PhD in Public Policy

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Who Gets One & What to Expect

A Ph.D. in public policy prepares students for leadership positions in the public sector and careers in academia, nonprofits, and research-intensive institutions. Many Ph.D. students focus on a specific public policy arena that brings their level of competence and knowledge beyond the master’s level.

Most public policy doctoral degree-holders qualify for postsecondary teaching positions. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects an 11% growth rate for this profession, which translates to the addition of 1,350,700 jobs from 2018-28. Whether you plan to earn a Ph.D. in public policy online or on campus, you can expect to enter a healthy job market with a high growth potential.

Reasons to Pursue an Online Ph.D. in Public Policy

The positive job outlook for professionals holding a doctorate in public policy constitutes just one reason why you should consider pursuing the degree. You can briefly explore other reasons below.

Career Advancement

A Ph.D. in public policy gives students several opportunities to expand their knowledge and strengthen their leadership qualities, which in turn often qualifies them to assume top positions in their field.

Personal Interest

Doctoral programs allow students to choose a specific topic to study closely. Ph.D. students therefore can explore a personal or professional interest with single-minded purpose.

Job Requirement

Some positions require candidates to possess a doctorate in their field. Common examples include tenured professorships in accredited colleges and universities and executive positions in international nonprofits.

Enhance Professional Options

A Ph.D. in public policy benefits candidates looking to switch careers from a different professional arena. The degree immerses them in the field and shows future employers that they are committed to public policy work.

Increased Income Possibilities

Because employers know that a Ph.D. requires a significant investment of time and money, most positions that require candidates to possess a doctorate usually come with increased responsibilities and higher salaries.

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

You can pursue either a Ph.D. in public policy or enroll in a doctor of public administration (DPA) program. Both programs usually offer similar coursework and qualify graduates for top-level positions in the public policy and public administration fields. However, a Ph.D. typically focuses on original research that contributes new knowledge to the field. A DPA program also requires candidates to perform in-depth research work that addresses a common problem or situation.

Be sure to examine a program closely to determine whether the curriculum and corresponding learning outcomes meet your career and academic objectives.

Common Career Paths and Salaries

Completing a Ph.D. in public policy online or on campus can give you several career options, all with above-average salaries. You can concentrate on research and public policy analysis as a political scientist or directly manage an organization as a top executive, such as a governor, mayor, or city administrator. Browse five possible career paths below.

  • Political Scientist

    Political scientists assist in planning, implementing, and evaluating existing government policies; use research results and public opinion survey analysis to help craft new policies; and forecast economic, political, and social trends.

    Average Annual Salary: $117,570

  • Top Executive

    Top executives establish an organization’s goals, direct employee activities, oversee an institution’s financial transactions, negotiate or approve contracts, and make final decisions regarding general operations, fiscal policies, and human resources allocation.

    Average Annual Salary: $104,980

  • Postsecondary Education Administrator

    Depending on the size of the college or university, postsecondary education administrators help develop and implement academic policies, oversee faculty research activities and funds allocation, and make the final decision regarding tenure and faculty appointments.

    Average Annual Salary: $94,340

  • Postsecondary Teacher

    Postsecondary teachers in public policy teach courses like organizational behavior, social psychology, ethics, and policy analysis. Most schools require postsecondary teachers to hold a doctorate to be considered for tenure.

    Average Annual Salary: $78,470

  • Urban and Regional Planner

    Urban and regional planners conduct field studies to discover and analyze the factors impacting community development, administer federal or state policies regarding land use, and interpret market and research data to help draft an equitable distribution of resources.

    Average Annual Salary: $73,050

Public Policy Ph.D. Program Requirements and Outcomes

Accredited colleges and universities offering a Ph.D. in public policy typically require applicants to hold a master’s degree, preferably in the field or a closely related discipline. Some programs also require at least three years of professional experience in the public policy or public administration arena and the submission of GRE or GMAT scores. A Ph.D. in public policy often comprises 50-54 credits and takes 3-4 years to complete. However, most institutions give Ph.D. students up to eight years to earn the degree.

Some online programs do not require any campus visits for coursework completion, while others require students to complete 2-3 onsite residencies prior to graduation. Most programs allow online students to fulfill internship requirements in their home area and to complete dissertation consultations online. However, most Ph.D. programs require candidates to come to campus for their dissertation defense.

Common Courses

Each school offering a Ph.D. in public policy online follows a curriculum that supports their own educational goals for their students. Because of this, courses tend to vary between schools. However, most offer classes that cover basic public policy topics. You can peruse five fundamental courses below.


This course allows students to explore the basic elements of public service — ethics, social justice, responsibility, and accountability. Future top executives in the political arena can benefit from the course’s exploration of these and other topics, such as power, privilege, and social inequality; the socioeconomic needs of diverse communities; and ethical and social justice issues in a global setting.


Degree-seekers examine topics in financial management and reporting, budgeting and finance concepts, auditing and tax systems, and how globalization affects budgetary formulation. Students who plan to pursue a career as a chief finance officer for a government agency get the chance to develop a realistic budget for an existing public sector institution while enrolled in the class.


This course helps learners develop sound reasoning skills and improve their fundamental knowledge so they can perform quantitative research at the doctoral level. Postsecondary teachers and political scientists benefit from this course’s topics, including statistical concepts and techniques, interpretation of quantitative data, and social change consequences and implications of empirical research.


Students in this course examine concepts like the philosophy of science, different research tools and processes, qualitative and quantitative research designs, and data collection methods. Degree-seekers also learn about the social implications and explore the ethical elements of conducting research, which can benefit them as full-time researchers or public policy analysts after graduation.


In this course, students explore the various elements of strategic planning, such as collaboration, cooperation, and coordination and how the rise of globalization affects organizational structure and function. Learners who plan to pursue top executive positions in public policy and administration can use the skills and knowledge from this course in their future positions.

Other Requirements

Pursuing a Ph.D. in public policy online or on campus requires more than attending classes for completion. Each institution maintains its own roster of requirements that all students must meet in order to graduate. While specific requirements vary between schools, most Ph.D. in public policy programs maintain the following graduation requirements.


Some programs require Ph.D. candidates to pass a comprehensive examination after they complete all coursework requirements for the degree and prior to beginning work on their dissertation. Some schools allow students to submit a dissertation proposal prior to taking the comprehensive exam, but only if they meet minimum grade requirements.


Most colleges and universities offering a Ph.D. in public policy online allow students to complete internship requirements within a geographic area near their home. Students need approval for the institution where they plan to complete their internship as well as for their preceptor before beginning the internship period.


An independent, in-depth research study, a dissertation demonstrates a doctoral student’s ability to examine and synthesize new information, organize learning outcomes and apply them to practical situations, and contribute to the field’s existing body of knowledge. Most schools require Ph.D. candidates to complete an oral defense of their dissertation prior to earning the degree.

Skills and Competencies

A well-designed doctoral program helps students improve their skills and advance their field knowledge. Be sure to choose a public policy program that combines classroom instruction and hands-on activities so you can develop the key skills and competencies listed below.

Data Analysis

Graduates learn how to interpret, evaluate, and synthesize data; perform longitudinal analysis; and draw meaningful inferences from empirical findings and general observations. They also recognize intrinsic research limitations and know what steps to take to account for them and mitigate their impact.


A Ph.D. in public policy often qualifies degree-holders for top-level positions requiring strong leadership abilities. Many doctoral programs help students strengthen their leadership skills by offering coursework in ethical practice, innovative strategic thinking, and self-development.

Oral and Written Communication

The ability to communicate the results of studies and research to all stakeholders remains integral to doctoral-level work. Graduates develop effective written, oral, and graphic communication skills in addition to clear and unambiguous presentation methods.

Organizational Skills

Most doctoral-level professionals perform work that requires a high degree of organization and prioritization. Students develop this ability by participating in group projects.

Qualitative and Quantitative Interpretation Skills

Ph.D. candidates must know how to assess primary and secondary qualitative information through direct observation and evaluation. They must also know how to interpret quantitative data and understand various statistical software.

Research Design and Methodologies

Most job opportunities for Ph.D. in public policy degree-holders typically require familiarity with research design and protocols. A Ph.D. in public policy gives students ample opportunities to develop this level of familiarity and competence with different types of research methodologies.

Public Policy Professional Organizations

Professional organizations provide several membership benefits, such as networking events, career development opportunities, and access to valuable resources like job banks and peer-reviewed publications. Membership in a professional association in public policy and administration often benefits new professionals and long-time practitioners.

Professional organizations also allow members to influence the practice of public policy through advocacy efforts, community involvement, and different types of outreach programs. Begin your search for an organization that supports your professional goals by exploring the local chapter of a national or international association. Many organizations impose annual membership dues, so weigh this cost against the benefits of joining. Some organizations offer lower membership fees for students.

Alliance for Nonprofit Management

  • This group helps nonprofits achieve their individual and collective goals by providing a forum for learning, dialogue, and active information exchange. Membership includes access to a directory of experts in fields like organizational development and human resources management for public administration.

American Society for Public Administration

  • ASPA offers free professional development webinars, scholarship opportunities for student members, and access to digital newsletters and publications containing the latest news and developments in public policy and administration practice.

Association for Public Policy Analysis & Management

  • APPAM hosts an annual conference where members can learn of and examine scholarly research findings from other disciplines that impact the public policy and administration arena. Membership also includes access to current job listings in the public policy and management field.

Government Finance Officers Association

  • An organization specifically for finance professionals working in the government sector, GFOA administers the certification program leading to the certified public finance officers designation. The organization also manages a leadership academy and issues research reports about the field of public sector finance.

International City/Council Management Association

  • ICMA membership consists of national and international local government professionals committed to meeting the needs of their constituents. ICMA helps them reach their goals by providing extensive networking opportunities that enable them to share actionable information and engage in collaborative efforts that benefit the communities they serve.

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