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Making the Decision to Earn a Graduate Degree


Many professional opportunities in public service require additional education beyond the Bachelor’s degree. Anyone considering attending graduate school has a series of important decisions to make. This page takes these decisions in sequence and at the bottom links to other pages on this area of the site that offer additional information. The bottom line: most persons interested in sustaining a public service career will benefit considerably from additional education beyond the Bachelor's.

Decision One: Whether to seek any graduate degree.

Attending graduate school usually will require leaving full time employment from one year to more than five years, depending on the type of degree sought. Most MPA/MPP degrees require two academic years to complete (four semesters and one summer). The price of obtaining a graduate degree includes both the direct costs (tuition, room and board, books, etc.) and the foregone income from leaving the work force. Is it worth it? All available evidence shows that the graduates of MPA/MPP programs are extremely competitive in today's employment environment, and earn more and acquire more responsibility as a consequence of their graduate education. That said, there are many degree programs available to interested persons offering alternatives when it comes to cost, curriculum, location, access to employment opportunities and other factors. According to the U.S. Bureau of the Census, in 2005 the median annual income of individuals holding a master's degree (all fields) was $52,390 — $9,247 higher than for individuals with a bachelor's degree. In most cases, a person earning a master’s degree would recover the cost of the degree program through increased earnings in less than a decade after graduation.

link Go to more detailed information on salaries.

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Decision Two: The Master's degree vs. the Ph.D.

Persons who are unfamiliar with graduate professional education may assume that a Ph.D is a stronger degree than a Master's. A more accurate statement is that a Ph.D is appropriate for some career objectives and a Master's degree is appropriate for other objectives. If you are interested in conducting sophisticated research on public policy and management issues and/or teaching at the university level, then you may wish to earn a doctorate in a research field. For most individuals interested in public service careers, a Master's degree is completely appropriate, and there is no need to earn a Ph.D. Furthermore, a professional Master's degree usually is not a good "stepping stone" on the way to the Ph.D: the Master's curriculum focuses on applied topics relevant to professional careers rather than the theoretical and technical topics at the heart of a doctoral education. Persons interested in doctoral education are strongly encouraged to make contact with faculty at programs of interest for further information.

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Decision Three: What field to select for graduate education.

Persons interested in public service may find it difficult to choose between law school, policy school and even business school (especially business schools with strong nonprofit management programs). Each type of graduate school has its appealing features, but MPA/MPP programs stand out for their public service focus, flexibility, personal attention, and affordability. Furthermore, many MPA/MPP programs offer joint degrees with business and law for those individuals interested in combining more than one type of professional education. Finally, MPA/MPP programs, and Ph.D. programs in the same schools, are concerned with the challenging “wicked problems” on the local, state, national and international agenda. Problems such as chronic homelessness in U.S. cities, or global climate change, or sustainable development in Africa offer unique challenges in public service that are not the core concerns of business or law schools.

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Next Steps.

Anyone considering earning a graduate degree to further a public service career should weigh the merits of a professional degree against the Ph.D., and take the time to research specific degree programs in detail. The other related pages in this area of the website offer information on the following topics:

link More information on professional Master's degrees.

link More information on other public service degrees.

link Resources on the Internet for finding a school that meets your career objectives.