Ph.D. Program Information Session

We regularly offer info sessions about the Ph.D. program and application process. Sessions usually take place in the fall. We will add them here when they are schedule.

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.

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. The program is uniquely defined by an emphasis on interdisciplinary study and commitment to mentorship and personal attention. With an intimate size of about 6-8 students matriculating each year, Sanford’s culture fosters meaningful mentorship, as students dive deep into their policy passions. Mentors and students will work closely together in their shared goal of making a difference.

Two African American women, smiling
Ajenai Clemmons PhD'21 with Professor Deondra Rose. Ajenai's academic research examines policing of African American and European Muslim communities.

COVID-19: Important Note for Admitted Graduate Students

Because the COVID-19 pandemic has severely disrupted the lives of students around the world, the Sanford School of Public Policy is adopting the following approach in considering applicants to its graduate and professional programs so that we take into account the effects of the disruption.

Many institutions have adopted Pass/No Pass grading policies for the Spring 2020 semester. Duke will not penalize applicants whose transcripts show Pass/No Pass or other similar grading options from Spring 2020, regardless of whether it was the individual student or the institution that chose a particular option.

UPDATE for 2021-2022 Application Cycle: GRE Scores are required for the 2021-2022 application cycle.

When examining academic records such as transcripts, Sanford will focus primarily on an applicant’s performance before and after Spring 2020 rather than during this time of unprecedented disruption. Sanford’s review of academic records focuses on whether applicants pursued a rigorous curriculum that was relevant to their graduate or professional school plans. More than ever, we are interested in the potential of our graduate students to make significant, real world policy contributions, which is often not reflected in grades, and certainly not in one semester’s achievements. Accordingly, Sanford takes a holistic approach in evaluating applicants, one that examines a combination of many factors. Academic records are only one of these factors and are considered alongside letters of recommendation, personal accomplishments, personal statements, and test scores, among others.


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 in the electronic application. In the drop-down menu section of the electronic application, 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.” The Public Policy PhD special fields are the disciplinary concentrations: economics, political science, psychology or sociology. You must indicate one of these four concentrations on your application.
  • Submit a resume (not to exceed two printed pages), which should be uploaded to the online electronic application with your “Statement of Purpose and Educational Objectives.”
  • Submit a writing sample of no more than 20 pages, demonstrating academic or professional research, which should be uploaded to the online electronic application under “additional documents.”  

Please utilize this essay to discuss your goals in pursuing the PhD in Public Policy at 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.

You may find answers in the PhD Student Handbook. If not, please contact the Public Policy PhD Program Coordinator with any questions.

You can find out more about individual faculty members by visiting their pages in the Sanford directory. Each faculty member’s email address is listed; feel free to 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, in view of the applicant’s prior education and experience, career objectives, and other pertinent factors.
  • Applicants should 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.  Your advisor will likely be a faculty member that you have mentioned in your application.  Another faculty member will be assigned, however, if none of the faculty members that you mention is available or if another faculty member is deemed to be a more suitable advisor for you.  Assigning an advisor at this early point in the program ensures that you will have a faculty member who will take responsibility for advising you on course selection, discussing your research interests, assisting you in obtaining grants and fellowships, and in other ways helping you complete the program successfully.

Can I change my advisor?

Yes.  Students interested in changing advisors should 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 degrees in medicine, through Duke’ s Medical Scientist Training Program (MSTP). This highly competitive 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. Interested applicants need to apply to both programs – the PhD program 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 in the Sanford School of Public Policy 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?

Alexander  Pfaff

Alexander Pfaff

Professor in the Sanford School of Public Policy

Alex Pfaff is a Professor of Public Policy, Economics and Environment at Duke University. He studies how economic development affects and is affected by natural resources and the environment. His focus is on the impacts of conservation policies (such as protected areas, ecoservices payments, and certifications) and development policies (such as roads and rights). Those impacts are functions of choices by individuals and communities that affect land use, water quantity and quality, human exposures (to arsenic, mercury, mining, and particulates), and both the provision and use of information.

Research accessible at http://alexpfaff.com/"; title="Alex Pfaff Website">AlexPfaff.com

http://alexpfaff.com/"; title="Alex Pfaff Website">

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.