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The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.
By Mobola Owolabi
July 17, 2015
In today’s competitive workforce, having a master’s degree can give you the boost in your career. However, what are the true costs and benefits of higher education in public administration and/or public policy?
Many people see an advanced degree as a way to set them apart from their peers and put themselves in optimal positions for promotions. But let’s look beyond the financial costs associated with an advanced degree. Do the benefits outweigh the cost? If you ask me, I would say yes.
After undergraduate studies, many go straight into the workforce, like I did. I received my bachelor’s degree in organizational communication in 2008. I wasn’t quite sure what I was going to do once I graduated. I didn’t have a job and wasn’t sure what industry I was interested in.
After graduation, I worked at my part-time nonprofit job and once the summer was over, I finally felt ready to move back to the Washington, D.C. area and start a career. I ended up working with a major nonprofit organization but in the end did not feel that it was a good fit for me. From there, I ventured into working with a government contractor. That didn’t feel like my niche either. Then boom, I landed a job that led me to where I am today. I started working with a nonprofit health care organization in government affairs. I loved this career change and loved the work I was doing.
Like many young professionals, I toyed with the idea of an advanced degree but I also felt that work experience was vital to moving up in my career field. Two years into my government affairs job, I decided to take a leap of faith and go back to school to get my master’s in public policy. Of course there were a handful of people that thought I was crazy to leave a career to go back to school full-time, but I knew at the end of the day, it was what I needed to do in order to continue moving forward in my career. I left my job on very friendly terms and started graduate school in the fall 2012. Attending graduate school and not working full time was tough. Yet the sacrifice was well worth it in the end.
I started graduate school with four years of work experience under my belt. I felt confident that the end goal—a better job and better pay—would be relatively easy once I completed my degree. I also believed that working in a career directly related to public policy had already given me a wealth of on-the-job knowledge but I knew graduate school would help strengthen my leadership skills.
Although grad school involved a lot of reading, writing, research and analysis, many people do not realize how much leadership development is also involved. You are forced to think outside of your comfort zone and present original research to peers and sometimes complete strangers. It is challenging at first, but it prepares you for what is to come post grad school. A degree in public policy or public administration not only equips you to be well rounded in several policy subjects, it builds leadership skills as well as confidence.
Pursuing an advanced degree is a major financial commitment, but as Dr. Don Martin notes in a 2012 US News article, 6 Reasons Why Graduate School Pays Off, professionals with advanced degrees earn about 30 percent more annually than professionals without master’s degrees.
While the return on investment may not be that of someone who pursued an MBA, I do believe an MPP or MPA is absolutely worth the cost and the time. Learning about the workings of government, cost-benefit analysis, economics, statistics and qualitative and quantitative research methods are invaluable skills that you may not acquire on the job.
Although work experience is great in helping you with career advancement, work experience often teaches you how to do a specific job for a specific organization. Advancing your education opens you to a wealth of knowledge as well as new and innovative ways of thinking. Getting your MPA or MPP aids in expanding your mind and your way of thinking. It brings about new and inventive ways to evaluate and develop ideas that on-the-job training cannot provide.
In the end, you have made an excellent choice to get an advanced degree in public administration or public policy. You have the opportunity to be a change agent in your organization and you are now equipped with a wealth of knowledge and skills that you can use to further a career with your federal, state or local government, as well as many nonprofit organizations. My advice to new graduates would be: network often, utilize social media outlets like LinkedIn and be confident in the skills you have developed in graduate school.
Author: Mobola Owolabi is currently a senior project manager for the Center of Hospital Innovation and Improvement in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She specializes in various policy and quality improvement projects. Ms. Owolabi holds a bachelor’s degree in organizational communication from Old Dominion University and a master’s degree in public policy from Drexel University. Email: [email protected].