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Online doctorate of public policy for leadership roles

By Clare Kaufman

Doctorate of public policy degrees represent the highest academic achievement in a field dedicated to public service. Public policy is the study of governmental legislation and administration, and their impact on public health, safety and financial well-being. Effective policy has the potential to improve the quality of life of the community as a whole, streamlining public services and promoting equitable access to resources.

Online doctoral degrees in public policy

Universities may offer either the academic Ph.D. or the practitioner-focused Doctor of Public Administration, the DPA. The National Association of Schools of Public Affairs and Administration lists 71 schools with Ph.D. programs in public policy and administration. The DPA is a relatively new credential designed for practitioners interested in developing advanced leadership and applied research skills. According to NASPAA, the DPA focuses on applied issues, with results that are directly relevant to professional practice. The Ph.D., by contrast, focuses on developing theoretical orientations and advancing scholarly research.

Doctoral degrees in public policy involve both advanced coursework in the field and an independent research project. Degrees vary in the length of time to completion, depending on the research project and the student's time commitment. The time range tends to be from three to five years of full-time graduate study or seven to 10 years of part-time online study. Online Ph.D. and DPA programs generally require a master's or bachelor's degree in a related field, preferably the Master of Public Administration or Master of Public Policy.

A closer look at the public policy doctoral curriculum

Public policy is an interdisciplinary social science field, incorporating elements of economics, sociology, political science, program evaluation, policy analysis and management. The graduate public policy curriculum draws on these disciplines to illuminate issues in government administration and policy. Online doctoral degree schools may adopt their own approach to public policy training, emphasizing quantitative analysis, political leadership, applied public management or economics. Specializations at the doctoral level include these:

  • Political security
  • Science and technology policy
  • Environmental policy
  • Public health policy
  • Criminal justice policy
  • International policy: economic, security, development, diplomacy
  • Economic regulatory policy
  • Social programs
  • Urban and regional development

In addition to electives in a chosen specialization, online Ph.D. and DPA students take core courses in political analysis, research methodology and statistics, economic and political theory, and public administration. Online doctoral degree programs culminate in an independent research project that either advances scholarship in the field or applies existing scholarship to a real-world public policy issue.

Career paths in public policy

With an online doctoral degree in public policy, graduates can seek careers in academia or public administration. The Ph.D. in public policy is geared toward academic research and teaching careers, though graduates may also forge careers as senior government researchers or administrative leaders. The DPA in public policy can lead to senior policy analyst or agency leadership positions. Job titles include the following:

  1. University professor
  2. Public policy analyst
  3. Director of non-governmental organization or NGO
  4. Nonprofit director or manager
  5. Government agency director or manager
  6. Policy advisor
  7. Think tank analyst or director

Graduates of public policy doctoral programs make up the ranks of government institutions, from the federal to the local level. Examples include the president's cabinet, state legislatures, the Justice department, the Federal Reserve and elected offices.

Career prospects vary by professional sector, as in the following examples. These careers are shown with job growth rates projected by the Bureau of Labor Statistics for 2008 to 2018, as well as the corresponding salaries:

  • Academics can look forward to faster than average growth of 15 percent. Political science professors earned a mean annual wage of $78,620 in 2010.
  • Political scientists, including policy analysts and public policy researchers, should see 21 percent job growth. This profession earned a 2010 mean salary of $107,930, according to the BLS.

Notable alumni of public policy doctoral programs

Doctoral programs in public policy have given many well-known public servants their start. Examples include David Petraeus, Director of the CIA; Anthony Lake, former National Security Advisor and current executive director of UNICEF; David McCormick, Under Secretary of the Treasury for International Affairs; and Peter Singer, political scientist and a director at the Brookings Institution. Notable academics include Lawrence Bacow, President Emeritus of Tufts University, and Ronald Heifetz, founder of the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard University, among many other political scientists and professors at leading universities. Journalists with a public policy Ph.D. include Andrew Sullivan, formerly of The Atlantic Monthly.

Online doctoral programs in public policy make advanced leadership training available to people who are equipped to contribute to the field, such as mid-career professionals with a real-world perspective on policy issues. The online Ph.D. or DPA program can help public servants train for leadership and advanced analysis roles.


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