We are all, to varying degrees, a product of the culture we consume, the culture that surrounds us, the culture we create, and the culture that we take for granted simply as the reality we confront day in and day out. It was this realization, in literature, psychology, anthropology, semiotics, philosophy, sociology, and political science, which led to the emergence of cultural studies as a distinct yet all encompassing field of study in the middle of the 20th century. Drawing voraciously on a wide range of academic disciplines, critical theories, and analytical methods, cultural studies coalesced around the notion that all aspects of the culture we’re born into and immersed in offer keys to understanding human behavior, human interactions, and the complex functions of the social structures we inhabit.

In that sense, cultural studies takes nothing for granted. Everything from music, sports, television sitcoms, and smartphone apps, to technological developments, business innovations, marketing campaigns, and political elections is a cultural artifact that tells part of the story of who we are and how we live. Master’s degrees in cultural studies are premised on this broad reaching, all encompassing idea, but employ the analytical tools of the social sciences, qualitative and quantitative research methodologies, and rigorous theoretical inquiry and investigation to unpack the meaning of specific cultural signifiers and artifacts in the hopes of reaching a better understanding of how our culture functions. The ultimate aim is to use this understanding to improve that function, and to create social structures that are fairer and less oppressive for the array of social groups within our larger culture.

Master’s in Cultural Studies Concepts

  • Impact of culture on human psychology
  • Multicultural concepts in psychology
  • Cross-cultural issues
  • Variation in perspectives across the globe
  • Impact of social and cultural conditions on behavior
  • Statistic and research design
  • Analysis and evaluation of psychological research
  • Social psychology
  • Sexuality and culture
  • Cultural anthropology
  • Psychology of cultural identity
  • Developmental psychology
  • Cognitive psychology
  • Mass media evaluation
  • Social theory
  • Political economics

Benefits of Earning a Master’s in Cultural Studies

A master’s in cultural studies offers motivated, engaged students the opportunity to pursue their own interests, whether that’s in pop music, gender studies, economic inequality, independent cinema, or Super Bowl ad campaigns. Anything that’s a product of culture — and a good case can be made that that includes just about everything — is potentially fair game. At its best, however, cultural studies is rigorous in its application of critical theory and methodology. It’s a discipline that prizes meticulous thinking, analytical reasoning, and the precision of qualitative assessment and quantitative testing. Just as it’s accurate to say that a master’s in cultural studies doesn’t prepare students for any one career or vocation, it’s also true that it provides graduates with a range of critical thinking, communication, and analytical tools that, when properly deployed, can confer a competitive advantage in a diverse array of job settings, from marketing executive to social worker, journalist to website designer, academic researcher to screenplay writer. And those are just a few paths that a master’s degree in cultural studies can lead to.

What to Expect in a Cultural Studies Master’s Program

Historically, cultural studies programs have varied quite a bit from school to school and program to program. Because it is the epitome of a multi-disciplinary pursuit, each college and university will tend to play to its strengths. For instance, a university with a prominent gender studies department and a prestigious school of psychology or anthropology would likely draw on faculty from those areas to form the foundation of a cultural studies program. On the other hand, an institution with a large and active film studies department and an established tradition in the fields of media studies and postcolonial theory might build its cultural studies program around faculty from those areas. However, as cultural studies has become a rising force in academia and a increasingly desirable degree among students, programs have settled into a more uniform approach toward teaching cultural studies, and there are many aspects of the core curriculum that have become standardized.

That said, it’s important to look carefully at the requirements for each master’s degree program in cultural studies. It’s not uncommon, for example, for a master’s degree program in cultural studies to include a foreign language proficiency requirement, and many require the completion of a master’s thesis before graduation. Most of these programs are designed to be completed in two years, or fours semesters of classroom study.

The list below details some of the coursework that is commonly found at the master’s degree level in cultural studies:

  • Theories in Cultural Studies
  • History of Cultural Studies
  • Feminist Theory and Gender Studies
  • Activism and Social Change
  • Ethnographic Field Research Methods
  • Social Psychology and Culture
  • Psychology of Social Identity
  • Cultural Anthropology Research Methods
  • Colonial and Postcolonial Studies
  • Race in America
  • Politics and Culture
  • Studies in Film and Television
  • The Sociology of Sports
  • Methods of Media Research

Degree Options and Specializations in Cultural Studies

The graduate degree that’s most common in the field of cultural studies is the MA, or master of arts. Departments of psychology or sociology may offer the largely equivalent MS, or master of science in cultural studies, but the norm is an MA.

Beyond that, there exists a veritable panoply of areas for specialization within the field of cultural studies, some of which are more defined and entrenched than others. There are cultural studies programs that emphasize literary and critical theory; cultural studies programs that are centered around film, television, and media studies; cultural studies programs that are rooted in American culture and its history and politics; and cultural studies programs that are tied to theories of gender and/or ethnic studies. While it has been more common for cultural studies specializations to focus on marginalized social groups, there’s an emerging area of graduate study into the culture surrounding men and masculinity.

The list below is by no means complete, but it offers an overview of some of the most common areas of specialization within the larger field of cultural studies:

  • Native American Studies
  • Feminist Theory
  • African-American Studies
  • Gender Studies
  • Ethnic and Cultural Studies
  • Literary and Cultural Studies
  • Cultural and Media Studies
  • Hispanic Cultural Studies
  • Global Culture and Globalization

Careers in Cultural Studies

Cultural studies is largely considered to be an area of academic inquiry, of research and teaching in the pursuit of creating a critical and crucial body of knowledge about who we are and how our society has developed. In that sense, a master’s in cultural studies can be and often is a stop along the way toward earning a PhD in cultural studies or a related discipline.

However, the critical thinking skills, qualitative assessments methods, and research tools that are integral to a cultural studies master’s degree have a wide range of practical applications outside of academia, in the realm of media and communications; the world of social work, political policy, and human services; and in marketing, public relations, and strategic planning and analysis. And those are just some of the more obvious ways that a master’s in cultural studies can be put to work. Cultural studies is also a great background for journalism, web design, and film and television writing and production.

So, while it would be difficult to account for all of the various fields into which a graduate of a cultural studies program might gravitate, the chart below draws on the most recent Bureau of Labor Statistics data to provide an overview of the employment outlook and salary ranges for several representative occupations:

OccupationMedian Annual Salary, May 2014Job Growth through 2024
Political Scientist$104,920-2%
Postsecondary Teacher$70,79013%
Urban/Regional Planner$66,9406%
Social/Community Service Manager$62,74010%
Market Research Analyst$61,29019%
Public Relations Specialist$55,6806%
Social Worker$45,50012%
Reporter/Correspondent/Broadcast News Analyst$37,200-9%

Licensing and Certifications for Cultural Studies

There are no licenses or professional certifications specifically required in the field of cultural studies. Rather, there may be licensure and/or certifications required for particular jobs and careers. For example, a graduate with a master’s degree in cultural studies who wants to teach at a public school would need to meet that state’s teacher certification standards and pass the requisite licensing exam. Similarly, a graduate aiming to work as a social worker would need to obtain a state license in order to be employed as a LSW (licensed social worker). In many other cases, the degree plus work experience is often the only requirement.

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