The Best Online Doctorate in Public Policy Programs 2021

The Best Online Doctorate in Public Policy Programs 2021

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Students with strong analytical skills and the drive to create positive change through political action may benefit from an online doctorate in public policy.

Public policy has a significant impact on people's lives. With an online Ph.D. in public policy, professionals can shape regulatory policy, research public policy impact, and train the next generation of policy advocates.

An online format makes a doctorate more accessible for working professionals and busy students. During an online public policy doctoral program, graduate students complete coursework requirements using a virtual learning platform. Enrollees must also meet practicum requirements and conduct research in their local areas.

Our list ranks the best doctoral programs in public policy that offer online enrollment options. By reviewing the rankings, prospective doctoral students can identify the programs that best fit their unique needs. This article also introduces common courses and focus areas for Ph.D. students in public policy, along with career paths and tips for choosing the right program.

The Best Online Doctorate in Public Policy Programs

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Online Doctorate in Public Policy Programs Ranking Guidelines

We selected these degree programs based on quality, curricula, school awards, rankings, and reputation.

What Is an Online Ph.D. in Public Policy?

A Ph.D. program in public policy trains graduates to analyze proposed policies and assess the impact of existing policies. This research-based degree prepares graduates for academic, governmental, or nonprofit roles that require analytical and research skills.

During an online Ph.D. in public policy, doctoral students build strong research skills. Programs incorporate courses on both quantitative and qualitative research methods to help students become versatile researchers. Students also gain a theoretical and practical perspective on public policy. Coursework emphasizes analytical and methodological skills.

Each doctoral student chooses a research area to focus their studies. Doctoral students may focus on regulatory policy, international economic policy, social policy, or environmental policy. Depending on the program, they may also choose secondary focus areas. Candidates also conduct original research and write dissertations.

Earning a doctorate in public policy typically takes several years. Before applying to doctoral programs, applicants should ensure that they meet admission requirements. For example, a candidate may need a master's degree. Many programs also require GRE scores, course prerequisites, letters of recommendation, and a statement of purpose.

Choosing an Online Doctoral Public Policy Program

An online Ph.D. in public policy is a major commitment of time, effort, and money. As a result, prospective applicants should carefully research programs before submitting their applications.

Several factors can help applicants find the best fit to reach their goals. For example, many applicants begin by looking at the total cost of a degree, the program length, and specialization options. At the doctoral level, graduate students should also research faculty mentors to find a good fit.

Some public policy doctoral programs emphasize research, while others focus on practice. Candidates should consider which of these best suits their professional goals when applying to programs.

Accreditation for Online Public Policy Degree Programs

A prospective doctoral student should always choose an accredited university for their online Ph.D. in public policy. Regionally accredited schools meet the highest standards for academic excellence. An accredited degree also fulfills the requirements for licenses and professional certifications.

In addition to choosing an accredited university, applicants should also research accreditation for public policy programs. The Network of Schools of Public Policy, Affairs, and Administration grants accreditation to public policy programs.

What Else Can I Expect From a Ph.D. in Public Policy Program?

A doctorate in public policy builds strong research and analytical skills. During a Ph.D. in public policy, doctoral students focus their training by choosing concentrations or specific research areas. Doctoral candidates can focus on the financial side of public policy by taking courses in budgeting, economic regulations, and public administration.

In addition to coursework, doctoral students must pass comprehensive examinations and write dissertations to earn their degrees. The training prepares graduates to work in policy-making, research, or academia.

Common Courses 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: This course addresses the unique economic challenges faced by public and nonprofit organizations and presents crucial financial concepts and skills, such as budgeting and tax auditing. Enrollees use specialized technologies and software 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, along with how 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: Lectures cultivate the integral skills needed to perform doctoral-level research. Topics include statistical testing and its accompanying ethical issues, data collection methods, and the logic of inference. Learners create their own model research studies to analyze data 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, each candidate creates research questions, designs and implements studies, and analyzes collected data to create a detailed analysis.

How Long Does It Take to Complete an Online Doctorate in Public Policy Program?

While a full-time student can typically 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 transfer credits all affect degree length, but program structure and format play the most significant role.

To provide maximum flexibility, many schools offer their online degrees in an asynchronous format. Featuring more relaxed deadlines and flexible coursework, asynchronous programs allow working professionals to review lectures and complete assignments at their convenience. 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. Courses may require students to be online at specified times to complete group discussions and collaborate with cohort members and faculty. While cohort learning can be more time-consuming, it also provides more academic support and accountability.

Public Policy Jobs

In addition to strengthening a range of broadly applicable skills, an online Ph.D. in public policy allows enrollees to specialize in particular areas of interest. Individuals with strong analytical skills and the drive to create positive changes through political action can pursue diverse roles in the field. Below are a few such roles.

Political Scientist

Median Salary: $122,220 Projected Job Growth: 6%


Political scientists study the origins and development of 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 for political trends, new policies, and election outcomes.

Public Relations and Fundraising Manager

Median Salary: $116,180 Projected Job Growth: 9%


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 find employment in government, nonprofit groups, or political organizations. They need excellent communication and analytical skills.

Postsecondary Teacher

Median Salary: $79,540 Projected Job Growth: 9%


Some public policy doctoral students go on to pursue careers in 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.

Urban and Regional Planner

Median Salary: $74,350 Projected Job Growth: 11%


Urban and regional planners design communities and create land-use plans. They help revitalize cities and implement community development plans. Urban and regional planners typically work for local governments, where they play a role in setting public policy agendas and making sure public works align with public policy.

Social and Community Service Manager

Median Salary: $67,150 Projected Job Growth: 17%


These managers coordinate social service programs for government, private, and nonprofit agencies. They assess challenges and issues faced by particular communities or demographics to develop outreach programs, policies, and initiatives as needed. They commonly must prove the efficacy of their work by collecting statistical data from the surrounding community and presenting their findings.

Public Policy Professional Organizations

Professional public policy organizations offer 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 are a few prominent public policy professional organizations in the field.

  • American Political Science Association With members in more than 80 countries, APSA is one of the largest organizations of its kind. Its student resources include grants, fellowships, career assistance services, and publication opportunities.
  • American Society for Public Administration This interdisciplinary public service professional association hosts numerous conferences, eLearning sessions, and seminars, including a summit for students and new professionals. ASPA members receive access to discounts, publications, and exclusive job boards.
  • Association for Public Policy Analysis and Management APPAM is dedicated to improving public policy through research and education. Its annual conference includes a mentor matching session, which pairs students with policy experts.

Frequently Asked Questions

What Can You Do With a Public Policy Ph.D.?

Doctoral degrees in public policy prepare graduates for academic roles as professors and researchers. Professionals with doctorates in public policy may also work for nonprofit think tanks, government agencies, or other non-academic research institutions.

How Much Does a Ph.D. in Public Policy Make?

According to PayScale, professionals with a doctorate in public policy analysis earn an average salary of over $84,000 per year.

Is Public Policy a Good Career?

Public policy specialists work for legislative bodies, governmental agencies, and nonprofit organizations. Public policy professionals with doctorates can also pursue academic careers. These careers tend to be prestigious, though actual experience varies by professional.

Why Should Someone Study Public Policy?

Public policy has a significant impact on the way people live. The study of public policy trains thinkers to identify successful public policies and develop strategies for improving public life.

Header Image Credit: mavo | Shutterstock

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