Is a PhD in Public Policy Worth It?

Oct 20, 2018

Deciding whether a PhD in public policy is worth the time and expense really comes down to what you want to do for a career. In this article, we'll look at a description of the public policy PhD program, as well as some career options.

Careers for a PhD in Public Policy

Position Median Salary (2017) Career Outlook (2016-2026)
Political Science Professor $81,430 11%
Marketing Manager $132,230 10%
Community Service Manager $64,100 18%
Political Scientist $115,110 3%
Emergency Management Director $72,760 8%

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Job Options for a PhD in Public Policy

Political Science Professor

As a professor, you'll find that your tenure allows you to study and research topics that might not be quite so easily researched outside of academia. Along with a variety of course topics, you'll teach students the skills needed to find work in public policy and political science fields. A PhD is most commonly required from accredited universities for their teachers, specifically in the graduate level courses. Along with lecturing and discussion groups, you may also take on the role of mentor for students or club members.

Marketing Manager

With a public policy PhD, you may increase your chances for a leadership position, such as becoming a marketing manager. Through the skills you have gained from your education, you'll be able to recognize trends and develop strategies, both in pricing and demographics, on products and services. You'll be able to recognize issues with customer satisfaction, and you may even be a part of the advertising and marketing plans for future products. You should also be able to plan market research to better estimate the demand for products.

Community Service Manager

As a public policy graduate, if you are interested in helping specific demographics and groups, you can get involved with community service organizations to create programs and fight for better funding and policies. Though a master's degree is acceptable, a PhD will give you the background knowledge in research and leadership that can help you as a manager. You'll collect statistics to show how a program is or isn't working, and research ways to improve programs already in place. You will also work with budgeting and write reports to seek more funding from the government or donors.

Political Scientist

Political scientists do a lot of research, which is why most organizations look for those with a PhD. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, roughly 48% of political scientists work in the federal government. As a political scientist, you'll monitor trends, current events, policies, and political theories to see how they are accepted by the people and you'll also research and analyze a lot of data, such as public opinion surveys. Finally, you can also move into a policy analyst position, which looks specifically at public policies in the country.

Emergency Management Director

It's important to note that an emergency manager need only a bachelor's degree to enter the field. However, a post-graduate degree, like the PhD in public policy, will give you the management skills needed to lead teams, as well as the research and writing skills needed to create emergency plans and easy-to-understand procedures. As a director, you'll be at the top position of a team, reviewing local emergency operations, and assessing the possibility of emergency situations. Once a disaster strikes, you'll run command centers to manage emergency operations and obtain supplies for the community where necessary.

PhD in Public Policy Program Description

PhD programs typically take an additional two years on top of your master's degree. Whether or not that time spent is worth it may be weighed against these program points.


It's important to note that many of the public policy programs have concentrations on which you can narrow your focus. As mentioned before, public policy provides a wide knowledge base, so these concentrations give you the opportunity to focus your studies in the area you'd like to pursue for a career. Some concentration areas can include health policy, emergency management, homeland security, terrorism & mediation, public management, and nonprofit leadership.


PhDs culminate in a capstone project called a dissertation. These dissertations give you the chance to apply research methodologies learned throughout your studies. You'll research on a topic or theory that could greatly affect your field. These dissertations are often hundreds of pages long, so you need to be prepared for the challenge of semesters of research and hours of writing.


Since you'll find that PhD programs tend to be run through graduate schools or public policy-specific schools (within a university), tuition costs will be much higher than undergraduate costs. You will typically find that colleges provide a per-credit cost rather than a semester's tuition. This is likely because graduate students do not need to follow the same full-time/part-time credits requirements that undergraduates must. This allows students a more flexible schedule.

Salary Difference

When considering whether or not a PhD program is worth it, you may want to look at the salary difference in general. For instance, according to, in 2018, those with a master's degree in public policy earned an average salary of $64,000. In comparison, PhD holders in the same area and year earned an average salary of $70,000. So, when considering the amount of student loans and time it will take for you to earn your PhD, consider whether the average salary difference makes it worth it to you.

Looking at the public policy PhD program description can allow you to see whether or not you think that the time and effort put into the program is worth it to you personally. There are many different careers that a public policy PhD holder can get you into, most specifically in leadership and academia.

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