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Explore emerging and overlooked issues as you define the future of policy research, education and practice.

The Doctor of Philosophy degree in Policy Studies (POSI) is an advanced scholarly degree that prepares you for a career in higher education teaching and research, and for policy leadership positions in the public, private and nonprofit sectors. With an individually structured program tailored to your particularly topic of interest, the PhD degree provides you with the methodological training, substantive knowledge base and faculty mentorship to develop as a policy scholar and practitioner.   

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Program Structure

To advance to candidacy and focus fully on your dissertation, you must complete the following:

Public policy scholarship is heterogeneous and involves many different methodologies. Often, and perhaps ideally, methods are combined. The public policy doctoral dissertation can be described as:

  1. Selecting a policy problem for analysis, if not a solution
  2. Proposing and refining a testable hypothesis
  3. Locating or creating evidence, followed by its formal evaluation
  4. Interpreting findings
  5. Presenting results in a way that solves, or at least reconceptualizes, the problem originally chosen for study

To support the methodological foundation of your dissertation, you are required to take two methodology courses:

  1. PLCY798R Quantitative Research Methods and Public Policy
  2. PLCY798Z Qualitative Research Methods and Public Policy

In preparation for your comprehensive and specialization exams, you are required to complete 24 credits (typically 8 courses) of graduate level work. Your course plan should be developed in consultation with your faculty advisor and the PhD Program Director to best support your research.

You should strongly consider taking advantage of courses offered throughout the University to complement the interdisciplinary nature of Public Policy. Students often take courses from the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics, the Department of Economics, the College of Education and the Joint Program in Survey Methodology.  Your faculty advisor and the PhD Program Director are well placed to advise you on suitable courses.

Each year, at the beginning of the Fall semester, at the end of the winter term and after the end of the Spring semester, designated faculty members will offer a set of written exams testing three core disciplines: microeconomic, normative and political analysis of policy issues. These exams are based on material covered in courses, supplemented by additional readings that are provided several months in advance of the exams. In addition, a quantitative methods requirement must be met by successfully completing and defending a research paper. 

You must pass all four comprehensive exams (microeconomic, normative, political analysis and quantitative), in addition to exams in areas of specialization, prior to defending your dissertation prospectus and advancing to candidacy. All comprehensive exams follow a open book and open note policy, and take approximately 8 hours to complete. If you fail one or more of the comprehensive exams, you may retake them when next offered. Generally, you may take each component of the comprehensive exams only twice; a second failure in any area will lead to removal from the PhD program.

The faculty members who currently administer the exams are:

In addition to the Comprehensive Exams, you are also required to pass exams in your chosen specialization. 

Full-time students usually take these exams at the end of the second year; part-time students at the end of the third or fourth year. Faculty members associated with each specialization determine requirements and procedures. You should inform the specialization faculty of your intention to take the exams at least six months in advance. Faculty in turn will inform you of exam requirements and procedures and provide any additional reading lists at least three months before the exams are administered.

Social Policy

PhD students in the Social Policy specialization must take a two-part essay examination, for which students may sit at any time after their first year in the program leading to the PhD in Policy Studies but before completing a dissertation prospectus.  Students should plan to devote an eight-hour period to complete each part, in any location of their choosing. The two parts of the examination may be separated by several days or weeks. Each part of the examination is an “open book” exercise although, as with other such examinations, it is expected that a student will refrain from consulting any other person. 

Part One will consist of a question, written and graded by two professors of the Social Policy faculty, that addresses broad causal and analytic issues important to the field of social policy.  This part will be grounded in significant part, though not solely, on literature and issues covered in PLCY734 Foundations of Social Policy. 

Part Two will address the literature deemed broadly relevant to the student’s likely dissertation topic, a literature that the student will be responsible for defining prior to the examination.

Management, Finance and Leadership

PhD students in the Management, Finance and Leadership (MFL) specialization must pass two special exams before advancing to candidacy.

To prepare for the exam, it is strongly suggested that all MFL students develop a series of memos on their field of study to be shared with faculty readers. The memos would be an initial step in demonstrating competency.

MFL has two exams: the Management and Leadership exam and the Finance and Budgeting exam. All candidates for MFL must take both exams. There will be two to three questions for each exam, and candidates must answer all questions.

It is possible for a candidate to take just one part of the MFL exam (Management and Leadership or Finance and Budgeting) if another specialization exam is also taken, of if the student and the faculty advisors agree to the scope of a second, targeted exam within MFL. If part of the specialization course work is outside of MFL, then approval by both Specialization Directors is required well in advance of the exam.

The two exams can be taken at the same time or at different times. If both parts of the exam are taken at once, then candidates should pace themselves and devote an equal amount of time to each section. Candidates will have a total of eight hours for the two exams (4 hours per exam if taken separately).

International Security and Economic Policy

PhD students in the International Security and Economic Policy (ISEP) specialization are required to take two examinations.

In most cases, the exams will be in international security policy and international economic policy, respectively. Of these two, the one in the student's major field will require substantial additional preparation beyond what is required for PLCY720 or PLCY781. The other exam requirement may be satisfied, by prior agreement with the instructor, through the completion of PLCY720 or PLCY781 with a grade of B+ or higher.

Students whose dissertations center on the foreign policy process will take an exam in that field and a second exam in either international security or international economic policy, as agreed with each student\s principal adviser. The process exam will require substantial additional preparation beyond the work in PLCY780.

Whatever combination of exams a given student takes, s/he will be expected to demonstrate some familiarity with both the security and the economic sides of ISEP.

Environmental Policy

PhD students in the Environmental Policy specialization are required to take one examination. This exam will normally be taken after the comprehensive exams, and must be passed before defending a dissertation prospectus. 

The Environment specialization exam will allow the student to demonstrate knowledge in three broad environmental fields of study. The exam should help the student advance their thinking in anticipation of selecting and refining a dissertation topic. It is not meant to be comprehensive across all dimensions of environmental policy, but nor is it meant to be a narrow inquiry into the dissertation area. Readings could be drawn from the student's coursework.

The specialization exam will generally consist of a 6-hour in-classroom exam, closed book, with three sections of 2 hours each. Three faculty will constitute the Examination Committee for each student. It is expected that the student's anticipated dissertation adviser will be a member of the Examination Committee. Students will consult with each faculty member to develop a reading list on each of the three examination fields.

In addition to the coursework and the Comprehensive and Specialization exams, you are required to present and defend your dissertation proposal, often called a prospectus. The term “proposal” here is especially instructive, as you will be asking your Committee members to join you in an original research project that may take several years to complete and will obligate a good bit of their time in an advisory capacity, perhaps also in a collegial capacity, and ultimately in a judgmental capacity.


View our frequently asked questions for more information about the PhD program.


Explore dissertations completed by candidates in the School of Public Policy.


View the Graduate School's policies related to the Doctor of Philosophy degree. 

View our PhD Candidates

Recommended Timeline

To make adequate progress towards candidacy, the following timeline is recommended:

  1. Confirm a professor's agreement to function as a faculty advisor (explore the School's faculty)
  2. Complete the required methodology courses within 3 semesters of entry (PLCY798R Quantitative Research Methods and Public Policy and PLCY798Z Qualitative Research Methods and Public Policy)
  3. Complete the 24 credits of required graduate level coursework
  4. Confirm your faculty advisor's agreement to serve as your Dissertation Committee Chair
  5. Sign up for your advisor's section of PLCY898 Pre-Candidacy Research
  6. Pass all Comprehensive and Specialization exams, normally within 4 semesters of entry
  7. Compose a Dissertation Examining Committee (view the Graduate School's policies on Doctoral Dissertations and Examinations)
  8. Successfully defend a dissertation proposal (alternatively called a prospectus) and advance to candidacy no later than 5 years after entry
  9. Sign up for your advisor's section of PLCY899 Post-Candidacy Research

Meet the Program Director

R.H. Sprinkle

Associate Professor

Robert Hunt Sprinkle works at the intersection of politics and the life sciences. He studied history at Dartmouth College and medicine at the University of Cincinnati and trained clinically at the University of Virginia and the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, Dallas. He is a diplomate of both the American Board of Family Medicine and the American Board of Pediatrics and a fellow of the respective clinical academies; he maintains current certification in both specialties and medical licensure in four states.

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