PRGS Degree Program

The Curriculum and the Mission of the School

The Pardee RAND Graduate School aspires to be the world's leading Ph.D. program in policy analysis. Our goals are:

  • To produce Ph.D. graduates whose dissertations make important intellectual contributions to practical issues and whose careers distinguish them as powerful intellectual influences on public life.
  • In conjunction with RAND, to develop new lines of teaching and research on some of the world's most difficult challenges in security, poverty, health and development.
  • For the profession as a whole, to rethink what public policy means in a time when we no longer automatically turn to government to solve all problems but increasingly rely on partnerships between government, business, and civil society.

The curriculum serves these goals, with a particular vision. PRGS should be a place where some of the world's most able graduate students come to work on some of the world's hardest problems, with the rigor, interdisciplinarity, and flair that characterize RAND. And so the PRGS curriculum tries to provide the best analytical tools from many disciplines, practice in applying them to real problems, and a creative, sometimes experimental approach that encourages new ways of thinking and doing.

Great courses are only part of a PRGS education. PRGS students also carry out policy research part-time with RAND mentors, in what we call "on-the-job training" or OJT. Working in interdisciplinary teams with clients in the public, private, and non-profit sectors, students develop skills and sophistication that couldn't be conveyed in a classroom. The late Carl Builder likened PRGS to a great arts academy. He pointed out that students leave PRGS with a remarkable portfolio of accomplishments, which range from proposals to briefings, from technical reports to policy memoranda, from teaching notes to reports on field work, and of course the Ph.D. dissertation. In creating this portfolio, courses and OJT combine in what we think is a unique experience in higher education.

The Changing World of Policy Research

Our Ph.D. is in policy analysis, which is a multidisciplinary, applied field that tries to use research to unlock difficult policy problems. The field is changing right now, and PRGS is at the forefront of that change. It's changing from the former idea of developing a master plan for government agencies into a new idea that is much more fluid. Four features of the environment are in flux.

  1. The role of government. Few people today seem to feel that the answer to a public problem is simply a new government program. The focus is no longer just on definitive policy choices by top public policymakers, but on how government, business, and civil society can be made to work better, and to work better together. Key elements of progress will include better measures of quality of life and quality of service, better methods for gauging institutional performance, and better ways of aligning incentives with that performance.
  2. The information revolution. Technological transformations will alter the functioning of market and nonmarket institutions, and probably also the partnerships among them.
  3. Social and cultural diversity. Around the world people are becoming more aware of how much diversity matters within institutions and in policy reforms. But we don't yet seem to apprehend how to turn diversity into an advantage.
  4. Thinking through our futures together. New uncertainties are forcing us to consider anew the longer term consequences of today's choices (or lack of choices)—think of our confused agendas with regard to international security, global warming, biotechnology, and investment in infrastructure.

This changing environment means that the old paradigms of policy analysis are incomplete. We need to rethink policy research for a time of new clients and partners, new technologies, cultural diversity, and new uncertainties.

The core courses can be viewed as an essential backdrop for all the above. They convey essential research methods and perspectives. They teach how to assess and improve systems rather than symptoms. They instill intuitions and techniques about many kinds of benefits and costs, and how information and incentives interact in theory and practice. The empirical analysis sequence is all about assessing causation, especially in situations where experimentation is impossible.

Every year the faculty and others at RAND suggest topics coming down the road where we don't know what to do or perhaps even how to think about the issues. Then they devise PRGS workshops on these topics. In these workshops, the faculty and students move from "here's the big issue" to "here are examples of doable research that would shed light on the issue." In the last three years PRGS has offered ten such courses on topics such as the looming crisis in transportation infrastructure; business and the environment; new directions in arts policy; communities and violence; weapons of mass destruction in the hands of terrorists; business and welfare reform; and what military health can learn from the civilian sector health system.

Rigor and Adventure

There's one final feature of the PRGS curriculum, and of RAND itself, that is even harder to put into words. We seek an educational experience that is at once rigorous and adventurous.

Most research at RAND involves rigorous quantitative analysis, but qualitative research skills are also used. After all, this is the place that helped develop game theory, dynamic programming, simulations, linear programming, many tools of data analysis, and large-scale social experiments. We love mathematical tools, but we especially love studying their applications and misapplications -- how they can lead to insights and foster creativity or, when misused, can result in highly numerate garbage.

Along with the rigor, RAND's tradition is to go beyond the ordinary, to be intellectually adventurous. Is the question currently being asked the right one? How is the problem we are considering an instance of a broader or deeper theme? What are the parallels, the texts, the metaphors, the models that may be shared across issues or that may, by our thinking them through, spur us and our clients and partners to greater creativity?

RAND work varies so widely that there is no one paradigm. But the combination of rigor and adventure leads to some classic characteristics:

  • Investigating phenomena that are unknown or unquantified, such as terrorism, social integration and disintegration, or the efficiency of court systems.
  • Tackling issues where a key variable seems impossible to measure, such as the quality of health care or military readiness.
  • Taking on topics where competing interests make a problem seem intractable, such as the agreement on global positioning systems, racial profiling, or transportation policy in the Netherlands.
  • Figuring out what works, taking into account multiple objectives and multiple intervening variables. Examples include assessing the effects of schools, of three-strikes-you're-out laws, of the introduction of more females into the military, and of changes in medical payment schemes.
  • Making sense of the complicated interactions between public and private sectors. Recent examples include protecting infrastructure from adversaries, deregulating energy supply, and assuring that all children have adequate health care.
  • Peering into the future, using forecasting techniques, scenario building, gaming, large-scale computer models, and historical and political analyses. Examples include the challenges that may confront the U.S. Air Force in 2020 and the future social and cultural effects of the information revolution.

Combining Theory and Practice

The courses have been developed by a faculty noteworthy for both research excellence and dedication to teaching. PRGS professors are full-time researchers. They teach not because some contract tells them they must, but because they love to.

At PRGS we have identified five key educational objectives of our program:

  1. Understand the purpose of policy analysis and its place within the political process;
  2. Master the basic methodologies used in policy research: economic analysis, quantitative methods, and social and behavioral science methods;
  3. Acquire in-depth knowledge in one of these three methodological fields;
  4. Obtain a deep understanding of a specialized substantive field of public policy; and
  5. Develop project and professional skills relevant to the selected field of policy analysis.

A hallmark of PRGS is curricular innovation. Some new courses are driven by emerging issues. Other new courses are motivated by a desire to capture and extend recent methodological advances. See a list of PRGS courses and a more general description of PRGS degree requirements.

Throughout the courses new and old, you'll find a blend of real problems and advanced methods. The educational philosophy is captured in a quote from Thomas C. Schelling, who offered the 2001 August kick-off course. "In my own thinking they have never been separate," he once wrote. "Motivation for the purer theory came almost exclusively from preoccupation with (and fascination with) 'applied' problems; and the clarification of theoretical ideas was absolutely dependent on an identification of live examples."

Academic Calendar

The PRGS academic year comprises three 10-week quarters of class instruction (fall, winter, and spring), each followed by a week of final examinations. The PRGS typically observes a four-week winter recess, a one-week spring recess, and Thanksgiving and Memorial Day holidays.

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