A bachelor's degree in public administration provides access to a number of entry-level positions, but many working professionals ultimately decide to pursue graduate education in order to obtain leadership positions in the field. On-campus and online master's in public administration (MPA) programs typically take 2-3 years to complete, with coursework focused on management, program evaluation, and finance. Although earning a master's degree in public administration online satisfies most employer requirements for advanced public administration jobs, doctoral programs are also available for those interested in top executive careers, research, or academia.
This guide provides a look at common MPA requirements, tips for choosing a program, and popular career paths for graduates.
What Is Public Administration?
Public administration is the implementation of government policy at local, state, and national levels. Specifically, public administration strives to maintain civil society through public service. This is achieved through management and enforcement of government operations carried out in the public interest, such as public policy, public finance, and public program development.
What Can You Do With a Master's in Public Administration?
An MPA can open the door to many career paths. You may choose to work as an administrator for a town government or as an analyst for an international organization like the World Bank. You can specialize in an area like healthcare in order to lead a hospital or a patient service organization. While many graduates go on to work in the nonprofit world, an MPA prepares you for jobs in the private sector as well.
Most students find themselves drawn to a career in public administration because of a desire to serve others. Doing so effectively, no matter your professional role, requires a combination of exceptional leadership, management, decision-making, and communication skills.
- Social and Community Service Managers
Social and community service managers lead government agencies, nonprofit organizations, and other social service programs. They may assess community needs and design initiatives to help address those challenges. Many employers looking to fill leadership roles at larger organizations prefer to hire candidates with a master's degree in a field like public administration.
Median Annual Salary: $65,320
Projected Growth Rate (2018-28): 13%
- Medical and Health Services Managers
Also called healthcare administrators or healthcare executives, medical and health services managers oversee the work of health organizations like hospitals and nursing homes. Because these jobs require a deep understanding of specialized laws, policies, and technologies, consider pursuing an MPA program that offers a concentration in health management or health information to position yourself for these opportunities.
Median Annual Salary: $99,730
Projected Growth Rate (2018-28): 18%
- Top Executives
Top executives working in the public sector include mayors, municipal managers, and county administrators. These individuals create budgets, manage public programs, and hold broad responsibility for personnel decisions. Although rarely required to qualify for these jobs, an MPA can help you hone the skills you need to thrive in these settings.
Median Annual Salary: $104,980
Projected Growth Rate (2018-28): 6%
- Emergency Management Directors
Emergency management directors create plans for responding to natural disasters and human-made emergencies. During a crisis, they often coordinate the work of various public agencies like police and firefighters. You typically need only a bachelor's degree in a field like public administration to get these jobs, but an MPA can give you a competitive edge.
Median Annual Salary: $74,420
Projected Growth Rate (2018-28): 5%
- Administrative Services Managers
Administrative services managers plan, direct, and coordinate services that allow for efficient operation of an organization. Areas of responsibility may include supervision of administrative personnel, maintenance planning, and recommending policy or procedure changes in pursuit of efficiency. Employers generally prefer candidates for this position who hold at least a bachelor's degree.
Median Annual Salary: $96,180
Projected Growth Rate (2018-28): 7%
Ready to start planning for your future? Our comprehensive career guide has you covered. Learn what you can achieve with a master's in public administration online.
Ready to start planning for your future? Our comprehensive career guide has you covered. Learn what you can achieve with a master's in public administration online.
What to Expect in a Master's in Public Administration Program
MPA programs feature similar introductory coursework, but you can personalize your learning experience in several ways. For example, you can choose a concentration like local government or public health to prepare yourself for careers in a specific field. You can also design a unique course of study through electives centering on technology and community engagement.
- Community and Economic Development
A concentration in community and economic development features coursework in subjects like sustainable growth and effective partnerships between government agencies and for-profit companies. You may also develop relevant technical skills like writing grants or assessing community needs with technology. Students who choose this concentration often seek to effect social change at the local level.
- International Relations
Students concentrating in this area explore topics like sociopolitical systems, international development, foreign policy, and intercultural relations. Because of the broad scope of international affairs, learners may choose to further specialize in a field such as law, economics, or security. Graduates take on myriad roles in public service, usually working for a nongovernmental organization, a state department, or an international body like the United Nations.
- Local Government
Students in this concentration focus on hyperlocal issues like transportation and providing access to government services. Learners develop skills and knowledge in areas such as budgeting, financial analysis, and personnel management. As graduates must work closely with their fellow community members and constituents, this concentration also places a premium on expertise in communications and public affairs.
- Nonprofit Management
To prepare for careers in nonprofit management, students take courses like nonprofit tax policy and program evaluation. They also learn about best practices and effective strategies related to nonprofit fundraising and resource management. Like those concentrating in local government, students in this area examine personnel management, although sometimes through the lens of volunteer recruitment and retention instead of a traditional employer-employee relationship.
- Public Health
The field of healthcare continues to grow at an exponential rate, and skilled administrators are urgently needed to coordinate services and lead organizations. Students in this concentration develop foundational knowledge in administrative subjects like budget analysis and organizational theory, but they also explore topics such as epidemiology and disease prevention, healthcare law and policy reform, and community health management.
MPA programs generally offer similar curricula during the first year, when students develop a basic level of understanding of topics such as economics, politics, and policy. In the second year, you typically have much more freedom in shaping your academic experience through electives. The five courses below represent some of the most common core classes in these programs.
- Organizational Theory
This course introduces students to the basic theory and principles of organizational management. Using case studies from the field of public administration, learners examine organizations in order to identify the shared characteristics of high-functioning and effective institutions, such as their approaches to decision-making or resolving conflicts.
- Public Service Leadership
Most students seek out an MPA in order to take on leadership roles. This class provides students the opportunity to examine their personal leadership style, including their strengths, weaknesses, and guiding values. Learners also develop practical leadership skills relevant to roles in the public sector, such as communicating with constituents.
- Public Administration Analysis and Evaluation
Students in this course learn how to apply research to solving problems. To begin, they learn about the proper methods for collecting, analyzing, and drawing inferences from data. Learners ultimately explore ethical questions related to the use of data.
- Public Financial Management
Students hoping to work in government need an understanding of public finance, from how to raise revenue through taxes and fees to how to direct expenses and address community issues like increasing crime rates. This class combines budgetary theory with real-world tools and guidance.
- Law for Public Administration
Public administrators must work within the confines of various laws, including those governing due process, First Amendment rights, contracts, employment, and torts. Here, students develop an understanding of the constitutional underpinnings of these laws, along with more practical skills like how to work with lawyers on issues of public policy.
Interview with Greg Menken
Greg Menken is an award-winning communications and public affairs strategist with 20 years of experience working in nonprofits, government, and politics. He started MenkenLLC to focus on missions he truly cares about and to give clients the personalized attention they deserve. Greg served on the senior leadership team of 5W PR where he directed many of the firm's public affairs and crisis communications campaigns.
- Why did you choose to pursue a master's in public administration? Why did you specialize your degree in nonprofit management?
Today, I run MenkenLLC, my own firm specializing in public relations and public affairs for nonprofits — and it all started 20 years ago, when I decided to leave banking to pursue my long-time interest in politics. I was about to apply for a master's degree in politics when a friend of mine in the New York State Legislature suggested an MPA. I took a look and decided that the MPA was the right path to take — it has given me more options and flexibility along my career.
I also had a strong interest in nonprofits, so I chose the non-profit management track to position myself for opportunities there as well. Along the way, my degree has helped me succeed in politics, government, and the nonprofit sector.
- How do the skills you gained in your MPA program apply directly to the work you do?
My MPA helps me understand what's most important to my clients, their pain points, and how to find solutions. Generally, an MPA provides a good financial and operation background for running a nonprofit, as well as an understanding of policy making, which affects many nonprofits. Working with Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman is a book that stuck with me. My MPA introduced me to the concept of emotional intelligence and it's something I apply on the job every day.
- Did you complete a capstone as part of your MPA program? If so, how did that inform your subsequent career choices?
My capstone focused on homelessness in the New York City shelter system. For anyone considering an MPA, it's important that you really understand what your school's capstone program looks like and how it can be best integrated into your career. This is something I wish I had understood better going in. Find out what choices you'll have and the types of agencies you'll have the chance to work with — getting something that interests you and the type of career you see yourself in are key.
- What was the job search like after graduating from your MPA program? Did you feel adequately prepared to enter the workforce upon graduating?
My experience was a bit different in that I didn't have to look for a job after graduation. I was hired at the New York City Council while still in school full time. Like most jobs, it was through a connection, not a job posting. "Who you know" will always be the quickest path to getting a job. As much [as] you spend time studying and writing papers, spend time getting to know everyone around you — professors, fellow students, the career center, etc. To get the greatest value from your degree, get the education and the network.
- What were some of the greatest challenges you faced when completing your MPA program?
I was working full time while in school full time — that was a real challenge. I can still remember getting paged (yes, some people were still using pagers back then) in the middle of class and having to excuse myself to get downtown for a meeting. Getting the buy-in and a little bit of flexibility from my professors was a bit of a challenge, but that was the whole point — to work in public service — so they understood.
The graduate experience was much different for me than undergraduate, where we all lived, worked, and played together. In grad school, many of us were working and living independently, so it wasn't as easy or natural to develop relationships with fellow students, which can be an important part of grad school. It took a little extra effort.
- What advice would you give to undergraduate students considering earning an MPA? Is a master's degree worth it?
Understand the marketplace and how a master's will add value to you as a job candidate. If you're on a given career track, it's easier to examine the value. For me, I was interested in politics but wanted to keep my options open to explore other avenues. I found that the MPA in nonprofit management was the best way to do it. It's possible that my career would have been the same without my MPA, since the vast majority of my work has come through the people I know. But I'm certain, and people have said along the way, that having the MPA has always made me a stronger candidate and professional.
Also, consider that these days more nonprofits are looking to emulate the private sector. An MBA will set you apart in the nonprofit world and give you the flexibility to move back and forth between for-profit and nonprofit. Though if you go the MPA route, be prepared to spend a lot more!
How to Choose a Master's in Public Administration
Master of public administration degree programs can vary widely when it comes to content, cost, and location. As you begin your research, think through the questions below to make sure you find a program that gives you what you want and need.
First, how much will your degree cost? Graduating from a program at the top of the MPA rankings may give you a leg up over other candidates in your job search, but you should remember that most positions in the public sector pay less than those available at private companies.
Do you want to study full or part time? Most full-time students earn their MPA in about two years, but part-time programs can provide an enormous benefit if you need to keep your job or take care of your family while you continue your education.
Have you considered an online program? Distance learning offers incredible convenience and flexibility, and you may even pay less for your education overall since you can often avoid costs like room and board. Keep in mind that online education requires a great deal of time management and self-discipline.
Do you plan to pursue a particular specialization? For example, if you plan to support the growth of democratic institutions in developing parts of the world, you must keep in mind that not all programs offer elective coursework or a concentration in this area. Make sure your MPA program aligns with your professional interests.
Where is your school located? If you plan to study online, you can largely ignore this question, but students who want an on-campus experience should carefully consider factors like length of commute, cost of living, and local job opportunities.
Finally, what does your program require in order to graduate? In addition to completing certain courses, some programs stipulate that students must complete an internship or write a research-based thesis before they can earn their degree.
Applicants should also look into the accreditation of their prospective program.
Accreditation for Master's in Public Administration Programs
Consider attending only accredited MPA programs. By receiving accreditation, these schools demonstrate that they meet certain educational requirements and adequately prepare their graduates for jobs in the field. If you attend an unaccredited program, employers may not recognize your degree, and you may miss out on financial aid opportunities.
Schools can pursue three kinds of accreditation: regional, national, and programmatic. Most nonprofit colleges and universities seek out regional accreditation. For-profit, trade, and vocational schools may instead choose national accreditation. Programmatic accreditors work within a particular discipline or field. For example, the Network of Schools of Public Policy, Affairs, and Administration and the Planning Accreditation Board provide accreditation to schools and programs offering degrees in public administration.
Review the Council on Higher Education Accreditation's online directory of institutions to make sure your school/program has received either regional, national, or programmatic accreditation.
Master's in Public Administration Admission Requirements
To gain admission to an MPA program, first submit your application materials. Typically, schools request your undergraduate transcripts, professional resume, letters of reference, and a personal essay. Most MPA programs also ask students to submit GRE scores, and they assess an application fee ($50-$150).
After receiving your materials, a program's admissions team may reach out to schedule an interview. Online programs tend to rely on interviews less frequently than their on-campus counterparts. Once a school makes its decision, admissions officers let you know whether you have been admitted, denied, or placed on the "wait list," meaning that you may be admitted to the program if additional space becomes available.
You should plan to apply to at least three different programs. Try to apply to one "safety school," or a program that you feel certain will admit you.
- Bachelor's Degree: With a handful of exceptions, you must earn a bachelor's degree before applying to MPA programs. Some schools may look for coursework in politics or economics, though they rarely require this.
- Professional Experience: The majority of MPA programs require students to acquire some relevant professional experience, usually about three years. Some schools may allow you to use internships or volunteer experience to meet this threshold.
- Minimum GPA: You typically need at least a 2.5 GPA to apply to public administration graduate schools, though some elite programs may require a GPA of 3.0 or higher.
- Application: Applying to MPA programs can take a considerable amount of time, so do not wait until the deadline to begin this process. Because graduate schools typically do not use a common application, you must complete a unique application for each program to which you apply.
- Transcripts: Nearly all programs require you to submit undergraduate and, if applicable, graduate transcripts as part of your application. You can request these transcripts directly from your former institution, allowing at least two weeks for processing.
- Letters of Recommendation: Try to get at least three letters of recommendation. Ask former employers and teachers, but avoid family members and friends. Give your recommenders as much time as possible to write your letter, ideally more than one month.
- Test Scores: Many MPA programs ask for GRE scores; some online programs do not. Schools usually do not eliminate applicants solely on the basis of a low standardized test score, but it can hurt your chances of admission.
- Application Fee: Application fees range from $50-$150. Students who can demonstrate financial hardship or prove their military service can sometimes request an application fee waiver.
Resources for Master's in Public Administration Students
Pi Alpha Alpha acts as the global honor society for public administration graduate students. The group provides financial scholarships and academic achievement awards. It also organizes networking events and mentorship programs to help its member find jobs after graduation.
On this website, Harvard Kennedy School faculty share their research on topics including public management, international relations, healthcare, and social innovation.
Public administration students and professionals alike must know how to write clearly and effectively. The Purdue OWL offers writing tips and directions on structuring academic papers.
ASPA works to advance the art, science, teaching and practice of public administration. In addition to a wealth of resources for established administrators, ASPA also hosts a conference and mentorship program specifically for students and new professionals.
APPAM sets the standard for research in public administration and management. Students, scholars, and practitioners from around the world attend its annual conference to learn about the latest developments in the field.
ICMA represents managers of town, city, and county governments. It conducts and publishes research, administers a credential program, offers free and online professional development resources, and advertises job opportunities around the globe.
The Academy provides thought leadership and consulting services to leaders at all levels of government. Its 850 fellows hold expertise across areas like financial management, intergovernmental systems, and social equity in governance.
Founded in 1983, NFBPA seeks to promote and support black leadership in state and local government. The group offers a scholarship program for students of color and hosts an annual skill-building and professional development conference.