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Making MPA Grads Competitive in Today’s Job Market

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

By Julia O’Hanlon
August 28, 2015

What makes MPA graduates attractive in today’s job market? The answer is not obvious, particularly given the current demand for engineers, business leaders and STEM-proficient graduates. However, three primary characteristics distinguish University of Delaware School of Public Policy & Administration (SPPA) MPA alumni from their peers.

SPPA MPAs graduates:

  1. Develop “outside-the-box” thinking applicable to a variety of positions.
  2. Acquire significant and unique service-learning experiences that expand their skill-base.
  3. Consider the opportunity to make a meaningful contribution a key factor in their employment and long-term professional-development. 

“Outside-the-Box” Thinking

Nationally, the MPA degree should be better promoted and recognized for training “outside-the-box” thinkers. “The challenges facing government at all levels are substantive, interesting, and in need of innovative thinking,” said Arthur Wicks (UD, MPA ‘12), who currently works for the City of Alexandria’s Office of Management and Budget. “Innovation, creativity, and the desire to experiment are all going to be necessary to face the challenges of today and tomorrow.”

The SPPA MPA program affords the opportunity to pursue a variety of career paths. Graduates are implementing programs and advising high-level officials, and their abilities are diverse, ranging from organizational leadership to budgeting and finance. The general and technical aspects of the curriculum encourage case study review and creative dimensions that emphasize the role of different sectors in public decision making, thus requiring students to think about various perspectives involved in challenging, real-life issues.

“Real-World” Service Learning

MPA programs throughout the country should offer students the opportunity to engage in experiential learning. While other degree programs might require out-of-classroom training, the variety of full-bodied experiences that SPPA MPA students gain during their academic tenure makes them highly competitive. SPPA MPA graduates often attain assistantships, fellowships and/or internships, which support them financially while earning their degree and often become full-time positions.

For example, an internship for Kristie Fitzwater Mikus (UD, MPA ‘02) at the Institute of Local Government Studies in Ghana led to a presidential management fellowship. She now works in Zambia as country coordinator for the president’s emergency plan for AIDS relief, or PEPFAR. With an annual budget of over $300 million, Mikus coordinates with five U.S. government agencies to lead their efforts to tackle HIV and AIDS in Zambia.

The internship, facilitated by SPPA and its affiliated Institute for Public Administration faculty, “Opened the doors to me for career options in international development. Many employers were not interested in hiring a recent graduate with no international work experience,” Mikus said. The experience in Ghana, coupled with her MPA coursework and research assistantship, presented opportunities for her that might otherwise have been unattainable.

The increasing value of higher education institutions that offer experiential learning opportunities requires those evaluating MPA programs to expand service-learning approaches that will set graduates apart. As noted by Crystal Nielsen, Graduate Services Coordinator for SPPA, “Our students benefit from the extensive network of professional connections that is nurtured by our faculty and staff, which leads to wonderful opportunities for internships and project work, as well as a high post-graduation employment rate.”

Meaningful Contributions

Starting salary, while important, is not the primary focus of many SPPA grads. Instead, these graduates are eager for meaningful, engaging and challenging opportunities that make a difference to the people and communities where they live, work and play.

In describing her pathway to international policy work, Mikus notes how SPPA supported her interests while she earned her degree. “It definitely wasn’t the ‘norm’ at that time, but my passion together with my professors’ willingness to accommodate my interests was incredibly rewarding.”

This past June, Mikus and a senior-level Zambian government official spoke with a group of MPA students at the Consortium for International Management, Policy, Administration and Development conference held in Lusaka. Her story expresses her passion for her work:

“We were both asked to speak about our respective areas of work; he was an infrastructure expert and spoke about roads and the country’s efforts to have more paved roads. I spoke about ending the AIDS epidemic in Zambia. Our subjects were quite different, but our talk was quite similar. Why? Because we both looked at our work through the lens of a public administration practitioner. We both talked about the importance of a clear vision and strong leadership, good governance and management, accountability, transparency, motivating teams, the importance of a skilled workforce, incorporating youth, partnership and sustainability. We had never met before and our subjects were very different, but the underlying principles were the same. THAT is public administration.”

How do we encourage more students interested in the pivotal policy challenges of our time to pursue and prepare for public-service careers through an MPA degree? Public affairs programs need to reach students earlier in their education. Most MPA programs are disconnected from undergraduate activities that introduce students to the opportunities of a public service career.

As shifts in higher education models and priorities threaten the value of MPA programs nationally, public affairs programs need to rethink MPA “feeders” to include a broader range of undergraduate programs and adapt to the needs of an increasingly diverse student population. As stated by Daniel Rich in a 2013 Journal of Public Affairs Education article, these shifts call for responses that promote public service ideals as a basic feature of any successful 21st century university. Likewise, NASPAA, faculty, midcareer professionals and senior-level public administrators should lead national efforts to emphasize the value of public affairs programs. Finally, MPA alumni must mentor and share their success stories with students who exhibit a drive and passion for making a difference.

Author: Julia O’Hanlon is an associate policy scientist with the school of public policy and administration’s Institute for Public Administration at the University of Delaware. She is responsible for providing a wide range of research, education, and technical assistance to state and local officials, and nonprofit organizations. O’Hanlon serves as co-chair of the PA Times editorial board. She can be reached at [email protected].

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