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From Academia to the Agency: Take Two Years, Learn How Public Organizations Operate

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

By Marc A. Wallace
September 19, 2014

The views expressed here should not be attributed to APSA or the New Jersey Office of the State Comptroller. 

Wallace septMany professors teaching within MBA programs have obtained private sector work experience at some point in their academic careers. Why should MPA professors be any different within the public sector?

As public administration scholars, it is indispensable to one’s career growth to descend from the theoretical comforts of the classroom and immerse oneself into the operations of a department, agency or a nonprofit organization. Ideally, a two-year time frame as a public sector employee will allow a professor to comprehend how an organization accomplishes its core mission, manages its personnel, interacts with other government entities, develops regulations and justifies its budget. Additionally, the organization’s cyclical patterns will yield insights into material that professors can integrate into their teaching and research, while uncovering opportunities to strengthen the department’s connection with state and local governments.

The recommendation for a two-year commitment stems from several exchanges that I have had with part-time graduate students that worked full time for city, county or state governments. First, while completing my dissertation and interning with the Government Accountability Office (GAO), I had a conversation with a graduate school classmate that was on the same trajectory with another organization. After one year of work experience, he exclaimed, “We were lied to in Professor X’s class, because we were given book knowledge that had minimal practical application to what I am doing.”

Second, I taught a graduate course to a group of students primarily working in the human services sector. A practical question was posed to me, which prompted me to provide a theoretical response that drew laughter from the class. Finally, after teaching several graduate courses at two universities, I had an opportunity to speak with a former graduate student that stated, “I took Professor Y’s course which was designed to teach a work related skill. But from my experience, I genuinely feel bad for students that think those skills are applicable.” Instead of cloaking myself in academic hubris and discounting these interactions, I engaged in a healthy dose of introspection about the quality of knowledge I conveyed to students. The 16 months I spent with GAO as an intern and full-time employee prior to working as a professor was valuable, but the knowledge withered on the vine after a few years.

The combination of audit reports, legal decisions, newspaper articles and the latest article or book that I incorporated into my courses were my interpretation of someone else’s experiences. Additionally, I pilfered some material from graduate students working full time to augment my lectures the following semester, but this had limited mileage. In the end, there was a gap between explaining motivational theories or evaluation techniques and actually motivating an employee or working with a multi-dimensional team on an evaluation. For the second time in my career, I decided to plunge back into government service.

In 2008, I was fortunate to accept a position with New Jersey’s Office of the State Comptroller. As one of the initial people hired in the new agency, I had a range of experiences within my first two years that included assisting with hiring, managing and evaluating personnel; facilitating projects with auditors, attorneys and investigators; witnessing a gubernatorial change, observing the merger of three agencies and watching the transition from a partially unionized to a non-unionized agency. In retrospect, nothing I read in a journal or an edited volume of case studies, learned at a conference or experienced through a short-term assignment as a consultant gave me this depth of practical knowledge that I acquired. However, as much as I endorse this strategy, I realize that there are several challenges involved with it, depending on where a person is with his or her career.

With rare exception, most academics will have to adjust to the rhythm of a non-academic environment. Veteran professors may not feel comfortable managing full-time workers on a project that spans more than six months or reporting to someone that uses a baseline, mid-year and final evaluation of their performance, rather than bubble sheets at the end of the term. Newly minted Ph.D.s seeking an academic position will have to defend this decision, if they are mislabeled as a burned-out government employee. This is a myth I had to dispel during several university interviews after working with GAO full-time for a few months. Departments will have to modify their course offerings, perhaps with the use of adjuncts, to accommodate the temporary absence of a professor. With proper planning, these challenges can be overcome once the university accommodates the department’s endeavor and the seasoned or new professor settles into the experience.

Ultimately, this approach is beneficial for the department/program, the professor and the students. The department/program benefits from a potential pool of new graduate students, an expanded list of guest lecturers or adjuncts, outlets for internships and the marketability of a professor in the field that can create new courses or redesign existing ones. From the professor’s perspective, s/he can view an agency from within and compare it to the various theories of budgeting, personnel, program evaluation, grant writing, public-private partnerships or regulations. These observations can be used as material for classroom instruction or publications. Finally, full-time and part-time students will have an enriched academic experience, as they apply the knowledge they have acquired in the program to their capstone course and at work.

The competition between traditional and cyber universities to attract and retain students warrants creative approaches to broadening a program’s appeal. This one approach should be considered. Without the need for ice and water, I challenge my colleagues to take a respite from the university and learn firsthand how public organizations operate.

Author: Marc A. Wallace, Ph.D. is the special assistant to the director of the Medicaid Fraud Division within New Jersey’s Office of the State Comptroller. He can be reached at [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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