Duke University’s PhD in Public Policy program at Sanford offers candidates the chance to explore policy questions that have critical impact on society today, both globally and domestically.


The program spans about five years, with a requirement of 48 credits. We emphasize interdisciplinary study, mentorship and personal attention. 


6-8 students matriculate each year, and work closely with a mentor. 

Photo: Ajenai Clemmons PhD'21 with Professor Deondra Rose. Ajenai's research examines policing of African American and European Muslim communities.


Covid & GRE

We will not penalize applicants whose transcripts show Pass/No Pass or other similar grading options from Spring 2020.

GRE Scores are required and cannot be waived.

Our philosophy

We are interested in the potential of our graduate students to make significant, real world policy contributions, which is often not reflected in grades. We consider whether applicants pursued a rigorous curriculum relevant to their graduate or professional school plans. Academic records are considered wholistically alongside letters of recommendation, personal accomplishments, personal statements, and test scores.

FAQs on Applying to the PhD Program

Applicants to the PhD Program in Public Policy will be applying to the Duke Graduate School using its electronic application. Please review the Duke Graduate School Admissions Website for detailed instructions on all application requirements.

Students may also apply for joint degrees.

In addition to completing the Graduate School requirements, applicants must also:

  • Designate a disciplinary concentration. After selecting “Public Policy Studies – PhD” in the “Proposed Department/Program and Highest Degree Sought,” the next section of the application is “Intended Special Field.” Choose one: economics, political science, psychology or sociology. 
  • Submit a resume (not to exceed two printed pages)
  • Submit a Statement of Purpose and Educational Objectives
  • Submit a writing sample of no more than 20 pages, demonstrating academic or professional research. Add this to “additional documents.”  

Please utilize this essay to discuss your goals in relation to Duke University. We are interested in your academic and professional experience, your intended course of study (including a disciplinary concentration and policy area focus) and your longer-term career objectives.

Yes. Please see our section on financial aid for funding and fellowship opportunities.

Explore the Graduate School's admission statistics for Public Policy candidates for information on scores, career outcomes and other data.

Most applicants wait until admission decisions are made before visiting our campus.

Personal interviews are conducted in February for a select group of students as part of the admissions process.

No, you may only apply to one of the programs.

Browse the Sanford faculty directory. Contact individuals whose research aligns with your interests.

Duke's University Program in Environmental Policy (UPEP) PhD is a 5-year program for intense research training, combining disciplinary specialization in economics or political science with an emphasis on understanding policy settings and the precise nature of the problem we hope to solve with policy.

UPEP applicants should apply directly to the Duke Graduate School. More information on PhD Applications can be found on the PhD Admissions page. All doctoral students must enter the program in the fall semester. We welcome applicants from diverse academic, cultural, socioeconomic, and professional backgrounds. Approximately 3-5 students are projected to enter the program each fall, for a total of 20-25 students enrolled at any given time.

Admission to the UPEP program is extremely competitive, with less than 10 percent of applicants typically offered admission. Applicants should have a record of high academic achievement and the potential to become leading researchers on environmental policy issues. Although the program’s admissions committee evaluates applicants from a comprehensive standpoint, successful applicants will likely have:

  • High GPA and GRE scores.
  • Personalized letters of recommendation that attest to the applicant’s scholarly ability.
  • Research interests that overlap those of one or more UPEP faculty members.
  • A personal statement that explains the applicant’s interest in pursuing an Environmental Policy PhD at Duke and preferred disciplinary concentration.
  • Clearly specify the preferred concentration in the personal statement. Adequate preparation for PhD-level training in either economics or political science is an important consideration in admissions. 

No, but your chances of admission will increase if your application indicates that you have identified one or more faculty members in the Nicholas or Sanford schools whose research interests are similar to yours.  You are welcome to communicate with faculty members before you apply, but please note that they cannot tell you whether you will be admitted.  Admission decisions are made by the Duke Graduate School, as advised by the UPEP admissions committee, not by individual faculty members.

Will I be assigned an advisor if I am admitted?

Yes.  You will be assigned an advisor when you are admitted. 

Can I change my advisor?

Yes.  Contact the UPEP Director of Graduate Studies.

Can I work with only my advisor as a teaching assistant (TA), a research assistant (RA), or on my dissertation research?

No.  TA assignments are made independently of advisor assignments, although you will likely serve as a TA for your advisor at least once.  RAships depend on funding availability.  You can serve as an RA for either your advisor or another faculty member.  UPEP students form dissertation committees consistent with Duke Graduate School rules, and members of the committee other than your advisor often play a large role in supervising aspects of the research.

Special Programs


MD/PhD Program

Pursue a joint degree in medicine, through Duke’ s Medical Scientist Training Program (MSTP). This program seeks to train leaders in academic medicine, who will combine clinical and research careers. Successful applicants receive funding to pay for both their medical school and PhD training. Applicants must apply to both the PhD and the MSTP program.

More about MD/PhD Program

Ph.D. Fellowship in Media and Philanthropy

The Center for Strategic Philanthropy and Civil Society and the DeWitt Wallace Center for Media and Democracy provide support for a pre-doctoral fellowship in the Ph.D. program of the Sanford School of Public Policy. This position is designed to further research and inform practice on questions at the intersection of the media, philanthropy, and democracy in the U.S.

Flexible term: 1 to 3 years.

UPEP Program in Environmental Policy

Duke's University Program in Environmental Policy (UPEP) PhD is a 5-year program for intense research training, combining disciplinary specialization in economics or political science with an emphasis on understanding policy settings and the precise nature of the problem we hope to solve with policy. 

More about UPEP admissions

Questions or Clarifications?

Anna  Gassman-Pines

Anna Gassman-Pines

Professor in the Sanford School of Public Policy

Anna Gassman-Pines is a professor of public policy and psychology and neuroscience at Duke University. She is also a Faculty Affiliate of Duke’s Center for Child and Family Policy. Gassman-Pines received her BA with distinction in Psychology from Yale University and PhD in Community and Developmental Psychology from New York University. Her research focuses on low-wage work, family life and the effects of welfare and employment policy on child and maternal well-being in low-income families. Her research has been supported by grants from the National Science Foundation, American Psychological Association, National Head Start Association, and National Institute of Mental Health, and various private foundations.

PhD Handbook

Don't miss a thing. Download the PhD handbook.

Featured Video

A Community that Cares

Hear fourth-year PhD candidate Marayna Martinez talk about her experience at the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University.