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Policy Area Focus

Policy Area Focus

Ashley Brown Burns, PhD'13 portrait“What drives my research is a motivation to better understand the lives of the poor. If you tear down public housing, what happens? If you build mixed-income affordable housing, how does that change the lived experience of what it’s like to be poor in that neighborhood?”

—​Ashley Brown Burns, PhD'13, Assistant Professor, Amherst College 
Read about her work as a political science professor. 


In addition to gaining strength in a particular disciplinary tradition, Public Policy PhD students acquire depth in the policy area in which they will write a dissertation, as exemplified in our sample PhD tracks. Students take a minimum of two courses in a policy area to fulfill this requirement. Every student develops a plan of study to be approved by both the Public Policy PhD Director of Graduate Studies (DGS) and the student’s faculty advisor that satisfies the policy area requirement and prepares the student for the policy-area qualifying exam.

Students primarily focus on policy areas in which Duke has particular strength:   

  • social policy
  • globalization and development   
  • health policy
  • environmental policy

The university’s resources in these areas of strength are listed below. Although these are the primary areas in which Duke’s Public Policy PhD students concentrate, students have the option, subject to approval of the DGS, to adopt another policy area focus.

Social Policy

  • The Center for Child and Family Policy
  • Duke Population Research Institute
  • Many unaffiliated faculty working on issues of education, race and ethnicity, crime and vice, and other issues

Globalization and Development

  • The Duke Center for International Development
  • The Center on Globalization, Governance, and Competitiveness
  • The University Seminar on Global Governance and Democracy
  • Numerous faculty working on topics such as sustainable development, trade and development, intellectual property and global governance systems

Health Policy

  • Center for Health Policy & Inequalities Research
  • The Duke Center for Genomic and Computational Biology
  • The Health Sector Management Program based at the Fuqua School of Business
  • Duke Global Health Institute
  • Numerous faculty in the social sciences, the sciences, engineering, the Medical School and elsewhere

Environmental Policy

The Sanford School of Public Policy and the Nicholas School of the Environment deliver unparalleled training in environmental policy through the joint University Program in Environmental Policy (UPEP). This program capitalizes on the expertise of faculties at both schools and reflects Duke’s commitment to environmental leadership. UPEP provides training that is multidisciplinary without sacrificing disciplinary rigor. UPEP Students complete a portion of their core training with Public Policy PhD students and have access to the full suite of Public Policy courses.

Other resources related to environmental policy on campus include:

View sample tracks in the Sanford PhD program. Also read this Duke Magazine article with three Sanford faculty members discussing the state of public policy, their most forward-thinking projects, and how to educate and inspire a new generation of leaders.