Why study communication?

Posted on: December 17, 2010

by: A.C.S.

An education is more than a degree, it is the development of the ability to learn and function in society. Many students and parents are pushed into framing education as a career direction. Being asked what is your major used to elicit a description of a field of study. Now, it generates a description of an occupation or career path. When education is framed this way, communication graduates are at a disadvantage when compared to other graduates who fit easily into occupational niches, e.g., education majors go into teaching; accounting majors go into accounting.

The reality is that this perception of a direct connection between a major and a career is not that clear. Derek Bok, past president of Harvard said:

The ultimate career of any student may be very different from the one anticipated. Any career can veer sharply from its original direction. In our rapidly changing environment, however, certain fundamental skills and habits of the mind provide the essentials for adaptation. Of these skills, the most obvious is the ability to communicate orally and in writing with clarity and style.

Studying communication is more fundamental than selecting a major for a job. Communication is the primary social process. It would be impossible for social institutions to exist as we know them without communication. Human beings engage in communication as a means to facilitate meaning and to coordinate human activities. Other disciplines recognize the importance of communication but place it among other variables while communication majors recognize the importance and central role that communication plays in daily life.

Oral communication has long been our main method for communicating with one another. It is estimated that 75 percent of a person’s day is spent communicating in some way. As a college student, 69 percent of your communication time is spent on speaking and listening. You spend 17 percent of your communication time reading and 14 percent writing. Put another way, “we listen a book a day, we speak a book a week, read the equivalent of a book a month, and write the equivalent of a book a year.”

Not only do we spend considerable time communicating, but communication skills are also essential to personal, academic, and professional success. In a report on the fastest growing careers, the U.S. Department of Labor states that communication skills will be in demand across occupations well into the next century. In a national survey of 1000 human resource managers, oral communication skills are identified as valuable for both obtaining employment and successful job performance. Executives of Fortune 500 companies indicate that college students need better communication skills, as well as the ability to work in teams and with people from diverse backgrounds. Case studies of high-wage companies also state that essential skills for future workers include problem solving, working in groups, and the ability to communicate effectively.

When 1000 faculty members from a cross section of disciplines were asked to identify basic competencies for every college graduate, skills in communicating topped the list. Even an economics professor stated that

“…we are living in a communications revolution comparable to the invention of printing….In an age of increasing talk, it’s wiser talk we need most.”

Most employers recognize that when they are recruiting new college graduates, they are seeking basic sets of skills that often transcend specific context areas. They feel that they can train a specific content. Consider the following example from the August/September 1996 issue of Fast Company, in an article entitled Hire for attitude, Train for skill. “What people know is less important than who they are. Hiring, they believe, is not about finding people with the right experience. It’s about finding people with the right mind-set.” Put simply, what a person knows changes, who they are does not.

Employers seek five basic things from new college graduates. They are:

  • people skills (e.g. interpersonal, group or team, and conflict management skills)
  • critical thinking skills (how you make decisions and justify your choices)
  • writing skills
  • computer skills
  • degree and perhaps specialty skills (e.g., engineering, accounting, programming, public speaking, persuasive ability).

As a communication major, you develop skills in each of the areas outlined above by designing a major program and possibly a minor program, which will make you a strong candidate in the future job market, but not limited to a particular career path.


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