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Irreverent Tips for the MPA Graduate

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By David Howard Davis
July 24, 2015

This month’s theme is advice for the MPA graduate, so I am sure you will be getting sound advice from other articles and columns in this edition of PATimes. They will tell you to study hard, present your skills well, network with colleagues and stay in touch with former professors. Let me give some tips that are a little irreverent.

One is that temporary jobs are easier to get than permanent ones. They are less desirable so competition is less. But they may become permanent and meanwhile give good experience. Political appointments in Schedule C give great experience (if you are lucky enough to get one), although they put you at risk of being fired with a change of party or even a new secretary in your department. Jobs in nonprofits are often pay less and are subject to funding ending, but give good experience. Both political and nonprofits are good for developing contacts. Placement with contractors is a morass, but there are opportunities.

Stick close to headquarters. While the field may be where the real work of an agency takes place, promotions are easier to get in Washington. There you can find out about openings and people will know you. Remember it is not what you know; it is not even who you know, but who knows you.

Stay in touch with near-misses, that is, jobs you applied for but weren’t the first choice, or jobs you declined because pay wasn’t enough or such. These positions may reappear in a few months or years and you were rated high.

Staff jobs are great. You will learn what happens at the top and make contacts. Try to become a special assistant. Your friends will mock you for not entering the essence of a program, but the experience is good. Try to become a seeded player, formally though a program like a presidential Management Fellowship or informally though your own devices and contacts.

Know budgeting. Almost any agency director has trouble with their budget. They are appointed for their program expertise and background, not their skill in budgeting so they need assistance. Even a single course in your graduate studies will help. It is a skill much more rewarded than knowledge of personnel or management. Computer expertise is a different track, so you won’t have to compete there.

Around the country, there is a hierarchy: federal, state, municipal and county. This is true for scope, expertise, prestige and pay. County government is at the bottom. This doesn’t mean it is easier to break into county jobs, however. Rigid civil service rules, nepotism and party connections makes this difficult. Try to move up the food chain.

If reading this column hasn’t made you cynical, you are probably guilty of the sin of careerism.


Author: Davis teaches public administration at the University of Toledo. He has worked for EPA, the Government Accountability Office and the Department of the Interior in Washington. Email [email protected]

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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