Should You Get a Master's in Public Policy?
Most of us have an interest in making things better in our community and our country, but policy people take this ambition to the highest level possible: They make it their career. And if you’ve ever thought about entering into public service, you’ve probably also considered rounding out your skills with a Master’s in Public Policy.
And with good reason. The two-year program is a broad degree that will teach you invaluable analytical skills and can help you get into the private, public, and non-profit sectors. That said, it’s not a requirement for a job in policy, and it’s an investment in both time and money. Read on for a few considerations to help you decide whether earning an MPP is a good move for you.
Do Get an MPP If:
1. You want to be the world’s greatest problem solver
MPP programs throw you all sorts of policy dilemmas: the Social Security trust fund, urban education, farm subsidies, the mortgage interest deduction, and safe water, to name a few. You’ll learn to get to the bottom of some of the biggest questions, problems, concerns, and expiring legislation facing us today; test possible plans of action; identify the political stakeholders; and ultimately come up with a solution that’s less than ideal (or rather, Pareto optimal), but publicly and politically sell-able. And when you learn how to solve these kinds of problems, you feel ready for pretty much anything.
2. You need to beef up your technical communication skills
MPPers, more than most academics, know how to communicate technical, complicated, boring stuff into plain English. You’ll learn not only to read long, academic research about the implications of a 65 MPH speed limit on safety, but also to digest that information and concisely put it into words even your apolitical grandma in Kansas can understand. With an MPP, you’ll be relied upon to be the one who knows the point, and how to talk about it—and that’s great expertise to have in many fields.
3. Many things strike your fancy
Do you enjoy politics? Can you handle economics? Does a city budget excite you? Do you get bored focusing on one thing for too long? An MPP is a mix of economics, statistics, policy research, and politics, so if you get a kick out of crossing disciplines, switching gears at a moments notice, and always learning something new, an MPP is absolutely for you.
It’s also a great degree if you thrive on group work (as policy is never made by only one person) and want to learn from fellow students who have different interests than you. You might love child care policy, but get to work on a group project on Turkish immigration to Germany, where you’ll rely on your internationally-focused peers to get you up to speed.
Don’t Get an MPP If:
1. You’re looking for hands-on policy experience
For the most part, grad school exists in a vacuum. Your professors are academics—they’re not practicing in the field, and they can't give you real-world experience. While most good programs are changing this by requiring in-field practicums during your last semester, for the majority of your schooling, you’re solving problems in the safety of your classroom, not in the complexities of a policy-making environment. This by no means precludes you from finding an internship or gaining work experience to complement your studies, but if you’re really looking for hands-on field work, you won’t find it sitting at a desk in a classroom.
2. You’re already surrounded by smart policy people
Once you’ve got a basic grasp of the skills, being a great policy person only happens with time. And if you’re already in a policy-focused environment, soak up what you can from those around you. An MPP is a very practical degree that teaches logical, obvious lessons. They’re conveniently packaged up in a syllabus, and presented in thoughtful fashion—but they’re also lessons you can learn on the job with a really great mentor. Getting an MPP isn’t a requirement for a policy job, being a thoughtful analyst is, and with the right experience, you can get there on your own.
3. You want to be an expert
MPPers aren't experts on anything. We are well-versed in politics, policy, economics, and statistics, but we can't knock any one of those subjects out of the park. Often, the work we do requires calling in an actual expert. MPPers are good at communicating with said experts and making sense of what they’re saying (see #2 on the “good” list) and we’re great at synthesizing a number of different types of expert-level work. But we still need a PhD in economics to run a tax reform plan through a macroeconomic model.
In a nutshell: A Master of Public Policy is a useful degree that’ll give you the skills you need to succeed if you want to work in consulting or for a government department. It will do wonders for your ability to digest and communicate a lot of information, and to think broadly about the challenges facing our cities and country today. That said, it won’t typically lead you to expertise-status or, well, a lot of money. So, do your research, talk to people, and make sure it’s the right move for you.
About The Author
Cameron Smith is a Washington, DC based policy nerd, currently managing a small think tank. When she can spare a moment, she enjoys live music, delicious food, and the great outdoors. Shoot her a tweet with your favorite recipe or economic data release @smithcameron.