What MA, MPA, or MIA program is for you?

Updated June 2016.

I get a lot of questions about Masters programs in Arts (MA), Public Administration or Policy (MPA or MPP), and international affairs (MIA) programs, both because I teach at University of Chicago’s Harris School, used to teach at Columbia University’s SIPA, and also because I went through Harvard Kennedy School’s MPA/ID program 2000-02, before going on to do an economics PhD at UC Berkeley.

The most common question I’m asked: “What master’s program should I do?”

First, in the US I would be cautious with simple MA programs in political science and economics. These are usually money-making programs for the school and core faculty are seldom involved. There are exceptions, but I don’t know what ones are good or not. Since I’ve spent years teaching and on admissions committees at many good schools, that alone should tell you something about these MA programs.

In response to questions for foreign readers: In some countries, such as the UK and some European countries, MA programs seem to be taken more seriously on the job market, or are a prerequisite for entry into a PhD. I honestly can’t speak to the European market, but exercise caution if the institution graduates hundreds of people a year with loads of debt.

In the US, however, I think that policy schools (MPA, MPP and some MIA programs) tend to offer great terminal Master’s degrees with good job prospects, even if many people graduate with debt. I honestly don’t know the difference between an MPA, MPP and MIA. I don’t think there is a systematic. Rather it varies by school. As an employer myself, I don’t distinguish a great deal between them. Instead I focus on the quality of the training.

I’m especially excited about the MACRM program here at UChicago’s Harris Public Policy, if you are looking for a Master’s degree with intense research methods training as well as content specialization. Check it out.

As far as I can tell, the elite policy schools have higher rates of entry into the major international institutions and NGOs. There are a number of elite schools in the US, and the ones with an established strength in international development strike me as Harvard, Princeton, Columbia, Johns Hopkins SAIS, Georgetown (both SFS and McCourt), Tufts, UCSD, and maybe UC Berkeley. And, more recently, Chicago’s Harris school (more on that below). For domestic US policy it may be a very different list — I actually don’t know.

Even so, I imagine job prospects are good among many programs, and that after a few years it does not matter much. But I also think that careers are path dependent, and that a better first job could lead you on a different, higher, faster-paced trajectory.

In the end, this means that eliteness is more valuable for ambitious people who have some work experience, are newly entering the non-profit or public sectors, or are looking for a change in career or country. If you have a long CV in these sectors, plan to hold onto an established job, or want a life rather than a career in the fast lane, then the eliteness of the institution matters much less.

The elite and richer schools in the US also tend to have more money, and so there’s a greater chance of getting funding, especially at Princeton (which is free).

This funding question is important, because with a few exceptions, I would probably recommend going where you get the most funding, since the quality difference across these elite schools is not all that great. If your choice is between Harvard, Harris, SIPA, and SAIS then I would go where you get funding, because the difference in quality is not that different, and in my opinion even the Harvard brand is not worth $50-100k in debt. If you’re choosing between an elite and non-elite school, it could be worth the debt if you have some of the traits or interests above. It’s a tough call, and only you can make it.

For development-focused people, the MPA/ID program was for a short while the “it” program. A few years ago, before joining SIPA, I blogged about the pros and cons of the ID program here. The field of schools is much more competitive in development these days, and all the elite schools I mentioned now have programs that give you very good quantitative training. I would say the most technically rigorous training are any of the Harris School’s master programs and Harvard’s MPA/ID program.

With MPA/MPP/MIA degrees, another thing to keep in mind is that each school is so big and diverse that you can do whatever you want. But each also has a slightly different focus and career trajectory, partly because of location or the faculty mix.

For instance, in the field of development, the Washington schools tend to feature a lot more DC connections and jobs, New York schools are connected to the UN, SIPA has much more of a political and diplomatic and microeconomic focus than most of the others, Harvard’s MPA/ID program leans to the macroeconomic side and seems to send a lot of people into the big international financial institutions and other economics-focused development, and Tufts has a bigger focus on humanitarian and human rights work.

Chicago’s Harris School focuses on incredibly rigorous social science training (such as program evaluation and applied economic theory), and is building one of the strongest political economy of development groups in the country. In addition to me, the international development/security scholars include Jim Robinson, Konstantin Sonin, Ethan Bueno de Mesquita, Roger Myerson, Oeindrila Dube, Austin Wright, Michael Greenstone, Anjali Adukia, Ofer Malamud, and Alicia Menendez. More are joining every year.

Harris is also a great place to study urban issues, crime, education, health, and political economy. The Pearson Institute for the Study and Resolution of Global Conflicts, where I sit, is a hub for issues of conflict and good governance. The Crime Lab is an amazing resource, as is the Economics and Political science departments and the Booth School. Besides the MPP program (which the right choice for most people) there is also the intense methods training available fro the the MACRM program.

I don’t know a lot about UK or European programs, but I assume these are much more likely to lead into UN and government/foreign service positions in the EU and UK.

Some programs, like Harvard’s ID program or the Harris School, are especially math-intensive, in that you learn fairly advanced economics and statistics. Others (like SIPA) give you the option to take a more advanced math/economics track. Are these programs substitutes for a PhD? Not if you want to be a professional researcher, in my opinion. If you’d like to end up in a Ministry of Finance, central bank, or an international financial institution then you will want an economics PhD or ensure that the institution you attend will offer an advanced microeconomics and macroeconomics sequence that teaches from one of the PhD-level textbooks. A syllabus will tell you this.

Last point: Are these programs a stepping stone to a PhD? They are not designed to be. And PhD admissions committees I have been on don’t necessarily prefer Master’s recipients to people with a simple BA and interesting work experience (especially research experience). In economics, some discriminate against it. Political science is more permissive. But if your undergraduate grades were not superb, or in a different discipline, then some kind of Master’s (especially at an elite research institution) will likely improve your chances of PhD admission. This is the route I chose. See my general PhD admissions advice here.

Hope this helps. Questions about these programs I didn’t address? Comments from your own experience? Please put in comments.