According to Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, graduates of public policy master’s programs earn median salaries of $92,000 annually, with those in the top 75th percentile bringing home $142,000 each year. Bachelor’s degree holders earn median salaries of $65,000. With the rise of interest in politics and policy since the 2016 elections, professionals with public policy knowledge can compete for top jobs in the field.
According to Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce, graduates of public policy master's programs earn median salaries of $92,000 annually, with those in the top 75th percentile bringing home $142,000 each year.
Regardless of whether you hope to work within the government to effect change or at an outside agency to pressure organizations and agencies to make effective decisions, a master’s in public policy provides you with the skills needed to compete for meaningful roles. Keep reading to learn about common admissions requirements, coursework, and jobs available for graduates.
Should I Get a Master's in Public Policy?
Public policy master’s programs help a variety of learners move into meaningful careers within nonprofit organizations, government agencies, public corporations, and consulting firms. Because the field offers so many areas of focus, students with myriad interests can find a place where their interests and skills are fully harnessed.
While public policy master’s degrees exist both online and at brick-and-mortar campuses, many learners opt for the latter option. Because the work of public policy professionals depends so heavily on networking and existing relationships, many students find value in building those key relationships in a face-to-face learning environment. Campus-based learning options also appeal to students moving directly from an undergraduate degree into graduate studies. Online programs often appeal to working professionals who need to balance school and their career.
Public policy master’s degrees help students build the analytical and data-mining skills needed to collect public policy information while also teaching them about the various systems and processes in place within governmental, public, and private entities. When considering the best program for you, think about what you want to receive during and after your time of enrollment. For example, top programs provide numerous opportunities for students while in school — including networking and speaker events.
As students near graduation, they benefit greatly from robust career services departments that can help them find meaningful internships and jobs. Years after graduating, graduates who attended a top program benefit from the name of their alma mater and the work being done by fellow alumni.
What Can I Do With a Master’s in Public Policy?
Public policy master’s programs appeal to students from various educational and career backgrounds. Students who enjoy solving problems, developing creative communication plans, setting out clear processes, and working in and around the world of politics and policy often elect to complete this degree. Work settings range from standard 9-5 days in offices for full-time employees to more on-the-go, traveling roles for consultants who set their own hours. While many public policy master’s don’t provide hands-on experience, they give students the toolbox needed to find suitable employment upon graduation.
- Political Scientist
Working mostly in research positions, political scientists study, analyze, and measure changes within political systems. They look at individual governments to detect different governing and policy-making styles, observe political trends, and mine data related to the development and continuation of policy. Most roles require at least a master’s degree.
Median Annual Salary: $115,110
Projected Growth Rate: 3%
- Urban and Regional Planners
In concert with city commissions and mayoral offices, urban and regional planners help towns and cities develop plans that create communal space, ensure traffic systems adequately serve residents and visitors, design plans for accommodating growth, and overhaul existing properties to suit the needs of the community. Most roles require at least a master’s degree.
Median Annual Salary: $71,490
Projected Growth Rate: 13%
- Survey Researchers
Whether working at a business, a research agency, political think tank, nonprofit, or polling organization, survey researchers develop and conduct surveys with either general or specific parts of the population to gather factual information, current feelings on a particular topic, or opinions. Most roles require a master’s degree.
Median Annual Salary: $54,270
Projected Growth Rate: 2%
- Market Research Analysts
Working either for a company or as an independent consultant, market research analysts look at specific factors within a market, community, or nation to determine the likely success of different products, ideas, or candidates. They look at what the market or community says it wants and helps devise plans for releasing that person or thing into the larger community.
Median Annual Salary: $63,230
Projected Growth Rate: 23%
Aside from roles at the university level, economists most frequently work in research positions. These professionals assess how goods and services are produced and distributed, review existing and new data, look at current and past trends, and measure all of these things against economic trends and issues. Most roles require at least a master’s degree.
Median Annual Salary: $102,490
Projected Growth Rate: 6%
How to Choose a Master's in Public Policy Program
Choosing the right public policy master’s program requires much thought and research to ensure students understand the individual pros and cons of each option. Because so many programs now exist, degree seekers should develop a list of specific needs or desires for any school they attend. The following section highlights a few common factors to consider.
First, for learners already working or those looking to enter the workforce quickly, the length of the program makes a significant difference. Most programs require 36-48 credits and take approximately two to three years of full-time study to complete. Students hoping to pursue the degree on a part-time basis should ensure the school provides this path and ask about average completion times.
Second, while thinking about the courses, degree seekers should carefully consider the curriculum and any available specializations. Some programs focus on policy analysis or public management while others provide paths for learners interested in nonprofit management and organization or public budgeting.
Third, learners must consider learning format. While many programs exist online — check out Best Colleges ranking of the top online public policy master’s programs to learn more — many students prefer to study on-campus to maximize their face-to-face learning and networking opportunities.
Finally, location of program can play a big part in making a decision. Because many programs require internships, students looking to work in a particular area of the field (e.g. local or national politics) may find it helpful to pick a program within driving distance of a suitable internship site.
Programmatic Accreditation for Master’s in Public Policy Programs
As you consider master’s in public policy programs, keep in mind the schools’ accreditation status. The Network of Schools of Public Policy, Affairs, and Administration serves as the golden standard for top-tier programs. To receive accreditation, public policy departments must go through a rigorous, independent review process that assesses the program against a set of benchmarks and best practices related to preparedness, employment, and overall learning experience.
While most graduates of public policy master’s programs do not pursue jobs requiring licensure, attending an unaccredited program can still cause problems in other areas. Examples include experiencing difficulties when trying to transfer credits or not being chosen when going up against another job candidate who did attend an accredited program.
Master's in Public Policy Program Admissions
After reviewing the many programmatic and departmental factors in this guide and narrowing their list of prospective public policy master’s programs, students must complete the admissions requirements of each department. In general, the admissions process for brick-and-mortar programs tends to be less involved than online program enrollment, as students pursuing the latter type of degree must also prove they possess the determination and focus needed to manage their time independently.
Most admissions experts suggest prospective learners apply to four to eight programs to strengthen their chances of acceptance. But students should first identify how many programs truly fit their needs. In other words, if only four programs satisfy their requirements, they shouldn’t apply to additional schools just to hit a specific number. After creating a set list of schools, students should begin ensuring they meet minimum requirements and can easily access any necessary paperwork or documentation required on the application.
- Bachelor’s Degree: All MPP programs require students possess a bachelor’s degree, and many require students to take one or two statistics courses at the undergraduate level.
- Professional Experience: Many programs, such as the Harvard Kennedy School, encourage students to hold at least two years of full-time professional experience before applying, although this experience doesn’t have to be within public policy.
- Minimum GPA: Most MPP programs want to see at least a 3.0 GPA, although top programs may require 3.5 or higher. Students with lower GPAs may be able to offset the requirement with top GRE/GMAT scores or excellent letters of recommendation.
- Application: The application requires students to provide a variety of basic and advanced information, ranging from name and contact details to a well-thought out personal statement or answers to specific essay questions. Filling out the application doesn’t take all that long, but students should allow a few weeks to collect all necessary materials.
- Transcripts: Transcripts from any and all high schools and colleges you have attended must be included with your application. These must be sent directly from your former schools to the ones to which you are applying, and applicants usually pay a small fee for this service.
- Letters of Recommendation: Many MPP programs require three letters of recommendation from former professors, supervisors, or mentors. Students should ask at least one month in advance of the deadline to provide recommenders adequate time for reflection and writing.
- Test Scores: The GRE and GMAT are the most commonly required test scores for MPP programs, though most shy away from requiring a specific score. Some schools, such as the University of Maryland, waive score requirements for students with GPAs of 3.0 or higher. Learners should check with individual schools.
- Application Fee: Almost all MPP programs charge an application fee to help with processing costs. These range from $50-$125 and typically cannot be refunded, regardless of whether a student receives an acceptance letter or not.
What Else Can I Expect From a Master's in Public Policy Program?
Though the previous sections attempt to give students some idea of commonalities amongst different programs, learners should remember that each public policy master’s possesses unique characteristics and outcomes. By learning about these common factors, students can prepare specific questions when researching or discussing programmatic merits with an admission counselor.
|Educational Policy||Students choosing this specialization immerse themselves in studies related to the educational economics, current educational policy and trends, education’s societal roles, and inequalities present in the system. Students tailor coursework to individual interests in the field.||Roles within nonprofits or governmental agencies focused on secondary and/or higher education|
|Health Care Policy||As healthcare continues to rise as one of the most contentious issues within politics, this course helps students understand policy and reform measures; the political economy of health care; various policy models; and the costs, benefits, and risks of such services.||Jobs with nonprofits, governmental agencies, insurance companies, and for-profit organizations focused on health and health care|
|Policy Analysis||This specialization helps students become expert policy analysts through studying the past, present, and possible future methods of evaluating existing and emerging policy. Students typically focus on one to two specific areas of policy within this concentration to hone their skills.||Any role focused on policy evaluation and analysis rather than policy creation|
|International Policy||With a focus on questions of national security, foreign vs. domestic policy, and ally-building, this specialization covers topics related to humanitarian policy, security measures, and the current state of relationships the U.S. holds with various countries around the world||International agencies and think tanks focused on analyzing and improving international policy measures|
|Environmental Policy||Students interested in focusing their work around resources or environmental and energy policies often elect to complete this specialization, as it teaches them valuable skills surrounding air quality and pollution, climate change, planning methods, and alternative energy sources.||Roles for environmental policy experts exist in all segments of the work landscape (e.g., nonprofits, the government, corporations, and consulting firms)|
Courses in a Master’s in Public Policy Program
As mentioned above, each master’s degree in public policy provides a unique experience. The following section highlights common courses offered in a standard program, but students should do their own research and communicate with individual schools to get a full sense of what each degree path provides.
- Public Policy Research Methods
A foundational course for all master’s in public policy students, this class introduces learners to qualitative and quantitative data mining and analysis methods, along with statistical tools and how to use data as a way of informing policy decisions.
- Policy Analysis
With a focus on looking at existing and emerging policy, this course provides students with the tools needed to understand the factors going into existing policy and how to analyze each piece to get a full-scope understanding. Students discover a variety of analytical techniques and learn how to apply them.
- Methods of Survey Research
Because many public policy experts involve themselves in the collection and analysis of survey data, this course teaches them how to conduct and analyze survey results. Learners take a look at various survey methodologies and examine the effectiveness of each. They also learn how to use related instrumentation and assessment tools
- Executive Power and Administration
Students learn about the roles and responsibilities of elected/appointed federal executives, with emphasis on leadership and management methods, how these roles interact with other branches of the federal government, and how lobbyists and companies with special interest in policy interact with them.
- Public Policy Ethics
An important course for every student enrolled in a master’s in public policy program, this class emphasizes the importance of moral behavior within the policy sphere. Students review ethical issues facing those working in the government while also reviewing current statutes about ethical behavior.
How Long Does It Take to Get a Master’s in Public Policy?
After reviewing a number of prospective MPP programs, students typically notice that most degrees require 36-48 credits to move from matriculation to graduation. On a full-time basis, most learners move through these credits in two to three years. Those enrolled on a part-time basis may need three to four years, depending on the program.
Some of the factors affecting completion time include internship requirements and thesis/culminating project requirements. Students looking to graduate more quickly should review accelerated programs that fit more coursework into a shorter span of time. Some programs also provide summer classes for degree seekers who want to move straight through requirements rather than taking a break.
Students pursuing degrees on a part-time basis may be concerned about whether this path costs more money. While learners may have to pay a few more semester-based fees (e.g. technology, parking, materials) since their time on campus lasts longer, the actual cost of coursework should remain about the same.
How Much Is a Master’s in Public Policy?
Price represents a significant factor when considering the pros and cons of particular programs, and for good reason. With national student debt now totaling more than $1.6 trillion, degree seekers must ensure they avoid taking on crippling debt that keeps them from fulfilling their personal and professional goals. According to College Board, the average cost per year for an in-state master’s degree at a public institution totaled $8,670 during the 2017-2018 school year, while private colleges and universities averaged $29,960 for the same timeframe.
In addition to tuition charges, learners must also consider cost of living. Those planning to live on campus can expect to pay averages of $10,020 and $11,490 for public and private schools, respectively. Depending on where in the country they live, some students may find it cheaper to live in off-campus housing. Other costs to consider include transportation, food, textbooks, semester-based fees, and technology. Many students elect to live with roommates and/or work part-time while in school to offset these costs.
Learners should also research scholarships and grants from federal and local governments, nonprofits, private foundations, corporations, and colleges and universities to help lower some of the costs.
Certifications a Master’s in Public Policy Prepares For
- Public Policy Analysis
This 18-credit certificate, offered by American University, equips students with the tools needed to analyze policy in different areas. Learners also gain skills in programmatic evaluation; analyzing benefits, risk, and costs; and conducting surveys and studies.
- Health Policy
Provided by the McCourt School of Public Policy at Georgetown University, this 15-credit program exists for individuals already considered leaders within health policy creation and analysis who want to further deepen their knowledge and skills in the field.
- Law and Public Policy
The Catholic University of America offers this program in Washington, D.C. and requires four courses, two externships and/or clinics, and participation in a law and public policy forum. This course particularly helps practicing lawyers who want to work within policy and law development.
- Risk Sciences and Public Policy
The Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins provides this certification to health policy experts looking to deepen their knowledge surrounding risk, risk assessment, and how those relate to public health and environmental policy. Interested students must have research experience and commit to 26 term credits.
- Public Affairs and Management
Loyola University offers this 12-credit program to students in Chicago who want to extend their existing skills in public service and affairs analysis into a managerial role. The certificate takes one year to complete and classes meet once weekly.
Resources for Public Policy Graduate Students
Pepperdine University’s School of Public Policy highlights some of the uses for the MPP degree in this insightful and actionable article.
The Muse answers this question with reasons students should and should not get an MPP, depending on their interests and future career goals.
Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public & International Affairs answers this question with helpful advice and research about the field.
The Network of Schools of Public Policy, Affairs, and Administration shares a number of student-specific resources to help prospective and current learners find support.
An academic journal dedicated to furthering the methodologies and frameworks surrounding policy research, this publication can be accessed online for students interested in extending their knowledge of the field.
Professional Organizations in Public Policy
Because the world of public policy relies heavily on networking and using connections to meet others in the field, many students and working professionals derive great benefit from joining a professional organization. Aside from offering local and national events, these organizations often provide student memberships, continuing education programs, in-house publications, active job boards, and career services to help new and seasoned policy professionals alike get connected to their industry.