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Online Degrees in Public Policy and Administration


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Public service professionals devote their lives to tackling some of the weightiest problems in our society. Those might include global warming; education and health care for children living in poverty; ending the HIV epidemic; and securing countries around the globe from biological, chemical and nuclear terrorism. The main public policy arenas include public health, education, science and technology, family/gender and social policy, gerontology, social welfare, the environment, emergency management and many more.

An absolute commitment to public service and a desire to effect positive change are the primary motivators for pursuing a career in public policy and administration. Other personality traits differ depending on one's area of public policy. Those interested in working to change health care laws, for example, need a different skill set than those who want to work with disadvantaged families or coordinate disaster relief efforts.

An online education degree in public administration teaches the skills necessary to manage an organization and provides the analytical tools to evaluate policy options, develop political strategies, understand the implications of policy choices and conduct and assess research projects.

The field offers so many different career possibilities that choosing an educational path can seem overwhelming. Identifying personal interests can help. Research and analysis is a good choice for detail-oriented individuals, while management and administration may be right for the business-minded and those who lean toward sales might be interested in advocacy. Starting with a general education at the undergraduate level before deciding on a public policy administration specialty to pursue at the graduate level can be an excellent strategy.

Most public policy and administration positions require at least a master's degree. Associate and bachelor's degrees, which are rarely considered terminal degrees in the field, can provide an excellent basic foundation for further study.

Unlike some other fields, public administration graduate education divides into two distinct career paths -- a master's degree, which focuses on preparing for public service careers, or a doctoral degree, which most often leads to theoretical research and university level teaching. Many master's degree concentrations are also offered as graduate certificates to those who need expertise in a specific area of public policy.

To get more information, browse through our network of schools and find a program most appropriate for you.

For working mid-career or executive professionals, who comprise a significant number of the students in this field, online degrees in public policy and administration provide a convenient and sensible educational choice. Online education also offers students the opportunity to network with a wide spectrum of colleagues and professionals in the field.

Coursework in public policy degree programs ranges from quantitative courses in statistics and economics to qualitative courses in social policy or race, class and gender. At the graduate level, many online degrees in public policy require an internship or individual research project in the student's area of focus. Public policy is a hands-on field that involves working closely with public officials and community members. Online coursework provides a foundation in the principles and theories necessary to help tackle the world's most wicked problems.

Public policy and administration at a glance:

  • Popular specialties: Public health, gerontology, the environment, disaster relief, social welfare
  • Typical education requirements: Master's degree, doctoral degree
  • Salary range for selected careers: $41,360 -- mental health and substance abuse counselors; $50,270 -- health educators; $66,020 -- urban and regional planner; $99,350 -- economists (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2010)

Individuals interested in researching and analyzing public policy with an eye toward creating effective solutions to real world problems can benefit from earning a doctoral degree in public policy and administration. Upon graduation, students can advance into leadership roles in education, government or the nonprofit world.

Programs and Specializations

Public policy and administration doctoral degrees include the Doctor of Philosophy, or Ph.D., and the Doctor of Public Administration, or DPA. According to the National Association of Schools of Public Affairs and Administration, the Ph.D. in public policy and administration provides training for research and scholarship, while the DPA focuses on applied skills such as conflict resolution, leadership and negotiation.

At the doctoral level, students choose an area of specialization in public policy based on their own interests and career goals as well as the strengths of their program. Areas of concentration include education policy, urban planning, health care policy, law and criminology.

Individual programs may also require prerequisite knowledge of, or supplemental coursework in, economics, psychology, sociology, political science and ethics.Online public policy and administration doctoral degree programs may also require periodic face-to-face or virtual residencies to enhance a student's development as a scholar or practitioner, to meet and network with other students who share the same academic interests, and to meet faculty.

What Does a Doctoral Degree Program in Public Policy and Administration Entail?

Although there are school and program variations, most public policy and administration doctoral degree programs, which take approximately five years to complete, include the following components.

  • Coursework: Core courses include topics such as approaches to public policy analysis, data analysis and research methods. Concentration courses depend on specialization and could include public sector budgeting, health administration, nonprofit management and more. Comprehensive exams are generally required at the end of the coursework phase.
  • Dissertation: Candidates generally explore and critique a real-world problem or practice, make an original contribution to public policy knowledge, or extend existing knowledge, depending on the focus of the doctoral degree program. The dissertation must be defended in front of a faculty committee.
  • Internships may be required at some schools.

Most doctoral degree programs require a master's in public policy, public administration or a related field as well as prior work experience. Some programs accept students with only a bachelor's degree, but additional coursework may be required.

If you're ready to start exploring your Ph.D. options, browse through the schools below. Request more information or arrange to speak to a representative from programs that interest you.

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