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The PSM Phenomenon

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

By Emily Paulson
November 3, 2015

I’ve been reading a lot about public service motivation (PSM). It’s a new concept to me—one of many I’ve been exposed to through my MPA program.

PSM is basically the draw some have to government work. It’s a theoretic intrinsic desire we have to serve the public. Researchers study its prevalence, its source and the way it affects public sector management and employment.

My friends often ask me why I chose to study public administration. If I answer them by mentioning specific fields of practice that interest me, they ask why I don’t pursue them in the public sector, where they tell me I will undoubtedly make more money. Maybe they’re right.

So, more often than not, I tell them I’m studying public administration because of something less…tangible—something that’s hard for me to explain, even as I write this.

I wonder if that something is PSM.

Emily PaulsonWhen I was an undergraduate student, I took classes with students of every ilk. We were all incentivized by something different. Chasing different dreams. Hoping to land different jobs. Even within my specific program.

That all changed when I started my grad program because we seem to all share PSM as a common attribute. We still all have different backgrounds, areas of expertise and future goals. However, when one of us talks about putting “the people” first or feeling called to serve “the greater good,” no one looks confused, bored or rolls their eyes.

That sense of belonging and camaraderie is just one of the many things that can make an MPA program special. As my first year of grad school comes to an end in a month, I hope you’ll allow me to share a few further reflections.

Perhaps you’re considering an MPA program yourself, or you teach in one. Even if you are not a student or teacher, you will certainly encounter them. Regardless, I hope my experience might help inform you and those you meet about why this field of study is special.

Obviously, every program will offer—and every student experience—something a little different. Nevertheless, on top of the PSM phenomenon, I think most MPA students can expect the following:

1.       People

The women and men teaching my classes have been amazing. They have spent years (often decades) both studying and practicing public sector work. While we certainly learn a lot about theory, from PSM to economics, our professors’ take that theory and help us connect the dots to the day-to-day operations of our government.

It’s not just the professors that do the teaching, though. It’s the students themselves. I have classmates that work at every level of government, who have countless years of expertise, in endless different fields.

From engineers, to lawyers, to city administrators, to past and present members of our armed services, the culmination of personal knowledge shared with me by professors and classmates is just as rich as any official curriculum. They continue to teach me so much. The relationships we have made will be invaluable to both my career and my personal life. They’ve become my friends.

2.       Work

We do a lot of writing. A LOT. Yet the subject matter isn’t something we’re forced to research. It is something we already want to know more about. We are encouraged at every step of the way to focus our writing assignments on the topics that really matter to our careers and us. Our instructors will help us narrow that down if we are not quite sure.

When we’re not diving deep into a research paper or analyzing policy, we are completing group projects or participating in discussions designed to help us apply the lessons we learn to real life situations. We simulate arbitration, we construct imaginary letters of discipline and we create training plans.

We’re not being filled with answers for tests. We’re being shaped into the best public servants we can be. In real life. For real people.

3.       Possibilities

The possibilities that come with an MPA aren’t something I can personally speak to, because I don’t yet have one. Lucky for us, many other PA TIMES writers have already covered this. Check out the following posts to learn more about where an MPA program can take its students:

As I look forward to my next and final year as an MPA student, I can’t help but feel the theory of PSM is onto something. Thinking of my classmates, and thinking of my own draw to public service, it makes perfect sense to me there is a certain motivating factor unique to people seeking a lifetime of government work.


Author: Emily Paulson is a content marketing manager in Minneapolis, where she moonlights as an MPA student at Hamline University’s School of Business. She’s carving out a career in public safety and organizational learning, and believes in firm handshakes and shameless smiles. Contact her at [email protected]. She warmly welcomes your thoughts.

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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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