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Online Doctoral & PhD Degrees in Public Policy

Online PhD programs in public policy are relatively rare, but can be completed in as little as 3 years completely online. Explore details about this degree program, such as common courses and program cost, and some available career options.

Overview of Online Doctoral Degree Programs in Public Policy

Online doctoral degree programs in public policy or public policy and administration are not very common. Students in these programs examine the influence of policy on communities and society as a whole. These programs are designed to help further develop students' leadership and decision-making skills to prepare for advanced, leadership positions in the field.

Program Formats

Usually, online doctoral programs in public policy are available as Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) degrees. These programs may require between 49 and 60 credits and typically ask students to complete comprehensive exams and a dissertation and/or doctoral capstone experience.

Some of these online degree programs can be completed fully online, while others may require multiple, short-term residencies for face-to-face training and education. Some programs may have scheduled online courses where students can participate with each other live, while others may be self-paced.

Many online PhD programs in public policy provide students with a well-rounded education in the field, but some programs may allow students to further focus their studies by offering concentrations in areas like foreign policy, economic policy, education policy, and social policy.

Length of Program

The length of an online PhD program in public policy may vary based on a student's research and dissertation, but some can be completed in around 3 years; some take closer to 5 years and many allow students up to 8 years to finish their degree. Some programs may require a minimum of 2.5 years to degree completion.

Depending on the school's transfer policy, some students may be able to complete their degree faster if they have acceptable transfer credit from other institutions. There are some online programs in public policy that allow students to transfer in up to 41 credits.

Common Courses

Coursework for online PhD programs in public policy is typically divided into core courses, electives, and dissertation work. Some programs may also include foundational courses and/or divide core courses into sections, such as research core classes and research electives. Students in programs with concentration areas may take concentration courses in place of electives. Although course titles and subjects may differ between programs, a few common course topics for doctoral programs in public policy include:

  • Qualitative Research- These courses examine the methodologies in place for working specifically with qualitative data. Students in these courses will learn about data collection, data analysis, and data presentation. Students may also discuss the role of a researcher and the various ethical considerations in research. Some of these programs may require students to conduct a qualitative study.
  • Finance in Public Policy - Since professionals are asked to present budgets in public policy, courses like these focus on managing finances, developing viable spending plans, adhering to tax laws and producing financial statements.
  • Research Design- Courses in research design may also include topics in research theory and/or research methods. Students in these courses learn about the various research designs available, data collection methods, and experimental procedures used in the field of public administration and management. These courses may also provide students the opportunity to work with various kinds of statistical software.
  • Public Policy- Students generally take a broad, introductory course in public policy, but may also take public policy courses that dive deeper into areas like economics or governance. Introductory courses are designed to provide students with an overview of policy development and implementation, while more specific courses may explore theories, decision-making methods and how public policy touches other industries. Some of these courses may require a final project.

Core courses in these degree programs may cover a wide range of topics, from providing an overview of public policy to training students in leadership skills. Some other available course topics for these degree programs include:

  • Policy analysis
  • Ethics
  • Leadership and organizational change
  • Strategic planning
  • Public administration
  • Policy theory

Admissions Requirements

Students wishing to apply to online PhD programs in public policy generally need to have a master's degree from an accredited institution. It is also fairly common for these degree programs to require applicants to meet a minimum GPA requirement, often a 3.0. There are also some of these online degree programs that may require applicants to have prior coursework in areas like public administration and public budgeting and financial management, depending on their academic background.

Some online doctoral programs in public policy may require students to take the GRE or GMAT, and most programs require international students to provide test scores indicating English proficiency. Other common application materials for these online programs include official transcripts, letters of recommendation, a statement of purpose/personal essay, and/or a resume.

How to Choose an Online Doctoral Program in Public Policy

Students may first want to consider their schedules and degree completion goals to find a doctoral program with the format that fits their lifestyle best.


Students should consider whether they need a fully online program or would have the time and resources to complete on-campus residencies. Some students may also prefer to have classes that meet regularly, while others may need more self-paced courses for flexibility.

Unique Features

Students may also want to consider any additional resources a school may offer and/or other unique features. For example, some online degree programs may still provide students with access to a one-on-one academic advisor. Others may have career services that help grads connect with employers during and after the program. Many also have unique concentrations There are also some online PhD programs in public policy that are available at faith-associated institutions and may provide a Christian perspective to the subject.


Accreditation is an indicator that an institution has met academic standards that have been put in place by an accreditation body to ensure the quality of education. Accreditation makes institutions eligible for various forms of financial aid and students who attend accredited schools can benefit from federal financial aid as well.

Some of the regional accreditation organizations that accredit schools that offer doctoral programs in public policy include the Higher Learning Commission and the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges.

Some doctoral programs are also accredited in addition to the school's accreditation. However, in the field of public policy, there is not usually specialized accreditation available at the doctoral level. Most of the institutions that offer these online doctoral programs in public policy are accredited by regional accreditation bodies to award degrees at various levels of education.

Cost of Program

The cost of a degree program and students' budgets may play a big factor in which school is chosen. Tuition rates may vary greatly between institutions, the residence status of students, and/or for how many hours it takes to complete a dissertation. However, some online PhD programs in public policy may cost between $500 and $600 per credit hour.

As students are calculating the total cost of an online program in public policy, they must be sure to research and include any fees that a program may have. For example, some of these online programs may have additional technology fees and/or residency fees that cover travel, lodging, and other related expenses. Students may also need to spend additional funds on a personal computer to complete coursework and/or meet other technology requirements.

Financial Aid and Scholarships

There are several money-saving options for online PhD students in public policy, and students may want to search for a program that offers the best financial aid options for them. Most schools that offer online doctoral programs in the field accept various forms of financial aid, including loans and grants, that students can qualify for based on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Some of these online programs may run special enrollment deals, such as a grant for beginning the program by a certain date. Students may also be able to receive tuition discounts if they meet specific requirements, like being a veteran or active-duty service member, being an alumnus of the school, or being a family member of a current student.

Most schools also accept a wide range of scholarships from outside organizations and/or offer some school-sponsored scholarships. For example, one school offers two, $25,000 scholarships for master's or doctoral students in the School of Public Policy and Administration. An example of an outside organization offering financial aid is the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation/ACLS Early Career Fellowships for dissertation students in the humanities and related social sciences. The fellowship provides up to a total of $43,000 to cover tuition, research, and fees.

Career Options for Graduates in Public Policy

Due to the interdisciplinary nature of public policy, graduates with a doctorate in the field are prepared for a wide range of advanced, leadership positions in public policy and related areas. Graduates may also find careers in education, business, criminal justice, political science, and more. Job titles for positions may vary by organization, but graduates in public policy may find careers as:

  • Professors
  • Policy advisors
  • Program managers
  • Executive directors
  • Economists
  • Policy researchers
  • Social scientists
  • Advocacy group leaders
  • Superintendents

Top Executives

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) the category of top executives includes general managers, school superintendents, county administrators, and other positions that may benefit from a background in public policy. In 2018, the BLS reported that top executives made a median salary of $104,980. These professionals also had a job outlook of 6% from 2018 to 2028, which is as fast as average.

The job duties of top executives vary by position and organization, but in general, these executives help develop goals for their organization and strategies to meet these goals. This may involve developing and implementing new policies, managing the daily activities of an organization, and evaluating performance indicators. Most of these executives also oversee the work of various staff members.


Economists typically need to have a master's or PhD and some experience using statistical software may be beneficial. According to the BLS, economists made a median annual salary of $104,340, as of 2018. Economists had a job outlook of 8% from 2018 to 2028, which is faster than the national average.

Economists collect and analyze data concerning economic trends to help solve various economic problems. They may then take their findings to make recommendations about how to resolve these different economic issues. Economists may work for the government, international organizations, corporations, research groups, and more.

Postsecondary Teachers

Although a master's degree may be required for postsecondary teachers at community colleges, most 4-year schools require educators to have a PhD. There are many different subjects and disciplines of teaching at the postsecondary level, but these teachers, in general, made a median salary of $78,470 as of 2018, per the BLS. The job outlook for all postsecondary teachers was 11% from 2018 to 2028, which is much faster than the average.

Postsecondary teachers' job duties vary by institution and position but typically include teaching multiple courses in their given area of expertise. These educators must create the necessary assignments and assessments needed to teach the required material, as well as daily lesson plans. Some institutions may also require these teachers to conduct research in their field, serve on various school committees, and/or advise and mentor undergraduate and/or graduate students.

Professional Organizations in Public Policy

Professionals working in public policy and related areas, like public administration, can choose to participate in a variety of professional organizations that help provide resources to those in the field. These organizations may also host a number of events, post job listings, list links to online publications, and more. A few examples of professional organizations for those in public policy include:

  • The Association for Public Policy Analysis and Management- The APPAM offers membership at the professional, institutional, and student levels and hosts several different conferences and events throughout the year. The organization also presents some fellowships and awards in the field, provides online access to publications, and posts job listings and other career resources.
  • The American Society for Public Administration- The ASPA also provides multiple levels of membership and organizes the groups into chapters and sections. The group's website provides a code of ethics for professionals in the field, as well as access to publications, job listings, and event information.
  • The Network of Schools of Public Policy, Affairs, and Administration- The NASPAA works to promote global public service education and provides accreditation information on public policy schools. The organization does offer membership, events, and online resources, such as policy initiatives and advocacy work in the field.