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Program of Study

Two PhD students standing in front of APPAM sign
Brooks School PhD Students, Chloe Smith and Jillian Royal, attending the 2023 Association for Public Policy Analysis and Management conference.


Each Public Policy PhD student completes a course of study designed to produce cutting-edge social science research on policy-relevant topics. Students gain expertise in:

  1. One or more areas of substantive public policy
  2. Cutting-edge empirical methods for policy research
  3. A social science discipline (Economics, Sociology, Government or by petition, another social science discipline)

The special committee is responsible for developing an appropriate course of study with each student. This individualized approach allows students to tailor their academic pursuits to meet their intellectual and professional goals. The program also provides ample opportunities for professional development and support throughout a student’s course of study.


Public Policy PhD students typically spend their first two years immersed in disciplinary coursework, with an emphasis on foundational theory and methods. Common 1st year course sequences include:

Theoretical Economics* (Micro Theory I & II, Econometrics I & II)

Applied Economics (Microeconomics for Policy Analysis, Applied Econometrics I & II)

Sociology (Social Theory I & II, Statistics for Social Research I & II)

Other disciplinary tracks are also accepted by petition.

*Math pre-reqs include: multivariate calculus, linear algebra, real analysis

In the 2nd year, students turn to substantive policy courses in topics such as: labor, education, public, gender, family, race, development, urban, health, behavioral, immigration, and inequality. They also take additional methods courses in areas such as applied econometrics, demography, spatial analysis, computational methods, and qualitative and mixed-methods.

2nd Year Paper

In their 2nd year, Public Policy PhD students also begin work on their 2nd year paper under the supervision of their special committee chair. This is an empirical paper with sufficient promise and contribution that it could potentially be publishable in a peer-reviewed academic journal. As such, this paper is structured like a journal article.  It can be co-authored with faculty, but should be led by the student.  Students begin writing the paper in the Spring of their second year (or earlier), and it is due to their special committee chair on December 15th of their third year. The committee chair is responsible for overseeing and approving the second year paper.  The 2nd year paper form must be submitted to the GFA upon approval by the special committee chair.

A and B Exams

The Graduate School requires two examinations: a comprehensive Admission to Candidacy (“A” exam), taken after the student has earned at least two units of residence credit; and a final examination (“B” exam), given after completion of the doctoral dissertation. The Special Committee conducts these examinations.

Student’s select a Special Committee chair and additional faculty members to create a Special Committee. The Special Committee is responsible, in concert, with the student, to map out a research and academic program. The Graduate School imposes no requirements for courses or grades; your Special Committee will ensure you make appropriate progress and achievement.

To choose a Special Committee, the student must submit a request online from the “Advisor” section of the Student Center. The Graduate School requires that students select a Special Committee by the end of their third semester of study.

The A exam typically involves completing and orally defending a dissertation proposal and must be completed by the beginning of their 4th year.  The requirement and structures of the A exam are coordinated with the student and the Special Committee Chair. It may involve a written dissertation proposal, a set of powerpoint slides, and an oral presentation of the proposed research followed by questions from the Special Committee. Students are encouraged to meet with their Special Committee Chair periodically throughout the 3rd year of study to develop their research ideas and prepare for the A exam.

The A exam must be scheduled with the Graduate School a calendar week before the exam.  The exam must be scheduled using the Schedule A Examination and Research Compliance Form (online).  The student must also make sure that the results of the exam are recorded on the Results for Admission to Candidacy (A Exam) (online) at least three business days after the exam.  Both forms can be found here, Graduate Forms.

The Special Committee passes the A exam if the student has provided sufficient evidence that their proposed dissertation research will meet the standards necessary to obtain a PhD in their field once completed. The Special Committee may pass the A exam outright; they may also conditionally pass the A exam, subject to certain revisions specified by the committee at the end of the exam. The student and committee members must agree to those revisions and a timeline for submitting the revision.

The B exam entails a successful oral defense of the dissertation. Most students complete their B exam at the end of their 5th or 6th year, and should take place no later than the end of the 7th year. (Keep in mind that Public Policy only guarantees funding through the 6th year of study.)

Students schedule B exams with the Graduate School at least seven days in advance by submitting a Schedule of Examination Form (available online from the Graduate School).  Exams should be scheduled so that all members of the Special Committee are available to participate in the exam.  A Results of Examinations Form must be filed with the Graduate School within three business days of the examination.  Both forms can be found here, Graduate Forms.

A and B Exam Deadlines and Requirements

Major Steps for the B Exam

Understanding the steps and associated deadlines in the dissertation/thesis and degree conferral process is necessary to establish a successful plan and realistic timeframe. The major steps are:

  1. Complete draft dissertation
  2. Schedule exam
  3. Take exam
  4. Make revisions
  5. Submit final electronic thesis/dissertation (ETD) to the Graduate School

Planning Timeline

The Code of Legislation requires students to submit a completed draft for committee review six weeks prior to scheduling the exam. Submission of the final thesis/dissertation must be within 60 days of the final exam. Students who miss the 60 day submission deadline are ineligible to register in future terms.


Use this checklist to guide your process.

  • Complete your research.
  • Learn about thesis and dissertation formatting guidelines.
  • Develop a detailed outline for your approach to writing your dissertation or thesis.
  • Write the body of text for the dissertation or thesis.
  • Complete your draft thesis/dissertation six weeks prior to your final examination and submit to all members of your Special Committee.
  • Schedule your final exam one week before your final examination date, and submit a final draft of your dissertation/thesis to each Special Committee member.
  • Take your final exam (“B” Exam), oral dissertation defense for PhD candidates, or (“M” Exam) an oral thesis defense for master’s candidates, six-eight weeks before conferral date.
  • Make changes as specified by the Special Committee.
  • Submit the final electronic version of dissertation or thesis (ETD) to Graduate School using ProQuest. See Thesis and Dissertation Submission Process for instructions.
  • Attend commencement and celebrate!

For conferral deadlines, please see the Graduate School webpage: Deadlines

PhD Minors

Public Policy PhD students may also earn a PhD minor during their course of study, such as the PhD minor in Demography offered by the Cornell Population Center or the PhD minor in Data Science offered by the Statistics Department.

Terminal Master’s Degree Requirements

Terminal M.S. in Public Policy. On the recommendation of the special committee, a terminal M.S. degree may be awarded to a doctoral student who has: A) earned at least four registration units; and B) received a master’s level pass on a terminal master’s exam or performed at the level of a passed master’s exam on the A exam (without passing the A exam).

M.A. in Economics. Students who meet the following requirements are eligible to be awarded an M.A. in Economics at the time of the A exam (the student can only get one Masters degree at the time of the A exam):

  • 4 RUs, including the semesters during which the first-year Economics PhD sequence is taken

  • A member of the Graduate Field of Economics is on the Special Committee

  • Successfully completing the seven-course first-year program in the Field of Economics (currently ECON 6090, 6100, 6130, 6140, 6170, 6190, and 6200) with a grade of B- or better or an explicit waiver from the DGS in Economics.

  • Passing the Economics Qualifying Exams in Econometrics, Macroeconomics, and Microeconomic Theory at the level of a Pass for Master’s Degree or better.

  • Passing the A Exam in Public Policy at the PhD level.