Master of Public Administration MPA Careers and Requirements

Master of Public Administration MPA Careers and Requirements

Master of Public Administration (MPA): Careers and Requirements

What Is a Master of Public Administration (MPA)?

A Master of Public Administration (MPA) is a master’s degree in public affairs. An MPA degree prepares recipients to serve in executive positions in municipal, state, federal government, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).

Key Takeaways

  • An MPA degree is a master’s degree in public affairs that prepares recipients to serve in executive-level government positions and NGOs.
  • The MPA is the public sector equivalent of an MBA.
  • If you are interested in working globally, an MPA is a good choice.
  • MPA candidates must possess a bachelor’s degree from an accredited college or university.
  • MPA graduates will often find jobs in upper-level management positions.

Understanding the Master of Public Administration (MPA)

A Master of Public Administration (MPA) degree is considered the public sector equivalent of a Master of Business Administration (MBA) degree in the private sector. It is also closely related to the more theoretical Master’s in Public Policy (MPP) degree.

The MPP focuses on policy analysis and design, while the MPA focuses on program implementation. Many graduate schools offer a combined J.D. (law degree) and MPA; a few offer combined MBA/MPA programs. The program focuses on principles of public administration, policy development and management, and implementation. It also prepares candidates to deal with specific challenges faced in public administration.

As a professional-level degree, the MPA requires students to have an undergraduate degree from eligible universities. Students enrolled in an MPA program are expected to possess above-average leadership skills and competence in economic and quantitative analysis, among other skills.

Graduating with an MPA degree allows students to apply for work in upper-management positions in the federal government, nonprofits, global NGOs, and private companies. MPA holders may find employment as public policy advocates and researchers.

Course Requirements

MPA students are required to have a bachelor’s degree from an accredited college or university; many graduate schools also require applicants to take the Graduate Record Exam (GRE) before applying. Programs are interdisciplinary and include classes in economics, sociology, law, anthropology, and political science.

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Most programs require two years for completion. Some executive MPA programs designed for experienced, mid-career professionals can be completed in one year. Also, a limited number of programs grant a Doctor of Public Administration (D.P.A.), which is a terminal degree usually intended for research. The D.P.A. is considered on par with a Ph.D.

The pay for MPA-required jobs varies. According to GlassDoor, the average starting salary for someone with an MPA is between $135k and $250k of total pay (as of February 2024). However, pay per position can widely vary; for example, employment as a political scientist, which often requires an MPA, starts at an annual median salary of $128,020, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics based on 2022 median pay.

Career Applications

Graduates with an MPA degree are primed for leadership roles within private, public, and nonprofit agencies. Those who earn an MPA are often well-rounded in various areas, including policy, law, business, finance, and management.

Often, newly minted MPA graduates start as analysts, researchers, grant writers, and program managers, but these entry-level positions usually become executive positions. For those with experience and an MPA, there is a likelihood of being directly hired at a senior level.

Because MPA graduates usually possess knowledge of policy and public affairs, plus an understanding of how policies impact business and economics, there are job opportunities in the private and nonprofit sectors.

Having an MPA offers opportunities to work with human rights groups, schools, nonprofit medical centers, charitable organizations, public media, development groups, and international organizations, among others.

Advantages and Disadvantages of an MPA Degree

Getting an MPA, like any advanced degree, takes time and money. If you decide to get an MPA, you will most likely take a variety of exciting courses. Unlike some master’s programs, you don’t need any particular undergraduate degree to be accepted into an MPA program.

Individuals with MPAs may graduate with multiple job opportunities in a broad spectrum of career paths. There are many advantages to getting an MPA beyond money and prestige, and earning an MPA often means enrolling in interesting courses, from international affairs to environmental law.

However, these jobs may be highly competitive, and public administrators may find themselves in high-stress jobs with low turnover rates. Executive positions are often not vacated until someone retires, especially if the pay and profile are high. High-profile positions in public administration mean working one-on-one with individuals and groups, so these jobs may be challenging for those who prefer to work independently or without drawing attention to themselves.

  • Provides entry into a variety of careers, including overseas
  • High-paying jobs
  • Studying for an MPA often means interesting coursework.
  • You don’t need a specific undergraduate degree to apply to an MPA program.
  • Getting your MPA may be expensive depending on the program.
  • Jobs that call for an MPA may mean long hours and high stress.
  • Highly competitive
  • Coursework to earn an MPA can be challenging.
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History of the MPA Degree

The first master’s degree program in public administration was established at the University of Michigan in 1914 as part of the Department of Political Science. The goal was to improve efficiency in municipal government and eliminate corruption. The program was developed by department chair Jesse S. Reeves, who later served as a technical adviser to the League of Nations Hague Conference in 1930. The program has since expanded to a full graduate school known as the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy.

The John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and the Woodrow Wilson School of Government at Princeton University were founded in the middle of the Great Depression as part of a broader move to give the government and social services a scientific and professional grounding.

The New Deal programs of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt significantly increased the scope of the US government and its programs, creating a need for skilled, professional managers.


Deciding between getting an MPA versus an MBA degree will depend on whether or not you prefer studying business or public policy, although there is some crossover. Most MBA graduates work in finance in the private sector, and MPA graduates often end up in executive roles in nonprofits and government.

MBA graduates don’t usually work on the policy side of finance and economics. In contrast, an MPA holder may work in the private sector studying the policies behind financial markets and why they succeed or fail. MPAs tend to work in organizations focused on improving the world, like nonprofits or NGOs.

Both MPA and MBA holders may find work abroad and will have likely earned the credentials to work for global companies. Neither is a better degree than the other, and both can be useful in many different industries and job markets.

Top MPA Programs

Every year, many institutions curate their list of best MPA programs. One such source is U.S. News, known for ranking various educational programs such as undergraduate degrees or MBA programs.

U.S. News has ranked the following schools as the top programs in 2023. Note that the peer review score is on a 1 to 5 scale (with 5 being the best possible score). In total, 269 different MPA programs were ranked.

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U.S. News, Best MPA Programs (2023)UniversityRankingPeer Assessment Score
Indiana University–Bloomington, Bloomington, IN #1 (Tie) 4.5
Syracuse University, Syracuse, NY #1 (Tie) 4.5
Harvard University, Cambridge, MA #3 4.3
University of California–Berkeley, Berkeley, CA #4 (Tie) 4.2
University of Michigan–Ann Arbor, Ann Arbor, MI #4 (Tie) 4.2
University of Southern California, Los Angeles, CA #4 (Tie) 4.2
University of Georgia, Athens, GA #7 4.1
University of Chicago, Chicago, IL #8 (Tie) 4.0
University of Washington, Seattle, WA #8 (Tie) 4.0
American University, Washington, DC #10 (Tie) 3.9
Arizona State University, Phoenix, AZ #10 (Tie) 3.9
Georgetown University, Washington, DC #10 (Tie) 3.9
George Washington University, Washington, DC #10 (Tie) 3.9
New York University, New York, NY #10 (Tie) 3.9
Princeton University, Princeton, NJ #10 (Tie) 3.9
University of California–Los Angeles, Los Angeles, CA #10 (Tie) 3.9
University of Minnesota–Twin Cities, Minneapolis, MN #10 (Tie) 3.9
University of Texas–Austin, Austin, TX #10 (Tie) 3.9

What Career Opportunities Are Available to Graduates With an MPA Degree?

Graduates with an MPA degree can pursue a wide range of careers, mainly in the public and nonprofit sectors. Opportunities include roles such as government administrators, policy analysts, program managers, nonprofit directors, international development specialists, and urban planners.

Is Work Experience Required for an MPA?

While work experience is not always required for admission, many MPA programs value applicants with relevant professional experience in public service, nonprofits, or related fields. Consider how work experience may make your application stronger when applying.

How Many Years Does It Take to Get an MPA Degree?

It usually takes two years to earn an MPA degree. Some programs offer qualified and motivated students the option to complete an MPA in just one year.

What Is Taught in an MPA?

An MPA program often consists of coursework in law, international affairs, political theory, urban planning, nonprofit organizations, and public service leadership, among other subjects.

The Bottom Line

The Master of Public Administration (MPA) degree is a professionally-oriented graduate degree intended for students who wish to work in government agencies, nonprofits, NGOs, and other policy-related institutions. Coursework typically is centered around policy-making and analysis, public administration, organizational leadership, financial accounting, and research methods. MPA degrees are often a prerequisite for certain high-level policy or government jobs, and MPA programs are now offered by many top universities.

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