Deciding whether a Master of Public Administration is right for you

A Master of Public Administration is one of those degrees that seems to be everywhere yet unknown at the same time. People have heard of the major, yet few know exactly what is done with it once a student graduates.  The degree provides similar education to what is found in a Master of Business Administration degree, including finances, research, ethics, and leadership, but the focus is less on running a company and more on the nuances of working in a public agency or governmental position.  

What is a Master of Public Administration (MPA)?

According to the National Association of Schools of Public Affairs and Administration (NASPAA), the national accreditation board for MPA programs, a Master of Public Administration is “the professional degree for people who want a public service career in management.”  An MPA program provides instruction to help the student develop his/her skills in leadership so that policies, programs, events, and activities for the benefit of the public can be created and implemented. 

Coursework varies depending on the school attended; however, most programs have a combination.  First, the core or main classes in public finance, research methods, ethics, management, and theory help build the foundation of the student’s abilities. Second, the student takes a number of independent specialized courses to help tailor his/her education to specific interests.  Examples include environmental protection, social justice, politics, health care administration, and nonprofit management, and those are only a few of the various options available in programs across the nation.  Upon graduation, students earn positions in all levels of government from local to federal, along with employment in public agencies, nonprofit organizations, or even private businesses. 

Undergraduate degrees in Political Science are often used as a stepping block for someone going on to get an MPA degree.  However, since the degree is multidisciplinary, most liberal arts majors are common backgrounds for people in MPA programs.  History, economics, international studies, English – even mathematics are all acceptable undergraduate degrees for entrance into a Public Administration program. 

What does it take?

Again, the coursework and time required for the degree depends on the specific program.  Schools that are nationally accredited by NASPAA offer degrees that are accepted across the United States, since they all must follow similar standards.  Most schools necessitate that one take the Graduate Record Examination(GRE), along with submitting an application for admission, a curriculum vitae, transcripts, and other paperwork.  These requirements differ according to each individual program. 

Some programs include internships or fellowships as part of the curriculum, providing hands-on experience working in a public service position.  These internships help students gain knowledge about what the MPA degree does on a day to day basis.  The length and requirements of the internship or fellowship again differ depending on the school and program. 

Is an MPA for me?

All sorts of personalities go into Public Administration.  The degree is useful for people wanting to go on to be elected officials in local, state, or federal government, from mayors to state governors to Congressmen.  Others use the degree to become leaders in nonprofit organizations like the Red Cross or the Make a Wish Foundation.  Still more treat the MPA as a replacement for a Business Administration degree and go on to earn employment with private corporations.  An MPA degree can take a student anywhere, so long as he/she has the drive to make it there. 

That drive is the most important part of an MPA degree.  Public Administration is about public service – providing public goods and services to the people of a town, a city, a state, a country, or the world.  However, this sort of work is not always flashy, world-changing, or even as well-paying as a position as a CEO or a partner in a law firm.  Not everyone understands the benefit that comes from a person working in public service, and the job can often be thankless, as “bureaucrat” is not considered a positive title in most societies.  Still, the work is necessary, and the intrinsic rewards can be thanks enough.  After all, the degree gives someone the opportunity to go out and make a difference in the life of someone else, be it through providing financial aid, starting a nonprofit program, changing legislation, or creating beneficial policies. 

If you want to work in a public agency, be an elected official, run a nonprofit, head a hospital, or just help make a difference in the community through your work, an MPA could be the degree for you. 

For more information about the Master of Public Administration, look at the National Association of Schools of Public Affairs and Administration website.  This provides links to more information for potential students, along with details on what NASPAA is and how schools are accredited.  Additional information can also be found at Go Public!, a website for students.