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August 18, 2008


This is the first of two posts on MPA/MPP Programs by Steve Green. The second post is here, but read this one first. To learn more about Steve's graduate admission counseling services, please click here.

This post is for anyone who is interested in applying to MPA (Master of Public Administration) or MPP (Master of Public Policy) programs. Among applicants to graduate programs, I have probably worked with more aiming at MPP and MPA programs than any other single degree besides the MBA. The content of this post is based on my experience with successful applicants to MPA/MPP programs at Syracuse, Harvard, Columbia, UCLA and UC-Berkeley, and other top schools.

I will discuss the differences and similarities between the two degrees, and offer advice on what you should know before you begin the application process. In my next posts I will provide strategies for school selection, and for writing the statement of purpose essay that most MPA/MPP programs require.

Throughout my posts I provide links to online resources to help you begin your search for information about degrees and careers in public policy.


  • People who seek careers in public service at the local, state/provincial, national or international level, such as in government, a non-profit organization (NPO), a non-governmental organization (NGO) or an international organization (IO) or:
  • People who already have a career in public service but want to develop the credentials necessary for management- and other leadership level positions,


Many of the successful applicants to MPA/MPP programs with whom I’ve worked have been sponsored officials of the Japanese government. In my experience of working with them and with other successful MPA/MPP candidates, applicants do not always understand the difference between the two programs when they first come to me for admissions consultation. While there has been some convergence between the two types of degrees, important differences still exist and you should know what these are before you select a program.

In general, if you want to play a leadership role in analyzing and creating public policy then the MPP may be the best degree for you. If you seek to oversee implementation of policies and to manage public offices, then the MPA may be your best choice. However, the two areas often converge, as recognized by two leading associations in the field of MPA/MPP studies.

GlobalMPA.net, which was created by the U.S.-based National Association of Schools of Public Affairs and Administration (NASPAA) to promote MPA/MPP education internationally, surveys programs in the United States and notes that:

NASPAA links to a Wikipedia entry on the subject, which states that:

With the above distinction and convergence in mind, you should learn what comprises the degree programs at particular schools BEFORE you begin the application process. For example, the number one school in the field, according to US News & World Report, Maxwell School at Syracuse University does not offer an MPP program but includes policy design and analysis as part of its MPA, which actually stands for Master of Public Administration.

The MPP program at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government (number two on the USN&WR ranking) offers an MPA as well as an MPP, but the former combines curricula for policy design and management into one program while the latter is a specialized executive-level program for people who have already established careers in public service.

Furthermore, when you begin researching schools you’ll find that most programs offer specialized MPP/MPA degrees that combine core requirements with coursework and even fieldwork or internships in another field, such as urban planning, international development, or environmental policy.


Before even selecting a school you have a lot to do!

First, as I always tell my clients, the search for a graduate school program that fits you begins within: Know your own particular intellectual and professional strengths.

One of the best ways to actually itemize your strengths is to MAKE A RESUME OR CV. Making a resume/CV allows you to prioritize your accomplishments and catalog your strengths. Your resume becomes a reference guide as you begin your school search. Since 2001, I have assisted numerous applicants on how make a resume or CV. For more about making a resume or CV, please see my earlier post.

Second, no graduate program will accept you unless you present a specific post-graduation career goal and demonstrate the potential to succeed in graduate school. So, before you begin your school search you should have detailed answers to these questions:

1. What are your career goals? What type of organization do you seek to work at after graduation and at what level do you believe you can realistically begin? For information about the many different careers in the US and international non-profit sector, I recommend you take a look at PublicServiceCareers.org and at the career-resources page of the National Association of Schools of Public Affairs and Administration (NASPAA).

Having a clear idea of the kind of career you seek will help you find the program that best fits your needs, and help you write a strong application essay. You may even find the Alumni Stories at NASPAA inspiring and helpful

Of course, you should also visit the website, or even the actual offices, when possible, of any organization in which you are interested in starting your career. Find out what specific positions are available for newly minted MPA/MPPs and what the career trajectories of these positions typically are.

All program websites will have a link to career resources and or to employment data of alumni. These are excellent sources for information about career options especially as you can see the kinds of jobs people typically obtain from different programs.

For example, The Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley provides a detailed list of the employment of each graduating class. While there is no salary information here is a useful guide to career options for new public policy degree holders.

2. What specific skills do you need to reach those goals, beyond a generic need for "knowledge of public policy design and/or administration"? The skills and knowledge you need to obtain from a graduate program will depend upon your current strengths. My clients often are surprised when I advise them to BE SPECIFIC! I will say more about this topic in my next post, but you should write in detail about the specific strengths you already have and what particular skills you need to obtain from a grad program. To describe these meaningfully, you will need to examine the curricula of different MPA/MPP programs as well as review your own academic and professional record honestly.

Specific skills my successful clients to MPA/MPP programs have sought from their target schools include: advanced skills in quantitative analysis, advocacy skills, leadership skills management skills, and knowledge of the interface between a specific field and public policy (e.g. health care management, public policy around the development of IT) among others.

3. First, since you are applying to an academic program, you will need to highlight your intellectual strengths, which can include:

  • Overall good-to-excellent grades as an undergraduate or graduate
  • Excellent grades in university classes in or related to public policy, such as political science or economics courses
  • Scholarships or awards based on academic excellenct
  • A high GRE score
Next, you will need to demonstrate strengths related to advocacy, organizational skills and leadership. NOTE: You do not need to have had any actual formal leadership experience to do this. Rather, ask yourself when you took the initiative or organized a group toward completing a shared goal. The following may indicate your potential in the three areas listed above:
  • Individual or shared leadership of a team, club or charity organization, e.g. captaining your university baseball team, co-chairing a debate society, or organizing a charity event
  • Internships that utilized your analytical and/or communication skills
  • Leading a work-related project
  • Any supervisor-level position at a job
For both sets of strengths, you should prioritize the ones that you consider to be your greatest (and be sure you know why you consider them as such) and be able to provide specific examples for each. You should also try to select different types of strengths to present a well-rounded view of yourself.

I will say more about this important topic in a future post on writing graduate school statements of purpose.

4. What is your knowledge of statsistics and economics? Since any policy maker or policy manager must be able to understand, and produce, advanced quantitative analysis, many programs will expect that you have basic understanding of statistics BY THE TIME you enter the program. Here is what the Maxwell School of Public Affairs says on the subject: “[I]t is assumed that applicants will have a strong quantitative background. Applicants lacking a solid background in mathematics, economics and statistics are encouraged to remedy this deficiency prior to application.”

If you have not had any university-level coursework in economics or statistics, and if you have not acquired skills in these fields elsewhere, such as on the job, then how will you prepare yourself for the rigors of work based on these fields in graduate school? At some schools, you will have the option of learning this subjects without any prior knowledge, but at other programs such as Syracuse above, you will have to already have mastered the basics before you apply.

Third, you need to answer the next two questions about the costs of graduate school and the salary you expect to earn after graduation.

1. How will you pay for your graduate education? Are you prepared to leave the workforce and an income stream for 1-2 years? Are you prepared to pay for graduate school now or to go into debt? Master degree programs typically provide few scholarships. Of course, you should apply for any scholarships that are available, but you should also be ready to bear the burden of most or all of your costs. These include:

  • Tuition: Top programs often charge more than $20,000. Of course, this figure does not include:
  • Cost of living: You should budget approximately $15,000-20,000 for rent, utilities, food and books.

A good place to start collecting information about tuition and cost of living is GlobalMPA Web Portal’s online Database of MPA/MPP programs in the United States. You will need to enter the name of a school to begin your search.

I will write about school selection in my next post, but for now it may be a good idea for you to examine the tuition and costs of living of various programs around the United States in order to get an idea of the financial obligation you face.

2. Do you know what the average salary is in your field? In most cases, especially at any level below chief executive, public service salaries are lower than they are for similar job positions in the private sector. Have you considered what that means for your own expectations regarding standard of living and financial security? How will this affect your financial planning, especially in terms of paying off any student loans you may take to pay for your MPA/MPP degree?

For information about salary levels, look at Global MPA Net’s list of average salaries by job type average salaries by job types in NGOs, IOs, NPOs, MPAs/MPPs from GlobalNetMPA.org.

To its credit the School of International & Public Affairs (SIPA) at Columbia University provides excellent and detailed information about the post-graduation career paths and salaries of SIPA alumni.

The Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley provides a detailed list of the employment of each graduating class. While there is no salary information here is a useful guide to career options for new public policy degree holders.

For questions regarding this post, please contact me at h.steven.green@gmail.com. To learn more about my graduate admissions consulting services, please click here.
- H. Steven ("Steve") Green, グリーン・ハロルド・スティーブン

大学院留学 カリフォルニア大学バークレー校 マクスウェルスクール シラキューズ大学 ハーバード大学ケネディスクール コロンビア大学の国際関係・公共政策大学院(通称SIPA)
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