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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15 thoughts on “What is a Master of Public Administration (MPA) degree?

  1. Hey Dave, Kristen V here. I started an MPA at Northeastern University and transferred to Boston University’s MBA in Nonprofit Management. I would say that the MPA does vary quite wildly based on the school – the NEU MPA was focused on government work, not nonprofit work, which is why I switched out (even though the program was a good one!) And, there are definitely people who don’t know what an MBA either!

  2. Do you know anything about getting a certificate in Public Administration or doing the program online for working people? Are there any programs that you recommend?

    1. I know the Fairleigh Dickinson University offers a MPA and Masters in Administrative Science. That school is great for the working population. The professors I had work with you! I am a dad, working a ft job, and I am about to start a MPA. Go for it!

    2. HI Jennifer! Sorry I’m posting this a year later after your comment but I JUST saw it!. I advice that you check out the University of Nebraska at Omaha. They have both an Graduate Certificate and an MPA, and they are both offered online too. They are also very highly ranked! Best of luck!!

  3. @Jennifer….I was looking at MPA programs myself and found an online investigator program at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

    1. Hello !any comments on columbia’s mpa esp(environmentl science policy) program?i have heard it is a distinctive mpa affiliated with the earth engineering school of columbia.I have studied mechanical engineering and I would like to know any possible ideas connecting the two seemingly different majors. Let me add that I have an excellent gre record, a good gpa 3.3-3.4 (5 year diploma),some prior volunteering experience in an international ngo and one six months duration internship regarding work experience. I would like to hear any thoughts whether my application would be appreciated and also if they value the analytical skills that I have acquired during my undergraduate studies. I would also like to add that I will be attending a columbia intensive seminar granting me credits of continuing education.

  4. As am currently studying Public Administration degree at the University of Venda,it is a path for me to go for it.This degree it help the country to be leaded by a quilified candidate.Now am looking for some tips of how to go for it so smooth.Is there any bursary scheme for the student who is studying it?if there is any,reply.

  5. I am currently doing an MPA (Int’l Specialization) at NYU Wagner. I have completed all of the core requirements, and am now delving into the electives arena. Development work isn’t an area that suits me right now; however, I am very interested in doing private consulting, government contracting, and working with/in government agencies – all within an int’l context, of course. Can I take management, finance and policy analysis courses for the electives? Are my interests too broad? I definitely feel that managerial skills will be needed regardless, and I would really like to capitalize on the ongoing convergence with the public and private sectors. Nevertheless, I feel unfocused and fear that I will come off as an academic schizophrenic when it comes to time to find a job after graduation. As a Wagner alumnus, what do you recommend?


    1. Josh, good questions. I generally lean toward focus, simply because job applications are a lot like other marketing: you’re better off being a great fit for a few things, than an almost fit for a lot of things. However it depends a lot on the prior skills/experience you have and where you are in your career. E.g. If you’re early career, then it’s okay to be a generalist. Later on you might need to specialize more.

      Also, generally, the finance and policy tracks give a bit more concrete skills than management courses. It’s easier to say, “Yes, I know the difference between accrual and cash accounting” or “I can do a multiple regression on this survey data” — compared to, “I run great meetings and motivate staff.” That last one is important, but harder to learn in a classroom and harder to demonstrate in an application process.

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