Earning a Ph.D. in Public Policy Online

Enrolling in a Ph.D. in public policy online college can position you for a leadership role in the public sector. Degree holders qualify to advise policymakers, work as policy analysts, and manage government programs, agencies, and budgets. With this degree, you can make a difference in how well the government serves the needs of the people.

A doctorate can also enable you to advance in your career and increase your earning potential. According to PayScale, graduates with a master's in public policy earn an average of $68,000, while doctorate degree holders earn an average of $80,000. Use this guide to find out more about career opportunities, how to earn and pay for this doctorate, and professional organizations and resources in public policy.

Why Get a Ph.D. in Public Policy Online?

Pursue Deeper Knowledge and Specialization

A doctorate helps you become a recognized expert within your specialty. The advanced coursework and dissertation research you complete enables you to gain the highest level of knowledge and expertise possible in your field. A doctorate may also open the door to further research opportunities or teaching positions at the collegiate level.

Career Advancement Opportunities

With a doctorate, you can qualify for leadership opportunities that offer more responsibility, significant challenges, and higher pay. In public policy, this may include analyst positions that require an advanced level of expertise in a particular policy area, management positions for large programs or projects, or organizational leadership positions.

Online Learning Technology

By completing your degree online, you can become adept at using some of the latest technology. The technical skills you gain may benefit you in your career as an expert in public policy. As a leader in the public sector, you may need to train your employees, and your experience with online learning can help you ensure that they receive effective online professional development.

Prerequisites for Ph.D. in Public Policy Online Programs

While admissions requirements vary by school, you will likely need to meet prerequisites such as those listed below to qualify for admission into these advanced programs. See below for a general idea of what to expect during the admissions process.

  • Master's Degree from an Accredited University In this field, you must complete a master's degree before beginning your doctoral studies. Most programs prefer applicants to hold a master's degree in public policy or a related field. Applicants with degrees in other areas may need to complete prerequisite coursework before beginning their doctorates.
  • Undergraduate and Graduate Transcripts Applicants must submit academic transcripts from all higher education institutions previously attended. Some programs require a specific GPA for previous graduate work (typically 3.0) or look for particular coursework.
  • Letters of Recommendation Graduate schools in this field typically require 2-3 letters of recommendation from people who can attest to your ability to succeed in an online doctoral program. They may require recommendations from previous professors or employers.
  • Writing Sample or Personal Statement Graduate school applications typically include one or more essays. Online doctoral programs want to make sure you can communicate clearly in writing because so much of an online program demands this skill. Some schools also require applicants to explain how the program will help them meet their professional goals. Such personal statements help schools determine if you are a good fit for their program and whether the school can provide a faculty member to serve as your research advisor.
  • Resume Many doctoral programs in public policy require applicants to demonstrate their professional experience and expertise with a resume or curriculum vitae. Your resume shows your qualifications and prior experience in the field and can help you stand out among applicants to more competitive programs.

How Much Can I Make With a Ph.D. in Public Policy Degree?

Salaries for public policy experts vary widely depending on your position, employer, experience, education, and responsibility level. Salaries for public policy directors range from $51,000 to $140,000. Jobs in the industry tend to pay more than government or nonprofit positions. Earning your Ph.D. in public policy online can help you change careers or qualify for higher-paying positions that demand a higher level of expertise.

Potential Careers

Careers Stats Description

College Professor

Median Annual Salary: $78,470

Teaching at the university level requires a Ph.D. College faculty design and teach undergraduate and graduate courses in their areas of expertise, advise students, and conduct scholarly research. They may also serve as experts and consultants in their field.

Political Scientist

Median Annual Salary: $117,570

Political scientists with expertise in public policy study government programs, regulations, and policies and analyze policy trends and political data. Many political scientists work for government agencies, while others work for organizations that promote specific policy goals or for companies that need to monitor and understand the impact of public policy on their operations. Some entry-level positions require a master's degree, but most require a doctorate.

Urban Planner

Median Annual Salary: $73,050

Public administrators with expertise in planning can qualify for positions as city or regional planners. These planners administer government policies and help urban areas plan for and manage growth. They may gather and analyze data from land use proposals, environmental studies, and market research. A doctorate can qualify you to work for a large metropolitan area or hold a senior position.

Paying for a Ph.D. in Public Policy Program

Many graduate schools offer financial aid in the form of grants, research fellowships, and teaching assistantships. By completing the FAFSA, you can find out if you qualify for need-based financial aid, such as subsidized federal loans. Online programs offer additional ways to save, including lower tuition rates and accelerated degree pathways. You can save money by completing your degree in as little time as possible. Make sure to explore the financial aid offered by your institution, community, or employer along with any available scholarships.


Many institutions, companies, and charitable organizations offer scholarships to college and graduate students. You can reduce the cost of your degree by applying for scholarships, grants, and fellowships such as those listed below. Ask your school's financial aid office about additional scholarship opportunities.

What to Expect From a Ph.D. in Public Policy Online Program

Online doctoral programs in public policy require approximately 42-54 credits and take about three years to complete. Required coursework includes core public administration classes, concentration electives, and research methods courses. Upon completion of all coursework, doctoral candidates must typically pass comprehensive exams before beginning their dissertation research or capstone projects.

Programs in this field usually offer most courses completely online, although some require short campus residencies or intensives. Some programs operate in a cohort format while others allow students to complete coursework at their own paces.

Major Milestones

Doctoral students in public policy proceed through a series of milestones as they complete online courses, which typically last eight weeks each. Learn more about the milestones you can expect in these programs below.

  1. Core and Concentration Coursework

    During the first two years of your program, you will take at least three required core courses in public administration topics, such as leadership and strategic planning in the public sector. For degrees that allow for specialization, you will also take three or more courses in the concentration you select.

  2. Research Methods Coursework

    In preparation for working on your dissertation or capstone project, you will take a series of research courses that include quantitative and qualitative analysis.

  3. Comprehensive Exams

    Once you complete all required coursework — typically after about two years of study — you must take comprehensive exams to demonstrate your mastery of all core and research methods course topics. Doctoral candidates must pass their comprehensive exams before beginning their dissertation research.

  4. Dissertation Proposal

    The first step in completing a dissertation or capstone project is approval of your research proposal. Most programs require students to finish this step during the first in a series of dissertation courses.

  5. Dissertation Research and Writing

    The next stage in your dissertation consists of gathering and analyzing your data and writing about your findings. This stage can take a semester or longer.

  6. Dissertation Defense and Publishing

    Once you complete your dissertation, you prepare to defend it during an oral defense with faculty from your school. Only doctoral candidates who successfully defend their theses may graduate. Some schools also require doctoral students to publish their findings.


While the specific courses required vary by school and concentration for students pursuing a Ph.D in public policy online, they will likely encounter courses similar to those listed below.

Public Sector Finances

This course trains students to use the financial management tools and strategies needed to plan, control, manage, and evaluate budgetary functions. Students explore financial decision-making in the public sector.

Public Management and

This course introduces strategic planning for the public sector and the key factors impacting governance. Topics include collaboration with stakeholders, management of human resources, and performance measurement.

Research Methods

Doctoral candidates take a series of research courses in preparation for their dissertations. Course topics include research design, quantitative methods, qualitative methods, and statistical tools.

Professional Organizations and Resources

Professional organizations provide valuable resources and networking opportunities to public policy professionals and graduate students. They hold conferences, post job openings, offer professional development, and advocate on your behalf. Membership in a professional association demonstrates your commitment to your field and can provide benefits like access to research and policy briefings and special interest groups. Learn more about some of the professional organizations in this field and what they have to offer below.

  • Association for Public Policy Analysis and Management: APPAM promotes public policy research through an annual research conference and a peer-reviewed journal. Networking opportunities are available through forums and conferences, including a regional student conference. APPAM offers student memberships.
  • American Society for Public Administration: ASPA supports public service professionals with e-learning and networking opportunities. This membership organization hosts an annual conference and offers special benefits to students and new professionals, including a job board, fellows program, resources, and student summit.
  • Federal Managers Association: The oldest association serving the interests of federal government managers, FMA conducts advocacy efforts on behalf of its members, offers a legislative action center, and hosts a national convention. FMA also sponsors scholarships and awards.
  • National Academy of Public Administration: This congressionally chartered academy of fellows advises federal leaders on management issues. NAPA also offers a daily email briefing, working groups on special interest issues, and research studies.
  • Government Finance Officers Association: Founded in 1906, this association represents government finance officers in the United States and Canada. GFOA promotes best practices in public finance, consulting services and training opportunities, and publications and research.