Why Pursue a Graduate Degree

Many professional opportunities in public service require additional education beyond the Bachelor’s degree. Anyone considering attending graduate school has a series of important decisions to make.  The bottom line: most persons interested in pursuing a public service career will benefit considerably from pursuing a graduate degree or certificate.

Decision One: Whether to seek a graduate degree

Most MPA/MPP degrees require two academic years to complete (including, at many programs, an internship during the summer between the two). The price of a graduate degree includes both the direct costs (tuition, room and board, books, etc.) and the foregone income from leaving the work force.

Is it worth it? All available evidence shows that the graduates of MPA/MPP programs are extremely competitive in the employment market, and earn more and acquire more responsibility as a consequence of their graduate education. That said, there are many degree programs available that offer a variety of cost, curriculum, location, access to employment opportunities and other factors. According to the U.S. Bureau of the Census, in 2012 the median annual salary of individuals holding a master’s degree (all fields) was $67,600 — $12,200 higher than for individuals with only a bachelor’s degree. In most cases, a person earning a master’s degree recovers the cost of the degree program through increased earnings in less than a decade after graduation.

See employment and salary trends for MPA/MPP graduates.

Decision Two: The Master’s degree vs. the Ph.D.

Persons who are unfamiliar with graduate professional education may assume that a Ph.D is a stronger degree than a Master’s. A more accurate statement is that a Ph.D is appropriate for some career objectives and a Master’s degree is appropriate for other objectives. If you are interested in conducting sophisticated research on public policy and management issues and/or teaching at the university level, then you may wish to earn a doctorate in a research field. For most individuals interested in public service careers, a Master’s degree is completely appropriate, and there is no need to earn a Ph.D. Furthermore, a professional Master’s degree usually is not a good “stepping stone” on the way to the Ph.D: the Master’s curriculum focuses on applied topics relevant to professional careers rather than the theoretical and technical topics at the heart of a doctoral education. Persons interested in doctoral education are strongly encouraged to make contact with faculty at programs of interest for further information.

Decision Three: What field to select

Persons interested in public service may find it difficult to choose between law school, policy school and even business school (especially business schools with strong nonprofit management programs). Each type of graduate school has its appealing features, but MPA/MPP programs stand out for their public service focus, flexibility, personal attention, and affordability. Furthermore, many MPA/MPP programs offer joint degrees with business and law for those individuals interested in combining more than one type of professional education. Finally, MPA/MPP programs, and Ph.D. programs in the same schools, are concerned with the challenging “wicked problems” on the local, state, national and international agenda. Problems such as chronic homelessness in U.S. cities, or global climate change, or sustainable development in Africa offer unique challenges in public service that are not the core concerns of business or law schools.