As the nation undergoes rapid demographic, political, and social changes, public policy experts have become increasingly important in assessing the needs of a growing and diverse population. From social services administrators to urban planners, these professionals employ statistical analysis to enact positive changes, both locally and nationally. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects that some public policy occupations will grow as much as 18% by 2026, indicating that the demand for qualified professionals is rising.
For many with a background in public policy, earning a doctoral degree opens the door to a variety of rewarding occupations. According to the BLS, many policy analyst positions require a Ph.D. A doctorate demonstrates mastery of the skills, concepts, and leadership principles needed to excel in public policy-related roles. In this guide, we'll examine everything you need to know about pursuing a public policy Ph.D. online, from choosing the right program to funding your education.
For career information, skip down:
- What Else Can I Expect from an Online Doctorate in Public Policy Program?
- Accreditation for Online Doctorate in Public Policy Degrees
- Online Doctorate in Public Policy Careers
- Paying for Your Online Doctorate in Public Policy
What Are the Best Online Doctorate in Public Policy Programs?
1. West Chester University of Pennsylvania
West Chester, Pennsylvania
Based 25 miles outside of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, West Chester University offers an online doctor of public administration that trains students to work at the highest levels of public affairs and administration. Consisting of 43 credits, this doctor of public policy program emphasizes public sector financial decision making, strategic management, policy advocacy, and leadership. Candidates also gain advanced skills in methodological evaluation, preparing them to analyze and assess the effectiveness of public programs and policy. All coursework can be completed online.
The program curriculum includes four major components: an administration core, a methods sequence, concentration electives, and a capstone seminar. Degree candidates choose their concentration electives from the academic areas of public policy and administration, geography and planning, criminal justice, or social work. The program concludes with a comprehensive exam that covers all major topics discussed in the administration core.
WCU is regionally accredited by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE).
2.California Baptist University - CBU Online
A Christian, liberal arts school based in the city of Riverside, California Baptist University is home to around 9,000 students. The school offers an online doctorate in public policy that trains candidates to serve as expert leaders in social services, criminal justice, government, health management, and public policy.
This 50-credit doctor of public administration caters to working professionals and is delivered primarily online through a modular, cohort format where students take one course at a time. Degree candidates complete most of the course sequence as a cohesive group, building a deeper sense of teamwork and communication. While most courses offer fully online learning, the program does require occasional campus residency sessions that feature intensive classroom coursework and networking opportunities between students and faculty. The program typically takes around three years to complete.
CBU is regionally accredited by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC).
3.Valdosta State University
A public school in southern Georgia, Valdosta State University offers a popular online Ph.D. in public policy. This advanced degree prepares graduates for career advancement at government agencies, nonprofits, and non-governmental organizations, building essential skills in leadership, communication, management, and problem solving. This practitioner-based degree builds on students' professional experience, emphasizing applied research and information development. Candidates can also choose from a variety of concentration options to suit their professional interests.
This 54-credit doctor of public administration divides its curriculum into four major areas: core knowledge, theory and methods, electives, and a final capstone project. VSU offers most coursework online, although students must attend select residency sessions held at the beginning of each fall and spring semester. These weekend sessions give students the chance to participate in campus learning activities, workshops, social events, and networking activities.
VSU is regionally accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCC).
What Else can I Expect from an Online Doctorate in Public Policy Program?
Every program is different, and course offerings, completion times, and other details tend to vary from school to school. Some fundamental concepts and topics, however, are included in most curricula. If you pursue a public policy Ph.D. online, you're likely to encounter one or more of the following courses.
Curriculum for an Online Doctorate in Public Policy
- Strategic Management and Planning: Coursework explores the processes and best practices involved in strategic planning, including collaboration, resource allocation, and coordination. Using real-life case studies, candidates develop strategic plans for nonprofit and public groups that align with their respective organizational missions. Lectures emphasize the importance of strong leadership skills in creating effective organizational change.
- Public Sector Budgeting: Addressing the unique economic challenges faced by public and nonprofit organizations, this course presents crucial financial concepts and skills, such as budgeting and tax auditing. Using specialized technologies and software, students learn to analyze financial documents, formulate reports, and develop budgets within an organization's financial constraints.
- Ethics and Social Justice: In this course, candidates examine the relationships between leadership, power, and privilege, and the ways in which these factors inform ethical decision making and policy development. By examining social, economic, and demographic trends, students learn to create effective policies that meet the needs and enhance the lives of individuals in underserved communities.
- Quantitative Methods: Presenting a broad survey of quantitative analytical methods, lectures cultivate the integral skills needed to perform doctoral-level research. Topics addressed include statistical testing and its accompanying ethical issues, data collection methods, and the logic of inference. Using specialized software, learners create their own model research studies and analyze and present the results.
- Qualitative Methods: This course introduces the qualitative research and analytical methods used in both the public sector and academic research. Exploring the theoretical and conceptual frameworks behind qualitative methodologies, candidates create research questions, design and implement studies, and analyze collected data to create a detailed study. Students use the collected information to develop a dissertation topic.
How Long Does It Take to Get an Online Doctorate in Public Policy?
While most full-time students complete their online Ph.D in public policy in 2-4 years, the length of an online degree depends on several factors. Residency requirements, dissertation procedures, and transferred credits all impact degree length, but few variables are as influential as program structure and format.
To provide maximum flexibility, many schools offer their online degrees in an asynchronous format. Featuring fewer and more relaxed deadlines and self-paced coursework, asynchronous programs allow working professionals to review lectures and complete assignments when and where they choose. While this format allows candidates to complete their studies quickly, it also requires strong organizational skills and personal dedication.
By comparison, cohort-based programs are highly structured, with stricter deadlines and scheduling requirements. Emphasizing group discussions and collaboration between cohort members and faculty, courses may require students to be online at specified times. While cohort learning can be more time-consuming, it also provides a greater amount of academic support and accountability.
Accreditation for Online Public Policy Doctorate Degrees
Accreditation might not be on your mind as you explore schools and program options, but it should be. A school's accreditation has the potential to impact your education, finances, and even your employment prospects. Awarded by organizations known as accrediting bodies, accreditation is a process used to ensure that institutions maintain high academic and ethical standards. Depending on the organization assessing it, a school may receive national or regional accreditation. Most nationally accredited institutions are for-profit, vocational, or religious schools, while public, nonprofit colleges and universities usually receive regional accreditation.
Most students prefer schools with regional accreditation for several reasons. Viewed as being more prestigious than nationally accredited schools, regionally accredited colleges also feature better credit transfer options. Credits earned at regionally accredited schools easily transfer to other institutions, while the opposite is rarely true. In addition, some employers prefer to hire graduates of regionally accredited schools.
Accreditation also helps the U.S. Department of Education (ED) decide which schools should receive federal funding. Using the information provided by accrediting bodies, the ED distributes financial aid to institutions that maintain government standards. Organizations like the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) also play a part in the process. An association of around 3,000 colleges and universities, CHEA monitors accrediting bodies and ensures that they adhere to federal policies and procedures. CHEA also provides the public with valuable data regarding accreditation and degree mills, and maintains a database of accredited schools and programs on its website.
Employment Outlook for Doctorate in Public Policy Graduates
Doctorate in Public Policy Careers
In addition to strengthening a range of broadly applicable skills, an online Ph.D. in public policy presents students with a chance to specialize in a particular field of interest. While many graduates go on to become public policy analysts, others take on a variety of related positions. For individuals with strong analytical skills and the drive to create positive changes through political action, an online Ph.D in public policy is the key to landing roles like the examples below.
Political scientist: Political scientists study the origins and development of government, political systems, and policies. Most specialize in a particular area, such as geopolitics, political theory, or public policy. Using qualitative research methods, they collect and analyze data to develop theories and predictions related to political trends, new policies, and election outcomes.
- Median Annual Salary: $115,110
- Projected Growth Rate: 3%
Social and community service manager: These managers coordinate social service programs for government, private, and nonprofit agencies. They assess challenges and issues faced by particular communities or demographics, and develop outreach programs, policies, and initiatives as needed. Frequently, they are required to prove the efficacy of their work by collecting statistical data from the surrounding community and presenting their findings.
- Median Annual Salary: $64,100
- Projected Growth Rate: 18%
Public relations and fundraising manager: Charged with positively enhancing their client's image, public relations managers develop effective media strategies by examining social and political trends, target demographics, and public opinion. While some work for private corporations, many are employed in government, nonprofit groups, or political organizations. They must have excellent communication and analytical skills.
- Median Annual Salary: $111,280
- Projected Growth Rate: 10%
Postsecondary teacher: Some public policy doctoral students can go on to pursue postsecondary teaching at colleges and universities. Aside from planning lessons, grading papers, and staying informed about their field, these teachers may advise students about how to achieve their goals in public policy.
- Median Annual Salary: $76,000
- Projected Growth Rate: 15%
Doctorate in Public Policy Salary
Although public policy careers can pay well, many different factors affect your earning power in the field, including individual workplace policies, geographic location, and industry. Few variables, however, are as influential as education and experience. As a doctor of public policy, you'll have a strong advantage over job candidates with less education, and individuals with greater professional experience generally out-earn entry-level employees. As the table below demonstrates, this phenomenon is consistent across occupations, with some established professionals bringing in nearly double the salary of entry-level workers. Pay differences are sharpest between public policy directors and professors, as both roles generally require significant work experience.
|Job Title||Overall Median Salary||Entry-Level Employees||Mid-Career Employees||Late-Career Employees|
|Public Policy Director||$77,930||$62,583||$79,649||$128,722|
|Public Policy Analyst||$53,641||$50,682||$70,791||$71,148|
|Public Relations Director||$82,780||$52,584||$79,906||$89,193|
Professional Organizations in Public Policy
Professional public policy organizations offer a variety of resources and opportunities for individuals at every career and academic level. Along with discounts, continuing education, certification programs, and private job boards, members can develop local and national networks in the industry. Many associations provide exclusive fellowship and grant opportunities for student members, along with useful digital publications. Below, we've listed just a few prominent public policy professional organizations that you may wish to consider joining.
- American Political Science Association (APSA): With members in more than 80 countries, APSA is one of the largest organizations of its kind. Its vast student resources include grants, fellowships, career assistance services, and publication opportunities.
- American Society for Public Administration (ASPA): This interdisciplinary public service professional association hosts numerous conferences, eLearning sessions, and seminars, including a summit for students and new professionals. Members receive discounts, publications, and access to exclusive job boards.
- Association for Public Policy Analysis and Management (APPAM): Dedicated to improving public policy through research and education, APPAM offers its student members a variety of benefits. Its annual conference includes a mentor matching session, which pairs students with policy experts.
Paying for Your Online Doctorate in Public Policy
Most students seek some form of financial aid to help pay for their online Ph.D. in public policy. Fortunately, they can choose from many available funding opportunities, including private scholarships and tuition reimbursement programs. Most students begin exploring these options by completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). The FAFSA contains a series of questions regarding your household income, and helps the government determine what kinds of federal financial aid you are eligible to receive. You may qualify for grants, federal student loans, scholarships, or work-study programs. While some students choose to fund their studies through private loans, federal student loans typically offer better repayment options and lower interest rates, making them a more economical option.
You may also wish to apply for one or more scholarships. Typically awarded on the basis of income or academic merit, scholarships can cover up to the full cost of tuition. Unlike loans, they don't need to be paid back, and you can apply for as many as you like. While most colleges host scholarships exclusively for their students, students can also find scholarship opportunities through corporations, nonprofit groups, and professional organizations. Some employers also offer scholarships or tuition reimbursement programs for employees pursuing work-related studies.