What is a Public Policy Degree?

Students in a public policy degree program study the world of public affairs and leadership. They take courses from various disciplines to attempt to answer complex questions like: What do we need to do to find solutions to social problems? Classes span political science, law, criminal justice, economics, public administration, human services, and sociology. Coursework includes analysis of governments and other public institutions and how they tackle issues and policy problems.

Ultimately, the objective of every public policy curriculum is to teach students how to take an analytical approach to designing, implementing, and evaluating public policy at local, state, and national levels.

Program Options

Bachelor’s Degree in Public Policy – Four Year Duration
While the most common degree held by public policy professionals is a master’s, bachelor’s programs do exist. Many of them offer specialization options. Some examples are:

  • Communication and Policy Studies – communication technologies and regulation
  • Development Policy Studies – human rights, human development, and global economic relations
  • International Policy Studies – international relations and conflict, security and intelligence
  • Public Policy and Administration – social policy, economic policy, environmental and energy policy

Courses offered in these programs include:

  • Writing for Public Policy
  • Public Administration
  • Introduction to Constitutional Law
  • Public Speaking
  • Research Principles and Statistics and Public Policy
  • Public Policy and Governance: Challenges
  • Comparative Public Policy

Graduates with a Bachelor’s Degree in Public Policy generally find employment in support and assistant roles in the public policy field.

Master’s Degree in Public Policy – Two Year Duration
This degree is often referred to as an ‘MPP.’ Public policy master’s students typically choose a specialization like those listed above, under the heading Bachelor’s Degree in Public Policy. Some schools offer wider concentrations, such as social policy, compliance, and public leadership.

Coursework at the master’s level expands upon the subjects listed in the Bachelor’s Degree in Public Policy section and covers topics such as:

  • Microeconomics for Public Policy
  • Governance and Institutions
  • Policy Evaluation
  • Implementing Public Objectives
  • Media Literacy
  • Ethics in Public Policy
  • Policy Development
  • Comparative Healthcare Policy
  • Policy and Politics

In addition to completing course requirements, MPP candidates must complete a community project or research paper.

MPP graduates often go on to work as policy analysts, advocates, and lobbyists.

Doctoral Degree in Public Policy – Three to Four Year Duration
Ph.D. degree programs in public policy combine coursework, exams, and defending a doctoral dissertation. Working closely with a faculty advisor, students conduct advanced research in an area such as:

  • Social Policy and Inequality
  • Governance
  • Innovation, Science, and Technology Policy

Ph.D. graduates often enter academic and research positions which move the study of public policy forward.

Degrees Similar to Public Policy

Business Administration
Business administration is about overseeing a business’s finances, staffing, and contract negotiations. Degree programs in the field, therefore, teach students how to plan, organize, and direct all the activities of an organization.

Public policy asks questions about policy at a specific level of government in a specific region. Economics asks wider questions about world economies, how governments should respond to financial crises, how stock prices and exchange rates are set, and how to help people living in poverty.

Emergency and Security Management
Students of emergency and security management learn about disaster response and recovery. Their coursework includes emergency planning and preparedness, crisis management, and public policy and legal issues in emergency management.

Healthcare Administration
This degree field is focused on administration of healthcare policy, services, and facilities. Students learn about healthcare law; healthcare ethics; healthcare economics, finance, and human resources; and long-term care and aging.

Law Enforcement
This degree field addresses management practices and criminal justice and prepares students for leadership roles in law enforcement. Common classes include criminology, criminal law, criminal justice administration, and police and community relations.

Public Administration
Students who enrol in a degree program in public administration learn about the process of implementing policy at the various levels of government and within non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and non-profits. As part of their studies, they typically investigate a variety of public issues, from environmental protection to crime fighting, homelessness, unemployment, and drug abuse.

Urban Planning
This field of study is closely connected to public policy in that both are concerned with issues that impact citizens. In simple terms, urban planners design communities and determine where buildings will go. They must also make these decisions while considering the placement of roads, highways, utilities, parks, and other urban projects.

Skills You’ll Learn

Communication, Public Speaking, and Collaboration
Effectively advising on public policy calls for effective debate of ideas that are proposed and presented.

Before a policy can be recommended and implemented, it must be investigated and researched.

Data Analysis and Information Technology
Individuals who are responsible for analyzing public policy become comfortable with analyzing large sets of quantitative and qualitative data and using information technology.

Critical Thinking, Problem-Solving, and Creativity
In the field of public policy, conducting research and analyzing it must be followed by critical evaluation and creative solutions.

Report Writing
Public policy analysis inevitably involves writing reports and proposals.

Public Awareness
Students of public policy quickly learn the importance of staying informed on relevant current events, public opinions, and political issues and developments.

Sensitivity to Public Interests
In considering implementation of policy, professionals in the field must first and foremost examine options that serve the public interest.

What Can You Do with a Public Policy Degree?

Public policy professionals may choose to work independently and lend their expertise to businesses and associations dealing with issues, challenges, and organizational change.

In the education sector, individuals with a public policy background may be called upon to study policies within the educational system that affect students, teachers, and administrators. They may, for example, investigate the impact of class sizes on teaching and learning. With the appropriate teaching credential, they may also teach public policy at the post-secondary level.

Financial Services
In this large business sector, which includes banking, investments, insurance and real estate, public policy experts often work as compliance managers – who make sure that a company is conducting business according to the laws that pertain to its industry – and market analysts.

Government departments and agencies hire public policy analysts to study and make recommendations concerning proposed legislation or government programs, such as housing or emergency management.

In the healthcare sector, public policy activities include analysis of and recommendations regarding procedures in hospitals and physicians’ offices. Patient privacy and the way that palliative care is managed are examples of particularly sensitive areas for which proper policy is key.

Individuals with a background in public policy may find opportunities to apply their knowledge in related news writing, reporting, and broadcast environments. Those who combine public policy and journalism studies would naturally have an advantage when seeking to enter the field as a journalist.

A public policy degree is often valued in the legal sector, particularly in support roles such as paralegal, which involves conducting legal research and managing databases.

Market Research
The analytical aspect of an education in public policy lends itself to opportunities to work in the area of market research, which requires examination of market conditions to identify target audiences and predict potential sales of a product or service.

Non-governmental Organizations (NGOs)
Much like governments, NGOs need public policy experts to analyze and manage programs and initiatives. In addition, they campaign and lobby to raise awareness and influence government policies on various issues, such as human rights, improving welfare for the disadvantaged, and the environment.

Political parties and campaigns are one of the more common employers of public policy experts.

Social and Community Services
In this sector, public policy professionals identify and coordinate services offered by social and community organizations. This typically involves working with potential funders and writing grant proposals.


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