How Should I Choose My Public Policy Grad Program?
In the United States, there are more than 200 graduate programs offering a master's degree in public policy/public administration/public affairs. How can you choose the one that's right for you? With so many options, making four important comparisons by asking the right questions can help you decide where you should invest your time and money:
- Compare Curricula: As noted in this helpful blog, there are important differences between the two major types of graduate policy programs: master of public policy (MPP) and master of public administration (MPA). But even within these disciplines,
there can be distinctions worth understanding—after all, you'll be spending a fair
amount of time in the classroom studying various aspects of public policy and politics—how
do you want to spend that time? Are you attracted to coursework that is more quantitative/analytical
or coursework that touches on issues of leadership, history, and philosophy? What
about a mix? Related to this question is understanding what level of flexibility there
is within the curriculum. In other words, what percentage of the course structure
is "core" or "required" and what percentage is elective?
Also considering what level of specialization you want can help determine the program that best fits your needs. Do you want a degree in a particular area of public policy (i.e. international relations, environmental policy, etc.), or are you looking for something that's more broad-based, allowing for more career options upon graduation? Knowing if you need or want to focus in a particular area before the program begins can be significant in your decision-making process.
Of course, a related issue is considering the faculty who'll be teaching you—especially the adjunct/visiting professors as they often teach the elective classes. Are these scholars/practitioners who bring unique or important backgrounds into the classroom? Professors can often serve as job references and counselors. Could you see faculty members being helpful toward your career aspirations? Keep in mind—as you may have learned in undergrad—sometimes the "big names" aren't always available for much student interaction.
Finally, learning and professional influences don't only occur in the classroom; they can also happen in events, clubs, and co-curricular activities. Explore the program's events calendar, and look into the options for student clubs and organizations. Do these look like opportunities that you'd enjoy or would benefit you?
- Compare Alumni: Furthering your exploration of where you might want to focus your studies, is learning where graduates of your various program options go on to serve. Especially in the graduate policy/politics discipline where graduates can work in a wide variety of fields—from government to the business sector—researching where program alumni work is not only helpful for confirming a career path you're seeking, but it may also open your field of vision to new options you hadn't considered. Depending on the school's website, sometimes this information can be difficult to find. Always feel free to reach out to the program's career office to learn more (or get updated information) about where alumni work. A relevant question is learning to what degree the program in question stays in communication with their alumni. Do they have a practice of connecting students to alumni for mentoring/job opportunities? Can you speak with an alumnus before committing to the program? Remember, these alumni might also become helpful career resources!
- Compare Locations: For on-ground programs, and like undergraduate school, graduate school provides an opportunity to live in a part of the country where you may have never been. Of course, most graduate policy degrees prepare students to work around the country, and throughout the world, but, related to "#2", a school's location can also have career implications with alumni networks and professional relationships influencing where you might begin your career. Is this a place you'd like to live? What are the housing options? Knowing where the school's largest alumni chapters are located can also give you a sense of where the program has reach and professional connections. You might see yourself going to Washington, DC, to work, for example, but given these other criteria, your best fit might be a program in another state. Learning about the school's alumni presence in DC could be instructive in making your final decision.
- Compare Costs: Considering grad school is a way of making an investment in yourself with lifetime implications for your career and earning potential. But everything comes at a cost. It's fair to say that tuition costs noted on school websites don't give a full accounting of your overall costs—both positively and negatively. On the positive side, many schools offer scholarships and "discounts" depending on a number of factors. These tuition reductions are not always reflected in the "sticker price" displayed on most websites. Always make sure to engage directly with a school's admissions staff to better understand average tuition actually paid by students to the institution in question. On the downside, some school websites make it difficult to understand the full costs of attendance—including important factors like housing or added fees. Again, the recommendation here is to check with the admissions to get a better sense of housing options (on- and off-campus) as well as on-campus job opportunities, which could provide some income while you study. Finally, graduate programs in particular are becoming more transparent when it comes to knowing the average debt-load carried by graduates. Of course, every situation is different—some students get big scholarships and others find good-paying jobs while enrolled, but getting that average gives you a better sense of what you'll be taking on.
Considering your next step in higher education can be both thrilling and daunting. Hopefully, these four comparisons will help you find the right program.