Public policy graduate programs aim to prepare students to guide government and nonprofit organizations through quantitative analysis and legal expertise. To support this goal, programs dedicate time to building skills like data analysis, statistics, and research techniques. Further, they might teach students to apply this knowledge to perform studies on the impact of political and legislative decisions on different communities, interests, and social groups. Courses may also discuss the ethical implications of those research findings, and examine how public administration, nonprofits, and legislators might put those findings into action.
Public policy graduate programs are interdisciplinary courses of study, sharing concepts with subjects as wide-ranging as economics, sociology, political science, business, finance, and law. However, programs tend to emphasize quantitative skills and analytics. So while some courses may, for example, cover essentials of how different political, social, and government systems work, they generally do that to facilitate more effective research and decision making in these areas.
Many programs also offer concentration options, enabling students to focus their expertise on a certain area of public policy analysis. This could include topics like health policy, terrorism, urban policy, economic development, and global affairs, just to name a few. Some programs may include these topics as elective courses rather than formal areas of focus. In those cases, students might opt to pursue advanced study of a certain area, or survey a broad range of social and political issues within public policy.
Public policy graduate program curricula seeks to provide a comprehensive understanding of political and legal systems, and their impacts. While the specifics may
vary by school, program and concentration, here’s an example of the types of courses they might include.
- Ethics and Social Justice: Many public policy programs include some component related to ethics and/or social justice as they apply to policy. This type of course may touch on topics like socioeconomic status, social privilege, and cultural demographics in different communities.
- Public Policy and Governance: While public policy programs often focus on analysis, some courses may look at the systems being analyzed. This could involve examining different systems of government, theories of governance, and research and best practices that guide policy decisions.
- Leadership and Organizational Change: Public, nonprofit, and government organizations may use policy analysis to initiate, analyze, and plan for internal and strategic change. Students may examine how to facilitate that change, and how policy research may be utilized to make that process as effective as possible.
- Economics: Generally, this would actually be a series of courses rather than a single one. Public policy programs may not only examine economics at a small and large scale in itself. They might also build on that knowledge to discuss how economic theory and research could influence policy decisions, and how policy could impact the economy. Courses may also look at economic research methodology and analysis.
- Quantitative Methods in Policy Analysis: Again, in many cases, this may be a series of related courses rather than only one course. This type of course would examine different methods to analyze the impact of policy decisions, and forecast the potential effect of potential policy changes in a given community or with respect to certain demographics.
- Program Evaluation: Policy analysts may be called to analyze the effectiveness of current programs, and to use that analysis to make an educated recommendation for their future. Program evaluation courses look at how to apply quantitative research methods to scientifically analyze that effectiveness. Courses may also discuss interpreting those findings to make them actionable.
The above is not an exhaustive list. As such, in your selected program, you might find some not represented above, or that vary from those descriptions. For more information about what, specifically, might be covered in your curriculum, reach out to your selected school.
What’s The Difference Between Public Policy, Administration, & Political Science?
Public policy, public administration, and political science can easily be confused. After all, the subjects share a great deal. For example, all three of them touch on the creation, interpretation and application of law to address social and economic issues. However, there may be a few key differences in how they go about that.
- Public Policy refers to the principles that guide decision-making in a legal sense. It also concerns how those principles might influence legislation. Public policy graduate programs, meanwhile, tend to be analytical in nature. They focus on research data and economics, which could be used by government, public agencies, and nonprofits to guide the decision-making process.
- Public Administration focuses more on leadership, particularly in the public and nonprofit sector. These kinds of programs, compared to public policy, may place a greater emphasis on developing administrative skills. As a result, they may cross over in some areas with business administration. Examples include topics like personnel management, grant writing, etc.
- Political Science generally focuses on the process of political decision-making and legislation and the theory behind it. They may share a great deal with both public administration and policy.
Because these areas are so closely related, some programs may overlap in terms of curriculum and course content. As such, it’s useful to remember what makes each one unique, and where each one might apply in the field.
Types of Public Policy Graduate Programs
Public policy graduate programs tend to be somewhat academic in nature across the board and research focused. The difference, as degrees advance, often involves the level of specificity in that research, and the amount to which it could be self-directed. Requirement and depth of study may also vary.
Three different basic types of public policy graduate programs may be offered.
- Masters in Public Policy Programs: These two year degree programs are also referred to as MPP programs. MPP programs seek to provide a deep understanding of research methodology and analysis as applied to policy, legislation, and various social and political issues. While in some cases, programs might orient around a certain topic or concentration area, many other MPP programs are generalized, surveying a broad range of issues to develop a more varied expertise. They often incorporate a thesis or capstone requirement as a prerequisite for culmination. A bachelor’s degree is typically needed to attend. Programs may in some cases ask for relevant professional experience as well.
- Public Policy Doctoral Programs: Unlike masters programs, many public policy doctoral programs center on a specific policy issue or research topic. This is often somewhat self-directed, and more in-depth than might be found in a MPP program. As such, specific curriculum requirements may vary by program and student. Doctoral programs generally culminate with a dissertation requirement. However, some programs may alternately ask for a capstone.
- Graduate Public Policy Certificate Programs: These programs are a shorter, non-degree option which generally requires fewer courses. As a result, many public policy certificate programs might focus more narrowly on a specific topic within public policy. This could allow students to build expertise in a certain area relevant to their interests, responsibilities, or community. It may serve to enhance the education and experience they already have. Or act as an introduction to the field. Graduate certificates in public policy might be offered at the masters or post-masters level.
Within each degree type, programs might have different goals and areas of focus. Often, whether a program asks for a thesis, dissertation, or capstone is a good way to distinguish between them. Capstone projects are often found in career-focused programs, whereas a thesis or dissertation might be characteristic of a more scholarly program. But what's the difference? A thesis or dissertation is written alone and takes the form of a research paper or essay that analyzes a hypothesis. Meanwhile, a capstone might be completed either alone or on a team, depending on the requirements in that program. A capstone also tends to reflect in some way the work one might do in the field. It could be a research paper or presentation, a portfolio piece, a case study, or something else.
Different Formats To Earn Your Public Policy Degree
Just like every community has different public policy needs, every student may have unique learning needs. Public policy graduate programs could be offered in a variety of unique formats. This could enable prospective students to find one that fits their lifestyle.
Public policy program formats fall into three basic categories.
- Public Policy Graduate Schools: These programs offer advanced public policy education anchored on a local campus, in community. That unique perspective could be valuable in a field like public policy, which works to better that community through legislative policy and public programs. Students could study under professors not just with research and practical experience, but also with knowledge of the reality and concerns relevant to the people in the area. Graduate school programs may also offer supportive resources to enhance that education. This could include work areas that simulate what you’d find in the field, lab and research space, and more. Some schools may also have local connections to help students find internship experience or network to support a job search closer to graduation.
- Online Public Policy Graduate Programs: These programs, delivered digitally through an online course module, are a flexible and portable option. This could be especially useful if you already play an active public policy role in your community and wish to maintain a career. Many online programs use technology to deliver similar services as graduate school programs. For example, some schools may offer digital simulations of real-life scenarios, or incorporate technology similar to how one might use it in the workforce. Choosing to study online also allows students to consider programs from across the country. So you could attend a program narrowly focused on your interests, regardless of what state it’s operated from.
- Hybrid Public Policy Graduate Programs: These programs blend online and campus learning to offer a flexible, but still campus-oriented option. That’s why you might also see them referred to as blended or partially online. Like graduate school programs, they’re anchored on campus in a local community, and may have a uniquely local perspective with respect to public policy. But with the addition of online learning, hybrid programs may offer the flexibility to accommodate dedicated professionals already working to make a difference.
Example Public Policy Career Info
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Public policy applies in local, state and federal government, nonprofit organizations and even in corporate environments. As such, there may be many career paths for graduates of public policy programs to choose from. One popular option is to pursue a role as a public policy analyst. Analysts perform and dissect research to understand the effects of legislation and political decisions on the community as a whole and different segments within it. These findings could then be applied constructively, to build strategies that inform the creation and application of legislation going forward. Policy analysts might also evaluate the effectiveness of public programs, and make recommendations to improve said programs, or consult with corporations or agencies.
Many policy analysts hold a masters or doctorate in public policy or a closely related field, along with practical field and academic research experience. However, some entry-level employment may be available at the bachelor’s level, such as research assistance, or working with political campaigns or nonprofits.
Take the Next Step with our List of 14 Public Administration and Public Policy Graduate Programs
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