By Malcolm Morse

I’m sure many have received this question in one form or another from friends, family, and strangers with whom we engage in friendly conversation. So what are you going to do with that MPA degree once you’re finished? Wagner School of Public Policy? So that’s government, right? And of course, my personal favorite—Urban Planning? What’s that? I know some of my readers’ eyes are rolling to the back of their heads right now. Trust me. Mine are too. However, the truth of the matter is that the purpose of public policy graduate programs is vague at best and we cannot blame our loved ones for not understanding it or knowing what kind of employment lies in wait for us at the end of the program. To be honest, many of us as students don’t really know.

Three years ago, the Washington Post published an online article entitled The Problem with Public Policy Schools that gives a historical account of mission creep by American public policy schools and critiques their shortcomings and limitations. Simply put, the needs of government change with the goals of the current administration. Public policy schools were created after President Franklin Roosevelt proposed his New Deal agenda, which greatly expanded government as it tried to hit two birds with one stone by providing employment and improving the nation’s infrastructure during the Great Depression. It was thought that in order to have an effective bureaucracy, employees must be trained in government. To handle complex undertakings during post war America like building an interstate highway system, which took public-private partnerships and coordination between all levels of government, the country needed people with training in this particular kind of problem-solving. Fast forward to the 70s where major social issues revolved around questions of civil rights and quality of life, the mission of public policy schools expanded its narrow focus on intragovernmental relations to include “making the world a better place.” With these shifts in focus, schools encouraged more research on national and international issues and less concentration on the day-to-day operation of government and local issues.

Of course, a simple response is that public service schools adequately prepare students for a career in public service, but even this assertion is contested. On one hand, some make the argument that their MPA or MPP—sadly not much mention of MUP—has allowed them to earn more over the length of their careers and distinguish themselves among their non-degreed peers. Apparently, graduate programs provide students with expertise in a broader context that is difficult to capture through work experience, which allows for more “out-of-the-box” problem-solving. On the other hand, there are detractors that claim public policy schools are not worthwhile because other professional degree programs (i.e. J.D., M.D., and MBA) better prepare people who wish to pursue public service careers within those specific fields. Wherever you land on this issue, it all depends—like most things—on your personal graduate experience.

Photo by Raphael Koh