Earning a Ph.D. in Public Administration Online

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October 5, 2021

College graduates with a passion for politics who are interested in pursuing a doctorate may feel unsure which degree can help them leave their mark on society. A Ph.D. in public administration may prove a good fit. Having this advanced degree under your belt can lead you to careers that influence policy, law, and regulation in the public sector.

Public administration doctoral programs online benefit working professionals and graduates looking to transition into specialized positions. Pursuing an accredited, affordable Ph.D. in public administration online could serve as the first step in a long career as a public servant. Read on to learn more about this unique online degree, including possible curricula, salary ranges, and the top-paying industries it serves.

What Can You Do with an Online Ph.D. in Public Administration?

Earning an online Ph.D. in public administration can elevate you to executive positions within city and state government or within research and lobbying organizations that influence policy, law, and regulation on the state and federal level. The field draws personalities with a passion for research and analytical political commentary. This list represents some career prospects for professionals holding Ph.D.s in public administration.

Mayor, Governor, City Manager, or County Administrator

Annual Median Salary: $104,700
Projected Growth Rate: 8%

Sometimes elected and sometimes appointed, mayors, governors, city managers, and county administrators occupy the chief executive positions of city and state governments. They oversee budgeting, programs, and resources. A Ph.D. in policy administration gives an official such as a city manager a firm grasp of how his/her decisions impact the governed and the landscape of democracy.

Policy Administrator

Annual Median Salary: $56,353
Projected Growth Rate: N/A

A policy administrator manages the development of policy programs in public organizations. A Ph.D. in public administration equips these administrators with the theoretical knowledge needed to guide large-scale programs effectively. Experience and management skills figure heavily in their work, but their knowledge of administrative theory gives a frame of reference.

Policy Analyst

Annual Median Salary: $56,353
Projected Growth Rate: N/A

A policy analyst usually works within government or for nongovernment lobby organizations to enact change in public policy. An online Ph.D. in public administration allows these analysts to use political science theory as a metric to help change, adjust, or implement policy. This profession often attracts those with an aptitude for research and theorizing.

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics / PayScale

The Top-Paying Industries for Chief Executives (Including Mayors, Governors, City Managers, or County Administrators)

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

Traits of a Successful Public Administration Professional

Public administration professionals draw on various skills to excel at their work. To figure out how to enact policy or manage budgets, they must read the people around them accurately and listen carefully to feedback. For instance, before proposing a change in policy, they must consider if the public will receive the amendment and/or determine its feasibility within budget and resource constraints. They also must study existing policy carefully, which requires strong skills in reading and a passion for research. Finally, these professionals must cultivate strong communication and listening skills to gather the information needed to make informed decisions.

Successful public administration professionals need strong reading comprehension skills, as their work entails hours of sifting through legal prose to make informed decisions or inform their guidance of others.
A professional in public administration needs strong speaking skills to communicate ideas to their colleagues and the public. This talent extends beyond regular effective verbal communication in the workplace to include delivering speeches and holding conferences.
In a public administration career, active listening skills facilitate the positive relationships needed to make policy and to manage resources effectively. Public administration professionals must listen carefully to public and professional feedback to make realistic choices.

Salary by Experience Level

Professionals who hold a Ph.D. in public administration can anticipate huge growth in their earning potential over time. As they build more experience navigating the complex dynamics of bureaucracy, they earn higher salaries and greater degrees of responsibility. For instance, an entry-level chief executive officer's earnings of nearly double by the end of his/her career. Managing these bureaucratic systems effectively and efficiently requires a unique skill set and experience.

Pay by Experience Level for Chief Executives Officer

Source: PayScale

Certifications and Licenses a Ph.D. in Public Administration Prepares For

Steps to Earning a Ph.D. in Public Administration Online

Breaking down your online Ph.D. in public administration program into steps may ease the process. Not all programs demand the same requirements or follow the same format, but most feature similar requisites, as the following list suggests.

Find the Right Program for You

When searching for an online Ph.D. in public administration, be sure the program's format fits your needs. For instance, if your schedule prevents you from attending in-person class meetings, confirm that your prospective program is offered fully online. Check to see if courses follow an asynchronous or synchronous format. A working professional's schedule may not accommodate synchronous courses, which incorporate set meeting times for online lectures.


In addition to completing a Ph.D. application, which generally entails a $100 fee, you'll need to follow a few additional steps. First, include a statement of purpose with your application, generally around one to two pages. Second, submit two or three letters of recommendation, your academic transcripts, and your GRE test scores. Some Ph.D. programs accept undergraduate degree holders while others require graduate.

Capstone, Dissertation, or Thesis

Ph.D. programs culminate with either a capstone or dissertation. A capstone is typically a more open-ended research project that could take the form of a portfolio, paper, or product addressing a real-world issue. The student presents the project in two parts: the deliverable, followed by a report that summarizes and justifies it. A dissertation is a long-form work of scholarship with an original thesis that investigates a real-world issue and uncovers new knowledge.

Fellowship or Internship

Some online Ph.D. in public administration programs incorporate opportunities for fellowships or internships. For an internship, students take an unpaid position at a company in exchange for experience or credit. Sometimes, positive internship experiences lead to job offers. A fellowship is a (usually merit-based) financial gift to pursue original scholarship that can last months or years. Fellowships and internships represent an opportunity to impress prospective employers and get a feel for what interests you.

Curriculum for an Online Ph.D. in Public Administration

  1. Study of Public Organizations: Students investigate administrative theory; the history of public organization; and legal, budgetary, and personnel issues within organizational dynamics. Course readings may draw upon theorists including Herbert Simon, Chester Barnard, and Max Weber, and target those interested in future careers as administrators, political scientists, and educators in the public sector.

  2. Governance and Politics: Students explore the concept of governance and its relationship to public policy and democracy. The course may examine these relationships through critical lenses such as Marxism, new institutionalism, and rational choice theory. A professional working in public administration needs a theoretical grasp on the relationship between government and public policy to enact policy effectively.

  3. Advanced Economics for Public Administration and Public Policy: In this course, students learn how concepts from microeconomics apply to public administration. Topics may include market efficiency, tax incidence, and cost-benefit analysis. Ph.D. in public administration holders draw on knowledge of microeconomics when analyzing the effectiveness of policy decisions or managing and overseeing finances for their organization or government.

  4. Nonprofit Management: This course considers learners interested in working in nonprofits. Topics may include fundraising for nonprofits, ethical issues in nonprofit management, and the history of the nonprofit sector. The course may also figure heavily in a public administration doctoral program that offers a concentration in nonprofit management.

  5. Organizational Behavior: Learners in online programs often take advanced coursework in organizational behavior to develop effective management skills. Topics may include conflict management and organizational change. Ph.D.s in public administration must grasp management concepts to communicate with teams working under them and other groups such as legislators and interest groups.

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