Ph.D. in Public Affairs

Address the complex issues facing society

O’Neill’s doctoral programs in public affairs will equip you with research and analytical skills to produce scholarship that advances the frontiers of social science.

As a doctoral student, you’ll take courses and work with individual faculty to study a broad array of subjects—health policy, environmental policy, energy policy, technological adoption, policy diffusion, criminal justice, organizational performance, tax policy, income inequality, economic growth, natural resource management, personnel management, and more.

The first year of the Ph.D. program is marked by the completion of the core-courses required of all students of public affairs. It grounds you in the philosophy of science, statistical analysis, modeling, and theoretical tools.

These include:

  • A course on research pedagogy and philosophy of science
  • Two courses in statistics and econometrics
  • A course in policy process and implementation
  • A course in microeconomics for public affairs
  • A course on organizations and institutions
  • A course on teaching pedagogy

The second year of the Ph.D. program is marked by taking courses from two fields as well as a course on teaching pedagogy.

The fields are:

These field courses emphasize reading and publishing in academic journals that are valued by organizations that hire Ph.D. graduates, and provide the background for you to study and teach topical subjects such as energy, health, philanthropic behavior, taxation, income inequality, and others.

In the third year, you’ll be largely finished with coursework except for any remaining research skill courses recommended for your dissertation work. The dissertation demonstrates that you are capable of independently producing research that advances the frontier of scientific knowledge on a topic. Student status is maintained by signing up for thesis credit hours during this period.

You’ll get firsthand experience in managing a research agenda and teaching through a student academic appointment. Typically, in the first two years you’ll be assigned to a 20-hour per week research assistantship directed by a faculty supervisor. Generally, these assignments are based on similar research interests. This allows for direct observation and participation in an active research agenda, learning the skills necessary to become an independent scholar.

You’ll shift from a research assistantship to serving as associate instructor starting in your third year. You’ll be the instructor of record teaching your own class, creating and grading assignments.

Normally, you are teaching one of several sections of an undergraduate course with a faculty lead instructor who coordinates the sharing of teaching materials including lecture notes, slides, and assignments, providing you with a “template” to start.

Not only will this experience give you an advantage on the job market, but you’ll learn to balance teaching with the concurrent advancement of your own research agenda as you begin your dissertation journey.

Have you ever heard of the “hidden curriculum”? The hidden curriculum is an informal, amorphous collection of academic and social rules in which scholarship progresses. Learning the hidden curriculum requires social engagement in scholastic settings, perhaps the most well-known of which is the “seminar” format. In seminars, scholars present their research findings for scrutiny before a live audience of their peers.

In the Ph.D. program, you’ll attend a weekly one-credit course for three semesters, most of which is completed by attending the regular faculty seminar series of guest speakers from other research institutions. Other weeks are devoted to professional development sessions such as dealing with peer review or attending conferences.

Supplemental to these, you can elect to join any of the numerous working groups, labs, and developmental seminar series. In these collaborative settings, students and faculty develop their ideas into full research projects. In addition, the school provides travel support for attending academic conferences.

Life as a Ph.D. student

  • Math Camp (a couple of weeks before fall semester begins)
  • Fall/Spring Semester Courses: 10 credits from three core courses (three credits each) plus a one-credit seminar series.
  • 20 hours of weekly research assistance to faculty supervisors
  • Summer following first year: Comprehensive Exam

  • Fall/Spring Semester Courses: Six courses from two of the four fields. One semester one credit seminar series (typically fall). Two-credit course on teaching pedagogy (spring). Optional: Two three-credit research skills courses approved by a progress review committee.
  • 20 hours of weekly research assistance to faculty supervisors
  • Attend academic conferences, seminars, workshops, etc.
  • Summer following first year: One field exam from the two taken during the second year. The field you take the exam in is your “major field”, and the one you do not is your “minor” field.

  • Teach one course per semester as an associate instructor
  • Complete two research skills courses (if not already taken in year two)
  • Attend academic conferences, seminars, workshops, etc.
  • Propose dissertation, conduct research, defend dissertation


You can find a checklist of materials required to apply for the program. As an applicant, your entire case is considered for program fit, from which applications are competitively selected. We aim for approximately the 16 best applicants (four in each of the four fields) from the applicant pool, which tends to be around 80-120 applicants per year.

In addition to the your academic credentials, we consider the fit of your research interests from your statement of purpose. We only admit students we believe will be able to thrive towards their goals in our curriculum and have many potential faculty mentors of similar interests.