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Master of Public Administration Guide (MPA Degree Overview)

What Is an MPA Degree?

An MPA degree, or Masters of Public Administration, is a professional degree designed for individuals aspiring to pursue careers in public service or nonprofit management. It equips students with the necessary knowledge and skills to effectively navigate the complexities of the public sector, addressing societal challenges, and managing organizational operations.

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People with an MPA work in a wide range of public administration careers, from budget analyst to foundation director. Some of these careers, such as urban planner, require a master's degree as the minimum education. For others, you may be able to enter the field with a bachelor's, but you'll need an MPA to advance to a higher level or leadership position.

What You'll Study in an MPA Program

In an MPA program, you will study courses such as organizational theory, government and policy, budgeting, human resources management, strategic planning, and statistics. Many programs allow you to specialize in fields like economics, environment, public health, emergency management, and international affairs.

At a college or university, an MPA program may be part of a public affairs, political science, business, or sociology department. Regardless of how the degree is classified at any individual school, you'll learn similar skills.

Typically, an MPA program will require a number of core classes and then allow students to choose electives from specialty areas. Common core classes include:

  • Policy Design and Advocacy
  • Introduction to Public and Nonprofit Administration
  • Managing Organizations for Public Service
  • Public and Nonprofit Financial Management
  • Research Methods in Political Science

Once your core classes are completed, MPA students typically choose elective courses in a specific concentration, such as criminal justice, information and communication technology, social issues and policy, and urban planning. The areas of concentration will vary from school to school, but the basics are similar. In addition, many MPA programs require a thesis, capstone project, or internship.

What are the Prerequisites to Enter an MPA Program?

To enter an MPA program, you will need bachelor's degree. Many people pursuing an MPA earned undergraduate degrees in public administration, political science, economics, sociology, or social work, but a background in these fields usually is not necessary. Some schools require GRE test scores for admittance, but many do not. Prior experience in a public administration position is helpful but not always required.

How Long Does it Take to Earn an MPA?

Generally, it takes about two years to earn an MPA degree, though you can complete some programs in as little as 12 months. These may offer year-around classes and accelerated course schedules. A few MPA programs with traditional two-semester school years may take three to four years to finish.

Can I Earn My Degree Online?

Many universities offer MPA programs in an online or hybrid format. Hybrid courses combine both on-campus and online learning. You can also find many fully online programs without an on-campus requirement.

Like in-person programs, most online MPA programs take two years or less to finish. However, some schools use course terms that are shorter than the 16-week semesters used by traditional universities. This accelerated schedules allows you to earn more credits per year than usual. 

At many universities, students can arrange an internship with assistance from a professor in the program. Possible sites for an internship could be the state legislature, a state or municipal department, a university or school, or a nonprofit organization.

Other Public Administration-Focused Master's Programs

The Master of Public Administration is not the only master's degree that can qualify you for a career in public administration. You can find programs in areas that are similar to public administration or are specialized in a subfield such as health or security.

Similar to the Master of Public Administration is the Master of Public Policy (MPP), which teaches students analytical skills to understand public issues and recommend changes. Another similar degree is the Master of Public Affairs. It is essentially the same as a Master of Public Administration, but at some schools the course study may emphasize policy analysis over management skills.

Some more specialized degrees may be alternatives to an MPA for students who are interested in a specific field. Some examples are:

  • Master of Public Health: focus on public health management and policy
  • Master of Health Administration or Health Management: focus on skills needed to manage healthcare organizations in both public and private settings
  • Master of Emergency Management: teaches management skills needed to respond to emergencies and threats for both public and private entities
  • Master of Urban Planning: covers city and urban planning

Is an MPA the Same as an MBA?

It's easy to see why an MPA may be confused with an MBA. In some universities, the Master of Public Administration degree is part of the Master of Business (MBA) program. In other schools, they are separate degrees administered in separate departments.

There are many similarities between an MPA and MBA. Both degree programs require similar courses in management, leadership, organization, economics, laws, and policy analysis.

The biggest difference between the MBA and MPA lies in who the stakeholders are. For an MBA, the stakeholders are business owners, investors, managers, shareholders, and consumers. For an MPA, the stakeholders are considered the citizens that the government or organization serves.

What Can I Do with an MPA?

A Master of Public Administration can qualify you for positions of leadership in all levels of government, nonprofit organizations, and some private entities.

Many people with a bachelor's degree decide to earn an MPA in order to gain specialized knowledge in a certain field or to advance in their present position.

"A master's degree can go a long way as an upward accelerant career-wise," said Joshua Holder, who teaches in the School of Public Administration at the University of Central Florida.

Some positions in public administration typically require a master's degree at the entry level. These include urban and regional planners and policy analysts. For other jobs, you may enter with a bachelor's degree, but a master's degree is preferred for higher-level positions. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that for people in certain fields, people with a master's degree may earn higher salaries than those in similar positions with a bachelor's degree.

Am I a Good Candidate for this Degree?

If you enjoy working with people and contributing your skills for the public good or to promote a cause, an MPA may be right for you.

"Being able to understand the value of your work in making the community you serve a better pace is what can make a job gratifying in ways without equal anywhere else in the workplace," Holder says.

People with an MPA working in public administration jobs typically enjoy working with others and appreciate the importance of teamwork, he says.

karen hanson

Written and reported by:

Karen S. Hanson

Contributing Writer

joshua holder

With professional insights from:

Joshua Holder

Marketing and Communications Specialist, School of Public Administration, University of Central Florida

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