Study Public Policy: Master's, PhD & Online Degree Info

About this article
Master's degrees and PhDs in public policy can lead to careers in and out of academia. Get the truth about the requirements, courses and career options, and find out what you can do with your degree.
View available schools

Public Policy Master's Degrees and PhDs at a Glance

A graduate degree in public policy can lead to a variety of positions at the federal, state and local levels. Public policy can mean the development and analysis of policies involving safety, education, health and urban planning. This work can be carried out by policy analysts, but a number of other individuals, like political scientists, urban and regional planners, sociologists, lawyers and economists, are also involved in public policy.

A graduate degree in public policy could lead you directly into a career as a political scientist, which could mean carrying out policy analysis for political and government organizations. From 2010-2020, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicts that political scientists will see a slower-than-average employment growth of eight percent (www.bls.gov). Public policy analysts can work in a wide variety of fields, including health reform, economic policy, urban policy research, foreign policy and public administration.

Master'sPhD
Who is this Degree For? Individuals interested in developing public policy at the federal, state or local levels - Individuals interested in becoming high-level policy makers within governments and organizations
- Individuals interested in pursuing research or academic careers in public policy
Common Career Paths (with approximate mean annual salary) - Policy Analyst ($32,000-$67,000)**
- Political Scientist ($105,000)*
- University Professor ($65,000)*
- Policy Director($48,000-$112,000)**
Time of Completion Two years or less full-time, 3-5 years part-time Varies; 3-8 years after the master's degree, average of 4 years on a full-time schedule
Common Graduation Requirements - About four semesters of coursework (about 8-12 courses)
- Internship
- Capstone project or master's thesis
- Core courses (12-24 credits depending on the program)
- A concentration track
- Doctoral dissertation
Prerequisites A bachelor's degree, possibly in a relevant area of study Work experience may be preferred A master's degree in or closely related to public policy
Online Availability Yes Rare

Sources: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics in May 2011, **Payscale.com in June 2012 (before bonuses.

Master's Degrees in Public Policy

These master's degree programs, sometimes offered in combination with public administration, are usually designed to prepare you to enter leadership roles in public policy analysis. Throughout the course of the program, you typically complete coursework and engage in hands-on research experiences to increase your knowledge of various aspects of public policy. At the end of the program, a research thesis or capstone project is usually required. This final project, which is usually completed in cooperation with a faculty member, allows you to demonstrate a sound understanding of core public policy concepts, and may even require you to expand on an area of focus within the field. A portfolio of work can also be generated throughout the program, which could be used to seek employment in the future.

Pros and Cons of a Master's Degree in Public Policy

Pros

  • Most jobs involved in public policy require at least a master's degree
  • Can allow you to focus on a specific area of public policy
  • Can offer you hands-on experience in public policy and allow you to develop a portfolio of work to show future employers
  • Can qualify you to teach at community colleges

Cons

  • Tuition can be expensive
  • Credits may not transfer from other schools into public policy programs
  • Online master's degree courses could include an additional fee
  • On-campus programs could have competitive admission; classrooms could be as small as ten students

Courses and Requirements

Course topics for a master's degree program in public policy are commonly designed to cover a variety of topics in the field, including budgeting and finance, the processes of government and political systems, policy implementation, research methods and policy analysis. A variety of public policy fields may be covered, including health, education, transportation, urban planning and security, and one or more of these areas may be explored in more depth through additional coursework or through the master's thesis or project at the end of the program.

Both the thesis and the capstone project are intense research endeavors in a subject of your choice and are designed to demonstrate your expertise in the field to university faculty before graduation. Guidance from an adviser is provided on either project.

Online Degree Options

Online degree programs in public policy are fairly common. Like on-campus programs, online programs commonly offer a diverse curriculum, a master's thesis or project, and emphasize leadership. Online programs could be designed for working adults, so part-time options are available. While more convenient, online master's degree options may include additional fees.

Stand Out With this Degree

There are many distinct fields within public policy, so focusing your study on one in particular, like health or urban planning, could help you secure a job in that particular field. Policy analysts may also work at different levels within government organizations, so choosing a program that emphasizes a certain level, like state or local government, could better prepare you for relevant positions.

Additionally, strong leadership skills are commonly valued among employers, so a program that emphasizes leadership could be useful. Choosing a degree in public policy and administration, or taking courses in areas like police administration, information systems management or financial management, could be useful. As an emphasis on the use of technology to solve policy problems grows, you may consider studying emerging technology at the graduate level to learn how it can be applied to public policy. This can include both predicting negative results of emerging technology or foreseeing uses for new technology.

Degree Alternatives

If you want to work with public policy but don't want to become a policy analyst, there are a variety of degree programs you can enroll in. If you're interested in urban and regional planning, a master's degree in urban planning could prepare you for such a position, in which public policy is commonly used to effectively utilize and plan recreational, residential or commercial projects. In May 2011, the BLS reported that urban planners earned a median annual salary of about $64,000, and that they were expected to see an employment growth of 16% from 2010-2020.

Sociologists may also become involved in public policy as it pertains to poverty, crime, health or families, and such a position can be obtained through completing a master's or PhD in sociology. The BLS reported in May 2011 that these professionals earned a median annual salary of about $74,000 and that they were expected to see an employment growth of 18% from 2010-2020. Political science and public affairs master's degree programs can lead to similar positions as public policy professionals, but may offer you a chance to study different subjects.

PhD in Public Policy

A PhD program in public policy includes core coursework as well as concentration options, which are explored through coursework and independent research. The program typically requires you to complete both written and oral examinations as well as complete a dissertation. The dissertation, which is based in a specific area of study, can take about two years to complete and must be approved by a committee of faculty members.

Pros and Cons of a PhD in Public Policy

Pros

  • Can qualify you for more advanced professional positions
  • Can qualify you to teach at the university level
  • Greater specialization opportunities than at the master's degree level are usually available

Cons

  • You could be in school for 8-10 years total
  • Might only prepare you to work in research or academic positions, limiting your public, private or nonprofit sector options
  • Part-time options may not be available

Courses and Requirements

Coursework for a PhD program is largely based on the concentration area that you pursue. Concentration areas within public policy can include options like justice, health, urban planning, transportation and environmental policy. Each of these tracks can include coursework that deals with how the law, economics, management and finance relate to your specific area of study. In addition, core public policy subjects like financial management, ethics leadership and quantitative analysis are commonly required, but these areas of study are usually satisfied by the completion of a master's degree in public policy.

These programs typically culminate in a dissertation. The purpose of a dissertation is to conduct intensive research in your area of expertise and to contribute unique findings to that field. You will work with a faculty adviser to complete this assignment, which must be approved by a committee in order for you to graduate.

Online Degree Options

Online PhD programs in public policy are rare and could be offered through for-profit schools. For this level of study, a traditional, on-campus degree program is much more common and could offer you the best opportunity to work with experienced faculty members, use university resources and develop connections that could benefit you in your professional future.

Stand Out With this Degree

A PhD program could prepare you for advanced leadership positions working the public or private sector, or it could solely prepare you to work in research and academia. Based on your career goals, you could benefit from enrolling in a program that is designed to prepare you for one profession or the other. Studying an underrepresented or more specific concentration area, like international economics or justice policy, could qualify you for more specialized positions with less competition. Through a doctoral program in policy, you may sometimes find opportunities for the study of emerging technology in combination with policy development. Some programs may be available as combination options in policy and technology, while other universities may offer research centers that focus on the use of technology and science in public policy development.

Popular Schools

  • Online Programs Available
    1. Regent University

    Program Options

    Master's
      • Master of Public Administration
      • Master of Public Administration - Public Leadership and Management
      • Master of Arts in Government
      • Master of Arts in Government - American Government
      • Master of Arts in Government - Political Theory
      • Master of Arts in Government - Religion and Politics
  • Online Programs Available
    2. Johns Hopkins University

    Program Options

    Master's
      • MA in Public Management
      • Master of Arts in Government
      • Master of Liberal Arts
      • Master of Science in Government Analytics
  • Online Programs Available
    3. Colorado Christian University

    Program Options

    Master's
      • Public Administration, MPA
  • Online Programs Available
    4. American University

    Program Options

    Master's
      • Master of Public Administration and Policy
  • Campus and Online Programs
    5. South University

    Program Options

    Master's
      • Public Administration (MPA)
  • Online Programs Available
    6. Kaplan University

    Program Options

    Master's
      • Master of Public Admin
  • Online Programs Available
    7. Seton Hall University

    Program Options

    Master's
      • Master of Public Administration in Non-Profit Management
  • Online Programs Available
    8. Northcentral University

    Program Options

    Master's
      • MBA - Public Admin
      • MS - Organizational Leadership: Public Administration
  • Cambridge, MA

    Harvard University

  • Philadelphia, PA

    University of Pennsylvania

Featured Schools

Regent University

  • Master of Public Administration
  • Master of Public Administration - Public Leadership and Management
  • Master of Arts in Government

What is your highest level of education completed?

Johns Hopkins University

  • MA in Public Management
  • Master of Arts in Government
  • Master of Liberal Arts

What is your highest level of education?

Colorado Christian University

  • Public Administration, MPA

What is your highest level of education completed?

American University

  • Master of Public Administration and Policy

What is your highest level of education?

South University

  • Public Administration (MPA)

What is your highest level of education completed?

Kaplan University

  • Master of Public Admin

Which subject are you interested in?

Seton Hall University

  • Master of Public Administration in Non-Profit Management

What is your highest level of education?

Northcentral University

  • MBA - Public Admin
  • MS - Organizational Leadership: Public Administration

What is your highest level of education?