Doctorate in Public Administration Online

Thinking of pursuing an advanced degree in public administration? Get program details and career info for online doctorate programs to determine if this degree is right for you and your career!

Updated March 9, 2023 is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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Public administration concerns the management of public sector and nonprofit organizations, which often requires experience in politics and policy. Experienced college instructors are needed to pass on the skills and knowledge necessary to succeed in this field. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that employment for postsecondary teachers will increase by 11% through 2026, significantly faster than the economy as a whole. This career path also offers excellent compensation, with postsecondary teachers in the social sciences earning a median salary of $64,480 in 2017.

Nearly all postsecondary teaching jobs require a doctorate. A Ph.D. in public administration can prepare you for roles in academia, while a more practice-oriented doctorate, such as a doctor of public administration (DPA), may better serve individuals hoping to take on leadership positions in government agencies and nonprofit organizations.

Students consider earning an online Ph.D. in public administration for a variety of reasons. For example, you may hope to teach the next generation of public administrators as a college or university professor. With a research-based doctorate, you can qualify for positions such as assistant or associate professor. With a more practice-oriented doctorate, you can take on teaching roles, like lecturer or professor of practice. You may feel drawn to academia, contributing original research to the public administration field. Through coursework in research methods and the rigors of the dissertation process, doctoral programs equip you with the knowledge and skills needed to shape policy and practice. While many professors conduct research in addition to their teaching, colleges also hire research associates exclusively to collect and analyze data. Many students, particularly those in online DPA programs, seek a doctorate to become public sector leaders. These programs feature rich coursework in areas like fiscal and personnel management, organizational development, and strategic planning, making them ideal for practitioners at the highest levels of government and nonprofit organizations. Finally, you may see doctoral study as an opportunity to specialize in a particular discipline. Many programs offer elective classes or formal concentrations in areas like criminal justice leadership, health policy, emergency management, and nonprofit administration. Whether to satisfy a personal interest or stand above other candidates in the job market, many students seek a doctorate to serve as an authority within the field.

What Can I Do with an Online Ph.D. in Public Administration?

After earning a Ph.D. in public administration online, many graduates begin careers in higher education. If you want to pursue a tenured position, look for careers like assistant or associate professor. Colleges and universities award tenure, and the title of full professor, to assistant and associate professors who conduct and publish original research. If you prefer to focus on teaching, you can instead apply to positions like lecturer or adjunct instructor.

Students who earn their DPA degree online may take on management and leadership roles at government agencies or nonprofit organizations. For example, you may seek a doctorate to lead a state's department of transportation or to serve as the chief administrative officer of a hospital. Other DPA graduates choose to work in the for-profit sector, using their expertise in public administration to help private companies compete for government contracts.

Alternatively, you may choose to become a consultant after completing a doctoral program. Consultants often work with clients in a specialized field, like homeland security or environmental sustainability. Other consultants work independently or as part of a larger firm.

Below, you can read more about five positions commonly held by professionals with a public administration doctorate.

Career Profiles

Government Affairs Director

Government affairs directors help private companies collaborate with government agencies and follow applicable laws and regulations. In some cases, these directors may also lobby government officials to change laws or policies to benefit their firms or the industry at large.

Policy Analyst

Policy analysts conduct research to influence the legislative process. For example, an analyst may assess the effectiveness of a housing program to help government officials determine whether to expand the program or consider alternatives.

Social and Community Service Manager

Social and community service managers administer programs to promote the public good, like a homeless shelter or afterschool program. Managers must possess strong fiscal, personnel, and project-management skills.

Chief Executive Officer of Government

Government executives, such as mayors and county administrators, hold broad executive authority. They must oversee all revenues and expenses within their jurisdiction, hire and supervise department heads, and communicate regularly with the public.

Director, Nonprofit Organization

Nonprofit directors set and implement strategy for their organization. They also play a key role in fundraising and public relations activities. Many executive directors hold an advanced degree.

Online Ph.D. in Public Administration Program Overview

When researching Ph.D. and DPA programs online, make sure to carefully consider what kind of degree will allow you to achieve your professional aspirations. For example, if you hope to work for an international organization, choose a program that offers coursework in subjects like global trade, multicultural understanding, and international finance.

Your first and most important choice; however, involves selecting either a research or practice-oriented doctoral program.

Types of Doctorate Degrees in Public Administration

If you want to pursue a career in academia, you should apply to Ph.D. programs in public administration. After coursework completion, most Ph.D. programs require students to pass a comprehensive examination. This exam assesses your understanding of core concepts and theories and determines your readiness to begin the dissertation process.

In close consultation with their faculty adviser, students first select a topic for their dissertation. They must then conduct original research or collect existing research from multiple sources, commonly referred to as a "meta-analysis." After compiling data and summarizing their findings, students then defend their dissertation before a faculty committee to graduate.

Most full-time Ph.D. students complete their coursework in about three years. As the dissertation process involves a great deal of independent work, completion times vary considerably. Full-time students may need anywhere from 2-5 years to finish their dissertations.

Students pursuing work in a government agency or nonprofit organization should seek a DPA or an equivalent practice-oriented doctorate. These programs usually offer similar coursework to Ph.D. programs during the first few years, though they may place less emphasis on research methods and design. DPA students typically do not need to sit for a comprehensive examination or write a dissertation.

Instead, students in these programs often complete a capstone project. These projects require students to apply their doctoral learning to a real-world issue in public administration. For example, you may partner with a local health center to improve the efficiency of their Medicaid billing processes. Most full-time DPA students graduate in about three or four years.

Application Requirements and Admission Criteria

To earn a doctor of public administration online, you must first hold a master's degree in a closely related field, such as political science or public policy. Most programs require prospective students to maintain a minimum GPA during their graduate studies, usually a 3.0 or higher.

In addition to your master's transcripts, plan to submit up to three letters of recommendation from former professors and employers who can affirm both your qualifications and potential. Give your recommenders at least two months to write and submit a letter on your behalf. Your program may also ask you to write an essay outlining a research agenda or your professional plans after graduation. In some cases, you can submit a master's thesis instead of an essay.

Finally, you may need to participate in an interview. The interview process allows admissions officers to determine your possible fit with a program. If admitted, it also helps them pair you with an appropriate faculty adviser.


Most students begin their doctoral studies with a foundational course that introduces them to the expectations and learning environment of their new program. For online programs, this course may also give students the opportunity to explore collaborative tools and learn how to access online support resources.

During their first year, students take classes in fundamental public administration topics like discal management, policy analysis, and organizational development. Students also develop skills in quantitative and qualitative analysis through courses in research methods and study design.

In their second and third year, students can begin to customize their learning through electives. For example, students interested in special education can take a course that explores the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and related legislation. In Ph.D. and research-oriented programs, students must also take more advanced coursework in data collection and analysis.

As mentioned above, curricula in Ph.D. and DPA programs diverge sharply after the third year. Ph.D. students must often sit for their comprehensive examination and begin work on their dissertation, while DPA students complete a capstone project and prepare for graduation.

Below, we detail five courses commonly taken in both of these public administration programs.

Strategic Context of Public Management and Leadership
This course introduces students to the concept of "systems perspective," or taking into context all aspects of a system as opposed to examining elements individually. This perspective can help leaders better set strategy and make decisions.
Public Policy and Finance
In this class, students look at fiscal management in the public sector. Topics covered include tax policies, budgeting, public and private partnerships, and the influence of regulation on the function of economic markets.
Management Techniques for the Public Sector
Students in this course learn the theory and practice of public sector management. Students also learn about the challenges and opportunities of overseeing a unionized workforce and develop a toolkit for solving problems and resolving conflicts.
Leadership and Organizational Change
In both the public and private sectors, leaders must create change to succeed. Largely through case studies, this course explores the characteristics of successful leaders as they navigate their organizations through rapidly evolving environments.
Research Theory, Design, and Methods
This course equips students with the knowledge and skills needed to research and write their dissertations. DPA students can also benefit from coursework in research methods as program assessment and evaluation play vital roles in public administration practice as well.

Program Outcomes

To succeed, public administration professionals must possess strong communication, analytical, and managerial skills.

Through classroom debates, dissertation writing, and conversations with faculty, public administration doctoral programs help you communicate more effectively. After graduation, this skill set will allow you to build partnerships, win supporters, and better understand the needs of your constituents.

Doctoral programs also hone their student's assessment and evaluation skills. While indispensable competencies for academic researchers, the ability to use data to guide decision-making is also critical for public administration practitioners. You may, for example, use survey results to determine whether a health education campaign has reduced behaviors like smoking in your community.

Finally, students in these programs learn how to manage people, teams, and organizations. Classroom study helps students understand leadership theories and styles, while internships and capstone projects give you the opportunity to put your learning into practice.

Accreditation for Online Public Administration Doctorate Programs

Be sure to choose an accredited option when researching public administration doctoral programs online. The accreditation process ensures that schools meet certain academic standards. If you attend an unaccredited program, you may miss out on financial aid opportunities, and future employers may not recognize your degree.

Within the public administration field, the Network of Schools of Public Policy, Affairs, and Administration (NASPAA) serves as the primary programmatic accreditor. If your program does not hold NASPAA accreditation, confirm that your college or university holds either regional or national accreditation instead. To do so, you can search the Council for Higher Education Accreditation online directory.

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Whether you’re looking to earn your online degree or you’re a parent looking for answers, you can find all of your questions covered here. Explore these resources to help you make informed decisions and prepare for whatever is thrown your way.

See All Posts is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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