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MPA vs. MBA: Which Degree Is Best for Your Career Path?

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While both an MBA and MPA focus on management skills and crucial business knowledge, they have two separate and distinct career outcomes.

For those who want to become managers and leaders, a master’s degree can equip them with the knowledge, skill sets and career opportunities to make major impacts in their fields.

Still, many are torn between pursuing two possible degree paths: a Master of Business Administration (MBA) or a Master of Public Administration (MPA).

Both programs focus on management skills as well as crucial aspects of business — such as finance, organizational behavior and strategy — but ultimately, they have two distinct aims and outcomes.

To get a better sense of how an MPA can support your career goals or whether an MBA is the right choice for your next step, we spoke with experts from the USC Price School of Public Policy and USC Marshall School of Business.

What Do You Learn in an MPA Program?

Individuals seeking a master’s degree in public administration typically aspire to address widespread societal challenges.

“In the study of public administration, we help people to learn ways of thinking about public problems, the nature of public problems and how we can find ways of solving them,” explained Yan Tang, chair of the Department of Public Policy and Management.

While these issues are usually tackled through proposing and enacting policies, that doesn’t necessarily mean someone studying public administration needs to chase a position in the White House.

“It’s not just working in the federal government to solve those problems. We have close to 90,000 different government entities in the U.S., including the federal, state, city, county, special district and school district levels,” he expanded.

Those who do not work directly within government agencies may instead find roles at nonprofit organizations or corporations dedicated to influencing policy outcomes.

“Some of our students do go into the private sector, but usually their primary goal is to work in a way that affects public affairs. Most students are interested in organizations, whether public, non-profit or private, that operate in the public affairs field, focusing on issues like the environment, social policy or social welfare issues,” added Juliet Ann Musso, USC Price vice dean for graduate programs and MPA program director.

Those who study in the online MPA program at USC Price can expect to take classes like “Fundamentals of Public Administration,” “Economics for Public Policy” and “Public Financial Management and Budgeting.”

Networking and real-world experience are also key themes in the program, all of which culminate in the program’s capstone, where students consult with senior decision-makers from local and state government, nonprofit organizations, criminal justice, federal agencies, private sector firms and key public sector service providers.

Upon completion of an MPA program, students successfully develop their leadership acumen, gain insights into the ethical considerations with policymaking, and grasp other important facets of government administration and public services. Plus, if you are seeking to enter the field of public administration, you will need to get a master’s degree in order to qualify for the majority of positions, Tang said.

“Basically, everybody in the field has a master’s degree now. So even if it doesn’t say you need it to get the job, you’ll want it because the hiring managers look for it since it’s so standard. It’s not on paper required, but it’s expected,” he explained.

Musso agreed that the master’s degree is essentially a prerequisite for securing employment, adding that the program also truly prepares individuals to thrive in the field.

“There are skills that one learns in a master’s degree program that can be difficult to learn on the job. Think financial analysis and other analytic skills, for example, including higher level writing and research skills. It’s not necessarily something that you can get through on-the-job training, so it helps sharpen your skill set and provide higher-level skills that make you more effective,” Musso said.

What Do You Learn in an MBA Program?

In an MBA program, students will focus on learning about business strategy and operations to thrive in the private sector.

“First and foremost, an MBA imparts the knowledge and skills needed to understand how businesses operate and succeed. And given that business is one of the primary modes of getting things done in the modern world, that knowledge and those skills are invaluable. Beyond that, pursuing an MBA affords opportunities for career advancement and transition (i.e., pivoting from one industry or function to another), networking and personal growth,” explained Leigh Tost, the vice dean for MBA programs at USC Marshall.

Those who opt for an MBA learn how to become leaders in businesses, corporations and other entrepreneurial ventures. Students can expect to develop strengths in making decisions that drive profits, developing strategies for business innovation and cultivating corporate responsibility.

Students entering the online MBA program at USC Marshall will find the “program covers all of the fundamentals of business in the core curriculum. You’ll learn accounting, finance, data science and statistics, leadership fundamentals, team management, marketing, operations, business strategy and more,” Tost said.

Students enroll in courses such as “Opportunity Recognition and Implementation,” “Managing Outside the Firm” and “Business Environment and Leadership.” Additionally, graduates will learn how to make effective decisions that are informed by data and numbers, added Miriam Burgos, academic director of the online MBA program and associate vice dean for teaching and innovation.

“In an MBA program, there’s a focus on making research-supported, data-driven decisions. An MBA prepares students for leadership scenarios where they will be expected to solve problems using a multi-functional approach – one that takes into account various business disciplines, including marketing, finance, HR and related areas. In an MBA program, you really understand the different functional areas of a company in a way that prepares you to make decisions holistically and strategically,” she explained.

Although not mandatory to work in business, an MBA significantly enhances professionals’ opportunities for career progression in the field.

“An MBA degree elevates graduates’ career options to more strategic and leadership-oriented roles in any type of organization — business, government or non-profit,” Tost said.

The MBA differs from an MPA because, while they focus on similar skills, an MBA tends to be more geared toward those who want to work in the private sector rather than the public.

Career Opportunities With an MPA

There are all kinds of roles that open up with an MPA. Naturally, the majority focus on working within the public sector. They include:

  • Government administrator
  • Policy analyst
  • NGO management
  • Leader at an international aid organization
  • Urban planner
  • Consultant
  • Health care administrator
  • Environmental policy analyst
  • Public finance analyst
  • Human resources manager for a public agency

These types of roles are a great fit for anyone who wants a job that is focused primarily on enhancing public good.

Career Opportunities With an MBA

With an MBA, there are several types of jobs that are available across a multitude of industries, including:

  • Business manager
  • Investment banker
  • Consultant
  • Financial analyst
  • Marketing manager
  • Supply chain manager
  • Human resources manager
  • Healthcare administrator
  • CFO
  • CEO

These leadership roles can be found at various corporations, including banks, fashion brands, movie studios, airplane lines, food products and more.

Should You Get an MBA or an MPA?

Ultimately, both the MBA and the MPA programs offer valuable preparation for aspiring leaders, imparting a comprehensive knowledge base in financial principles, business organization and strategic management.

Nonetheless, if you harbor aspirations of working in the public sector or assuming policy-based roles, then you may find the MPA program is better aligned with your career objectives.

“Someone who will succeed in public administration is someone who has an innovative way of looking at public problems so that you are solution focused. Instead of bemoaning the state of affairs, you want to actually improve organizations, communities or the lives of others. There’s this kind of spirit of improvement that people take into this particular career set,” Musso said.

If you are more interested, however, in entering the private sector and supporting the growth of businesses and corporations, the MBA program may be a better fit for your long-term goals.

“I think folks who are strategic thinkers and who can lead with empathy, who are concerned about improving their emotional intelligence and not just their business acumen, really thrive in the MBA classroom because they are positioning themselves to become very successful leaders,” Burgos concluded.

Read the original article by USC Online.

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