Earning an Online Ph.D. in Public Administration

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The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects that employment for postsecondary teachers will increase 15% between 2016 and 2026, more than double the national average for all jobs. In addition to strong job prospects, postsecondary teachers enjoy exceptional salaries. In 2017, college or university professors earned a median salary of $76,000 and political science professors earned a median salary of just over $81,000.

To qualify for these positions, you need a doctoral degree. This page provides an overview of online Ph.D. programs in public administration, including information on how to apply, how to pay for your education, and what kind of jobs you can find after graduation.

Why Get a Ph.D. in Public Administration?

Pursuing Specialization

Earning a Ph.D. in public administration online prepares you for specialized roles in academia and the public sector. For example, you can work for a university conducting research on how criminal justice policy affects recidivism and police-community relations. You can also pursue a job in government, creating disaster response plans for the Federal Emergency Management Association, for example. A doctorate in public administration equips you with the knowledge and skills required for these positions.

Career Advancement Opportunities

An online Ph.D. in public administration enables you to advance your career. While you may find teaching jobs at community colleges with just a master's degree, most larger schools require candidates to hold a doctorate. Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce reports that individuals with an advanced degree in public administration earn roughly $13,000 more per year than those with just a bachelor's.

Online Learning Technology

Students earning a doctor of public administration online become familiar with tools and technologies that benefit them throughout their career. For instance, after earning your degree, you may take a position as the head of an international nonprofit working to prevent human trafficking. With an understanding of best practices in distance learning, you can train local law enforcement worldwide on how to investigate criminal networks.

What's the Difference Between a Ph.D. in Public Administration and a DPA?

Ph.D. programs cater to students seeking careers in academia, such as college professors or research analysts. Programs often include coursework in areas like quantitative and qualitative methods, study design, and assessment. Ph.D. students must also complete a research-based dissertation, which may require 1-4 years of largely independent work. Overall, students may need up to seven years to earn a Ph.D. in public administration.

Doctor of public administration (DPA) programs generally serve students who want to work in public administration practice. A graduate with a DPA, for example, may become the director of a government health department or the head of a philanthropic organization. Instead of a dissertation, these programs may require students to complete a capstone -- a field-based project that allows them to apply learning in a practical context. Most full-time students earn an online DPA in three or four years.

Prerequisites for Online Ph.D. in Public Administration Programs

The admission requirements for public administration doctoral programs vary by school. Programs at public universities may hold lower academic standards than private institutions because they aim to serve a larger percentage of a state's population. Before applying, make sure to contact your school's admissions office for specific admission guidelines.

    • Work Experience: DPA programs often require applicants to possess at least three years of professional experience in a related field, such as government, education, or nonprofit administration. Ph.D. and other research-oriented programs, however, may admit students directly after they graduate from a master's program.
    • Exams and Test Scores: Most programs ask prospective students to submit GRE scores, though some schools may exempt students with a master's degree from this requirement. If you score below 150 on the verbal or quantitative sections, or below 3 on the written section, consider retaking the exam. GRE scores remain valid for five years.
    • Coursework: Generally, you must hold a master's degree to apply to a doctoral program. Some schools may only admit students with a master's in public administration, political science, or related field, while other programs may welcome students from other disciplines.
    • Recommendations: Plan to submit up to three letters of recommendation as part of your application. If applying to a DPA program, request letters from former employers or individuals who can speak to your professional accomplishments and potential. If applying to a Ph.D. program, ask current and former professors to endorse your research and writing skills.
    • Essays: You may need to submit an essay outlining your qualifications and academic or professional goals. Candidates may also need to provide an overview of their proposed research agenda. Some schools may allow you to submit a master's thesis to satisfy this requirement.
    • Interviews: Interviews enable schools to make admission decisions and pair you with the faculty adviser who can best support your research. Use the interview as an opportunity to highlight your strengths and provide additional context to any weaknesses in your application.
    • International Students International students must meet the same admission requirements as candidates from the United States. You may also need to demonstrate English proficiency by submitting results from an exam like the Test of English as a Foreign Language. Make sure your doctoral program recognizes the accreditation of the school where you received your master's.

How Much Can I Make with a Ph.D. in Public Administration?

The BLS reports that postsecondary teachers earned a median salary of $76,000 in 2017. The lowest 10% of college professors earned less than $39,040, while the highest 10% of earners commanded salaries above $170,000.

Top executives in government positions, such as city managers and county commissioners, earned a median salary of just over $107,000 in 2017. While salary varies based on many factors, individuals with higher levels of experience and education often earn more.

Traditional Careers for Public Administration Ph.D. Graduates

Careers Stats Description

Postsecondary Teachers

Median Pay: $76,000

Job Growth: 15%

Postsecondary teachers instruct students and conduct research at colleges and universities. In graduate programs, they advise master's and doctoral students on research projects. Professors also hold administrative responsibilities, such as participating in the admissions process or advising the dean on new faculty hires. The majority of these roles require a doctorate.

Nonprofit Program Director

Median Pay: $53,768

Job Growth: N/A

Nonprofit program directors lead initiatives or projects at community service organizations. For example, a director may oversee a youth music program, hiring musical instructors, supporting fundraising efforts to buy new instruments, and working with community partners to secure performance venues. Although typically not required, an advanced degree gives you an edge over other candidates.

Major Gifts Officer

Median Pay: $67,155

Job Growth: N/A

Major gifts officers raise the money that allows nonprofit organizations to function. They often work with individual donors, though some solicit gifts from family foundations and smaller institutional sources. Major gift officers need exceptional relationship-building and interpersonal skills, along with an intimate understanding of their organization's mission and goals.

Senior Policy Adviser

Median Pay: $102,288

Job Growth: N/A

Senior policy advisers help firms and government agencies understand the impact of laws, regulations, and other policies on the effectiveness of their organization. For example, a policy adviser working for a state department of education may review local tax rates to determine the need for state investment to make up potential budget shortfalls.

Director of Strategic Planning

Median Pay: $122,729

Job Growth: N/A

Directors of strategic planning work closely with heads of finance, human resources, marketing, and other departments to establish and execute plans for an organization. As they must often analyze complex data to make decisions, a research-oriented degree, like a Ph.D. in public administration, helps them perform their job effectively.

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics / PayScale

Nontraditional Careers for Public Administration Ph.D. Graduates

While many students who attend public administration doctoral programs online hope to become college or university professors, potential career paths outside of academia exist as well. The skills you develop in these programs can benefit you as a consultant, government official, or manager at a for-profit company. Below are five nontraditional careers for DPA and public administration Ph.D. graduates.

Career Stats Description

Top Executives

Median Pay: $104,700

Job Growth: 8%

Top executives are responsible for the strategic direction and activities of their organization. In the public sector, top executives work as city managers, county commissioners, and state officials. While you do not need a Ph.D. for these roles, a doctorate signals your expertise in public administration to appointment boards of the electorate.

Skills Overlapped: Leadership and interpersonal skills

Human Resources Director

Median Pay: $86,590

Job Growth: N/A

Human resources directors hire and train staff. They also administer employee benefit programs and resolve disputes between workers and management. At larger companies or agencies, they may specialize in a particular area, such as negotiating compensation with organized labor. Senior-level positions in human resources often require an advanced degree.

Skills Overlapped: Problem-solving and decision-making skills

Executive Director

Median Pay: $76,983

Job Growth: N/A

Executive directors hold many of the same responsibilities as top executives, though they work in the nonprofit sector rather than for a government agency or for-profit company. In addition to providing administrative and programmatic oversight, executive directors often play a key role in fundraising for their organization. They typically represent their nonprofit to the community and media.

Skills Overlapped: Managerial and communication skills

Administrative Services Manager

Median Pay: $94,020

Job Growth: 10%

Administrative services managers lead a company's operations. For example, they may direct the staff that maintain buildings and equipment. They may also oversee supply chain operations for a manufacturing firm or record-keeping for a health insurance company. Many administrative managers balance multiple financial, personnel, and facilities-related responsibilities.

Skills Overlapped: Organizational and analytical skills

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics / PayScale

Paying for a Ph.D. in Public Administration Online

When considering how to pay for an online Ph.D. in public administration, start by completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). The FAFSA determines whether you qualify for federal grants, work-study jobs, and low-interest student loans. As a public administration student, make sure to prioritize federal loans over private loans, as you may receive loan forgiveness from the federal government in exchange for 10 years of service in the public or nonprofit sectors.

Scholarships for Online Public Administration Ph.D. Students

After completing the FAFSA, you should research private scholarship opportunities. Some organizations specifically support public administration students, while others provide funding to doctoral students in any field. To improve your odds of receiving an award, identify scholarships that serve students from your state and background.

What to Expect from an Online Public Administration Ph.D. Program

While pursuing an online Ph.D. in public administration, full-time students should expect to spend their first three years taking coursework in areas like policy analysis, research methods, and governance. After completing these classes, doctoral students must then pass a comprehensive examination to begin working on their dissertation. Collecting research and writing a dissertation may take 1-4 additional years, after which a student must defend their work before a faculty committee.

Instead of writing a dissertation, students in practice-oriented doctoral programs complete a capstone project, usually in the final year of their studies.

Major Milestones

  1. Admission

    Roughly 3-7 years prior to graduation

    After receiving admission into a doctoral program, contact your school's financial aid office to learn about grant and fellowship opportunities. You should also contact your faculty adviser to begin discussing coursework.

  2. Completing Coursework

    Roughly six months to four years prior to graduation

    In your first two years, plan to take general coursework in areas like public policy, financial management, and program evaluation. In your third year, you can take courses within your area of professional interest, such as homeland security or international governance.

  3. Passing Comprehensive Examination (for Ph.D. students)

    Roughly 1-4 years prior to graduation

    After completing coursework, Ph.D. students must pass a comprehensive examination to begin their dissertation. If you fail this exam twice, your school may not allow you to continue working toward a doctoral degree.

  4. Conducting Dissertation Research (for Ph.D. students)

    Roughly 1-4 years prior to graduation

    Ph.D. students must collect original research or analyze data from multiple published studies, also known as a meta-analysis. Students work closely with their faculty adviser during the research stage.

  5. Completing/Defending Dissertation (for Ph.D. students)

    Directly prior to graduation

    Writing your dissertation requires independent work, though students often share drafts with their adviser to receive feedback and general guidance. After you finish your dissertation, you must defend it before a faculty committee.

  6. Completing Capstone Project (for DPA students)

    Directly prior to graduation

    Rather than writing a dissertation, DPA students complete a capstone project to apply learning in a practical context. For example, a student may partner with local government to assess the public transportation system and make recommendations for improvements.

Coursework

The coursework you take in public administration doctoral programs varies depending on several factors. DPA students, for instance, take fewer courses in statistical analysis than Ph.D. students. Below are five common foundational courses in these programs.

Public Management Techniques

This course equips students with the tools needed to lead teams and organizations in the public sector. It emphasizes data and evidence-informed decision-making, community approaches to problem-solving, and the use of budgets and financial analysis to shape strategy.

Public Finance

Whether researchers or practitioners, public administration professionals need a firm understanding of public finance to succeed. In this class, students explore tax policies, incentive models, the micro and macroeconomic impact of government programs, and the costs and benefits of government service privatization.

Research Theory, Methods, and Design

This course offers a doctoral-level introduction to statistical analysis and research. Topics covered include quantitative and qualitative methods, program assessment, and the ethics of research within a public administration context.

Leadership and Organizational Change

Through readings and case studies, this class teaches students about the prevailing theories and models of leadership and organizational change in public and nonprofit organizations. Students confront ethical dilemmas and examine the benefits of creating more diverse institutions.

Governance and Public Policy

Students in this class analyze board governance in nonprofit organizations, the hierarchy of government agencies, and best practices for leadership in membership associations. The course also explores the role of bureaucrats in informal governance.

Degree Timelines

Many online doctoral programs allow students to complete coursework at their own pace. However, some graduate schools place a limit on the amount of time you can take to earn a doctorate.

Enrollment Status Time to Complete Description

Part-Time

7-10 years

Part-time study often appeals to working professionals and parents as it allows them to watch lectures, complete assignments, and take exams on their own schedule. Part-time students may complete coursework in roughly five years, though they may need up to another five years to research, write, and defend their dissertation.

Full-Time

4-7 years

Full-time students usually take about four classes per semester in the first three years of their studies. While working on their dissertation, these students may serve as research assistants to faculty or support undergraduate class teaching.

Accelerated

3-4 years

In some accelerated programs, you can advance through your courses as soon as you demonstrate mastery of the material. These programs require less frequent interaction with a faculty adviser. Exercise caution when considering an accelerated track, as many students become overwhelmed without the support of an instructor or classmates.

Licenses and Certifications

Generally, public administration professionals do not need a license to practice. Teaching at the university level also does not require licensure.

While a doctorate in public administration signals expertise in your field, some public and nonprofit managers may seek professional certification to demonstrate qualifications for specialized roles or responsibilities, such as urban planning or fundraising. Below are four certifications for graduates with an online public administration doctorate.

    • Certified Public Manager: To receive this credential, applicants must complete at least 300 hours of study in a professional development program that holds accreditation from the National Certified Public Manager Consortium. Accredited training programs cover subjects such as systemic integration, leadership, and organizational integrity. The training and certification process costs $700.
    • Certified Emergency Manager: The International Association of Emergency Managers offers this credential to public administrators who may need to respond to natural or manmade disasters. Certification requires at least 100 hours of training in emergency management and response. Candidates must pass a 100-question exam and submit a letter of reference. The process costs $595.
    • American Institute of Certified Planners Certification: Public managers involved in urban or regional planning may seek this certification. To earn the credential, you must meet a combination of education and professional experience requirements, join the American Planning Association, and pass an exam. The application and exam fees total $495.
    • Certified Nonprofit Professional: Administered by the Nonprofit Leadership Alliance, this certification program readies candidates for leadership roles at nonprofit and community service organizations. To receive certification, you must take courses in volunteer management, cultural competency, and program evaluation. In total, applicants must pay $2,725 for the eight courses and virtual networking conference.

Professional Organizations & Resources

Students and graduates of a doctorate in public administration online benefit from joining professional organizations. Many organizations host regional and national events, allowing you to meet new colleagues and share best practices. Many also offer professional development programs, including webinars, in-person training workshops, and formal certification programs. Some organizations provide services for students and recent graduates, such as scholarship opportunities and mentorship programs.

  • American Society for Public Administration: ASPA promotes the science, art, teaching, and practice of public administration. In addition to a scholarly journal and online career center, the society organizes an annual conference for members and offers scholarships to aspiring government and nonprofit managers.
  • Association for Public Policy Analysis and Management: Widely known for its annual research conference, APPAM shares public policy news, disseminates resources on issues like public financial management and good governance norms, and issues awards to recognize exemplary public servants.
  • National Forum for Black Public Administrators: Since 1983, NFBPA has represented the interests of state and local government administrators of color. Members can network and collaborate on problems of practice at the group's annual meeting or through online affinity groups. NFBPA also provides scholarships to minority students seeking a degree in public administration.
  • National Academy of Public Administration: The Academy's primary purpose is to bring together former municipal officials, governors, cabinet officers, and prominent scholars to address urgent issues and solve long-term problems. These experts work on issues such as technology in government and intergovernmental cooperation.
  • Association of Fundraising Professionals: AFP provides resources to development professionals working in the public and nonprofit sectors. Members can review research papers on topics like philanthropic trends, obtain formal certification to improve job prospects, and consult a professional code of conduct.
  • Federal Student Aid: The U.S. Department of Education provides student loans, grants, fellowships, and work-study jobs to doctoral students. The website also offers advice on finding private forms of aid.
  • Harvard Kennedy School Policy Center: The Harvard Kennedy School Policy Center disseminates research from Harvard faculty members. The research covers a variety of subjects of interest to public administration students, such as community development, environmental sustainability, and public finance.
  • Public Management Research Association: PMRA provides open access to its scholarly journals on its website, making it an invaluable resource for doctoral students. Journal articles examine subjects like smart cities, public sector innovations, and crisis management techniques.
  • Purdue Online Writing Lab: To succeed as a public administration student or professional, you must know how to write clearly and concisely. The Purdue OWL is a comprehensive resource for academic and career-focused writing.
  • American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees: AFSCME represents just over 1 million government workers in the United States. It offers resources for professionals looking for a union job and those wanting to learn how to effectively collaborate with organized labor.