Voters vote for politicians who offer a coherent platform of policies aimed at improving social and economic conditions. At least, that’s the general idea. If all goes well, those candidates then do their best to implement programs and initiatives that are based on that vision. That’s where public administration professionals come into play. While they go by various titles and work in an array of different capacities, public administrators are professionals equipped with the critical skills and multi-disciplinary knowledge to handle the important, rewarding, and often difficult work associated with effecting change.

Working in public administration means using the tools of managerial economics, social psychology, communications technology, urban planning, and social science research methods to design, implement, coordinate, and ultimately measure the impact of policy programs, whether it’s in the realm of healthcare, natural resources management, social justice, or any number of other areas of public concern. Graduates with a master’s degree in public policy can work for local, state, or federal government agencies, non-profit organizations, or private policy groups and businesses. They may conduct research, analyze programs, or train and manage other public service employees, all in the interest of tackling some of the more pressing issues of our time.

Master’s in Public Administration Concepts

  • Psychology and theories of social change
  • Research design
  • Psychological theories of public administration
  • Conflict resolution
  • Strategies in public administration and leadership
  • Theories behind development and implementation of policy
  • Effects of global competition on public administration
  • Enhancement of civil society
  • Attributes of fair and effective public services
  • Economics
  • Political science fundamentals
  • Sociology concepts
  • Administrative law
  • Theories of effective management
  • Understanding of opinion surveys and confidence indexes

Benefits of Earning a Master’s in Public Administration

A master of public administration, or MPA, is often thought of as the public sector equivalent of an MBA, in that it involves honing many of the same analytical, interpersonal, and critical thinking skills. Much like an MBA, the MPA is also the primary professional degree for those seeking a career in public administration. So, while there are more advanced, doctoral degrees in public administration, they are generally reserved for those aiming to teach and conduct research at the college and university level.

One of the biggest differences between a master’s in business administration and a master’s in public administration has as much to do with tone as it does with coursework. While MBA programs may have a public service component, the MPA focuses on using the tools of economics, sociology, psychology, and behavioral science in a way that benefits the greater good. As the National Association of Schools of Public Affairs and Administration (NASPAA) emphasizes, “An MPA degree, while still flexible enough to apply to the private sector (where many graduates work), is a degree focused for a career in public service. If you want a career in a government agency, a nonprofit, or in a philanthropic institution, an MPA degree is ideal.”

We’ll get into the details of what earning a master’s degree in public administration entails below. But, as a general concept, the MPA is a degree that has tended to evolve with the specific needs of the time, with a well defined vocational emphasis to go along with the more abstract academic and ethical ideals that it embodies. So, while public administration schools focused heavily on bureaucratic management structures and human resource allocation for much of the 20th century, they’ve been quick to adapt to new models for using online platforms, computer assets, and digital media to further public policy goals in the new millennium.

What to Expect in a Public Administration Master’s Program

Like an MBA degree, the master’s in public administration is aimed at providing students with the skills and knowledge they’ll need to pursue a professional career in the field. Most are designed to be completed in two years, or four semesters of study, which often includes a supervised internship or work-study requirement of some kind. Some MPA programs may have a thesis or capstone requirement or elective, which counts toward the total number of credit hours necessary for graduation. This will vary from program to program.

As an area of academic study, public administration is essentially multi-disciplinary in nature, drawing on theories, methodologies, approaches, and applications from political science, economics, sociology, psychology, and media studies. A typical master’s degree program in public administration will, according to the NASPAA, include courses that address, “budgeting/finance, managerial economics, political and legal processes, quantitative methods, and ethics.” And because public administration is such a broad field, an MPA program will likely offer students the opportunity to specialize, through elective coursework, internships, and capstone projects, in areas like non-profit management, healthcare policy, human resources, financial management, government administration, diversity and social policy, natural resources and sustainability, and international development.

While curricula and course descriptions will vary from program to program, the charts below offers details on the types of classes you’re likely to find in an MPA program:

Core Coursework

Public Administration Organization and Management

Theories of organizational structures and management in the public sector

Fiscal Policy Administration

Budgeting and resource allocation in the public sector

Human Resources Management

The legal imperatives and theoretical framework for human resource management in the public sector

Organizational Behavior

The psychological theories and components of organizational structures and decision-making processes

Public Policy Analysis

Methods and approaches to understanding the political, economic, and social impacts of public policy initiatives

Research Methods in the Social Sciences

The design and analysis of research in public policy

Statistics for Public Planning and Policy

Using statistical analysis to assess public policy

Elective Coursework

Organizational Psychology and Leadership

Advanced theories of organizational structures and leadership strategies

Economics of Consumer Policy

How public policy impacts and is impacted by economics and consumer behavior

International Trade

The laws and policies regulating world markets

Law Enforcement Administration

Police management and public policy administration in the criminal justice system

Labor and Employment Law

Federal, state, and local laws and policies pertaining to employment

Non-Profit and NGO Organizational Management

Legal, economic, and organizational issues specific to non-profits and NGOs

Homeland Security Administration

Public policy programs and initiatives to counter terrorist threats

Water and Natural Resource Conservation and Management

Economic and public policy in the realm of sustainability

Public Relations in Public Policy

How the tools of communication are employed in the public sector

Choosing the Right Degree: MPA vs. MPP

Most master’s programs in public administration are MPA, or master of public administration degrees. However, some schools do offer the largely equivalent MA, or master of arts, in public administration. There is thought to be little difference between the two degrees. However, in addition to MPA degrees, there are also MPP, or master of public policy, degree programs that may have a somewhat different emphasis. Historically, the MPP degree was based in public policy research and analysis, and the MPA focused more on implementation and management of public policy programs. However, the NASPAA notes that there are now more similarities than differences between the two degrees, pointing out that, “MPA and MPP programs have blended and converged as complements to one another, with courses and specializations often overlapping.” Indeed, some schools now offer a master’s in public management and policy, and there are also very similar master’s in public affairs degree programs. The key is to find a program well suited to the needs of your career objectives and interests.

Popular Specializations in Public Administration

In addition to the selected elective coursework noted above, there are several concentration areas within public administration, which can be addressed through thesis and capstone research, specific courses, and work-study opportunities. Here are some of the more popular areas of specialization for MPA students:

  • Non-Profit Management: Administration and management of non-profit and philanthropic organizations
  • Healthcare Management: Leadership and management in the healthcare sector of the economy
  • Social and Urban Policy: Administering programs and policy initiatives within the framework of social justice and urban planning
  • International Trade and Development: Assessing and managing the impact of international economic and financial forces on public policy concerns
  • Political Policy Analysis: The interplay of political, social, and economic forces of public policy
  • Criminal Justice Administration: Managing the criminal justice system from a public policy perspective
  • Educational Administration: Using the tools of public administration and leadership in the realm of educational policy
  • Natural Resource Policy: Leadership, innovation, and management in policy initiatives aimed at sustainability and natural resource conservation

Job Outlook and Salaries in Public Administration

A master’s in public administration could lead to a job working as an administrator in the local school system, or researching policy objectives for the World Bank, such is the range of opportunities open to MPA graduates. Much of this depends on an individual’s interests and professional aspirations. MPA graduates can typically find work in government agencies, non-profit organizations, NGOs, or the health and human services sector. Additionally, more and more private sector companies are hiring public administrators to help devise and manage strategic growth plans and specific policy objectives like a philanthropic campaign or community service project.

Salaries and overall job outlooks can vary quite a bit from one area to another in public administration. For example, the healthcare sector is projected to have sustained growth over the next decade or more, which bodes well for public administrators in that area of specialization. NASPAA notes that, “Common starting jobs for graduates include policy analysts, program managers, grant writers, researchers, and budget analysts,” adding that, “many graduates rise to upper-level positions in government, nonprofit, and even business organizations.” Some of these jobs may require special licensing and certification, but there is no general license or certification for public administrators.

Because public administration encompasses such a wide range of careers, it’s difficult to accurately forecast the job market for MPAs. In fact, the Bureau of Labor Statistics doesn’t have a specific job designation for public administers in its Occupational Outlook Handbook or the Occupational Employment Statistics that it collects. The chart below offers an overview of BLS job growth and salary figures for several related fields:

Occupation2014 Median SalaryJob Growth 2014-2024
Social and Community Service Managers$62,7410%
Social and Human Service Assistants$29,79011%
Urban and Regional Planners$66,9406%
Emergency Management Directors$64,3606%
Political Scientists$104,920-2%
Postsecondary Educational Administrators$88,3909%

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