Public Administration & Policy

Guide to a Master of Public Administration: What to Know About MPA Degrees

Guide to a Master of Public Administration: What to Know About MPA Degrees
No plans to run for president? Don’t let that hold you up. Image from Unsplash
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Molly Shea August 28, 2019

Whether you aspire to a career in politics, policy organizations, government, or NGOs, a Master of Public Administration can bolster your career prospects. If policy is your passion, an MPA could be the degree for you.

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When Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger realized he had to land his plane in the Hudson River, the pilot leaped into action. He safely lowered the aircraft into the water, then helped his passengers disembark as calmly as if he’d arrived at JFK. His clearheadedness earned him accolades, awards, and even a biopic.

But his heroics seem somehow fitting when you consider his education history: Before taking to the skies, Sully __earned a Master of Public Administration (MPA) degree from the University of Northern Colorado.

In the program, Sully would have learned how to:

  • Handle a crisis
  • Manage a team
  • Lead through chaos 
  • Determine the best positive outcome in a tricky situation

All these skills proved necessary on that fateful day.

While most MPA grads won’t need to rise to such a life-or-death occasion, a Master of Public Administration degree can still prove invaluable to those starting careers in public affairs or hoping to boost their profiles in the field. The master’s degree prepares graduates for high-level roles in the public sector.

A Master of Public Administration program is often the right choice for those who wish to pursue a career in: 

  • Public affairs 
  • Government positions
  • The justice system
  • Non-profit organizations 
  • Politics 

And hey, maybe one day you’ll even get portrayed by Tom Hanks.

In this article, we’ll cover:

  • Possible fields and career paths for a Master of Public Administration
  • Prerequisites for a Master of Public Administration
  • Top schools for a Master of Public Administration
  • Commitment required for a Master of Public Administration
  • Exams and certification to complete a Master of Public Administration

Possible fields and career paths for a Master of Public Administration

No plans to run for president? Don’t let that hold you up. There are plenty of ways to work in the public sector without becoming a politician—though that’s always an option for Master of Public Administration graduates.

Public administrators often work for the national, state, or local government, serving as: 

  • Assistants
  • Aides
  • Administrators
  • Leaders
  • Policymakers
  • Executives
  • Directors

Because a Master of Public Administration degree covers everything from policy analysis to leading a team, graduates typically qualify for more senior positions in their fields. 

Some Master of Public Administrations graduates might work in government-adjacent positions, leading nonprofits or non-government organizations (NGOs). Since many nonprofits rely on federal or state assistance, the background in public affairs can help nonprofit workers better navigate the system. That’s why some social workers complete the Master of Public Administration degree; it prepares them to advocate more effectively for funding and government support. 

Common job titles for Master of Public Administration graduates include:

  • Executive Director
  • Program Manager
  • Program Coordinator
  • Project Manager
  • Operations Manager
  • Director of Development

All are roles that require an understanding of the public sector and public policy.

Because graduates go on to work in such varied careers, degree programs often offer a variety of master’s degree pathways. Syracuse University, for example, offers eight potential areas of study at the Maxwell School

  • Data Analytics for Public Policy
  • Environmental Policy and Administration
  • International and Development Administration
  • National and International Security Policy
  • Public and Nonprofit Management
  • Public Sector Innovation and Management
  • Social Policy (Aging, Education, Health, Welfare)
  • and State and Local Government Financial Analysis and Management

Harvard University, on the other hand, requires students at the Kennedy School to take classes across three different areas: 

  • Economics and Quantitative Analysis
  • Management and Leadership
  • Public Ethics and Political Institutions 

Harvard’s supplements its MPA curriculum with courses from its many other top graduate schools. 

Specializing in a specific area of public administration allows Master of Public Administration students to dig into an area of interest, developing expertise that may have taken years to build on the job.

Few jobs require a Master of Public Administration, though the degree unquestionably makes Master of Public Administration graduates more desirable candidates for policy-related positions. 

Prerequisites for a Master of Public Administration

Master of Public Administration applicants must have completed a bachelor’s degree to enter an MPA program. There’s no particular undergraduate major required of Master of Public Administration applicants, but students should have a background in the following: 

  • Political science
  • Public affairs
  • Economics
  • Management
  • Ethics

Others might have a degree in social work, public health, or education. Applicants to selective schools should have:

  • A minimum GPA of 3.5
  • Excellent test scores
  • A proven ability to handle a tough course load

While some jump from an undergraduate program straight to a master’s program, most Master of Public Administration students first gain experience as interns for local or national politicians or nonprofit organizations. 

Many choose a Master of Public Administration as a way to pivot, switching from fields such as social work or education to the public sector. Because Master of Public Administration programs are typically more broad-ranging than your average master’s degree (i.e., they cover a variety of subjects, interests, and skills), students are often able to build off the experience they already have to further their careers. 

Schools look for experienced candidates. The Kennedy School at Harvard, for example, only accepts students who have at least three years of relevant work experience and have already taken at least four relevant graduate-level courses or completed an additional master’s degree in a related field (of which there are many, including accounting, finance, international business, quantitative methods, engineering, business information).

Syracuse University doesn’t require students professional experience, but the school does ask that students have relevant experience of some sort, either through internships or post-undergraduate employment. The school also requires “a strong commitment to the public good, an understanding of the professional nature of the field with clearly identified career goals aligned with our school’s mission, and an ability to handle graduate-level coursework.”

Some schools, such as New York University, offer dual Master of Public Administration degrees, pairing the Master of Public Administration with a Master of Business Administration or Master of International Relations. These degrees can prepare a graduate for a career in public finance or diplomacy. Hoping to work in the judicial system? You might consider pairing a Master of Public Administration with a Juris Doctor (JD).  

Top schools for a master of public administration

Deciding among universities? You’ll have literally hundreds of full-time degree program options in states across the country. Strong Master of Public Administration programs have flexible curriculums, great internship connections and alumni networks, professors who’ve spent extensive time in the public sector, and connections within government human resources offices. Of course, the best graduate school is the one that fits your needs.

The four graduate programs at the top of the US News and World Report list of the best schools for public affairs are: 

Other top options include: 

There are a number of factors to consider even when choosing among top schools, such as: 

  • Prestige
  • Location
  • Class size
  • Tuition costs
  • Length of the program
  • Alumni network
  • Faculty specialties
  • Internship opportunities

Those looking for a prestigious name and wide alumni network might set their sites on Harvard or Princeton, while someone hoping to intern in the federal government might consider Georgetown University, or George Washington University

There are a number of reputable online Master of Public Administration programs as well. Options include: 

An online MPA program is an excellent option for someone who plans to work and study at the same time or those who live in areas without local degree programs. It’s possible to earn a Master of Public Administration while working in public administration, applying what you’re learning in class directly to your current work. 

The cost of a Master of Public Administration program can be quite expensive. An MPA from Harvard, for example, can cost over $200,000 once you factor in travel and living expenses; tuition alone exceeds $100,000. Most schools offer merit-based scholarships, awarded to students who display a high aptitude and potential for great success. Graduate students are also eligible for student loans: $20,500 worth of government loans are available each year. Most students are also eligible for private loans. 

Some schools offer graduate assistantships, such as this one at CUNY Bernard M Baruch College, to Master of Public Administration students, which pay students to assist professors or even teach undergraduate classes. Unlike Ph.D. programs, however, these assistantships rarely cover the full tuition bill. Because the Master of Public Administration is a slightly newer degree, the endowment for the schools which run the programs is often smaller than the endowments for more established schools at each university. This means that there is often less money available for scholarships from the schools themselves.

That said, some schools do offer better funding than others. At Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, “More than 90 percent of MPA students receive financial aid, and more than 80 percent receive full scholarships for tuition and living expenses from both external scholarships and Princeton’s scholarships,” according to the school’s website.

The University of Southern California’s Sol Price School of Public Policy is also generous with financial aid, offering fellowships to many Master of Public Administration students to help cover the cost of tuition and living expenses. 

Some state schools, such as The University of Texas at Austin Lyndon B Johnson School of Public Affairs, offer a number of fellowships to incoming students. 

Commitment required for a Master of Public Administration

Full-time students typically complete a Master of Public Administration program in two years to complete, though some, such as at the University of New Hampshire – Main Campus, can be completed in 16 months. Others study part-time and complete the degree over three or four years. 

Other schools have shorter curriculums: Syracuse offers an intensive 12-month program, as well as an 18-month program for students who wish to complete an internship. These programs are often slightly less expensive than longer programs, since they require fewer credits (50 in Syracuse’s case) as well as less time spent without an income.

Many programs help students find internship placements in the public sector, either during the fall or spring semester or over the summer between the first and second year. These internships typically last for three months, are often paid, and expose students to the kind of work they’ll be doing after receiving their diplomas. These placements can provide valuable experience and networking possibilities, especially for recent bachelor’s degree graduates who haven’t spent much time in the workforce. 

Online MPA programs are usually configured for part-time study, so they can take two to three years to complete. Executive degree programs, designed for experienced professionals, can typically be completed in one year full-time or two years part-time; many of these programs are offered online as well. Online students may choose to intern locally as a way to build a network and get some face-to-face experience with leaders in the field. Schools typically help arrange online students’ field placements/internships.

As previously noted, the Master of Public Administration is an expensive degree (particularly without financial aid), but it’s also one that comes with a high earning potential. Payscale reports that the average Master of Public Administration graduate’s salary is $66,000, though there’s potential to earn over six figures. Successful politicians and executives often earn much more, though a combination of salaries, teaching positions, and speaking opportunities. It can be a tough field to crack, but one that pays top workers handsomely 

Exams and certification to complete a Master of Public Administration

MPA program applicants must submit their scores from either the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) or Graduate Management Admissions Test (GMAT) as part of their applications to most programs. Applicants may take these tests during or after a bachelor’s degree program, but the scores must have been earned within the last five years. 

There is no final licensure exam needed for a Master of Public Administration degree, as there would be with, say, a social work or law degree. Anyone who completes the Master of Public Administration curriculum will be able to call him or herself an MPA. Some schools do require students to complete a final project, similar to a doctoral thesis. At Indiana University, for example, students must complete an O’Neil Capstone. Students team up with classmates to solve a complex, real-world public policy problem, performing an analysis of a policy or management issue. The capstone project prepares students to solve problems in their real-world public service careers, and ties together the lessons learned in the Master of Public Administration curriculum. 

At Syracuse, students complete a four-week capstone in their summer (May/June) semester, working with classmates to solve a complex challenge for an organization in the public sector. Possible organizations include federal clients such as NASA or the US Department of Justice, nonprofits such as Save the Children, and even state or local governments, including the city of Syracuse. These projects can be great resume-builders and can help a graduate feel more assured when heading into a senior position.

As a Master of Public Administration graduate, it’s unlikely that you’ll find yourself crash-landing a plane in the Hudson River. But when you do face a campaign meltdown, sudden policy change, or economic crisis, you’ll be prepared to manage the outcome. 

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About the Editor

Tom Meltzer spent over 20 years writing and teaching for The Princeton Review, where he was lead author of the company's popular guide to colleges, before joining Noodle.

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