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Doctorate in Public Policy Online

ASO Staff Writers
Updated September 5, 2023
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    Degree Options & Potential Careers

    As municipalities and governments grow larger and more complex, they need more experienced public policy experts. With an online public policy doctorate, current public policy professionals can enter positions with higher rates of pay and more responsibilities.

    When evaluating whether to pursue a Ph.D. in public policy or a doctorate of public policy (DPP), individuals should pick the degree that leads toward their desired career. While some career outcomes for these two doctoral programs are similar, other careers — such as a college professor or public researcher — may require a Ph.D. This page outlines online public policy doctoral degrees, potential outcomes, and what these programs might look like.

    Should I Earn an Online Doctorate in Public Policy?

    The reasons individuals may pursue a doctorate in public policy vary. However, prospective students should begin an advanced degree with the right reasons in mind. For example, some careers either require or expect applicants to hold a Ph.D. in public policy, and a Ph.D. serves as an important prerequisite. Moreover, a Ph.D. can set holders apart in a competitive job market, even if they only need a master’s degree for job entry.

    Making a career change serves as another reason to earn a Ph.D. For example, those working for a city hoping to work in academia typically need a Ph.D., as it serves as the terminal degree need to research and teach. Others without a strong background in public policy may want to pursue a Ph.D. as a means of developing a better understanding of the field.

    Ph.D. graduates also receive larger salaries than master’s and bachelor’s graduates. Those with a higher education typically receive an increase in salary. While a Ph.D. is a significant investment, the extra income generated may prove worth the tuition costs.

    Lastly, some people earn a Ph.D. for personal satisfaction. If your dream is to earn a Ph.D., that serves as a good reason to earn one.

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

    Once you earn a doctorate in public policy online, you establish yourself as an expert in your field. Fortunately, many companies, colleges, non-profits, and government organizations pay experts good salaires. You could find work in nearly any field and work in almost any environment.

    Because Ph.D.s are largely research-based degrees, many graduates find positions in academia — they may teach courses, conduct research, or both. The government also employs many individuals with a background in public policy, and you may find a variety of opportunities within government agencies or departments. The opportunities available to you could also depend on a specialty and your background, too.

    Private organizations and corporations each benefit from research. Some third parties hire public policy experts to conduct research to help inform the public. Others may want more information from an expert before they make a business decision. Public policy doctorates may find employment at a private corporation, or they may serve as a consultant hired by an independent firm. Still other public policy consultants work for themselves or own their own firms.

    Nonprofits are also a common landing spot for public policy doctorates. Because a doctoral degree implies that you can lead, nonprofits may hire you to run their entire organization. Alternatively, you could conduct relevant research for a nonprofit.

    One’s career also depends on their area of specialization. For example, those who focus on public economics might work for the government to create new tax laws. Those who focus on international policy, however, often find work in foreign relations.

    Public Policy Ph.D. Program Overview

    As a terminal degree in the field, a Ph.D. is tougher to get into than a bachelor’s or master’s program. Along with stricter academic requirements, schools also require test scores, work experience, and letters of recommendation.

    Most Ph.D. programs require students to complete coursework full time. Even if you choose to study online, plan to spend most of your time working on school projects and coursework. While these programs prove challenging, the potential outcomes are well worth the work.

    Application Requirements and Admission Criteria

    Most doctoral programs require a minimum of a master’s degree with a GPA of 3.25 or higher. You also must submit GRE or GMAT test scores, and if English is not your native language, you may need to submit TOEFL scores. Prospective students also need to submit multiple letters of recommendation. Letters of recommendation usually come from academic sources, such as past professors or mentors.

    A common requirement for doctoral school is a personal essay. This essay explains your academic, professional, and personal goals; why your goals align with the institution you are applying to; and why your goals align with a Ph.D. in public policy. Some online schools accept applications year-round, but others have strict deadlines you must meet.


    A Ph.D. in public policy takes at least three years to complete, though some programs may take longer. Students must complete 16-30 courses, which total between 48-90 credits. Online schools often allow Ph.D. students to complete some or all of their coursework online, though some in-person seminars may be required.

    Students complete the bulk of coursework in core topics. The subject matter of these classes are determined by schools, though most focus on advanced public policy topics. Those in a specialization can expect about 33% of their required courses to occur in that specialization. Those without a specialization can take elective courses that constitute the majority of their education. Some schools allow students to take elective courses on top of their specialization courses.

    Nearly all Ph.D. programs require a dissertation. The dissertation is usually worth 12 credits, less than 25% of a total degree. Schools typically give students about a year to write their dissertation. Some schools also require a passing score on a comprehensive exam prior to graduation. Comprehensive exams are worth anywhere from 0-3 credits at most universities.

    Program Outcomes

    Aside from learning about advanced public policy theories and practices, one of the best skills students learn is advanced research. Research is a critical part of many careers Ph.D.s pursue, and a doctoral program introduces students to some of the best ways to conduct public policy research.

    Leadership serves as another area of emphasis for many public policy doctoral degrees. Common career outcomes for the degree require leadership, and employers often look to Ph.D. graduates for guidance and expertise. For similar reasons, project management and critical thinking are other skills developed while earning the degree.

    Lastly, the written skills you earn from a Ph.D. help with anything from drafting new laws to writing emails to coworkers. Communication proves key for leadership positions, and writing is an important and commonly used form of communication.

    Accreditation for Online Public Policy Doctorate Programs

    When reviewing potential schools, ensure that they hold accreditation status. Colleges and universities receive two main forms of accreditation: national and regional. Students should note that some employers prefer candidates with degrees from schools accredited by regional accrediting bodies, such as the Commission on Colleges of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools or the Higher Learning Commission.

    Some programs or schools within a college can also receive accreditation. However, there is no standard accrediting body for public policy degrees available. Instead, prospective students should privilege schools with regional accreditation.

    Public Policy Professional Organizations

    Professional organizations are excellent ways to kickstart or advance your career. These organizations cater to current college students, current public policy workers, and retired public policy workers. Most organizations provide advocacy for members and represent them on a state and national level. Other organizations emphasize member development by offering online courses or conferences.

    Perhaps the best reason to join a professional organization is to find a new job. Organizations sometimes have their own job boards and only post relevant positions. Also, professional organizations are made up of public policy experts, and they could be a great way to network.

    Professional organizations exist for almost every niche, so find the one that suits you best. When you do choose a professional organization, consider serving on a committee, volunteering, or becoming a board member. Not only do these look great on resumes, but you could increase your public policy clout.

    • American Public Works Association

      APWA represents over 30,000 American public workers around the world, and members include public works directors, city managers, and county officials. Members receive access to publications, industry data, and professional certification programs.
    • American Society for Public Administration

      Representing members of all ages in public administration, ASPA is one of the best networking materials for public administration workers. Local and special interest chapters are available, too.
    • The Association for Public Policy Analysis & Management

      Analysis, research, and a large professional network are the three greatest benefits offered by APPAM. Public policy professionals also receive access to peer-reviewed journals and are invited to an annual conference.
    • American Evaluation Association

      Encompassing more than just public policy, the American Evaluation Association aims to strengthen policies and programs through better evaluation. Members enjoy access to on-demand education and various in-person workshops.
    • Young Nonprofit Professional Network

      For public policy graduates that end up working for a nonprofit, YNPN is a leader in industry research. Members enjoy opportunities to get involved and are invited to an annual national conference.

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