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 Columbia’s SIPA, and also because I went through Harvard’s MPA/ID program 2000-02, before going on to do an economics PhD. (For those who are unfamiliar, the program is similar to a standard MPA, but with a heavy emphasis on international development–hence the “ID”–and on advanced economic analysis.)
The most common question I receive is “what 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.
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 those places, but exercise caution if the institution graduates hundreds of people a year with loads of debt.
In the US, however, MPA, MPP and some MIA programs tend to be great terminal Master’s degrees with good job prospects, even if many people end up with some debt. I honestly don’t know the difference between MPA, MPP and MIA. I don’t think there is a systematic one, but rather it varies by school. As an employer myself, I don’t distinguish a great deal between them.
As far as I can tell, the elite 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, SAIS, and Tufts. If you are interested in the foreign service and diplomacy, I imagine Georgetown should be on the list too. 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 modest experience, 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. But that’s not always the case. Especially in other countries that subsidize grad school.
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 schools is not all that great. If your choice is between elite institutions (e.g. Harvard and SAIS) then I would go where you get funding, because the difference in quality is not that different, and in my opinion a brand is not worth $50k 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.
For instance, Columbia has the Economic and Political Development concentration (where I teach) and the related Development Practice masters, which has a more “sustainable development” focus, which integrates some science and health study.
Berkeley, LSE, Princeton, SAIS, Tufts, and many others also have new development-focused programs. (Note: even if there isn’t a development-specific program at a policy or public administration school, you can usually construct one easily.)
With MPA/MPP/MIA degrees, another thing to keep in mind is that each school has a slightly different focus and career trajectory, partly because of location or the faculty mix. These schools are so big and diverse you can do anything there, and I barely know half of what we do even in SIPA.
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, the 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. 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.
The elite schools will tend to be more academic. You’re more likely, I think, to be taught by eminent research scholars than day-to-day practitioners. This is an advantage to some and a disadvantage to others, and so your call again. Frankly every school is a big mix, so it’s hard to generalize, and you can probably get whatever you want out of them by picking and choosing teachers carefully.
Some programs, like Harvard’s ID program, are especially math-intensive, in that you do something approaching first-year coursework in PhD economics (but not quite). 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, an ID-like program, 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). Some discriminate against it. 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.