Over the next decade, the field of public administration will continue to experience exceptional job growth. In fact, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects the employment for social and community service managers -- professionals tasked with leading government agencies and community organizations -- will grow by 18% through 2026, significantly faster than all other occupations. The BLS projects 20% growth for medical and health services managers during that same time period.
To compete for these new jobs, you typically need an advanced degree. Many employers prefer to hire candidates with a master's in public administration (MPA) or a related field. If you want to develop the skills and knowledge necessary to take on a leadership role in the public sector, consider earning an MPA.
Should I Get a Master's in Public Administration?
Most schools offering an MPA cater to young professionals looking to take the next step in their careers. Although not a universal requirement, the best MPA programs recommend you apply after at least three years of relevant work experience.
First consider whether you want to earn your degree online or on campus, as each approach offers a unique set of benefits and potential challenges. Online learning, for example, can help those who need to balance their schedules with ongoing personal or professional obligations. Many of these programs allow you to watch lectures and complete assignments on your own time. On-campus programs may provide more supportive learning environments. You can, for example, more easily seek out the assistance of your classmates or instructor when you see them regularly in a traditional classroom setting.
Regardless of the mode of learning you choose, MPA programs feature core coursework in subjects like economics, statistics, policy, and politics. Many programs offer concentrations, giving you the chance to explore areas such as energy and the environment, human rights and humanitarian policy, and international finance and development. Because curricula can vary from school to school, look for a program with courses or a specialization in the field in which you hope to work.
Beyond academics, public administration master's programs can help set you up for professional success after graduation. For example, many schools offer career counseling and job placement programs. And the professional network you develop during your graduate studies can assist you in finding jobs or getting advice throughout your career as a public administrator.
What Can I 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: $64,100
Projected Growth Rate: 18%
- 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: $98,350
Projected Growth Rate: 20%
- 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 you often do not need an advanced degree to qualify for these jobs, an MPA can help you hone the skills you need to thrive in these settings.
Median Annual Salary: $104,700
Projected Growth Rate: 8%
- Urban and Regional Planners
Urban and regional planners determine how communities can make the best use of their land. For example, they may shape zoning policy or assess the impact of a new development proposal. If you want to enter this field, seek out an MPA with a concentration in planning from a program that has received accreditation from the Planning Accreditation Board.
- Emergency Management Directors
Emergency management directors create plans for responding to natural disasters and other man-made emergencies. During a crisis, they often coordinate the work of various public agencies like police and firefighters. You typically only need 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: $72,760
Projected Growth Rate: 8%
How to Choose a Master's in Public Administration Program
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 for-profit 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? You may want to support the growth of democratic institutions in developing parts of the world, but 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 a internship or write a research-based thesis before they can earn their degree.
Programmatic Accreditation for Master's in Public Administration Programs
As a general rule, 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 also may miss out on financial aid opportunities.
Schools can pursue three kinds of accreditation: regional, national, or 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 the public administration space.
Review the Council on Higher Education Accreditation's online directory of institutions to make sure your program has received either regional, national, or programmatic accreditation.
Master's in Public Administration Program Admissions
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.
What Else Can I Expect from 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 assess community needs through technology. Students who choose this concentration often seek to create social change at the local level.||Urban planner, sustainability consultant|
|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, students 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.||Foreign service officer, chief programs officer for an international development organization|
|Local Government||Students in this concentration focus on hyper-local issues like transportation and providing access to government services. Students 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 communications and public affairs expertise.||City manager, director of public works|
|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.||CEO of a community organization, director of operations for a charter school|
|Public Health||The field of healthcare continues to grow at an exponential rate, and it urgently needs skilled administrators 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.||Hospital administrator, public health officer|
Courses in a Master's in Public Administration Program
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 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, students 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 those students the opportunity to examine their personal leadership style, including their strengths, weaknesses, and guiding values. Students also develop practical leadership skills relevant to public sector roles, such as communicating with constituents.
- Public Administration Analysis and Evaluation
Students in this series of courses learn how to apply research to solving problems. To begin, students learn about the proper methods for collecting, analyzing, and drawing inferences from data. They 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 revenues 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.
How Long Does It Take to Get a Master's in Public Administration?
Most MPA programs consist of between 40 and 60 credits. Full-time students can usually earn their degree in about two years.
If you need to balance other personal or professional obligations, consider enrolling in a part-time program. Part-time students usually require about four years to graduate. Remember that schools may put a cap on the total amount of time you can take to earn your degree. In these cases, you typically must finish in fewer than five or six years.
Some online and accelerated programs allow students to take coursework in a self-paced format. This means you can advance through subjects as soon as you master the material. While this can benefit those with prior knowledge in the field, advisers often caution students against this approach, as you can easily fall behind or become overwhelmed. In addition, accelerated programs often cost just as much as more traditional courses of study.
How Much Is a Master's in Public Administration?
The cost of a master's in public administration varies considerably depending on the program you select. In general, students can expect to pay between $23,000 and $54,000 for their two-year MPA. Online students can often save a considerable amount of money as they do not need to pay for room and board or fees associated with campus services and activities.
Some online programs even offer in-state tuition rates to online students, allowing them to save even more. Explore your options fully before making this significant investment.
Certifications and Licenses a Master's in Public Administration Prepares For
- American Institute of Certified Planners Basic Certification
AICP offers this introductory level of certification to professionals who have completed an accredited program in urban or regional planning, have at least two years of relevant work experience, and pass an exam. The certification signals a mastery of essential skills in planning as well as a commitment to professional ethics.
- American Institute of Certified Planners Certified Urban Designer
AICP also offers a certification specifically within the subfield of urban design. To qualify, planners need at least eight years of professional experience, hold both AICP basic certification and membership, write an essay describing their qualifications, and pass an exam. Planners can take the exam within a two-week window each year.
- National Certified Public Manager Consortium
Middle managers working in the public sector can seek out the certified public manager designation. To do so, they must complete 300 hours of study through a program accredited by the NCPMC. This training covers subjects like personal and organizational integrity, work management, self-development, and leadership.
- International City/County Management Association Voluntary Credentialing Program
ICMA's Voluntary Credentialing program recognizes local managers who, through education and professional experience, demonstrate their qualifications in their field. The credential also shows a commitment to integrity and lifelong learning. Candidates must complete a knowledge assessment in order to apply for approval from the credentialing board.
- American Association of Healthcare Administrative Management Certification
AAHAM offers several certifications to public administration professionals who have chosen to specialize in healthcare. Professional experience requirements vary by certification level, but all candidates must take an online exam to demonstrate their expertise in areas like strategic management, critical thinking, communication, and revenue cycles in either institutional or professional environments.
Resources for Public Administration Graduate 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.
Professional Organizations in Public Administration
Professional organizations provide a suite of benefits to public administrators. They host conferences and events to help their members network and share best practices. They offer professional development and continuing education resources, including white papers, podcasts, online courses, and formal training programs. Many groups also advertise new job opportunities in the field, with some even providing career counseling services or mentorship matching. Below are five of the most active professional organizations in public administration.