Disaster Management Degrees: PhD, Master's & Online Class Info

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What will you learn in a disaster management graduate program? Read about degree requirements, the pros and cons of a master's and PhD in disaster management and potential careers.
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Study Disaster Management: Degrees at a Glance

Disaster management, also commonly referred to as emergency management, is an interdisciplinary field that covers ways to prevent and deal with disasters and public health threats. From natural and man-made disasters to public health emergencies, these graduate programs can give you the knowledge and skills you'll need to play a leadership role in helping communities and individuals. These programs are designed for health professionals, emergency managers and government administrators.

In 2010, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projected that the number of jobs for emergency management directors would increase by 13% from 2010-2020, which was about as fast as the average of all occupations. The BLS estimated that medical and health services managers would see job growth of 22% between 2010 and 2020.

Master's Doctorate
Who is this degree for? People interested in working as disaster management leaders or researchers Individuals who want to work as researchers, academic professors or policy makers
Common Career Paths (with approximate mean annual salary) - Postsecondary teacher ($78,000)*
- Emergency management director ($63,000)*
- Medical and health services manager ($96,000)*
- Environmental scientist or specialist ($69,000)*
- All of the positions available for master's degree holders, plus:
- Postsecondary professor or researcher ($74,000)*
- Researcher for private or public organizations (unavailable)
Time to Completion 1-2 years full-time 3-5 years after completion of a master's program
Common Graduation Requirements - About 15 graduate-level courses
- Master's thesis/research paper
- Field experience
- Approximately 10-15 graduate-level courses
- PhD qualifier exams
- Dissertation
- Field experience/practicum
Prerequisites Bachelor's degree in disaster management or a related field Master's degree in disaster management or a related field
Online Availability Yes Yes, but limited

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (May 2011 figures).

Master's in Disaster Management

As a disaster management student, you'll typically learn how to apply for funding for an emergency, train specialists, run shelters, coordinate evacuations and assess potential and actual damage of an event. This program can be useful for public safety workers, health officials and disaster recovery workers at public or private organizations. Some of the skills you may gain from a master's program include critical thinking, decision making during a disaster and performing crisis management research.

Pros and Cons


  • A master's degree in disaster management can be useful for careers in government, non-profit organizations and private businesses
  • Some programs are members of the Homeland Security/Defense Education Consortium, ensuring that you'll be up-to-date on the latest government protocols
  • Online and hybrid programs in this field are commonly available, ensuring that even working professionals and people with tight schedules can still pursue this degree


  • Many disaster management positions only require a bachelor's degree
  • You may need a few years of disaster-related experience before you qualify for admission to a master's program
  • Earning your master's degree in this field can be very expensive and does not guarantee advancement

Courses and Requirements

Most master's programs in disaster management are heavily based on coursework, but you can expect to complete a thesis or practicum before you graduate. The thesis gives you a chance to focus on a specific area of disaster management that interests you. You can expect to take a wide spectrum of courses, including:

  • Assessing health risks
  • Disasters and population issues
  • Management approaches and systems
  • Collective and individual disaster responses
  • Organizational disaster needs
  • Technology and modern public safety
  • Air analysis and sampling
  • Emergency management in the private sector

Schools may also give you a chance to get some field work before you graduate, but this varies between programs.

Online Degree Options

If you're currently employed in a disaster management position or can't attend an on-campus program, there are fortunately a number of online and hybrid programs to choose from. An online program offers you the same opportunities as an on-campus program, so you don't have to worry about missing any key concepts by not going to campus. Keep in mind that you'll probably need to make a trip to campus for a seminar or residency at least once throughout your 2 years of study.

Getting Ahead With This Degree

The Federal Emergency Management Agency offers the Professional Development Series, which is a series of independent study courses designed for emergency management professionals. Completion of this series of courses may give you an advantage over other job candidates who have similar education and experience.

You may also want to look into becoming a Certified Emergency Manager (CEM), which is a designation awarded by the International Association of Emergency Managers. In order to become a CEM, you'll need to have at least 3 years of emergency management experience and pass the required exam. The CEM credential shows employers that you can oversee an emergency management program and you have knowledge of all the basic aspects of managing emergencies.

PhD in Disaster Management

Getting into a PhD program in disaster or emergency management is typically an intensely competitive process. Class sizes are small and you'll have a great deal of one-on-one time with advisors and professors. These interdisciplinary programs cover the research methods and techniques used to make emergency preparedness and response policies, manage disasters, create mitigation options and conduct data analysis.

Pros and Cons


  • Your research could potentially affect the way that disasters are dealt with and prevented in the future
  • Gives you a chance to focus your research on a specific area of disaster management that interests you
  • Could lead to a tenured position at a university


  • PhD programs in this field are highly competitive (sometimes only 2 students are admitted to a school's program each year)
  • You may have to move to find a job at a university, since most of these positions are highly competitive
  • Earning tenure is not guaranteed and can be extremely difficult
  • You could end up spending nearly 10 years in school (6-7 years for a bachelor's and a master's plus the time it takes to complete the PhD program)

Courses and Requirements

The courses that you'll take in a PhD program in disaster management depend largely on your chosen area of expertise. The following are a few courses that you might take:

  • Disaster research and theory
  • Community resilience and hazards risk management
  • Public safety diversity issues
  • Critical incident stress and management
  • Recovery strategy operations and development
  • Disasters and health care systems
  • Leadership in crisis

In addition to passing your qualifying exams and coursework, earning your PhD requires a significant amount of research and communication with your professors. You're required to present a dissertation proposal to a board of advisors and begin working on it after it's been approved. At the end of the program, you'll present and defend your dissertation before the board. Some schools may also require a practicum if you don't have enough field experience before the end of the program.

Online Degree Options

The nature of disaster management studies at the PhD level requires some trips to campus, even if most of your courses are able to be completed online. You'll need to be prepared to travel to campus at least once each year to participate in on-campus seminars. Dissertation and course requirements are the same in a distance learning program, but you may miss out on teaching or research assistantships since you won't be at the campus much.

Stand Out With This Degree

While earning your PhD in disaster management or a related field, there are a number of steps that you can take to stand out in the job market. The following are a few suggestions that you may find helpful:

  • Completing an internship or volunteering at a disaster management organization in the U.S. or overseas can not only be fulfilling and positive, but a solid way to gain experience and give a boost to your resume.
  • If you're pursuing a career in research or academia, seek out opportunities to get your work published in a peer-reviewed academic journal.
  • Talk to the disaster management faculty members at each school you're considering to find out what research opportunities you may have. Finding a professor who has similar interests may even lead to additional disaster management research opportunities in addition to your dissertation.

Popular Schools

  • Online Programs Available
    1. Walden University

    Program Options

      • PhD in Criminal Justice - General
      • PhD in Criminal Justice - Global Leadership
      • PhD in Criminal Justice - Online Teaching in Higher Education
      • PhD in Criminal Justice - Public Management & Leadership
      • PhD in Criminal Justice - Law & Public Policy
      • Doctor of Business Administration (DBA) - Homeland Security
  • Online Programs Available
    2. Northcentral University

    Program Options

      • Doctor of Business Admin - Criminal Justice
      • Doctor of Criminal Justice
      • Doctor of Criminal Justice - Policing
      • Doctor of Criminal Justice - White Collar Crime
      • PhD in Business Admin - Criminal Justice
      • Doctor of Business Admin - Homeland Security: Leadership & Policy
  • Fargo, ND

    North Dakota State University

  • Hattiesburg, MS

    University of Southern Mississippi

  • Omaha, NE

    University of Nebraska at Omaha

  • Chicago, IL

    University of Illinois at Chicago

  • East Lansing, MI

    Michigan State University

  • Little Rock, AR

    University of Arkansas at Little Rock

  • Albany, NY

    SUNY at Albany

Featured Schools

Walden University

  • PhD in Criminal Justice - General
  • PhD in Criminal Justice - Global Leadership
  • PhD in Criminal Justice - Online Teaching in Higher Education

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Northcentral University

  • Doctor of Business Admin - Criminal Justice
  • Doctor of Criminal Justice
  • Doctor of Criminal Justice - Policing

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