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Public Administration Careers: The Top Jobs for Master’s Graduates

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Those interested in pursuing a career in public administration can find a variety of roles in the public, nonprofit and even private sectors.

This article was originally published by USC Online on May 24, 2023.

MPA student professionals

Those working in the field of public administration are able to make positive, lasting impacts on their communities — and even the world at large.

With roles throughout the public, nonprofit and private sectors, public administration offers a variety of avenues to improve civic engagement and social responsibility.

Plus, individuals who earn a Master of Public Administration are especially well-equipped to enact change, as the degree prepares students to become more effective and thoughtful leaders.

To learn more about the top career paths in public administration, the potential job responsibilities, the salary expectations for roles, and more, we spoke with USC Price School of Public Policy online faculty Dora Kingsley Vertenten and Tara Blanc.

What Is Public Administration?

Public administration is a broad field, but overall, it is designed to build, serve and strengthen communities and execute measures that support those goals.

In many ways, it’s similar to business administration, although by definition, public administration focuses on public services, creating laws and regulations, and making those policies a reality with a focus on management for the public good and private sector organizations.

This means that Public administration employees can work effectively in government — whether that’s local, state or federal — or for nonprofits, non-government organizations (NGOs) or other mission-focused companies.

How to Get into Public Administration

To break into the public administration field, you don’t need to obtain a specific undergraduate degree. While there are bachelor’s programs in public administration, plenty of students choose to pursue complementary degrees focused on business administration, political science, urban planning or other policy-related concentrations.

Then, it’s all about finding a position that will kick-start your career and teach you the skills needed to thrive in the field. Employers tend to look for candidates who are able to problem solve, handle a broad array of responsibilities and care for their community, Blanc noted, as well as display concrete skills like policy analysis and balancing a budget.

At this point, however, if you want to move further up the ladder, you will want to consider a graduate degree in public administration.

A master’s degree isn’t a necessity for a career in public administration, but it will certainly support your career advancement and help you develop skills to become a strong, impactful leader.

“It’s generally preferable for people who are seeking leadership positions: police or fire chiefs, city managers, county managers, agency heads, those kinds of positions,” said Blanc, an associate professor in the Master of Public Administration (MPA) program online. “A master’s in public administration is particularly desirable for those kinds of leadership positions.”

Blanc noted that most of the students in the MPA program online are actually employed in the field already, but they’re hoping to take on additional responsibilities and land future promotions. Of course, they also want to make a real difference in their communities.

“Our students come from a wide variety of institutions and backgrounds, and I think the only commonality they have, other than being bright and ambitious, is a desire to serve the public,” explained Kingsley, MPA online professor and faculty director.

With the master’s degree in hand, graduates are able to become the managers, directors and leaders they desire, and they’ll also be trained in the necessary analytical and policy-making skills to thrive in their roles.

“If you want to be a department chair, if you want to be an assistant city manager, if you want to run your agency, if you want to be leadership in your nonprofit, a master’s degree is really a credible education that says you have the leadership skills and the communication skills and the analytic skills to do those jobs,” Kingsley added.

What Are the Top Careers in Public Administration?

Anyone who graduates from a public service degree program has a wide variety of jobs available, and most of the opportunities will be predicated on where your interests lie, explained Blanc.

Students go on to work in all kinds of fields, including transportation, parks and recreation, education, public health, emergency management, housing development and other public works.

MPA online graduates go on to become (among much more):

  • City managers
  • Strategic planning directors
  • Directors of community development
  • Policy analysts
  • Public policy advocates
  • Department directors
  • Emergency responders
  • Lawmakers
  • Military leadership

The program also attracts a number of first responders, like police officers and firefighters, who want to move up in their particular area of service.

“Instead of concentrating on the first line responder responsibilities and skills, they’re looking to gain leadership, management and organizational skills that they can take to be promoted up the chain of command.”

Government employees at the city and county levels are another large makeup of the program, due to the MPA online’s two certificate tracks: City and County Management and Public Policy.

“There are a lot of students who are interested in positions in city and county government, whether it’s agency heads, city manager positions, county manager positions or others. Many people work in municipal jurisdictions … [and] nonprofit sector. We have students who are in the military who are preparing for either moving up in their career or preparing for [civilian] life,” she said.

What is the Public Administration Salary for Master’s Graduates?

Like any field, the compensation you can expect to receive in a public administration position varies, and there are multiple factors that can influence your salary. Those circumstances include your background and experience level, the job location, the employer and the role requirements.

Management analysts, for example, make an average of anywhere between $60,000 and $150,000 per year, while city managers can earn between $75,000 and $750,000, according to industry averages from USC Price experts.

But again, those numbers don’t necessarily reflect what you’ll find when you enter the job market — and a master’s degree will only help you achieve a higher paycheck.

The Bottom Line

Public administration is a great career path for those who want to make a positive, tangible impact on their communities. There are plenty of job opportunities in a variety of areas, too, whether you prefer numbers and budgeting, policy analysis, emergency management or nonprofit work.

Ultimately, though, if you want to advance in public administration, a master’s degree will give you the experience and knowledge to reach that vital next step in your career.

But how do you know if an MPA is the right fit for you? The answer is that if you want to make a difference in the world, are passionate about helping others, and enjoy finding the best solution to a complicated problem, you’ll likely enjoy any public administration role.

“Because the nature of public administration has become pretty demanding, I think it takes people who have the ability to be somewhat self-directed, who have the capacity to think critically and diagnose problems and really step up,” Kingsley said. “This is a field in which you’ll thrive and make a difference.”

Read the original story on USC Online.

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