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MBA or MPA? Which path to take?

Looking toward a Career in Government – Which pathway is the best, MBA vs MPA?

As the admissions director for Maxwell’s top ranked MPA program over the last two decades I have answered this question a lot!  Throughout this time we have seen many changes in the way public services are delivered in the United States. The blurring line between the public and private sectors is real and continues to evolve.

During my time as a Maxwell MPA student we were immersed in the concepts of “Reinventing Government” and the “Contract with America”.  

Reinventing Government, coined by then newly elected, President Clinton declared a goal of making the federal government “less expensive and more efficient”.  He charged his Vice President Al Gore to take this concept and put it into action.  By 1996 the federal workforce was reduced by over 24,000 positions (Kamensky, 1999).  In response, the Contract with America was released by the United States Republican Party during the 1994 congressional election.  A highlight of my year was when one of the principal authors of the Contract,  Newt Gingrich, then serving as the 50th Speaker of the House, came and spoke at Maxwell.  This contract represented the view of many conservative Republican’s on shrinking the size of the federal government.

In 1996, as soon to be newly minted MPA graduates, we saw tremendous growth of opportunity for hiring in Private Sector Consulting firms who increased their Public Sector Consulting staff, to take on the projects and work of a dwindling federal work force. Hence, less than 5% of my classmates took positions in the federal government upon graduation, whereas those entering private sector consulting topped out at over 30%!  But, these reform movements ebb and flow over time, and indeed today, the hiring of Maxwell MPA grads across sectors has evened out significantly:  24% related private; 18% federal government, 29% state/local government and 23% non-profit.

Dean David Van Slyke

Today, Maxwell School’s Dean, David Van Slyke published an op ed in Politico discussing President Trump’s infrastructure plan and the very real differences between “privatization” and “public private partnerships” (PPPs).    “Trump’s infrastructure plan: How “private” will he go?”  (Politico, 6/7/17).  In this piece, Dean Van Slyke explores the pros and cons of these concepts and the very real implications of importing a for-profit focused mindset to the work of the public sector.

MBA – vs – MPA ? 

So with all these changes in how “public” services are delivered, how government is managed and the continued blurring line between the public and private sectors… is it any surprise that I hear this question all the time?   Given the headlines of the day, and Dean Van Slykes’s op-ed, it felt right to discuss this question for today’s blog post.

Now, as Director of Admission for the oldest and most highly regarded MPA program in the country – and being a Maxwell MPA (1996) alum myself – my answer should not surprise.. but hopefully the rationale for the answer will help inform as you consider your potential career path.

If you wish to work in the public sector – the MPA degree is the most practical & intelligent degree choice.  And if you are staunchly committed to public service, it will also be the most enjoyable experience, as you will be immersed in a culture where all are invested in making the world a better place through effective and efficient public service!

Why?  Because MPA programs – and in particular Maxwell’s comprehensive approach to the study of the field – are designed specifically for leading and managing public service programs and policies in government and public sector focused organizations.  Programs in Public Administration and Policy provide a broader skill set beyond the solid management skill set which is the cornerstone of many MBA programs. MBA programs no doubt provide solid grounding in managing complex organizations, financial management for the private sector and stakeholder analysis.  But, the skills provided by even the best MBA programs do not translate easily to the public service. Public leaders need the rigorous policy analysis skills that are not incorporated into these business programs. Nor will MBA students obtain a comprehensive understanding of the public sector, which operates in a significantly different manner than private corporations.

The Maxwell MPA is grounded in a comprehensive view of public service education that appreciates the the need for three areas of mastery: formulating, implementing and evaluating policy; leading and managing organizations with diverse stakeholders; and applying rigorous and evidence-based analysis to inform decision making.  Specifically Maxwell’s MPA is designed to provide

  • concrete skills/knowledge in policy analysis, so that our students may develop an analytical framework and skills with which to better analyze complex public policies/processes and determine best solutions for improvement,
  • skills/knowledge in the area of program management so that students can implement programs and put into practice the solutions defined as best through careful analysis, and
  • a critical understanding of the public sector and institutional context.  All programs designed to meet larger public policy/management goals must occur in public (organizational/economic/societal/political/legal) context — and an understanding of the dynamics at work in these settings is crucial for successful implementation.

This last point, is particularly salient.  Experience in leading a private business does not always provide one with the critical skills necessary for working effectively on behalf of the public in public sector management, analysis and leadership positions.  The structures, regulations and operations of government are significantly complex and unique from those in the private sector.

Students who wish to seek a career in public sector policy analysis and management, are therefore better served academically in programs designed specifically for this purpose.

But, even more so, attending graduate school also provides the chance to expand and/or enter a professional network of leaders working in your field of interest.  By studying with and being part of a world-wide professional network of leaders and policy experts committed to and working in public service oriented careers, you are gaining access that is critical over the life of your career.

The Maxwell School provide such a network.  The strong, diverse, tight-knit community at our school lends itself to an exceedingly loyal alumni network that stretches over 150 different countries, holding positions of leadership and influence in all levels of government, the non-profit and NGO sectors, in international organizations and the related private sector.  Maxwell’s alumni reach opens the world up to our graduates for the rest of their professional careers!

Links of Interest:

Maxwell Center for Career Development
Maxwell Alumni RelationsAlumni Profiles
Maxwell MPA Program Curriculum
Maxwell PAIA Faculty

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June 2024
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