If you want to work in international development or aid, there are quite a few options available to you. Usually, however, you will have to hold a graduate degree. That being said, there isn't a single 'best' degree for this type of work, although the Master in Public Administration (MPA) degree is classed as one of the most relevant degrees. Additionally, it is also an excellent degree for those who want to work for the national government.

What Is an MPA Degree?

Defining the MPA is quite difficult and very few people truly understand it. One of the reasons for this is that not many people hold the degree because people often choose the Master of Business Administration (MBA) degree. Secondly, the degree is so broad that it can be difficult to really give it a definition. However, there are a few specific characteristics of the program:

  • The degree is professional and not academic. This means that a lot of career options are available as well, including government agencies, non-profit organizations, social enterprises, international NGOs, financial institutions, private businesses, and more.
  • The curriculum of the MPA is a mixture of the MBA and the Master of Public Policy (MPP) degrees. Usually, you will learn about various management topics, such as human resource management, finance, and strategy, while focusing on nonprofit organizations and government. That said, public policy issues, such as policy analysis and economics, will also be covered.
  • You can usually specialize in your MPA degree in areas, such as healthcare, international affairs, education, environment, finance, human rights, urban policy, finance, specific geographic regions, management, and so on.
  • It usually takes two years to complete the program, although there are now also a number of accelerated degree programs available, as well as online programs, which means it can be completed in between 12 and 18 months.

Such are the elements that you will see in every MPA degree program across all universities in the country, if not the world. However, there are significant differences between the various schools as well. This is why it is very important that you research the schools that you are considering. Some, for instance, focus specifically on international development, preparing graduates to work at the World Bank. Others are more community based and grassroots, requiring students to have excellent language proficiency and sending them out on international fieldwork. There are also some schools that do not have any international focus.

Another big difference between the various schools is how flexible their programs are. For instance, some schools allow you to choose courses outside of your core curriculum from different departments within the school itself. As such, each graduate actually holds a unique and individual degree most suitable to his personal needs and requirements. Other schools have a larger core curriculum and have much fewer elective courses.

Because the degree is so varied and so poorly known, few people choose to study towards it as they worry that the job market will not be so favorable. Yet, the same criticism was given in the past about the MBA degree, which is now recognized as one of the best business degrees in the world. Those who study towards an MPA usually have a good idea of where they want to go, and they already have an idea of employers who specifically look for their skills.

The overlap between an MPA degree program and other masters programs, such as the MPP and the Master of Public Affairs, is so great that the degrees are sometimes indistinguishable. It is important, if you do choose to enroll in the program, therefore, that you know exactly what you want to get out of it, that you research the schools are available, and review what other alumni have experienced after graduation.

The Timeline of an MPA Degree

Generally speaking, it will take you two years to complete an MPA degree program and some schools will also require you to complete internships or a thesis. However, the program is now also often offered online, as well as in accelerated formats. This means that the program is a lot more flexible and suitable for the working professionals. On the other hand, this makes it difficult to provide an actual timeline of the degree program, also because there are so many different specialization options available. These include:

  • Nonprofit management
  • Public healthcare
  • Development of philanthropic organizations
  • Environmental policy
  • Transportation
  • Urban planning
  • Criminal justice

Most MPA degree programs, regardless of the specialization, have a core curriculum. The focus is strongly on administration, naturally. You will usually have to take core courses in general areas of study, which include decision making, problem solving, statistics, research methods, ethics, and management concepts. Generally, there are also some core courses found across the different specializations, and those include public finance, microeconomics, program implementation, policy formulation, and information systems.

The MPA program overlaps substantially with the MPP and it is likely that you will have to take many courses together. The big difference, however, is that the MPP program will have a stronger focus on analyzing and designing new policies, whereas the MPA looks more at implementing these policies.

Last but not least, the MPA is a terminal degree. This means that, once you have completed your degree, you will not need any further education in order to advance your career. International and national policymakers across the world, as well as public sector leaders now often hold MPA degrees. This shows you just how far you can go with this degree.