Master's in Public Administration Career Options

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Having achieved the impressive goal of completing a bachelor’s degree, many political science students often wonder what the next step might be. Some choose to proceed directly into the workforce, while others consider graduate learning options. While graduate programs in political science-related fields can vary greatly in subject matter, a master’s degree in public administration is often an excellent option for students interested in pursuing a career in local government, non-profit, or urban and regional planning. Research into a public administration degree can be tedious, so we’ve developed this page for students exploring public administration as a possible graduate-level pursuit. Continue reading to academic and career options related to the field of public administration.

Benefits of a Master’s Degree in Public Administration

One of the first steps of deciding whether a degree program is the right fit for you is to explore the benefits this program may award. Below you will find an overview of a few reasons public administration may be a good fit.

Why a Master’s in Public Administration Degree?

Earning a master’s in public administration is an excellent way for students to prepare themselves for greater professional success in their future. There isn’t one career that lines up with this academic path, but many students work in the public sector as social or community service managers.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, jobs in these areas are projected to grow by 18% until the year 2026, so incoming students can feel confident in their prospects of post-graduation job placement.

Like many graduate programs, most master’s in public administration degrees are available to students from varying academic backgrounds. Some programs may be looking for students who have at least some previous experience with political science or social science-related coursework, but others are more focused on a student’s personal background, goals, and motivations. Public administration programs are typically a good fit for students who are looking to invest their lives in the wellbeing of others—who are interested in making a positive difference in their community via urban planning, emergency management, or the development of policies to bring about positive change.

What Skills Are Acquired & Needed for This Career?

Successful public administration students typically exhibit the skills, both hard and soft, that are commonly found in effective leaders. Below are a few of the qualities that may make you a good fit for a master’s in public administration.

Hard Skills

Statistical Analysis

Stats classes are commonly found within masters of public administration curricula, and students can be sure that their careers will deal somewhat heavily with understanding trends in behavior, whether in terms of finance, company effectiveness, or population.

Understanding of Economics

When dealing with any kind of local government or policy-related career, it is likely that economic trends will play a role in your ability to achieve your goals, as this will dictate whether funds will be available to achieve certain goals.

Managerial Training

After completing a master’s degree in public administration, many graduates will go on to achieve job placement with some managerial requirements. Being a strong leader will be crucial to establishing a successful career.

Resource Management

Knowing when and how to properly allocate company resources is one of the key qualities to becoming an effective employee in the public or government sectors.

Soft Skills

Organization

The goal many public administration students set out to achieve is to become a leader, and nothing entices a greater sense of loyalty than structure. Keeping track of projects, meetings, short-term and long-term company goals, all stem from the leadership and management classes students work through during their master’s degree. An organized student becomes an organized leader.

Time Management

Know what needs your focus and when it needs it. As with managing resources, managing time is a key quality found with effective public administrators. Keep your finger on the pulse of not only your own timeframe, but also that of your team—leaders understand when to cut slack, but also when to reel employees in and make adjustments where necessary.

Effective Communication

With effective communication comes effective listening. Be open to hearing feedback from your classmates or your team, and in turn be concise with the feedback you provide them. Problem-solving is best achieved when both parties are fully invested in understanding one another’s sides.

Creativity

Don’t be afraid to take risks and get creative. Some problems are less common than others and may need you to think outside of the box to resolve. Fortune favors the bold, so explore any available options, no matter how unique.

How This Degree Helps in the Job Market

Graduates from a master’s program in public administration may be interested in ways to further market themselves as an employee. Below are a few tips for ways students can give themselves a better chance of getting hired.

    • Prep for Certifications/Licenses: A variety of certification and licensure programs--such as the certification in Urban Design through the American Institute of Certified Planners (AICP)--exist to help professionals working in the public administration field advance their careers. With a master’s in public administration, graduates will be well prepared to further specialize their areas of work and potentially receive bumps in salary.

    • Specialized Learning: One of the greatest benefits of working through a graduate-level academic program is that it allows a student to begin narrowing their field of specialization. In addition to some more broadly-focused coursework, public administration students often also have the opportunity to pick from emphases like public management, transportation policy, international development, cultural leadership, and regional planning.

    • Wider Range of Job Opportunities: A bachelor’s degree can go a long way in opening doors to job placement, but the higher credential a student holds, the greater professional responsibility is likely to be bestowed upon the applicant. Many government and management related fields rely heavily on professionals who hold either a master’s or a terminal doctorate degree-- continuing education is an excellent way to compete with these other applicants.

    • Step Towards Terminal Degree: Some students may have their sights set a bit further out than a master’s degree, and would prefer becoming a doctor in their field of study. A master’s in public administration will be a necessary stepping stone for students looking to achieve this goal, as it will allow them to begin narrowing their academic emphasis, ultimately resulting in one very particular area of research to be developed for their dissertation.

Master of Public Administration Career Paths & Salary Potential

Like many graduate programs, a master’s degree in public administration does not prep students for just one area of work. Rather, students will develop skills that are applicable to a wide variety of administrative fields, in addition to working through a limited number of emphasis courses that may guide career choice. Let’s review 10 potential areas of work for public administration graduates, including details on job description and salary.

10 Ways to Prepare for Your Public Administration Master’s Degree

Many students are eager to begin prepping for their careers while still working through their undergraduate or master’s program. Below are a few ways that active students can go about cutting their teeth in the field of public administration.

  1. Attend job connection fairs: Schools often bring in employers from local companies and organizations to meet with students in particular areas of study. Be aware of any events in which public administration professionals may be present.

  2. Volunteer: Because it is unpaid, volunteering shows a student’s dedication to their specific field of work and study and makes an excellent impression on potential employers.

  3. Join an on-campus club or organization: University clubs and organizations cover a wide range of interests, from Greek life to sports to campus government. Research what organizations might hold similar values or deal with a similar subject matter as the content of a public administration program.

  4. Attend local events: Colleges and departments are usually pretty good about getting the word out regarding campus events. Hear about an upcoming reading, seminar, or panel? Attend and you might just start making some connections.

  5. Submit to journals: Being a published author can work wonders in the application process, but even if you submit an article that isn’t accepted, employers will likely still be impressed by the work you put into your writing.

  6. Conduct research: Many grad programs build research opportunities into its curriculum. The added benefit is that students can often request to work with specific professors that may share similar research interests.

  7. Grad certifications: Many graduate certificates do not require a student to have completed a master’s degree first. If you’re willing to pay for the credits, holding a certificate on top of a master’s degree can look great on a resume.

  8. Consider a cooperative education program: Although this varies from program to program, some schools allow students to work through cooperative education opportunities, where credits alternate between in-class learning and paid work experience.

  9. Internships: Similar to cooperative education, internships are a great way for students to get some hands-on experience in their field of work. If you’re lucky, you might get paid, too.

  10. Study abroad: Many administrative roles may deal with some level of international travel for training or correspondence. Having a background in how other countries handle administrative professional coursework never hurts.

Expert Q&A

Advice From a Public Policy Graduate

Sasha Ramani

Sasha Ramani recently completed his master's degree in Public Policy (MPP) at the Harvard Kennedy School, with a concentration in Business and Government. Originally from Canada, Sasha honed his strategy and investment management skills in New York City with Deloitte Consulting and Mars and Co, where he advised investment firms on innovation, business growth strategy, and organizational design. At Harvard, Sasha’s interests included financial technology (FinTech) and the mobilization of financial capital for social impact. He also published a paper with Dr. Christopher Smart, a former Obama Administration senior policymaker, on how technology can help to mobilize capital in emerging markets, and worked part-time with the Harvard Kennedy School Admissions Office. Today he is the Manager of Corporate Strategy and Interim Canada Country Manager for MPOWER Financing, a mission-driven fintech firm in Washington, DC that helps international students finance an education in the United States and Canada. Check out what Sasha has to say about the world of Public Administration and Policy.

How is public policy similar to public administration?

For most purposes, you can think of these as interchangeable. But in a nutshell, MPP degrees emphasize technical and academic skills versus the leadership / "soft skills" that MPAs emphasize. MPP graduates are more likely to work in government as policy analysts/etc, while MPA grads are more likely to run for more public-facing roles or in the private sector.

What kind of extracurricular opportunities -- such as internships or participating in certain on-campus organizations -- might benefit undergrads interested in working towards a masters in public admin?

I’d generally suggest having a coherent story about what kind of public service you hope to achieve, and how your MPA experience will help you get there. MPA/MPP schools are for idealists who strive to "make the world a better place" - although many people achieve this through private sector work as well! I am generally to believe that a narrative about how you tie together your past, goals during your Masters, and future post-MPA plans (to whatever extent possible) is what makes your application attractive to admissions officers.

For example, try to volunteer with a Congressman or to work on a campaign. Prove your quantitative and research skills by, say, writing a report suggesting a policy proposal or criticizing one. But fundamentally, show that you care about some of the big issues facing society, and why you care about them.

Public Admin/Policy programs often break down into specialization tracks. How can students go about selecting the track that will best fit their interests and long-term goals?

Choosing a specialization is like Sophie’s Choice, because everything is appealing: especially for someone with a general orientation towards public service or social justice. Luckily, you generally have a year to explore your different interests before having to commit to a track. And in a large school like Harvard Kennedy School where students are between 20 and 60 years of age, you’ll likely find someone who you can ask about their experience to help make your decision.

One useful framework taught at Harvard Business School is an 80/20% model: You want to spend 80% of your time cultivating your future career path and developing skills that you "know" will make you successful in the workplace. But spend the remaining 20% of your time exploring and developing new interests that you didn’t know that you had. There are so many opportunities for this: talks, workshops, clubs, speaking to your classmates, etc.

Many MPA students go on to begin careers in either government or city services, but what about students that aren’t interested in either of these broad areas of work? What other less traditional lines of work might they be able to pursue?

Policy schools are for idealists who strive to “make the world a better place”, while still keeping the private sector very much in-play for future career opportunities. About 40% of HKS graduates go into the private sector (in which consulting is a big recruiter): I think that ~50% of HKS MPA graduates go into private-sector roles. But a very significant chunk works in the public sector / non-profit sectors doing all sorts of different things. I personally work in a private-sector fintech startup, MPOWER Financing. So I’d say that the world is your oyster after completing an MPA degree: not just “traditional” government roles.

Resource for Public Administration Students

Working in the public sector means that you will have plenty of support from other administrative professionals. Check below for some potential resources.

  • Alliance for Nonprofit Management: Interested in developing or working for a nonprofit organization? The Alliance for Nonprofit Management acts as a link between individuals working in these areas, allowing for greater capacity for knowledge and experience sharing.

  • American Society for Public Administration: The ASPA seeks to develop a network through which public administration professions can remain connected and crowdsource for solutions to issues in governance.

  • Economic Policy Institute: Developed just over 30 years ago, the EPI is a collaborative network of individuals striving for greater economic representation and support for low- and middle-income individuals.

  • Government Finance Officers Association: The GFOA has been in operation for more than 100 years and provides over 20,000 members with guidance and resources related to the field of finance management.

  • International City/County Management Association: Over 11,000 public administration professionals are members of the ICMA, serving as a think tank to foster the local government practices that have been proven to bolster regional development.

  • Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory: Looking to get your research published for a wider audience? The Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory is a thriving community through which new ideas related to government function and policy can be disseminated.

  • National Academy of Public Administration: For just over 50 years, the National Academy of Public Administration has been a key advising body for federal agencies, while also providing fellowships to professionals working in the field.

  • National Association of Schools of Public Affairs and Administration: NASPAA provides training to promote interest in the government employment arena. Membership is available to individuals working through their graduate programs in public administration or policy.

  • National League of Cities: The NLC is an excellent resource for individuals interested in local government. The League partners with cities in 49 states, providing resources and support to help effect local development.

  • Public Administration Theory Network: PA Theory Network is a platform developed to foster greater connectivity between professionals working in administration and government fields. The Network holds annual conferences, allowing individuals to share their research in a multi-national venue.