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The Practitioner’s Doctorate and Advancing Public Service

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Brett A. Johnson
December 2, 2021

While MPA/MPP students have a relatively open route toward doctoral paths through Ph.D. programs, the path forward for practitioners seeking doctorate-level education is much narrower. For a field with robust professional organizations, academic publications and graduate-level activity, are we doing ourselves a disservice by neglecting the needs of practicing administrators to pursue doctoral studies? If one wishes to enter academia as a professor or researcher, there are numerous options for doctoral programs in political science or public policy. However, if one wishes to continue working full-time as a practitioner, doctoral options are severely limited (though not impossible). This suggests there is room for improvement, which also may meet a critical need in public administration education and practice.

The Practitioner’s Doctoral Barriers

First, one must locate a nearby university offering a relatable doctoral program. If you are successful, you must then break away from daily administrative tasks to attend courses and travel to and from campus. For most practitioners, fulfilling administrative responsibilities is Priority #1. In that case, the best you can hope for may be online or low-residency doctoral programs. When you combine these criteria with any budgetary constraints, options dwindle.

One can look to professional educators to see the disparity between academic opportunities for practitioners. In that sector, there is a plethora of nearby in-residence, online and low-residency doctoral programs. There is even the post-master’s/pre-doctoral degree of Education Specialist (Ed.S.). Moreover, the sector has developed a Doctor of Education (Ed.D.) as the preferred terminal degree for practitioners, for which programs are plentiful.

For public administration, a Doctor of Public Administration (DPA) degree is available, but there are few such programs across the country, which by definition means even fewer are truly accessible for practicing public administrators.

Doctoral Programs, by the Numbers

While the DPA is an excellent alternative to the Ph.D. for the practitioner, limited access has made it almost unknown. In fact, NASPAA does not assess any doctoral programs, either Ph.D. or DPA, which adds another layer of difficulty for practitioners sorting through the available programs. That said, NASPAA does maintain a database of available doctoral programs

At last check, 87 universities are providing doctoral education in a field related to public administration, broken down as follows:

  • Six are Doctor of Public Administration (DPA) degrees (7%)
  • 30 are Ph.D. degrees with “public administration” in the degree name (34%)
  • 51 are are Ph.D.s or J.D.s in other categories, such as public policy, political science, social policy, law, etc. (59%)

Of the six practitioner-oriented DPA programs, four are at public universities and two are at private universities; only three are offered online or with low residency. If you are not a practitioner within driving distance of a DPA program in California, Maryland or Illinois, your doctoral options are between two public universities and one private, for-profit university. 

Other factors such as admission requirements, program design, concentration options, limited residency requirements and dissertation demands likely whittles those three options down further—and then you must hope to be admitted into that program.

Now, we begin to see why there are so few DPA holders in our faculty or practitioner ranks: limited options, barriers to access and competitive entry.

What Can Be Done?

We can increase demand for practitioner-oriented doctorates by elevating incentives for doctoral degrees. Local governments, nonprofit boards of directors and agency leaders can develop policies and salary structures that incentivize doctoral attainment for practitioners. This is what drives much of the thriving Ed.D. demand among educators.

Undergraduate and MPA/MPP faculty and advisors can help students plan their academic futures as practitioners. For many political science undergraduates, the most suggested pathway is law school. The MPA/MPP-to-DPA pipeline ought to be a viable pathway to help professionalize public service. 

University departments of public administration/political science can seek DPA holders for faculty. Adding a practitioner-oriented perspective to a department can help students and researchers apply theory to practice.

In doing these things, we do well to remember the practitioner’s need for accessibility with more online or limited-residency doctoral programs in public administration. Together, we can continue to advance the profession of public service through higher education! 


Author: Brett A. Johnson works full-time as a civic education nonprofit executive and is an adjunct social science instructor at Snead State Community College in Alabama. He earned his MPA from Jacksonville State University and is a current doctoral student. He can be reached at [email protected] or @brett_ajohnson on Twitter.

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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