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The Undergraduate Major in Public Policy

A major in public policy studies aims to teach students how to make a difference in the complex policy issues of today. Rigorous coursework provides students skills in political and economic analysis, knowledge about how to lead people and organizations, and a strong ethical foundation for decision-making. As a liberal arts major, public policy studies teaches students to read critically, think analytically, and write concisely. A policy-oriented internship is a required part of the curriculum.

“As a first-year student, public policy was the closest thing I could find to the study of changing the world. Looking back on it, I identified as a public policy major more and more. I adopted a lot of the attitudes that the major brings, like pragmatism, understanding tradeoffs, and accepting that incremental changes are not necessarily less valuable than revolutionary ones.”—Ian Harwood PPS'14

Intellectual Goals

The broad intellectual goals of any major should relate to the goals of a liberal arts education. The public policy major at Duke encourages students to work toward the goals outlined in visions of a liberal arts education, which are also reflected in the Philosophy of Trinity College.

The goals of the major in public policy studies are both pedagogical and policy specific. First, we aim to create a learning environment in which students 1) draw on skills from multiple disciplines, 2) learn to write concisely and clearly, and 3) consider the ethical implications of their actions.

Second, the topics explored in the major should lead students 1) to think in terms of global problems and international relations, 2) to analyze the policies surrounding new advances in science (i.e., genomics) and technology (i.e., intellectual property and the Internet), and 3) to engage in solving important social problems.

Learning Objectives

  • PPS majors should complete a series of interdisciplinary core and elective courses so they can analyze and evaluate contemporary public policy problems.
  • PPS majors should learn to integrate skills learned in the coursework and the practice of public policy making. This is accomplished through required internships.
  • PPS majors should become proficient in writing skills; both those skills that require substantive, clear, succinct analysis of contemporary policy-related issues and those that require more in-depth exploration and explanation of issues in the academic discipline of public policy studies.
  • To gain an understanding of the scholarly context of public policymaking, PPS majors are strongly encouraged to participate, if possible, in an undergraduate research experience such as an honor’s thesis, an independent study, a research service-learning course or project, or to work as a research assistant for a professor.

Inside the Major

Steve Brenner speaking at graduationThe first class I took at Sanford, Intro to Policy Analysis, had two main units: evaluating social outcomes and understanding rational choice. The very first two things we were asked to do as students were evaluate what a better society actually looked like and then analyze the mechanics of how we make choices to get there. The intersection of those two tasks always seems to drive what we do here in Sanford. From the very beginning, in our first intro class, we were all taught to understand that there are limited resources to fix the world’s problems. If we want to get serious about solving these problems, we have to define them, study them to no end, and then present the best possible, feasible solution. We are all cognizant of that harsh reality that nothing will be perfect. There are always trade-offs, but real progress is actually possible. - Steve Brenner PPS'17

Student Profile: Ashley Claw

Ashley Claw's parents and grandparents grew up on the Navajo reservation in Arizona. Ashley remembers visiting Duke for the first time as a part of a program designed to introduce native students to Duke. "I was thinking this school is way beyond what I thought I could ever achieve," Ashley remembers. But she found success at Duke. She majored in public policy and was instrumental in growing Duke's Native American Student Alliance.