What is a Master of Public Administration (MPA) degree?

There are a number of possible career paths for people interested in working in international aid/development (broadly defined). Many of those paths involve graduate degrees, and there are many possible degrees. It would be a mistake to define one degree or another as the “best” path. That said, there may well be a best option for a particular person, given their background and interests. Earlier this month I completed a Master of Public Administration (MPA) with a focus on international policy and management at NYU’s Wagner School. This post explains what an MPA degree is, and a follow-up post will explain why it was the right decision for me. Hopefully this will be useful to other young professionals considering graduate school.

So what is an MPA degree?

In some circles, the MPA is not a well-known degree. I’ve often been askd what it is. My friends with business or law degrees rarely face the same questions. There may be two reasons for this. First, there are simply fewer MPAs in the world, while universities churn out MBAs and JDs. Second, it’s hard to define an MPA because it can be so many things, and programs differ greatly.

Here are a few general characteristics worth noting:

  • It’s a professional degree, rather than an academic one. Like most professional degrees, it can lead to a wide variety of careers. MPAs work in nonprofits, government agencies, international NGOs, social enterprises, private businesses, financial institutions, and more.
  • Coursework is like a mix between an MBA (Master of Business Administration) and an MPP (Master of Public Policy). Classes will usually cover management topics (e.g. strategy, finance, human resources) with a focus on government and nonprofit organizations, and also public policy issues (e.g. economics, policy analysis, and issue-specific courses).
  • Most programs have opportunities to specialize. Various schools offer specializations/concentrations in international affairs, health care, environment, education, human rights, finance, urban policy, management, specific geographic regions, and more.
  • An MPA is usually a two-year degree, though Syracuse and some others offer one year programs, and many schools offer shortened Executive/Mid-Career MPA programs.

Despite these basic similarities between the programs, there’s a lot of variation.

For example, different schools have different strengths. Harvard’s Kennedy School has a very quantitatively rigorous MPA in international development, which prepares students well for a career with the World Bank or a similar organization. Other schools take a more grassroots, community-based approach that requires field practicums and language proficiency. And some MPA programs have virtually no international content at all.

Schools also differ based on the amount of flexibility they offer in their programs. Wagner provided a lot of flexibility within my International Policy and Management specialization. I was able to pick and choose from courses at Wagner and other NYU schools, including the law school, the graduate economics program, and the global affairs program. The practical upshot is that I had a very different academic program from some of my classmates, even though we have the same degree. Other programs (Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School comes to mind) are much more tracked, with a larger number of required courses. The advantage of such a program is that the advanced courses can build on the content of previous courses.

Some people worry that the variety of MPA programs can hurt graduates in the job market, because employers don’t have a concrete idea of what skills a recent graduate gained. Then again, you hear the same critique about MBA programs being unfocused, yet their graduates seem to do fine. In my opinion, the variation in programs is great because the students have such a wide variety of interests and career paths.

I should also note that a Master of Public Administration program can be almost indistinguishable from some similar programs: Master of Public Affairs, Master of Public Policy, Master of Business Administration, etc. It all depends on the school and how you customize your program.

I want to conclude with a small amount of advice to anyone considering grad school in this field:

  1. Start by knowing what you want.
  2. Then research the schools, the courses offered, and the professors.
  3. Visit them if you can.
  4. Definitely talk to alumni.

If anyone has thoughts on a particular program, feel free to fill the comments section below.

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