Guide to Public Policy Programs
Resources on this page
See how to put your degree to work as a policy analyst or planning specialist.
Expect to learn about policy processes, statistics and microeconomics in your public policy program.
Specialize in fields such as U.S. policy, terrorism, and foreign trade to shape your career path in public policy.
Compare careers options and salaries within various public policy areas, including nonprofit, public, and private sectors.
Learn How You Can Study Public Policy
Public policy schools offer degrees in a traditional setting, online, or in a combination of online and on-campus classes. At the bachelor’s level, the most reputable public policy programs are available as traditional programs in well-known universities. While online public policy master’s programs are common, at the PhD level, there are fewer online options, and most students will have to complete at least part of their coursework on campus.
Brick-and-mortar vs. Online Public Policy Programs
Online public policy programs offer very similar curricula to those of traditional programs, so there is no need to shy away from distance learning options. Even so, you should attend an on-campus program if you can, since traditional public policy students benefit from the networking connections they make. In a personable field such as public policy, those connections can be crucial when pursuing jobs or promotions. Furthermore, brick-and-mortar programs offer semester abroad programs, such as a semester in Washington, D.C, where students can collaborate with public policy professionals and experience the reality of the job.
Learn What Public Policy Graduates Do
At any level, a public policy degree opens the door to a variety of career options that allow you to shape the legislative agendas of national or international governments or the missions and goals of NGOs and similar institutions.
Graduates of public policy programs often work as policy analysts for governments and think tanks, which are organizations that provide research and consultancy. Policy analysts spend much of their time researching a specific topic, collecting and analyzing data, evaluating the outcomes of existing policies, assessing the ethics of policies, and sharing their research with policymakers through books, newsletters, and fact sheets.
Public policy analysts who work for think tanks also spend time pursuing funding for research and seeking grant money for policy projects. Some analysts have a dual role of entrepreneur and researcher, in that they must investigate which clients and donors are potential stakeholders in order to secure funding for projects. Other graduates of public policy programs work for NGOs or other organizations as urban planning specialists.
See if you fit the profile of a typical public policy student
Students who study public policy are committed to the public good and to shaping public policy and legislation in their future careers. They are civically minded, often have experience in community programs, social work, or NGOs, and want to work in the public sector for most of their careers, whether in the U.S. or abroad. They also tend to excel in research, writing, and statistics. Finally, they typically have very strong leadership skills and a desire to pursue leadership positions.
If these characteristics describe you, a degree in public policy is a good choice for you. On the other hand, if you tend to be introverted and are uncomfortable being in charge of others, this is not the right path for you.
Find Out How to Earn a Public Policy Degree
Although the majority of your advanced coursework will depend on your specialization, most public policy programs also consist of several core classes in policy analysis, advanced economics, quantitative analysis, and policymaking.
Discover what you will do in public policy colleges
Many public policy courses require students to provide in-depth analysis of diverse policy topics from a statistical angle as well as a theoretical or sociological angle. All public policy coursework requires strong research, writing, and critical analysis skills, and many professors encourage students to show leadership in group work.
In an undergraduate public policy program, you can expect to complete a series of reading-intensive courses in government, public policy, and economics. Most public policy programs also require that you take a statistics course, in addition to a series of approved electives mostly in the liberal arts, including history, sociology, religion, psychology, and business. You can also choose from more math and economics electives if you prefer to pursue a career requiring strong skills in statistical analysis.
See what public policy courses you will take:
Microeconomics for Public Policy
As public policy is related to economics, this course teaches students to apply microeconomic analysis to public policy. You will learn about models of consumer and firm behavior, market systems, public goods, market failure, and benefit-cost analysis, as well as how government regulation affects economic policy.
Governance and Policy Processes
In this course, students examine the processes of governance in the United States as compared to other democracies. They analyze how the three branches of government work together and how the public and private sectors interact, as well as the role of nonprofit and international organizations in this process.
Statistical Methods for Policy Analysis
In this course, you will learn how to use various methods in statistical and regression analysis to analyze public policies. You will learn and apply various theories of statistical analysis, including the Gauss-Markov Theorem, as well as how to use statistical applications such as STATA.
Theory and Practice of Public Policy
In this core course, students are introduced to the key concepts they use throughout their degree program, with an emphasis on ethics and historical foundations. This course often has a team or group component in which students work together on real-world examples of public policy in practice.
Organizations and Management
In this course, students explore the role of management in government and nonprofit institutions. They learn current management theory and practice, often applying business practices in the public sphere, as well as critically analyzing different theories of management.
In this course, students focus on how the legislative process can be used to address social problems, both in the U.S. and around the world. They examine issues in community well-being and develop a critical assessment of social programs while keeping in mind specific economic, cultural, and other factors of a given region.
Professional Development Internship
Most public policy programs offer students a chance to apply their knowledge and gain new skills in a supervised summer or semester-long internship. These internships often take place in government or nonprofit offices and give students a chance to develop professionally and increase their leadership skills. Internship opportunities usually require a paper or project upon completion to earn credit.
Consider your specialization
Because public policy is such a broad field, there are a variety of specializations to choose from, and in general your choice of specialization will shape your career path in public policy. For example, if you would like to work for the U.S. government, you can specialize in government policy or law and public policy. If you see yourself working at a local level, there are specializations such as local government management or social and urban policy available. Specializations such as international and global affairs or international trade and finance can lead to a career as a diplomat or a consultant to a multinational corporation.
In a bachelor’s program, you can choose an emphasis in public management, health policy, urban planning, and real estate development. Some programs, such as the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan, allow students to form their own specialization by choosing upper-level courses from a variety of areas within the university. Some public policy master’s programs offer specializations in such areas as national security, community and urban policy, and economic policy. A PhD will allow you to specialize even further when choosing the topic of your dissertation, making it possible for you to graduate as an expert in your field of choice, which can open the door to career paths as a researcher at a think tank, a senior nonprofit manager, or a college professor.
Discover the Public Policy Degree Levels Schools Offer
You can study public policy at the following degree levels:
A bachelor’s in public policy typically takes four years to complete. Public policy at the undergraduate level prepares students for entry-level work in both nonprofit organizations and for-profit companies that work with policy matters and urban planning.
A master’s in public policy typically takes two to three years, and while you can apply for a master’s program directly after receiving an undergraduate degree, most programs prefer applicants with professional experience in government, NGOs, or similar institutions. A master’s degree is sufficient for most careers in public service, lower management positions for NGOs, or research positions in a think tank.
A PhD in public policy typically takes three to four years, and many people choose to pursue their doctorate while working as professionals in the field of public policy. With a PhD in public policy you can pursue a career in higher public offices, on the board or as top management of an NGO, or as a full researcher in a think tank or university.
Don’t worry too much about accreditation as you choose a school. The National Association of Schools of Public Affairs and Administration (NASPAA) is the accrediting agency that evaluates and standardizes public policy programs in the United States. While attending an accredited institution is preferred because it assures a quality education, it is not essential in this field since there are no licensing requirements.
Discover the Job Outlook for Public Policy Professionals
The most popular area for public policy graduates to work is Washington, D.C., which is not only the center of the U.S. government but also the location of the headquarters of thousands of national and international NGOs, think tanks, and other nonprofit organizations.
Salaries for public policy graduates can vary widely; according to PublicServiceCareers.org the lowest salaries tend to be in the nonprofit sector, followed by the public sector, with the highest average salaries in the private sector. The highest level of government policy analysts earn between $93,000 and $145,000, while lower level analysts who assist other experienced analysts earn just under $32,000. Salaries at think tanks also vary considerably, depending on the organization’s size and source of funding.