are not eligible for this funding.

Minimum Graduate School Requirements

Review the Graduate School minimum academic progress and degree requirements, in addition to the program requirements listed below.

Major Requirements


Face to Face Evening/Weekend Online Hybrid Accelerated
Yes No No No No

Mode of Instruction Definitions


Minimum Credit Requirement 51 credits
Minimum Residence Credit Requirement 40 credits
Minimum Graduate Coursework Requirement Half of degree coursework (26 credits out of 51 total credits) must be completed graduate-level coursework; courses with the Graduate Level Coursework attribute are identified and searchable in the university's Course Guide.
Overall Graduate GPA Requirement 3.00 GPA required. (see below for GPA requirement of coursework taken within the department)
Other Grade Requirements 3.5 average required of all coursework taken within the department.
Assessments and Examinations To assess satisfactory progress toward the degree and to facilitate determinations of good standing, graduate students must complete a Professional Activities Report (PAR) each spring. A PAR indicates a student's academic and professional activities on and off campus each year. Faculty will use the PAR in their annual evaluations of student progress. A PAR represents one means of communication between graduate students and faculty, providing graduate students with an opportunity to enumerate their activities in a single document. PARS must be completed by April 1 each spring.

Students must successfully complete preliminary examinations before moving on to dissertator status. To take preliminary examinations, students must have completed all of the Ph.D. coursework requirements of their area and their minor coursework. Additional requirements vary by area of study. They are as follows:

Communication Science prelims consist of 16 hours of written examinations in the following areas:

Communication processes and contexts (8 hours): four hours each in two major topic areas in the field focusing on theories and major empirical findings
Specialization (4 hours): four hours in the student’s area of specialization; typically, the dissertation research dictates the area of specialization
Quantitative research methodology and theory construction (4 hours): this portion of the exam may include questions addressing statistics, research design, measurement, and the construction and evaluation of theory

Film prelims consist of 12 hours of written examination divided across the following four concentrations:

Film theory (3 hours)
Film history (3 hours)
Film analysis and criticism (3 hours)
Area of specialization determined in consultation with the student's advisor (3 hours)

Media and Cultural Studies prelims consists of 24 hours of written examinations as follows: four open-book essay exams, six hours each, taken on separate days. The examination covers a combination of general and specialized areas in relation to the planned dissertation project, to be chosen in a group consultation with the student's advisor and major faculty.

Rhetoric, Politics, and Culture prelims consist of 12 hours of written examination divided across the following four concentrations:

Rhetorical theory (3 hours)
Rhetorical discourse (3 hours)
Critical method (3 hours)
Area of specialization determined in consultation with the student's advisor and doctoral committee (3 hours)
Language Requirements Depending on their dissertation topic, students in the Communication Science and Film areas may need to fulfill a foreign language requirement. The need for such a requirement is determined by the student's advisor and doctoral committee.
Doctoral Minor/Breadth Requirements All doctoral students are required to complete a minor of at least 9 credits.

Required Courses

Successful completion of the Ph.D. requires a minimum of 51 credit hours, which includes coursework, independent study, and research credits. This requirement stipulates that at least 50 percent of these credit hours must be received in courses specifically designed for graduate work, which the Graduate School defines as:

  • courses numbered 700 and above;
  • courses numbered 300–699 that are specifically designed for graduate students in a graduate program;
  • courses numbered 300–699 that assess graduate students separately from undergraduate students;
  • courses numbered 300–699 that have a graduate student enrollment greater than 50 percent in a given semester.

Credit hours taken towards the completion of a master’s degree in the Department of Communication Arts may count toward this requirement. Credit hours taken while enrolled as a graduate student outside of the department and UW–Madison may count toward this requirement with the approval of the Graduate Committee. The department requires that a minimum of 40 credit hours must be completed in residence.

Communication Science Track1

COM ARTS 760 Advances in Communication Theories3
COM ARTS 762 Communication Research Methods3
At least one additional course in research methods
At least two courses in statistics
Four additional Communication Science courses at the 500 level or above. One semester of COM ARTS 990 may count toward this requirement. Colloquium does not count toward this requirement.
At least four additional courses at the 700 level or above. At least one of these courses must be COM ARTS 970. Only one of these courses may be COM ARTS 799.
COM ARTS 904 Communication Science Colloquium (One credit per semester)1
Completion of a 9-credit minor

Film Track1

COM ARTS 958 Seminar in Film History (Topic: Historiography of Film)2-3
COM ARTS 902 Film Colloquium (One credit per semester)1
Completion of a 9-credit minor

Media and Cultural Studies Track1

At least 12 credits at the 900 level in COM ARTS courses
COM ARTS 903 Media and Cultural Studies Colloquium (One credit per semester)1
Completion of a 9-credit minor

Rhetoric, Politics, and Culture Track1

COM ARTS 570 Classical Rhetorical Theory3
COM ARTS 571 Contemporary Rhetorical Theory2-3
or COM ARTS 966 Seminar-Modern Rhetorical Theory
COM ARTS 976 Seminar in Rhetorical Criticism2-3
Two Communication Arts courses at the 300 level or above in Public Discourse
COM ARTS 905 Rhetoric Colloquium (One credit per semester)1-3
Completion of a 9-credit minor

Graduate School Policies

The Graduate School’s Academic Policies and Procedures provide essential information regarding general university policies. Program authority to set degree policies beyond the minimum required by the Graduate School lies with the degree program faculty. Policies set by the academic degree program can be found below.

Major-Specific Policies

Prior Coursework

Graduate Work from Other Institutions

With program approval, students are allowed to count no more than 9 credits of graduate coursework from other institutions. Coursework earned five or more years prior to admission to a Master’s degree is not allowed to satisfy requirements.

UW–Madison Undergraduate

With program approval, students are allowed to count no more than 7 credits of graduate coursework taken as a UW–Madison undergraduate student. Coursework earned five or more years prior to admission to a master’s degree or earned ten years or more prior to admission to a doctoral degree is not allowed to satisfy requirements.

UW–Madison University Special

With program approval, students are allowed to count no more than 15 credits of graduate coursework taken as a UW–Madison Special student. Coursework earned five or more years prior to admission to a master’s degree or earned ten years or more prior to admission to a doctoral degree is not allowed to satisfy requirements.


All graduate students must stay "in good standing" in the department to be eligible for teaching assignments, awards, and fellowships, and in order to be considered to be making satisfactory progress in the program. Students whose progress is rated unsatisfactory by their faculty may face loss of funding and/or dismissal from the program.

The department's minimum criteria for good standing are:

  1. Timely progress through the program, consisting of successful completion of M.A. requirements and compliance with coursework, advising, and thesis/comprehensive exam expectations.
  2. A cumulative grade point average for coursework within the department of 3.5 or above.
  3. No grades of Incomplete on the student’s record.
  4. Fulfillment of responsibilities for teaching/project assistantships or lectureships.


Although an initial faculty advisor is assigned to each student during the summer prior to matriculation in the graduate program, students should seek out regular advisors by the end of their first year in residence. The regular advisor should be a faculty member whose research interests and methodological expertise match closely to those that the student intends to acquire. While no faculty member is obliged to accept a student's request to serve as advisor, invitations are usually accepted except where the faculty member judges that a different advisor would serve the student's needs and interests better.

Early in the semester in which the preliminary exams will be completed, students will form a prelim committee consisting of three to four faculty members, one of which is the student's advisor. In the case of preliminary examinations, all committee members will write exam questions, read the answers, and sit on the prelim defense. 

Upon passing preliminary examinations, students will form a dissertation proposal committee, consisting of three to four faculty members, one of which is the student's advisor. Before the student may proceed with writing the dissertation, the proposal must be approved by the dissertation proposal committee. While writing the dissertation, a student must obtain the approval of the advisor for modifications to the dissertation that depart significantly from the proposal.

Once the dissertation proposal has been approved, the student must form a dissertation committee. The dissertation committee serves as the final oral committee before whom the student must defend the completed dissertation manuscript. Often the members of the dissertation proposal committee serve on the dissertation committee as well, but the membership of the two committees may differ. A dissertation committee consists of at least four members, three of whom must be UW–Madison graduate faculty: the student's advisor, at least two additional members from the student's primary area of concentration, and at least one member from outside the department which may be someone on campus or from another institution. All members of a student's dissertation committee must be designated as "readers," defined as committee members who commit themselves to closely reading and reviewing the entire dissertation. 

In exceptional circumstances, the student may seek a formal co-advisor for their dissertation committee. The department recognizes two situations in which this may be appropriate: (1) the student's dissertation project genuinely pursues an interdisciplinary topic that requires the equal involvement of a faculty member in Communication Arts and a faculty member in another department at UW–Madison; or (2) the student's advisor retires or resigns from the University, and the student cannot complete the dissertation within one year of the retirement or resignation, which requires the student to seek a new advisor in the department. (For the second situation, this person becomes the newly selected advisor.)


10-credit maximum unless additional credits are approved by faculty advisor, up to 15

Time Constraints

A candidate for a doctoral degree who fails to take the final oral examination and deposit the dissertation within five years after passing the preliminary examination may be required to take another preliminary examination and to be admitted to candidacy a second time.

Grievances and appeals

These resources may be helpful in addressing your concerns:

Students should contact the department chair or program director with questions about grievances.


Incoming M.A. students are generally offered 5 academic years (fall semester and spring semester) of support in the form of teaching assistantships, project assistantships, and fellowships. Incoming Ph.D. students are generally offered 3 years of support. This support includes a stipend, tuition remission, and benefits.

Graduate School Resources

Take advantage of the Graduate School's professional development resources to build skills, thrive academically, and launch your career. 

Program Resources

Graduate students should consider opportunities for professional development as they begin their programs of graduate study. As students plan programs of study, participation in campus and disciplinary organizations, scholarly presentations at academic conferences, and potential outlets for publication of research, they should consider the ways that these activities begin to establish areas of scholarly and pedagogical competence, connections with other researchers and teachers in the field, and audiences for their scholarship. Some of the best resources for professional development are the people—both faculty and other graduate students—in the Department of Communication Arts. These people may serve as sources of valuable advice and information, and their actions may provide examples of practices that promote professional development. Further, campus-wide resources are available to enrich students’ graduate studies and enhance their professional skills.


Two important departmental resources for professional development are a graduate student’s advisor and the department colloquia.

The advisor is concerned with a graduate student’s academic progress as well as with the professional development of advisees. Throughout a graduate student’s residence in the program (and often beyond), an advisor will discuss and answer questions and concerns about professional development. For instance, as submission deadlines to academic conferences approach, an advisor may discuss with a student potential submission options and the appropriate venues for these submissions. If a student is working on revising a seminar paper for potential public in an academic journal, an advisor will often guide the student through the revision process. When a student is applying for jobs, an advisor will often edit application materials. When a student is interviewing for a position or negotiating a job offer, an advisor will often provide tips for how to proceed.

The department colloquia offers additional resources for professional development. The four areas of study (Communication Science; Film; Media and Cultural Studies; and Rhetoric, Politics, and Culture) hold individual and joint colloquia on most Thursday afternoons during the academic year. Often, these colloquia are devoted to research presentations from department faculty and graduate students as well as campus visitors. Sometimes, the colloquia will address issues of professional development. Colloquia topics on professional development include practicing conference presentations; preparing a teaching dossier; practicing job talks; negotiating the revise and resubmit process in journal publishing; and networking. Colloquia on professional development engage graduate students in discussion on professional topics, workshop materials, and offer advice on best practices.


Since most Communication Arts Ph.D.s pursue academic careers, developing teaching skills constitutes an important aspect of professionalization. Some colleges and universities may ask a student to prepare a teaching demonstration as part of the on-campus interview process, or otherwise seek evaluation and evidence of a graduate student’s teaching abilities. To facilitate the development of graduate student teaching, faculty will provide reviews of teaching assistants (TA) in courses in which they have worked directly with graduate students in the classroom. Graduate students should expect these reviews in every semester in which they serve as a TA in one of these faculty-led courses (e.g., a lecture-discussion section course taught by a faculty member). These reviews are intended to help students identify strengths in their teaching as well as areas in which they may improve. In relevant courses, faculty will deposit an electronic copy of a teaching review with the graduate coordinator no more than two weeks after a semester has concluded. The graduate coordinator will maintain files of teaching reviews for each graduate student in the department. The graduate coordinator will send a copy of the review to the student’s advisor. Faculty also will share a copy of the review with the student reviewed, who may wish to incorporate favorable reviews and quotations into a teaching dossier. Graduate students should feel welcome to discuss all reviews with their supervising faculty members. Graduate students should note, too, that these reviews will assist faculty in addressing matters of pedagogy when preparing letters of recommendation for academic employment, which will benefit students in their job searches. 


The Department of Communication Arts provides a once-per-academic-year travel stipend for those students who will be presenting a paper at an academic conference. Students who are not residing in Madison during the semester in which they present at a conference are not eligible for funding.


Located on the third floor of Vilas Hall, the Instructional Media Center (IMC) provides media and technology services for the entire department. The IMC houses the Hamel Family Digital Media Lab, the Walter Mirisch Seminar Room, and Communication Arts media production classrooms. The IMC circulates laptops, video projectors, and other equipment to graduate students for instruction and short-term use. The IMC also maintains a media library containing thousands of DVDs and blu-rays of films, television shows, video games, and off-air recordings. Graduate students may check out any item not reserved for classroom use for their research. IMC staff can assist graduate students with their research needs. Upon request, the IMC can provide film to video transfers, media creation (files, DVDs, blu-rays), and video capture, as well as training in these areas. The IMC provides assistance for the Center for Communication Research. The IMC is staffed by individuals with a wide range of media knowledge and skills to assist graduate students. 

  1. Articulates research problems, potentials, and limits with respect to theory, knowledge, or practice within the field of study.
  2. Formulates ideas, concepts, designs, and/or techniques beyond the current boundaries of knowledge within the field of study.
  3. Creates research, scholarship, or performance that makes a substantive contribution.
  4. Demonstrates breadth within their learning experiences.
  5. Advances contributions of the field of study to society.
  6. Communicates complex ideas in a clear and understandable manner.
  7. Fosters ethical and professional conduct.


Professors Kelley Conway (chair), Robert Asen, Jonathan Gray, Robert Glenn Howard, Lea Jacobs, Derek Johnson, Marie-Louise Mares, Zhongdang Pan, Jeff Smith, Lyn Van Swol, and Michael Xenos

Associate Professors Eric Hoyt, Jenell Johnson, Lori Lopez, Sara McKinnon, Jeremy Morris, Ben Singer, and Catalina Toma

Assistant Professors Jason Lopez, Allison Prasch, and Lillie D. Williamson