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Program Requirements

Ph.D. Requirements

Students are admitted to the doctoral program in public policy from diverse backgrounds in terms of academic preparation and professional experience. Once enrolled, each student is expected to complete a set of doctoral-level core courses in applications of economic, political, and organizational theory to public policy issues, research design and appropriate research methods courses, and expertise in a substance public policy field. In preparation for this course of study, applicants are expected to have taken a preparatory course in intermediate microeconomics and encouraged to take courses in basic statistics and quantitative analysis including calculus. All entering students are required to enroll in PLCY 800, a course in quantitative techniques for economic analysis preceding their first semester. This required course begins in early August, two weeks prior to the start of the Fall academic semester.

In addition to completing PLCY 800, students need to fulfill the following requirements:

Core Courses

Ph.D. students are required to complete 44 hours of coursework, including 26 hours of “core” courses common to all students and 18 hours in a self-defined substantive policy field. Students normally spend approximately two years in full-time coursework, and longer if they enter the program without key prerequisite courses or a master’s degree in a related field. Students who have successfully completed graduate courses elsewhere that duplicate our required courses may petition the Director of Graduate Studies to have up to nine such hours counted toward their Ph.D. in public policy.

Core courses include PLCY 800 (Math Camp), 816 (Politics, Institutions and Public Policy I), 817 (Politics, Institutions and Public Policy II), 880 (Normative Dimension of Public Policy), 888 (Advanced Economic Analysis for Public Policy I), 889 (Advanced Economic Analysis for Public Policy II), 801 (Research Design), 810 (Professional Research Seminar), 881 (Linear Regression), and 882 (Panel Data).

A dissertation is required, with a minimum of six credit hours of dissertation (994) registration. For UNC Graduate School dissertation requirements, see the UNC Handbook regarding dissertations.

Public Policy Research Seminar

UNC Public Policy offers a weekly seminar course (PLCY 810) in which faculty, public policy scholars, and public policy doctoral students present their research and share their perspectives on policy issues. The seminar also provides instruction on a variety of professional development topics. The seminars, required of all Ph.D. students in public policy, give students the opportunity to assess the relevance of their training to policy research applications. Each student is expected to enroll in this one-credit seminar for two semesters.

Sequencing of Classes

The table below shows one example of sequencing of core and specialization courses. Note that this is illustrative only: some students may take the economics sequence in their second year if they need additional preparation first, and some core courses may be offered in alternate semesters or years due to faculty leaves, enrollment factors, or other considerations. Students must take a minimum of 9 credit hours per semester to maintain full-time student status; most students also hold teaching or research assistantship responsibilities of 10-15 hours per week, and full-time student status is required for such positions.





PLCY 800 (required)

PLCY 888 (3)

PLCY 816 (3)

PLCY (HPM) 882 (3)

Policy Field (3)

Any policy field or research methods courses as needed.

PLCY 810 (1)

PLCY 994 (3)


PLCY 817 (3)

PLCY 889 (3)

PLCY 880 (3)*

PLCY (HPM) 881 (3)

*offered every other year.

Field Research Methods (3)

PLCY 880 (3)*

Policy Field (3)

PLCY 810 (1)

Any policy field or research methods courses needed.

PLCY 994 (Dissertation) (3)

Students normally begin their dissertation in year 3 or year 4, depending on their prior preparation and the timing of their comprehensive and field examinations.

With the approval of both the major and minor programs, a student may also elect to declare a formal minor in any program that offers a graduate degree. If a student does elect a formal minor, it must comprise at least 15 credit hours in courses listed (or cross-listed) in one or at most two programs other than that of the major and cannot also be counted toward the major. The minor course of study must be approved in advance by the Director of Graduate Studies in both the major and the minor programs and sent to the Graduate School to become a permanent part of the student’s record.

Policy Field

Each student designs an individual course of study for a policy (specialization) field. The 18-credit hour requirement gives students rigorous training in the theory, methods, and subject matter of policy analysis within a substantive policy field. The field area course of study must include no less than 9 credit hours of courses related to the theory and subject matter of their policy field, up to 6 credit hours of which may be taken as independent studies, and at least 3 credit hours of research methods that are appropriate for the field. The remaining 6 hours of required field credits are normally completed as PLCY 994 during dissertation research. The student’s field research methods course(s) should provide the student with the ability to design and conduct dissertation research, to continue making scholarly contributions in their chosen field, and to independently conduct policy research. Each student is assisted by an individualized program committee in identifying courses, independent readings, and other sources of information to acquire both the substantive knowledge and the quantitative and other analytical skills appropriate for the student’s policy field specialization.

Core Exam

The core exam covers material contained in UNC Public Policy’s core courses, including economics, politics and political institutions, normative dimensions of policy, and research design. The exam takes place in the summer following the student’s first year. A majority of the exam committee must be regular members of the UNC Public Policy’s faculty and the UNC-Chapel Hill Graduate Faculty.

The core exam is a closed-book, open note, three-day essay exam. The specifics of the open note policy for the exam will be described by the examining committee prior to student preparation for the core examination. The three days are divided into two parts with the first day scheduled as a reading day to review case materials on which the essays will be based, and second and third days divided into three-hour writing periods. The examining committee will grade the exams. Exams are graded on a High Pass, Pass, Low Pass, or Fail scale. For a student to pass the core examination, a majority of the members of the examining committee must pass (High Pass or Pass) the student on all three sections of the exam. Each student must pass the core exam before sitting for the field exam.

The Policy Field and Exam

UNC Public Policy defines a field as a recognized area of public policy research with a coherent body of scholarly literature. A student who identifies and declares such a field would be prepared to be hired to teach an undergraduate introductory survey course and an advanced graduate seminar in the subject area, as well as be prepared to design a publishable quality research study in the area. These include but are not limited to:

Within these broad topic areas students may further specialize in international or domestic aspects of these policies (e.g., International Health Policy or US Health Policy) or recognized subfields such as Higher Education Policy or Maternal and Child Health Policy. In addition, a student’s specialty exams may be designed to reflect a combination of fields (e.g., Education and Social Policy). During their coursework, students are required to take at least three substantive area courses that together will form the basis for their chosen policy field. Students must discuss these course choices with their program committee members to ensure appropriate fit with their field.

Students are discouraged from narrowly defining a field with respect to a particular topic (e.g., Medicare Policy, Abortion Policy). While students may focus their dissertation research on one policy topic, the field must reflect a broader knowledge base. And while it is unreasonable to expect a student to have a comprehensive knowledge of the entire potential breadth of a field, the student should have the ability to characterize the field as a whole and to recognize and articulate the links among subfields. A field must be broad enough to represent a basis for a career of teaching and research and not simply a single dissertation project; a field should be recognizable by our colleagues at other institutions and in competition with doctoral graduates from other programs.

Objective of the Field Assessment Process

The field assessment in public policy is intended to ensure that students have in-depth knowledge of theory, research methods, and current policy topics in their stated issue area.

  • Theory: The student’s field should include at least one primary theoretical lens, such as political and institutional or economic theory or others, or a combination or comparison of them.
  • Research Methods: Demonstrate proficiency in an appropriate set of research methods for identifying and examining researchable questions, and for reading the literature in the broader field (not just the dissertation topic area).
  • Policy: Fluency in the main policy issues and debates in the field, demonstrated ability to critique or critically assess alternative policy options and proposals, including an ability to present normative, ethical, political, and economic arguments for relevant policy options.

Students may be assessed on their field through either a limited duration multi-day exam or a critical literature review paper. Students should declare their preferred instrument after discussion with their primary supervisor, field examination committee members, and the DGS if necessary. Either assessment will be based on a set of literature identified by the student and approved by the field examination committee members in advance. This literature will draw from the methodological and substantive field coursework but may exclude course materials not relevant to the policy field and may include supplemental literature key to the field.

Field Exam

The format of the field exam is like that of the core exam. Each of three questions (covering theory, methods, and policy) will be written during a 3-hour period on consecutive days, and notes (either course notes or notes on readings) and the approved field reading list (only the list, not the readings themselves) may be brought to the written exam. The field exam will typically be taken in the fall of the third year and in any case no later than the end of the spring semester of the third year.

Field Paper

The format of the field paper is a critical literature review of a maximum of 40 pages (double spaced) in length. Typically, the field exam paper will cover:

  1. Background including historical perspective, social significance, and development of research in the field
  2. Relevant theoretical perspectives that are commonly brought to bear in the field
  3. Main questions in the research literature in the field
  4. Findings, methods, & conclusions of the key papers that address the main questions
  5. Gaps in the current knowledge pertaining to the questions
  6. Substantive and methodological issues confronting future research
  7. New and/or innovative questions that should be addressed in future research.

It is reasonable to expect that the critical literature review may focus on a subset of the field in sections 3-7. An outline of the paper that the student submits to every member of the committee for review and approval is required as noted below. The paper will be submitted by end of February of the third year, and if revisions are required, they must be completed by May 1 of the third year, thus the time limit for completion of the field assessment is the same for either instrument.

Additional Information

For more information, see Graduate School Catalog; Graduate School forms; UNC Public Policy PhD Guidelines