Online Ph.D. in Public Administration

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Earn an Online Ph.D. in Public Administration

Completing a doctor in public administration (DPA) online opens professional doors for individuals who want to act as leaders in government, directors of public policy, and educators to the next generation of practitioners. This degree serves those with a demonstrated interest in policy and government, a strategic mindset, and a defined work ethic, preparing graduates for dynamic positions requiring attention to detail, perseverance, and an ability to work with diverse groups. The career outlook for online DPA graduates looks promising and steady in the coming years, as the country and its need for qualified public leaders continues to grow.

Reasons to Pursue an Online Doctorate in Public Administration

As students research their options within the public administration arena, professionals with their bachelor’s degree might wonder if a master’s or Ph.D. program should be their next move. Master’s programs entail less commitment than doctoral degrees, with the former requiring two years of full-time study on average, and the latter calling for 5-7 years. Either degree could leave graduates with student loan debt, so prospective students should consider how much of a financial burden they want to assume before choosing their program. They should also think about desired outcomes: While master’s in public administration programs typically train students for consulting and managerial roles, doctorate in public administration online programs entail different goals. DPA students often aim to work in the upper echelons of government, commerce, and academia, with common titles including city manager, university faculty, and public policy director.

What Can I Do With an Online Doctorate in Public Administration?

When considering a doctorate in public administration online, prospective students should keep several career paths and specialty areas in mind. Some individuals may feel drawn exclusively to positions consulting on public policy and administrative issues, while others may decide to apply for a federal, state, or local government job. Regardless of your chosen path, remember the public administration sphere includes various job titles, and it’s important to do your research before choosing one. Many individuals elect to pursue their DPA online, as it gives them the knowledge and skill sets they need to assume senior roles. Others pursue this degree path to teach at colleges and universities.

Career Subfields for City Managers

CONSULTING:External contractorGOVERNMENT:Specific sector or branch
ACADEMIA:Education, universities, researchINDUSTRY:Within an organization

Source: BLS

Common Career Paths and Salaries

Graduates of public administration doctoral programs may choose from many public and nonprofit roles upon graduation, depending on their interests. The following career paths highlight common options, but learners may undertake additional research to find others.

Mayor, Governor, City Manager, or County Administrator

Median annual salary: $60,275

Mayors and other local government officials ensure the towns, cities, and counties run smoothly. They work with others in local government to address concerns, oversee budgets, manage staff, answer to city councils and boards, and handle citizen complaints.

Budget Analyst

Median annual salary: $75,240

Working in public and private settings alike, budget analysts review the finances of the companies they serve to create consolidated budgets, recommend procedural changes, manage funding requests, review spending, and create financial projections.

Salary Progression

Salaries listed throughout this guide represent median annual wages based on national averages. As learners review these numbers, they should remember that several factors affect pay in meaningful ways. Some states and metro areas pay significantly more or less than others, while nonprofit employers almost always pay less than public entities. Industry also matters a great deal, as individuals working for the federal government enjoy higher salaries than those in higher education. Experience also factors in, as those who have spent decades working and honing their skills command higher salaries.

Public Administration Doctoral Program Requirements and Outcomes

As with many other Ph.D. paths, public administration doctoral programs frequently present steep competition for admissions, along with low acceptance numbers. Applicants must work to stand out from the crowd academically — most Ph.D. programs require GPAs of 3.5 or higher, combined GRE scores of 1200-1400, and at least two years of related work experience. Most programs require degree seekers to successfully earn 43-58 credits. Those with their master’s in public administration or a related topic usually finish the program in four years of full-time study, while those without a master’s or who want to study part-time usually spend 5-6 years completing all requirements. Most DPA programs online don’t require campus visits, but some may organize intensive in-person residencies.

Common Courses

  • Public Administration Foundations
    Taken in the first year of studies, this course introduces learners to foundational theories, contexts, and methodologies of public administration. Students in this class consider practitioners’ roles in public administration solutions, and think critically about the current state of the field.
  • Strategically Managing the Public Sector
    In this course, students take a historical lens to public sector problem-solving, and discuss how previous and contemporary methods have succeeded or failed. Learners also review current tools and techniques for developing strategic management platforms.
  • Making and Implementing Policy
    This hands-on class calls on students to examine existing public policy to understand the decision-making process behind it. They also have the chance to learn about the process for development and implementing policy, and stakeholders within that process.
  • Survey Research
    Students in this class learn the nuts and bolts of ideating, designing, launching, and overseeing surveys of varied forms. They also learn about best practices for collecting data and existing instruments for carrying out research.
  • Public Policy and Finance
    This course introduces degree seekers to the financial implications of public administration by tackling topics including tax policies, the economics of welfare, public program outsourcing, budgeting, and the differences between public and private models.
  • Ethics and Social Justice
    Recognizing the baseline responsibility of any public administrator is to work ethically and ensure social justice for diverse constituents, this course reviews topics regarding wage gaps, economic disparity, and the roles of power and privilege.
  • Public Sector Management Strategies
    This course caters to students who see themselves in consulting roles rather than academia, delving into evidence-based practices and techniques for managing diverse staff, creating effective change, balancing budgets, using data to inform decisions, and problem-solving.
  • Dissertation Research Seminar
    Aside from taking courses related directly to public administration, learners complete logistical coursework that prepares them for the realities of longform research and writing. This class explores qualitative and quantitative research methods, the development of research questions, data usage, and analysis frameworks.

Other Requirements


Online programs often require students to visit campus each semester or academic year to take part in a learning intensive. These can last 2-10 days, and provide students the chance to learn face-to-face with their peers and professors.

Project/Comprehensive Exam

In place of a dissertation, some programs may allow students to complete a culminating project and take comprehensive exams, if they don’t plan to work in academia or research. These usually require extensive research and development and must be presented before a panel of faculty advisers.


The culminating requirement for most Ph.D. programs, dissertations are usually ~90,000 words and require students to develop and argue a unique thesis, using significant primary and secondary research. These projects usually take at least two years to complete.

Dissertation Defense

After finishing the research, writing, and editing portion of the dissertation process, degree candidates must go before a panel of academics — including their advisers — to defend the dissertation, answer questions, address loopholes, and receive approval for their work.

Skills and Competencies

Online DPA programs impart a range of skills and competencies to help graduates perform their jobs and stand out from other individuals who don’t hold their doctoral degrees.

  • Project Management
    A core requirement of any talented public administrator, students gain skills as they learn about structuring projects, assigning staff, creating timelines, and setting budgets.
  • Time Management
    Given the scale of most projects they oversee, public administrators learn how to divide tasks, bring in other team members, set milestones, and regularly review progress.
  • Financial Management
    As students learn about the financial responsibilities of public administrators, they obtain the knowledge and tools to set and oversee large budgets, create financial forecasts, and research funding opportunities.
  • Critical Thinking
    Public administrators must solve complex, multifaceted issues and questions. They must think carefully and listen to client and community needs before bringing their knowledge together.
  • Leadership
    Many DPA graduates find themselves in leadership roles, appropriate since they learn so much about managerial functions and hierarchies of organizations during school.
  • Communication
    Whether discussing projects with a colleague, communicating with a consulting client, or soliciting feedback for a community project, these individuals must communicate effectively with various personalities.

Public Administration Professional Organizations

Whether a public administrator has worked in the field for decades or is still completing coursework for a doctorate in public administration online, joining a professional organization offers several benefits. Many organizations provide continuing education workshops, and some offer certification pathways. Those who want to stay current on industry trends benefit from the magazines, journals, and other in-house publications available from professional organizations. Individuals seeking networking opportunities may enjoy participating in annual national conferences and local chapter meetings.

Finding the right organization is critical; learners should research member benefits extensively to find an association that meets their needs. Aside from the benefits listed above, individuals can assume extra responsibilities by volunteering, serving on a specialized committee, or joining the governing board.

  • American Society for Public Administration
    ASPA serves members across the country through local chapters and sections, hosting local events and national conferences, developing international partnerships, and providing opportunities for students and new professionals to acclimate to the group.
  • The Council of State Governments
    This organization appeals to public administration professionals working with local or state government. Member benefits include regular events and professional development opportunities, leadership training, and in-house publications.
  • International City/County Management Association
    A professional association dedicated to bringing local government leaders together, ICMA offers a podcast, leadership training, credentials, a job center, and access to relevant data and research with in-house publications.
  • Association for Research on Nonprofit Organizations and Voluntary Action
    ARNOVA offers its members access to several conferences annually, groundbreaking research, an active job center, online common interest groups, webinars, and recordings of other events and trainings from the past.
  • American Political Science Association
    For public administrators who also dabble in political science, APSA provides members with an annual meeting, publications, career assistance, continuing education, mentoring and fellowship programs, and academic development resources.

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