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Education for Public Service Careers

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Education for Public Service Careers

Public service careers span a wide range of organizations and jobs in the new public sector, including frontline positions in government, senior positions in nonprofit management, and faculty positions in universities. Today's schools of public administration and public policy offer a range of degree programs to prepare you for launching and sustaining a desirable career in the field. The schools also offer mid-career and executive education programs designed specifically for the ongoing education needs of the working professional.

MPA/MPP: Professional Master's Degrees for Public Service

The two most common of these for public service careers are the Master of Public Administration (MPA) and the Master of Public Policy (MPP). These are terminal degrees, meaning that the persons who earn them most likely will not seek additional education beyond the degree nor will their careers require additional education. Earning an MPA/MPP opens doors to a wide variety of career options. Other well-known professional degrees of similar status are the MBA (business), JD (law), MD (medicine), MSW (social work) and MPH (public health). The MPA/MPP most often require four semesters of course work and a summer internship (full-time attendance), although there are some three semester programs and some longer programs (especially those that permit part-time attendance).

Over the past 50 years, the Master of Public Administration (MPA) and the Master of Public Policy (MPP) have emerged as vital professional degrees in the public service field. Numerous policymakers and leaders in the United States and internationally have earned these degrees to help launch their successful careers. There are over 250 degree programs in the United States and many more operating internationally. No matter the specific areas of concern, students can find many choices to consider among these professional degrees. Many schools offer full-time and part-time degree programs and degree requirements may vary depending on professional experience. Please note that some graduate schools have decided to use different names for degree programs with the same curriculum as the MPA/MPP. Examples of these include, “Master of Government Service,” “Master of Public Service,” “Master of Public Affairs,” “Master of Science in Public Policy and Management,” and “Master of Government Administration.”

For more information on curriculum, program structure, admissions, and financial aid options, please visit our affiliated site PublicServiceCareers.org.

Unique Features of the MPA/MPP

In comparison with other professional graduate degrees such in as business and law, MPA/MPP degree programs are noteworthy for the following features:

  • A broad-based training in subjects such economics, policy analysis, management (including financial management) and professional communications.
  • A low student/teacher ratio in most classes, allowing for considerable individual contact with the faculty
  • Significant financial aid available for qualified applicants.
  • Flexibility to take courses from other schools and departments, and joint degree programs with other professional schools.
  • Opportunities for substantial internships during the school year and in the summer between the first and second year of most full-time programs.

Above all, MPA/MPP program graduates are uniquely prepared for working in the new public sector that spans governments, nonprofit organizations/NGOs, and private companies together developing and implementing public policy.

Career Options

Prospective students often focus on the types of jobs MPA/MPP graduates hold. Is there a typical career path? Graduates of these programs pursue a wide variety of careers. Most people choose this field because they are committed to public service and enjoy working on issues or problems that affect some sector of the public. Although MPA/MPP programs were created with the goal of providing professional training for government officials, graduates today hold a wide variety of careers, with students finding employment at all levels of government, and the non-profit and private sectors, both in the United States and in many other countries as well.

Graduates differ in the organization setting in which they work. Some graduates work for various levels of government, others work in non-profit organizations or in the private sector for consulting firms, for example. Some graduates focus on a specific issue areas, or others are generalists who work on a variety of issues. Some graduates work on issues domestically and others internationally. Some proportion of graduates move back and forth between the public, private and nonprofit sector, or between an international setting and a domestic one. They can do this because the MPA/MPP degree provides a set of analytical and management skills that are often transferable across sectors and across issue areas.

Graduates also differ in the type of work they do. Some conduct research on public policy issues. Others help implement various programs. Still others work to advocate positions on certain issues or lobby for specific legislation.

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Ph.D. Programs

The Ph.D. focuses on training persons to conduct sophisticated research. Persons earning the Ph.D. might seek employment in universities, consulting firms and think tanks, or perhaps other job opportunities in public service that require such skills. A Ph.D. is a terminal degree but one that often leads to a very different career track than would an MPA/MPP. Most Ph.D. programs in public administration/public policy do not require prospective students to first earn a Master’s degree.

Many schools of public administration/public policy offer the Ph.D. These degrees are structured very similarly to other Ph.D. programs in the social sciences.

  • The first and second years of the degree program are devoted to courses in the key research skills emphasized by the program (usually research methods, theory, and applications to specific content areas).
  • Most Ph.D. programs then require students to take comprehensive examinations in one or more testing fields. Only those students who successfully pass their “comps” can continue in the program.
  • The remainder of the Ph.D. program is devoted to developing a proposal, conducting the necessary research, and writing a dissertation. The dissertation must be presented and defended publicly. It may take a total of four to six years from start to finish to earn the degree.

Compared with a professional Master’s degree (MPA/MPP), the students in a Ph.D. program generally will experience much closer contact with the faculty, smaller class sizes, and much more analytical material. Many of the students intend to seek academic careers upon graduation, but there are considerable job opportunities in government, consulting firms, advocacy organizations and think tanks for Ph.D. program graduates.

There are certain career tracks outside of higher education that expect the persons in those positions to have earned the Ph.D. Admissions for Ph.D. programs generally are much more competitive than for an MPA/MPP. Some Ph.D. programs receive 10 or more applications for every student they plan to admit.

The most important qualification for admission is a record of academic excellence especially in subjects that relate directly to the research focus of the Ph.D. program. Persons who are very analytically oriented and are interested in conducting in-depth research on issues may find a Ph.D. program to be better suited to their career goals than other alternatives.

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The Bachelor's Degree

Schools of public administration and public policy also offer Bachelor's degrees and the Ph.D. Bachelor's degrees in public policy or public administration offers students a longer course of study but usually focus more on specific topics (for example, health care or the environment) rather than on building advanced skills (such as management techniques or quantitative methods). The Bachelor's rarely would be considered a terminal degree.

The number of stand-alone Bachelor’s degrees in public administration/public policy has been increasing over the past two decades, as has the number of minors in the field available to undergraduates. There is tremendous interest at the undergraduate level in these degrees and on some U.S. campuses they rank among the largest in terms of enrollment.

One of the major advantages in an undergraduate program is the opportunity to take a sequence of courses related to a specific issue such as health care or the environment. Professional Master’s degrees (MPA/MPP) inevitably focus much more on developing crucial analytical and managerial skills, and Ph.D. programs must place an emphasis on research methods and theory.

Graduates of Bachelor’s programs find employment in all sectors at the entry level, and can gain vital experience that will serve them well when and if they decide to apply for additional education.

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