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Top Online PhDs in Public Administration for 2024

Discover the best online PhD in public administration programs. Learn advanced leadership skills, further your career, and prepare for high-level positions in public service and academia – all through the convenience of online learning.

Editor: STEPS Staff

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A man wearing a light blue shirt and a blue lanyard, likely holding a PhD, stands in front of an audience, gesturing with his hands. He is speaking and appears engaged, with several people in the foreground listening attentively. The background shows large windows letting in natural light.

Are you ready to take the next step in your public service career? You may already be working in the field and feel ready to step up into a leadership role in government or academia. A PhD in public administration online offers a convenient and flexible path to the top.

If you’re curious how your future career could look, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics notes a median pay of over $100,000 per year for top executives, including those in public service roles. The highest performers earned over $230,000 per year.

Interested in learning more? This guide covers everything you need to know about pursuing a PhD in public administration online. Whatever field you’re entering, from influencing public policy to teaching the next generation of public administrators, we’ll answer all your questions and suggest a few standout schools where you can earn your public administration PhD online.

Spotlight on the Best Online PhD Programs in Public Administration

Picking the right program and the right school is crucial for advancing your career in public service. You’ll find plenty of PhDs in public administration online that provide you both the theoretical knowledge and practical skill to excel in higher-level positions.

Thanks to their online nature, you’re free to pursue your PhD while balancing a demanding career. Learn from home and complete assignments fully online.

This section spotlights some of the best fully online PhD programs in public administration. Each offers flexible learning formats, rigorous coursework, and strong support networks to help you succeed.

Located in Norfolk, Virginia, Old Dominion University (ODU) provides a comprehensive online PhD in Public Administration & Policy. The goal is to develop expert leaders in fields ranging from nonprofits to government agencies. Whether your career involves social work or environmental science, ODU focuses on the knowledge you’ll need to work in any sector.

The 49 required credits include 37 hours of coursework and a research component. Topics covered include policy theory, applied statistics and data analysis, and electives in criminal justice and advanced research. You’ll also create and defend a dissertation (12 credits) before you graduate with full PhD honors.

Be prepared to show off your best academic work. Admissions are rigorous, requiring three letters of recommendation, a GPA of 3.25 or above, a resume, and an essay, among other requirements.

Program Highlights:

PhD in Public Administration & Policy

  • Credits: 49
  • Length: Varies
  • Cost: $620/credit (in-state), $642/credit (out-of-state online)
  • Accreditation: SACSCOC

Delivery:

  • Online
  • On-Campus
  • Part-Time
  • Full-Time

Specialization Options:

  • Public policy analysis
  • Criminal justice
  • Government

With Walden University, you can earn your public administration PhD online through one of the most reputable distance learning universities. The flexible and comprehensive curriculum requires at least 73 quarter credits, and it could be as many as 178 quarter credits depending on how many semesters you take to work on your dissertation.

The program includes four PhD residencies, a mandatory dissertation, and a variety of coursework ranging from foundational, core, and research courses. A well-rounded education is a big focus as you learn how to shape change in your community and take on high-level roles.

You can complete Walden University’s PhD program in three to eight years. Full-time and part-time students are all welcome.

Program Highlights:

PhD in Public Policy and Administration

  • Credits: 73-178 (quarter credits)
  • Length: Three to eight years
  • Cost: $685/quarter hour
  • Accreditation: HLC

Delivery:

  • Online
  • Hybrid
  • Part-Time
  • Full-Time

Specialization Options:

  • Global leadership
  • Homeland security policy
  • Nonprofit management and leadership

Tennessee State University is known for its NASPAA-accredited Master of Public Administration degree, so it makes sense to build on that program with the public administration PhD online.

Started in 1991, the program fosters leadership through 48 credits of courses that teach you the fundamentals alongside quantitative and research skills. After mastering the core curriculum and the benchmark exam, you’ll complete and defend your prospectus and dissertation. Upon completion, you’ll be fully prepared in roles that involve professional research or senior managers in public administration fields, especially those in business and academia.

Program Highlights:

PhD in Public Policy and Administration

  • Credits: 48
  • Length: Varies
  • Cost: $549/credit (in-state), $1,147/credit (out-of-state)
  • Accreditation: SACSCOC

Delivery:

  • Online
  • Part-Time
  • Full-Time

Specialization Options:

  • Academic public administration
  • Professional public administration

Earning a PhD in Public Administration Online

Unlike other fields that require more hands-on work, an online PhD in public administration is particularly suited to distance learning. For example, topics such as policy analysis and organizational management can be learned just as efficiently online.

Online programs are flexible but don’t compromise on the quality of education. While some people learn better in a classroom, others find that they’re much more comfortable learning from home. Partially online programs and residencies are common, however.

Before you commit to any program, read these key questions asked by students like you for insight into online courses.

Is the Online PhD in Public Administration Right for Me?

If you’re considering an online PhD in public administration over a traditional, on-campus option, it’s important to know how it works and how it could affect your career.

A PhD is built to equip you with advanced knowledge and proficiency in research as well as your field of study. Graduates of these programs often pursue roles such as director of public affairs, chief administrative officer, or public policy researcher, where they apply specialized knowledge and skills to address complex societal challenges. This type of degree may be ideal for early- or mid-career professionals seeking to advance into leadership positions in government agencies, nonprofit organizations, or research institutions.

You may also be a good fit for an online PhD program if you prefer the flexibility of remote learning. If you thrive in a self-directed learning environment and are comfortable with technology, online programs provide autonomy and convenience – without compromising on the quality of education.

Are PhD Programs in Public Administration Fully or Partially Online?

Online PhD programs are offered in two formats: 100% online and hybrid. In the case of public administration PhDs, most of the work can be done remotely, so fully online options are available. In a hybrid format, part of the curriculum is offered online, but you’ll need to show up on campus for at least some of the program.

Residencies are another common reason for hybrid studies. These are learning experiences in which you’ll have a chance to network in person and attend workshops. You may also be required to attend as part of your capstone project or dissertation. Some residencies can be done online, but many require your physical attendance.

An example of a program that requires in-person residencies is Walden University’s PhD in Public Policy and Administration, which has four residency periods scattered throughout the program.

Can I Get into an Online Public Administration PhD Program?

Like any PhD program, admission into online public administration PhDs is rigorous, with only the best students being accepted. Some of the requirements include:

  • A master’s degree in a related field
  • Relevant work experiences (in some cases, many years’ worth)
  • A competitive GPA, usually at least 3.0 to 3.25
  • GRE scores. Sometimes GSAT scores are an acceptable alternative.
  • Multiple letters of recommendation from academic and professional sources, often three or more
  • An essay or a statement of purpose which outlines your academic and career goals, and why you’re pursuing a PhD in public administration

Can I Specialize When Earning my PhD in Public Administration Online?

Public administration is a very broad field, and there are plenty of chances to specialize. Here are a few common tracks.

  • Public Policy Analysis and Evaluation: This specialization focuses on analyzing the effectiveness of public policies in addressing societal issues. You’ll be prepared for roles in policy research and evaluation.
  • Public Management and Leadership: In this track, you’ll focus specifically on developing strong leadership skills and learning strategies for effective management in the public sector. Administrative positions are common for graduates with this specialization.
  • Nonprofit Management: This specialization explores the unique challenges of leading nonprofit organizations, such as securing funding and preparing for audits. With this knowledge, you’ll be able to make a meaningful impact on the nonprofit sector.
  • Ethics and Transparency in Government: This track emphasizes ethical decision-making, promoting transparency and accountability within the government and its institutions. You’ll be prepared to tackle complex ethical dilemmas in public administration.
  • Urban and Regional Planning: For those who want to focus on sustainable city and regional planning, this specialization is perfect. Urban development, land use planning, and sustainability strategies are all part of the curriculum.
  • Technology and Public Administration: Exploring the intersection of technology and public governance, you’ll learn how to leverage the latest tech for more efficient and effective public administration practices.

What’s the Difference Between an Online PhD and DPA?

Though they’re both graduate programs, the difference between these two degrees is primarily in their areas of focus. The doctorate of public administration (DPA) is a professional doctorate with practical applications, ideal for mid- or late-career professionals. Meanwhile, PhDs are academically focused, best for those looking for careers in research and academia – and often, best for those still early in their career.

Below is a comparison highlighting key distinctions between the two degrees:

DPAPhD in Public Admin
Academic focusEvidence-basedResearch-based
Career trackClinical/professionalAcademia
Program type (common)Part-timeFull-time
Program length4-5 years5-7 years
Primary studentsMid-careerEarly career

Does a DPA sound like the better fit for you? Read our full guide about blended and online DPAs. (Page in progress, will add link in editing.)

What Is a Dissertation? Is It Different from a Capstone Project?

Unlike DPA programs, PhDs usually require a dissertation: a comprehensive research project that PhD students undertake to contribute original knowledge to the field of public administration. Creating a dissertation is a lengthy process, typically lasting years, and you may be required to defend your dissertation and show your knowledge.

As for a capstone project, these focus on addressing real-world problems in public administration and are more common in DPAs. Some PhD programs allow you to choose between a dissertation and a capstone project, so you’ll want to fully understand what your program of choice requires before applying.

How Much Does an Online PhD in Public Administration Cost?

PhD programs are the culmination of your educational career and are often a big commitment of time and money. Tuition can vary widely, from $26,000 to over $100,000. Luckily, financial aid for public service degrees and student loan forgiveness are available.

Take a look at this comparison of tuition for online PhD programs in public administration:

School NameNo. of CreditsCost/CreditTotal Cost
Old Dominion University49$620-$642$29,351-$31,458
Walden University73-178 (quarter credits)$685 (quarter hours)$57,785-$133,610
Tennessee State University48$549-$1,147$26,352-$55,056
University of Illinois Chicago64-96$407$26,048-$39,072
Liberty University48$595-$650$28,560-$31,200

What Type of Accreditation Should I Look for?

When selecting a PhD program in public administration, there are two types of accreditations to look for. The first is regional accreditation, such as HLC and SACSCOC. These ensure that the institution meets national educational standards.

The second is accreditation by specific organizations, including NASPAA, which accredits programs related to public policy and administration. NASPAA evaluates programs based on their curriculum, faculty, and student outcomes, ensuring they meet high standards in public service education.

Additional Resources for Public Administration Students and Professionals

Every prospective PhD student in public administration could use some helpful resources. These will help you get started as you tackle your PhD.

  • American Society for Public Administration (ASPA)
    ASPA is the leading professional association for public administration. It provides networking opportunities, professional development, and access to publications and conferences that keep members updated on the latest trends and research in the field.
  • Financial Aid for Public Administration Students
    Are you concerned about securing financial aid and scholarships for your online PhD in public administration? This resource walks you through support services and student resources available in your field.
  • GovLoop
    GovLoop is an online community that connects over 300,000 government employees and public sector professionals. Free resources include articles, guides, webinars, and training resources to help public administration professionals advance their careers.
  • International City/County Management Association (ICMA)
    ICMA provides resources and certification programs for local government professionals. It focuses on best practices in city and county management, offering valuable insights in professional development and connecting you with other professionals in the public administration sector.
  • National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA)
    NAPA is an independent, nonpartisan, and nonprofit organization dedicated to assisting government leaders with management challenges. Innovation and excellence in public service is a focal point, with the organization offering plenty of advisory services.
  • PA Times Online
    The PA Times Online is essential reading for public administration professionals looking for insight into the field. Articles, commentary, and modern research are all featured in this online publication run by ASPA.
  • Public Administration Review (PAR)
    PAR is a premier, peer-reviewed, academic journal in the field of public administration. It publishes high-quality research and case studies bimonthly, making it a vital resource for academics pursuing their PhD.
  • The Public Manager
    The Public Manager was a quarterly journal that ran from 2008 to 2017. Though it’s now inactive, you’ll still find a ton of useful insights and high-quality research in the archives.
  • PublicServiceCareers.org
    Ready to look for a job in public service? If you’re still focused on your studies, you’ll want to bookmark this link for later. This NASPAA-accredited service connects you to high-quality jobs in the public service sector.
  • What Can You Do with a Public Administration Degree?
    Are you still exploring career paths? If you’re rooted in academia, you may not be ready to choose a career just yet. This resource outlines the various job opportunities available to graduates in public administration.