What Graduate Degree Program Is Best for You?

How to decide between an MPA and an MPP degree.
February 13, 2013
anneohirsch/Flickr CC

Over the past few decades, the public sector graduate education landscape has grown increasingly complex. Students seeking careers in government can choose between master’s degrees in public administration (MPA) or public policy (MPP), but the options don’t stop there. Within each degree there are options for specializations or joint degrees. And there are options for the mid-career public servant, too. Today’s MPA and MPP programs are focused on creating degrees that serve both niche employers and students with niche interests.

Choosing the right kind of public sector graduate program depends a lot on what kind of career you plan to have in government. Here are some useful tips on how to sort through the choices.

MPA v. MPP: The boundaries are blurring

Today, there is an ongoing convergence of the MPA and MPP degree programs. Traditionally, the MPA program emphasized management and decision making, while MPP students spent their time focusing on policy analysis, quantitative analysis and economics. But all of that’s changing. “There is a rich coursework available to students that draws from the other perspective,” says National Association of Schools of Public Affairs and Administration (NASPAA) Executive Director Laurel McFarland. “So you have an MPP where there are significant management courses; there are schools of public affairs…where the student flow very freely between the courses offered between the different degrees.” The result is a lot of hybrid programs: The University of Washington Evans School of Public Affairs, for example, offers an MPA degree, but according to McFarland, the number one specialization is policy analysis.

This convergence makes it more important to be concerned about what you can do within a program rather than the name of the degree you’re pursing. To do this, carefully review each program’s core courses, electives and specializations recognizing that these can differ widely between schools.

(Still interested in learning more about the difference between the two programs? Check out these articles offered through the NASPAA: MPA and MPP Students: Twins, Siblings, or Distant Cousins? and MPA vs. MPP: A Distinction Without a Difference?)

Three important questions to ask

So, with overlapping programs, how can you choose the right degree program for you? There are three important questions to consider:

1. What skills do I want to develop?

Take a close look at each program’s core courses. Common core courses include:

  • MPA: public administration, public budgeting, basic economics and statistics, executive leadership, ethics, communication and writing, financial administration, policy analysis, administrative theory, human resource management, decision making.
  • MPP: macro and microeconomics, quantitative methods, benefit-cost methodology, public management, data analysis, policy analysis, public finance, law and economics, policy and program evaluation, research methods, statistics.

2. Is there a particular specialization that interests me?

Are you a generalist or do you have niche interests? If you have a specific interest, look for a program that can help you develop a professional competency in your desired area of expertise. Common areas of specialization include:

  • MPA: state and local government administration, education, criminal justice, policy analysis, human resource management and public finance administration.
  • MPP: family and social welfare policy, education policy, health policy, environmental policy, community policy and urban affairs policy.

McFarland cautions students not to get discouraged if they are unable to specialize in a particular area. “[Students] sometimes think ‘if I don’t go to this school with a specific specialization, I’m finished,’” he says. “The job market is much more flexible than that. We’re not seeing students who are not hired because they don’t have certain specializations.”

3. What are my career goals?

An MPA degree used to be the ticket to becoming a city manager. But just as the degrees have changed, so has the job market. “Any city worth its salt would hire an MPP who’s well qualified,” says McFarland. Even though employers are drawing less of a distinction between the two degrees in their hiring processes, having career goals in mind is still an important part of choosing which degree is right for you. And there are still common jobs sought by MPA and MPP candidates, including:

  • MPA: city manager, state and county department directors, HR managers, public safety managers, government relations specialists and communications directors.
  • MPP: policy and data analysts, policy consultants, government relations, research directors, economic development officers, auditors and fiscal and budget analysts.

Degrees, certificates and executive programs

A growing trend in higher education is to reduce the time it takes to complete a degree, giving rise to certificate programs and the executive degree with a goal of finishing the program in one year, often while working full time. Certificates and executive education programs are aimed at mid-level professionals who might already have a master’s degree or significant work experience. Students seeking these degrees are often looking for a way to give themselves a boost in their career, be it a promotion or more leadership responsibilities. Executive degrees are generally oriented toward leadership skills while certificates can have a variety of niche focuses. But they both differ significantly from the MPA and MPP degree programs, which provide more of a general core curriculum.

In some cases, the distinction between degrees, certificates and executive programs has to do with state rules. A certificate can generally be achieved in a shorter timeframe than a degree, but in a lot of states, universities have been authorized to offer one-year master’s degrees. In turn, a one-year certificate in one state might look like a one-year master’s degree in another. McFarland’s advice: “Students have to be a lot more vigilant about what they’re getting themselves into.”


Next month, we’ll explore the value of the MPA and MPP degrees. Do you have a public sector-focused degree? Email Kerrigan.h@gmail.com to tell us about your experience with the degree program, what knowledge you gained, and whether you’d go back and do it all over again.


More from Columns