Committing to a graduate program of study is a huge decision with lifelong implications and one that no student makes lightly. If you’re still sitting on the fence wondering if you should take the plunge and get your Master of Public Administration (MPA) degree, spend some time considering these pros and cons.
Pro — You get to make a difference in the world.
If you’re passionate about social welfare and want to put your skills to use to promote a humane and just world, the MPA curriculum will help you actualize your vision. This interdisciplinary postgraduate, professional degree gives you the leadership and management skills required to implement policies, projects, and programs that resolve important societal problems.
PublicServiceCareers.org explains that one of the most unique aspects of a professional career in public service is “the emphasis on tackling ‘wicked problems’ — the challenging issues that define the public agenda and call for talented individuals to devote their efforts to finding solutions.” Currently, some of those include:
- “Managing global climate change and controlling its underlying causes such as carbon emissions.
- Supplying food, energy, and clean water to the growing populations in developing countries.
- Securing the United States and other countries against the possibility of chemical, biological, and nuclear terrorism.
- Redeveloping older urban areas that have lost their economic base in manufacturing.
- Transitioning recently incarcerated persons into productive, nonviolent lives in society.
- Ending the epidemic of HIV infection in developed and developing countries.
- Providing quality education and health care to children living in poverty.”
Did reading any of those contemporary “wicked problems” ignite a fire inside that makes you want to get involved? If so, you’re a natural MPA candidate.
Pro – You study a wide variety of subjects.
An MPA program is far more than just a curriculum full of dry business administration classes. You’ll take courses that provide a holistic and humanistic approach to administration. Along with the traditional business-related courses in management, economics, and finance, you’ll study sociology, political science, public policy, anthropology, international affairs, regional and urban planning, and labor law.
Con — The curriculum might be too broad for some students.
If your heart lies with private sector organizations where profitability is king, an MPA program’s emphasis on public affairs might not be a good fit. You’d probably find an MBA program’s heavy emphasis on business coursework more to your liking since it includes liberal doses of accounting, finance, marketing, economics, operations, and statistics.
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Pro — You can choose a concentration that interests you.
In addition to your required core courses, most MPA programs let you choose an area of specialization or concentration. Examples include:
- Public management
- Nonprofit management
- Health care management
- International development
- Urban affairs
- Human-resource management
- State/local government administration
- Financial management
- Arts leadership
- Emergency management and homeland security
Pro — You don’t need a specific undergraduate degree to succeed.
You don’t need a BA in political science to excel in an MPA program. Students come in with a wide variety of undergraduate majors, including criminal justice, economics, environmental affairs, biology, religion, history, and languages.
Pro — You can do the whole MPA program online.
MPA programs that are 100 percent online-delivered make it easier for adult students who have family obligations and full-time jobs to get degrees. Many graduate programs in public service offer evening and weekend classes to give attendees a good amount of schedule flexibility.
Con — You must be self-disciplined and able to manage your time effectively.
Online graduate degree programs are ideal for some students, but poorly suited to those who lack the ability to self-motivate and focus on demand. Are you self-directed, organized to a fault, and able to adhere to a rigid schedule? If not, you might find online study challenging.
Pro — You can use financial aid to pay for your education.
According to the Student Loan Report, 70 percent of college students take out loans to fund their educations. In addition to federal direct loans and work-study programs, graduate students have access to thousands of scholarships, grants, and fellowships to help finance their advanced degrees. The financial aid department of your prospective college should be your first stop when wondering how you’ll pay for your MPA.
Con — You’ll probably graduate with student loan debt.
“Student loan debt is now the second highest consumer debt category — behind only mortgage debt — and higher than both credit cards and auto loans,” notes Forbes contributor Zack Friedman. The United States has more than 44 million borrowers with $1.3 trillion in student loan debt. “The average student in the Class of 2016 has $37,172 in student loan debt,” notes Friedman.
Pro — You might qualify for the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program (PSLF).
If after obtaining your MPA you go to work full-time for a qualifying employer in the public service field and make 120 qualifying monthly payments, you might be eligible for forgiveness on your direct federal loans. Your 120 qualifying monthly payments don’t need to be consecutive, explains the U.S. Department of Education. “For example, if you have a period of employment with a non-qualifying employer, you will not lose credit for prior qualifying payments you made.”
Pro – You have a nearly unlimited choice of career paths.
Graduates of an MPA program find public administration careers in all levels of government: federal, state, and local. You can work in a nonprofit organization, a philanthropic institution, an international organization, a health care environment, a university, or a consulting firm. Many graduates are employed in the private sector in a variety of management, administration, and finance jobs. The Master of Public Administration is a very flexible degree for professionals who want a fulfilling and rewarding career that finds them leading others while serving the public and bettering society.
Pro — You can custom-tailor your job to your interests and personality.
Because of the broad applicability of the MPA, it’s possible to carve out your own career niche based on your personal strengths, passions, and temperament. In addition to identifying a specific issue or cause you want to get behind, ask yourself if the daily tasks you’d be performing and your work environment would fulfill you.
Are you a self-directed introvert who loves nothing more than to work on a computer, researching, compiling, and analyzing information in order to prepare reports for other decision-makers? If so, you’re well-suited to a career as a policy analyst.
Do you thrive on people contact and motivating others to carry out complex projects and meet established goals? Management, operations, human resources, and administration are great career options for you.
Is it easy to get others fired up about something that matters to you? Consider a career in advocacy, press relations, or nonprofit fundraising.
Pro —You can work internationally.
The world is becoming increasingly more interconnected, which means global opportunities are expanding. Today’s economy often requires successful professionals to relocate in order to advance careers and land the most exciting positions.
Con — You might have to move around a lot.
If you have deep roots in your current community or a family with kids in school to consider, having to move often to advance your career might be a drag. While flexibility in location is strongly connected to increased professional opportunities, this might be undesirable and impractical for some people.
Pro —You can switch sectors easily.
Today’s pressing issues, or “wicked problems,” require significant contributions and effective responses from governments, nonprofits, NGOs, universities, and the private sector. Public administration professionals can move among the sectors as their careers progress and experience builds, shifting jobs when opportunities arise to better make a personal difference.
Pro – Careers in public administration require a lot of face time with people and networking.
If you shine brightest when you’re shaking a stranger’s hand or explaining a difficult concept to a large group of people, you’ll be right at home in public administration. While the degree of human interaction varies with the specific position, you can count on dealing with large numbers of people on a daily basis. Additionally, “Perhaps more than in other similar professional careers, making new contacts and frequently interacting with other persons in the field are absolutely vital to success in public service,” advises the Association for Public Policy Analysis and Management (APPAM).
Con – This is challenging if you’re not a people person by nature.
If you are not an outgoing, confident, and articulate “people person,” you’ll need to work hard on developing the extensive people and communication skills that a career in public administration requires.
Pro — The “MPA” after your name gets you noticed.
When prospective employers see the letters “MPA” after your name, it tells them at a glance that you’ve put in the time and effort to develop the particular skills and knowledge they seek. This degree can set you apart in the job market and cause an HR manager with a stack of 50 resumes to put yours on top.
Pro — Your graduate degree is a worthwhile investment.
Are you wondering if the cost of your graduate program is worth it in the long run? Although salaries for MPA holders vary greatly by sector, geographical location, and work experience, research does indicate that graduates of master’s programs do, in general, earn more than those with only a bachelor’s degree. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), in 2016 recipients of master’s degrees earned on average $11,648 more than those with only a bachelor’s degree.
Pro —You’re qualified for a career with the federal government.
A job with the federal government is one of the most coveted positions for public administration professionals thanks to the competitive salary and benefits package and job security. Although you might have to work at it for a while and first gain some experience in positions with local or state government agencies, there are numerous agencies and departments at the federal level that need skilled administrators. Most MPA graduates enter the federal government’s General Schedule (GS) pay scale at GS-9 or GS-11 if they have relevant work experience.
Con – Competition’s steep in this high-demand sector.
Public administration careers with the federal government are very competitive. There are a limited number of job openings and a seemingly unlimited number of applicants.
Pro — You can be a consultant or contractor.
“One of the fastest growing sources of public service employment in recent years has been public sector contracting and consulting. Some contractors now employ thousands of staff, analysts, managers, and more. Many of them are MPAs,” reports PublicServiceCareers.org.
These challenging, fast-paced positions typically pay very well. Public sector consultants:
- Analyze public sector operations, using qualitative and quantitative methodology.
- Draw upon personal experience and/or their firm’s knowledge about an industry or functional area to help clients identify key issues and potential solutions.
- Make recommendations for improving efficiency and accomplishing critical goals.
- Provide a variety of goods and services to the government, including long-term contract employees to government agencies.
- Often work on many different projects with a wide variety of clients.
Con —You need to be very flexible and adaptable.
Public sector consultants work on short- and long-term projects and therefore need to be flexible and adaptable in moving quickly from one project to the other. They must be able to enter an unfamiliar environment and swiftly synthesize large amounts of data and report results in a short amount of time. Consultants are often required to work from a wide variety of locations based on client needs and never know what the next project holds in store.
Want to learn more about how a career in public administration can help you make the world a better place? Post University’s MPA program emphasizes relevant, career-oriented knowledge and skills. Our practice-based program has been vetted by business and public-sector leaders and is taught by scholar-practitioner faculty with years of real-world experience. They will offer you valuable insights and advice, so you can launch, grow, and transform government programs and nonprofit organizations upon graduation.