Earning a Master's in Public Policy Online

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In the current economic climate, earning an online master's in public policy (MPP) constitutes a savvy investment in your future. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), certain professions in the field, including urban and regional planning (13%) and market research analysis (23%), boast growth rates projected to far exceed the national average over the next decade. That demand, coupled with the relatively stable nature of certain professions in the field, makes public policy a good fit for service, research, and data-minded individuals.

The following guide provides an overview of the benefits of earning an online public policy master's and delves into topics such as salary potential, job growth potential, how to pay for the degree, degree requirements, and relevant professional organizations.

Student Profile: Who Earns an Online Master's Degree in Public Policy?

Several different types of students pursue MPP online degrees. The most common candidate usually holds a bachelor's degree in public policy and wants to advance their career through graduate education. Another typical learner aims to specialize in a specific public policy field like education policy, healthcare policy, or international and national security policy. Others already work in the public policy field and look to increase their salary potential or chances at a promotion.

Why Get a Master's Degree in Public Policy?

Pursuing Specialization

Many students pursue an online master's degree in public policy to specialize within a specific field. As many undergraduate public policy programs take a more generalist approach, students who specifically aim to enter fields such as healthcare policy, education policy, security policy, urban policy, or science and technology policy can often find the concentration they seek in graduate-level programs.

Career Advancement Opportunities

According to PayScale, professionals who hold a master's in public policy earn an annual salary $7,000 higher than professionals with a bachelor's in public policy. This figure may not seem like an enormous amount of money to some people, but it adds up over the course of a lengthy career. Moreover, holding an online public policy master's makes you more employable and a more serious candidate for advancement opportunities once you find a job.

Online Learning Technology

In many cases, earning a master's in public policy online instead of in person allows professionals who already work in the field to keep their job at their current company while working to advance their career. Most online MPP programs deliver all of their coursework asynchronously with no set class times, allowing students to complete their assignments after typical work hours. As such, the online public policy master's degree serves as a type of extended professional development opportunity, as some companies even contribute to their employees' education.

Prerequisites for Online Public Policy Programs

Prospective students should familiarize themselves with the following list of common prerequisites for online public policy programs.

    • Work Experience: Some online public policy master's programs cater to working professionals by requiring all students to possess a specific amount of work experience. Some programs demand experience in public policy, while others require general experience. Other programs do not need any background in the field, where bachelor's students jump straight into graduate studies.
    • Exams and Test Scores: Some online public policy master's programs require students to submit GRE or MAT scores. Others only need these scores if students do not meet certain undergraduate GPA thresholds. Minimum standardized test score requirements vary from program to program. GRE scores remain valid for five years after the testing date.
    • Coursework: All students interested in online public policy master's programs must submit evidence of an undergraduate degree in a relevant field (e.g., public policy or a social science). Many programs require minimum cumulative undergraduate GPAs of 3.0, though some only need 2.75.
    • Recommendations: Many graduate public policy programs require 2-3 recommendation letters from former undergraduate professors. In some cases, letters from employers can serve as a substitute. Students should make sure to ask for these letters months in advance and follow up by sending occasional reminders to their professors.
    • Essays: Almost all graduate public policy programs require some sort of essay. In most cases, the essay deals with each student's interest in public policy or career goals, asking them to explain why exactly they want to enroll in that specific program.
    • Interviews: Some public policy programs require students to complete an interview. While rare, an interview can help an admissions committee get to know an individual student better and evaluate their suitability for on-campus or online learning.
    • International Students International students typically must fulfill all of a program's common prerequisites and also submit a satisfactory Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) score. The TOEFL exam measures a student's English abilities in an academic setting, ensuring that international students can succeed in an English language program.

How Much Can I Make with a Master's Degree in Public Policy?

In general, public policy qualifies as a lucrative field. The BLS projects the annual median salary range for market research analysts at $34,510 (10th percentile) to $122,770 (90th percentile). An online public policy master's can help you develop a broad set of hard skills in the field, such as research, data collection, and writing. These skills make you more employable and help qualify you for additional outside-the-box career opportunities.

Traditional Careers for Master's in Public Policy Graduates

Careers Stats Description

Political Scientists

Median Pay: $115,110

Job Growth: 3%

Political scientists perform research about political systems using various lenses, including origin, operation, and development. They commonly work in academia or think tanks and often need doctoral degrees. Political scientists must enjoy qualitative and quantitative research, boast strong writing skills, and enjoy working on a single issue or paper for years.

Urban and Regional Planners

Median Pay: $71,490

Job Growth: 13%

As their name suggests, urban and regional planners create plans for a city or town's land use. Issues that planners take into account include community, population growth, and neighborhood change. Most planners need at least a master's degree, but a bachelor's from a strong undergraduate planning program will also suffice.

Survey Researchers

Median Pay: $53,270

Job Growth: 2%

Survey researchers use their knowledge of public policy to create and administer surveys. The data they collect can help with a yearly census, political campaigns, urban planning, and many other areas. Many survey research positions require an advanced degree.

Market Research Analysts

Median Pay: $63,230

Job Growth: 23%

Market research analysts often work in-house for a company, performing market research that helps to understand supply and demand for their goods and services. All analysts must possess significant math skills, a data-driven mindset, and bachelor's degrees.

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

Nontraditional Careers for Public Policy Graduates

The following section delves deeper into jobs that degree holders might consider less typical but that require a similar skill set. The table includes data about median salaries, job growth rates, and overlapping skills.

Career Stats Description

Economists

Median Pay: $102,490

Job Growth: 6%

Economists publish original research about economics, or "the production and distribution of resources, goods, and services," according to the BLS. Public policy graduates can apply their research design skills, as well.

Skills Overlapped:

Sociologists

Median Pay: $79,650

Job Growth: 1%

Sociologists perform research about social behavior and society before publishing their findings in academic journals. They often work closely with professors in academia, teach courses themselves, and must hold doctoral degrees to obtain jobs in the field.

Skills Overlapped: research; data collection; writing

Survey Researchers

Median Pay: $54,270

Job Growth: 2%

As discussed above, survey researchers use their knowledge of public policy and other areas to design and administer surveys. The data they collect can contribute to studies in a wide variety of fields. A majority of survey research positions require master's or doctoral degrees.

Skills Overlapped: research; data collection; public interation

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

Paying for an Online Master's in Public Policy

The following section provides information about public policy scholarship opportunities. While plenty of scholarships exist in the field, students should exhaust other avenues for reducing their tuition costs, including grants and financial aid. Moreover, certain accelerated programs can help you earn an online public policy master's more quickly while paying less tuition. Certain online, part-time programs offer per-credit tuition that can also help you save money.

Scholarships for Online Public Policy Master's Students

Students pursuing online degrees in any field should investigate and exhaust the scholarship opportunities available to them. Public policy is no different. Fortunately for prospective students, the public policy field offers several field-specific scholarships. Below, we spotlight five of the best.

What to Expect from a Master's Level Online Public Policy Program

The typical online MPP degree requires a year of full-time study or 2-3 years of part-time study to complete and consists of between 36 and 54 credits. In most cases, an online master's in public policy program delivers theory coursework asynchronously and culminates in a research-intensive capstone that takes the form of either a thesis or a project. Students generally learn how to perform this graduate-level research during lower-level public policy coursework.

Major Milestones

  1. Introductory/Core Coursework

    Students usually enroll in broad survey courses during their first semester, allowing them to feel out which particular area of public policy interests them.

  2. Concentration Coursework

    Once they know what field of public policy interests them, students can often specialize by taking concentration-specific courses throughout the rest of their program. This milestone usually takes place after students complete their core courses.

  3. Choosing an Adviser

    Core coursework also helps students see which professors they work well with and which professors do research that interests them. Students may ask these professors to advise them during their capstone research projects.

  4. Internship/Fieldwork

    Reflecting programs in many other fields, MPP programs typically allow students to gain some sort of hands-on field experience through internships. Most strong MPP programs maintain connections with local employers in the field.

  5. Capstone

    In the public policy field, the capstone course usually takes the form of a thesis, a project, or a paper. In all three cases, students must complete significant research that applies everything they learned in the classroom up to that point.

  6. Job or Ph.D. Applications and Interviews

    During their final semester, each student takes the final steps toward cementing their first postgraduate move, whether that move entails more education or a job. Many programs can help students with their job applications and interviews.

Coursework

The following section describes five courses typically found in online, master's-level public policy programs. Courses may differ from program to program.

Microeconomics

Students need a strong grasp of economics and how it plays a role in public affairs on a local scale. A graduate-level public policy microeconomics course typically takes a survey approach to the discipline.

Law and Economics

Law and economics play a huge role in shaping and informing public policy, so students in MPP programs typically complete a survey course early in the curriculum that furnishes them with a basic understanding of both disciplines.

Statistical Methods

Students in master's in public policy programs typically complete a statistical methods course early in their studies. The course teaches students about statistical methods and programs in the context of the social sciences.

Policy Analysis

Policy analysis typically serves as the core course in a public policy curriculum, as policy analysis remains the one hard skill that almost all employers expect of MPP graduates.

Capstone

A public policy capstone course commonly consists of a significant research project that includes data collection, policy analysis, and other applied techniques typically learned earlier in the curriculum.

Degree Timelines

The following table describes three different study timelines that prospective MPP students can pursue: part-time, full-time, or accelerated paths.

Enrollment Status Time to Complete Description

Part-Time

24-36 months
(6-8 credits per semester)

Part-time programs often appeal to students who deal with significant professional or familial obligations but who want to go back to school. This type of program offers a more digestible course load but takes far longer to complete than accelerated or full-time programs.

Full-Time

12-24 months
(12 credits per semester)

Full-time programs appeal to students who want to earn their MPP degrees as quickly as possible. Students in full-time programs often only work part time or do not work at all outside of their studies. Nevertheless, some online, asynchronous programs provide enough flexibility to allow students to maintain full-time jobs.

Accelerated

12-24 months
(12 credits per semester)

Accelerated programs generally accept students with significant previous work or academic experience in public policy. Online accelerated programs often use shorter classes (six weeks instead of eight weeks, for example) to allow students to progress more quickly through a curriculum.

Licenses and Certifications

Though professional licensure and certification do not play a significant role in the public policy field, earning these credentials can still help a job seeker separate themselves from the pack. Licensure or certification can also help a professional already working in the field earn more promotion opportunities. Below, we explore three common certifications in the public policy/administration field.

    • Certified Public Manager: Awarded by the National Certified Public Manager Consortium, the CPM certification displays competency for federal, state, and local government employers. CPM certification requires coursework and a capstone project.
    • Advanced Policy Analyst: Awarded by Northwestern University, this credential remains one of the most intense, specialized policy analysis programs in the nation. While this program does not include a comprehensive examination, students must complete exhaustive coursework.
    • Certified Economic Policy Analyst: As the name suggests, the CEPA certification demonstrates competency in analyzing policy from economic angles. Each candidate must already possess 3-5 years of work experience, complete coursework, and pass an examination. Certification holders must complete continuing education credits to keep their certifications current.

Professional Organizations and Resources

As a public-facing, people-oriented field, public policy involves plenty of networking. Additionally, as the field involves so much research and data collection, best practices and trends in public policy frequently change and evolve. Membership in a professional organization can help you network with other professionals and stay current on the latest trends in the industry. Furthermore, many organizations provide job boards that can help you find your next opportunity.

  • National Forum for Black Public Administrators: Operating since 1983, the NFBPA provides local chapters, an annual conference, and a scholarship program, all of which promote opportunities for African-Americans in the public administration field.
  • American Society for Public Administration: Arguably the most renowned organization in the field, ASPA offers networking opportunities, access to publications, and gatherings specifically for young professionals in public administration.
  • Association for Public Policy Analysis and Management: APPAM primarily focuses on research, offering annual conferences to discuss the latest trends in the field and access to several publications. The association also curates and maintains an online job board.
  • Engaging Local Government Leaders: ELGL lists its mission as engaging "the brightest minds in local government." The organization accomplishes that mission through conferences, exclusive research, and awards.
  • American Association for Budget and Program Analysis: Operating since the 1970s, AABPA focuses on networking and professional development, offering a symposium, access to different budget justifications, and a student research competition.
  • MPP and MPA Frequently Asked Questions: Provided by the Network of Schools of Public Policy, Affairs, and Administration, this FAQ provides a comprehensive overview of career prospects, typical curricula, and other topics relevant to MPP students.
  • Pi Alpha Alpha Honor Society: Pi Alpha Alpha maintains a global presence as the honor society for public affairs and administration. Membership can help students find jobs after they graduate.
  • How to Find an Internship: Another NASPAA resource, this webpage describes the steps students must take to find an internship in public policy and provides links to specific internship opportunities.
  • School Search Database: This NASPAA website allows students to search through nationally accredited undergraduate, master's, and doctoral programs in public policy.
  • Employment and Salary Trends for MPP/MPA Graduates: Another NASPAA resource, this page provides hard data and figures about employment and salary numbers in the public policy and administration fields.