MPA Degree Definition: Theory and Real-World Experience

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The Master of Public Administration (MPA) degree is designed to prepare its graduates for a wide array of careers and can prove a strategic boon for people of many career types and professional goals. However, the number and range of postgraduate degrees offered today can sometimes make choosing the best degree a challenging process. With a little bit of background knowledge and clarity about what’s offered, it is possible to confidently choose the degree that will best meet your professional goals. This article presents an MPA degree definition that can help clarify whether it might make a strategic choice for your professional development.

MPA Degree: Definition

So what differentiates an MPA degree from the similar postgraduate degrees available? What makes it different from other seemingly comparable degree programs? The differences between an MPA degree and other types of management degrees can best be understood by exploring the building blocks that make up the MPA curriculum. We will use the University of San Francisco Master of Public Administration as our template MPA program to explore its integral components.

Core Components of an MPA Program

  • “Interdisciplinary Nature.” An essential facet of an MPA degree creates a practical knowledge base and core competencies from which its graduates can draw in their future professional roles. Being an effective leader requires being able to relate with, converse intelligently about, make decisions on and contribute to a wide variety of professional questions and policy areas. MPA graduates work alongside colleagues in areas such as finance, human resources, logistics, facilities, technology, research, engineering, manufacturing, even the executive cabinet — and the list goes on. The MPA graduate can work within each of these spheres, and offer more effective management practice. Imagine moving across several distinct departments at a typical city hall, from human resources to budgeting to public works, and then into the city manager’s role.
  • “Theoretical Foundation.” Beneath the everyday happenings of a business or organization exist core foundational principles that dictate how entities operate, how people interact, and how to effectively lead and perform. These theories must form the foundation of an MPA graduate’s understanding. By learning organizational, communication, and leadership theory, MPA holders graduate equipped to not only treat symptoms but diseases and approach work problems from a deeper perspective. In contrast to the “city hall” model of the MPA’s career, imagine spending several decades working in public safety across many agencies, or spending one’s career developing a deeper understanding of the federal budget.
  • “Experiential Learning.” Theoretical knowledge is one element of a successful curriculum. Applying that knowledge on a ready basis to real scenarios requires regular practice, that begins and is repeated across courses taken in completing an MPA program. NASPAA-accredited MPA programs incorporate opportunities to practice applying knowledge to actual scenarios a graduate might encounter on the job. These opportunities include case studies, discussion-based learning, projects in the community, and more.

Aptitudes and Learned Abilities that Lend Themselves to MPA Program

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, certain aptitudes and abilities dramatically assist those that work within careers of public administration. Possessing these traits can aid your experience in an MPA program and also contribute to higher success and exemplary performance in your future career.

  • Analytical skills: Can you look at problems from different angles? Do you enjoy dissecting an issue and understanding its elements? Do you know how to constructively critique processes and find ways to streamline them? Once streamlined, do you know how to repurpose assets freed up following that process and put them to work solving other problems?
  • Communication skills: Do you find it easy to make conversation? How much satisfaction do you derive from reaching interpersonal resolutions? Do you recognize communication errors and can you remedy them so as to easily communicate ideas to others? Can you skillfully work through conflicts?
  • Detail orientation: Do you enjoy developing plans? Have you ever kept an intricate daily calendar? Are you skilled at working with office applications? How do you manage a wide variety of tasks or projects at once, to be sure all are handled on time and with attention to details that matter?
  • Leadership and management skills: Do people turn to you for leadership and to manage situations? How do you motivate and inspire those around you? Do you see others’ strengths and imagine how they could fit together? How do you guide diverse workgroups to help them find their common strengths and meet their shared ambitions? When have you organized a new group of individuals to help them accomplish a challenging task or meet a goal?
  • Time management skills: Is it your preference and habit to complete work assignments well before due dates? Can you find time to spend on what you most enjoy and do you support your staff or coworkers so they too can make time for what’s most important? Do you often feel confident about projects you and your teams have completed, because you have had adequate time to finish and double-check them?

By comparing your natural aptitudes and learned abilities with this list of skills that benefit a professional in a public administration career, you can better determine how to build your best self as a public leader and administrator.

Who Should Earn an MPA?

Master of Public Administration degrees are designed to prepare students for leadership in a number of different industries and arenas. A high concentration of MPA graduates find satisfying long-term careers within the areas of government, civil service, and nonprofit organizations. Many also work in education and health care. Public administration degrees serve those working as or with political leaders particularly well because the MPA provides a widespread base of knowledge that can help one better understand public sector management and fiscal systems from a holistic vantage point, and thus are able to serve political constituencies effectively. The MPA also develops one’s communication, leadership, and interpersonal skills. This can provide a strategic step to climbing the ladder in other industries as well, especially in careers and industries that partner with government or international agencies to act in the public interest. The MPA is a popular choice for those who have a passion for working with the public and who enjoy the challenges of applying their efforts alongside others towards a higher purpose.

Investigate the properties of an MPA program to discover whether earning an MPA degree could prove a strategic step that propels your career to new heights.

Learn More

By learning more about the University of San Francisco Online Master of Public Administration (MPA), you take an important first step toward pursuing your professional goals and commitment to social justice. Our program is designed for professionals who want to become effective managers and civic leaders who affect change through policy management and advocacy.

Recommended Readings

Millennials’ Participation in Public Affairs

The Role of Performance Measurement in Public Administration

Millennials in the public sector: Why they’ll make all of us better


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