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

Updated October 2017.

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 biased, but I’m especially excited about two programs at UChicago Harris: the MPP and the MACRM. The Harris MPP is unusual in that it gives you both economic and game theory/political economy training. I think these are extremely important skills. The MACRM is targeted at people looking for a Master’s degree with intense research methods training as well as content specialization. It’s a PhD preparation program. 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. Read about the Harris PhD here.

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

38 thoughts on “What MA, MPA, or MIA program is for you?

  1. Chris
    There are hard core economics Masters level programs like the M.Sc. (Econ) at the LSE, which are also an option for many (my co-students, when i did it where mostly Americans)

  2. Hi Chris, would be very interested to hear your thoughts about courses like MSc in Public Management and Governance at the LSE, or MPP at Oxford? Are the career trajectories significantly different for these degrees?

  3. Any recommendations for a certificate program or a program that allows auditing of courses in statistics/quantitative data analysis for someone who works in international development? Bonus points if it’s offered online.

  4. The great Breakthrough in your life comes when you realize it that you can learn anything you need to learn to accomplish any goal that you set for yourself.This means there are no limits on what you can be, have or do.

  5. Amen for the recommendation about deciding based on price! Hiring a lot of folks these programs, it seems like the financial situation after school has almost as much career effect as the school – especially since the top programs are all pretty similar. The level of savings and debt at graduation affect whether you can hold out for a low-paid dream job, or settle for something else.

  6. Doesn’t Princeton WWS fund all the people it admits these days? I thought that was part of their whole public service sales pitch since it allows people to graduate without debt and not have to take high-paying jobs to pay it off.

  7. Hi Chris, What is your general opinion of applied economics/ agricultural economics programs with a specialization in ID? I’m specifically thinking of the programs at Cornell, Michigan State University, and Purdue?

  8. After working from 2006 to 2013 in emergency humanitarian relief, I’ve just begun an MPA at Central European University’s new School of Public Policy. One concentration area is Human Security and Sustainable Development. Economic Analysis, Quantitative and Qualitative Research Methods, and the Policy Process are all core components of the education. And the school offers a more diverse community / learning environment than many of the existing programs you mention which tend to be single-country centric educational institutions. (http://spp.ceu.hu/content/study-spp).

  9. I went to the Graduate Institute Geneva (http://graduateinstitute.ch/home.html), where many students were on full scholarships and even for those that weren’t the costs were low (2,500 USD/year). I did a one-semester exchange in the US and that convinced me that although the experience and learning were slightly better in the US, it was nowhere near enough to justify the huge costs (like 20% better versus at least 1000% the cost). Finishing school out of debt (in profit!) enabled me to take an admin job at an NGO, which quickly turned into a more substantive job that I find fulfilling. Many friends from the US were forced to take private-sector jobs just to pay off their loans. As a bonus, I finished up fluent in French, and the presence of the UN in the same town was handy for doing internships alongside studying.

  10. Beef – that’s correct, WWS’ funding is extremely generous. The exceptions to the full funding are generally those who have funding already from elsewhere or are independently wealthy. I’ve heard a lot re: graduates of other programs having to find jobs in consulting or something else that pays very well because of their debt burden, but with WWS that isn’t the case; it’s an amazing program.

  11. I know you’re based in the US, but something I find very frustrating as an Australian, is how US/Euro-centric any online discussions on this topic (grad degrees for development career) – I’m sure many other people from outside of these locations do too. Do you think this reflects the larger presence (and population, obviously) of US/UK/Europeans in the development sphere? Or do potential employers really value degrees from these locations more? Australians (and I’m sure others) are entitled to subsidised fees and low interest loans which makes it rather attractive to study at home rather than abroad. Any suggestions on Australian courses, other non-UK/US/Euro courses, or selection criteria that can be applied to any course regardless of location?

  12. A lot of people have asked my thoughts about programs in other countries, or non-elite institutions in the US. I’ve updated my post to be a bit more clear and discuss the strengths and weaknesses. So see above.

    To be honest, I really don’t know anything about any of the UK or European Masters programs. They don’t have a high profile in the US. But I’ve hired several people from the UK (Oxford, Bath, etc) and the eliteness of the institution, or how it compares to an elite US institution, was not high in my mind.

  13. The Oxford MSc in Economics for Development is probably worth a plug. They teach pretty hardcore econ, but there are also lots of senior faculty around with policy experience, and job/phd placement seems to be pretty good.

  14. I see you’ve mentioned the Columbia Development Practice masters. While occuring at Columba, the MDP is actually also happening at several other schools across the globe. I’m currently just over halfway done with the program, and I’d love to hear an outsider’s perspective on it!

  15. Georgetown recently started an MA in Global Human Development (run out of their School of Foreign Service). Any thoughts on that? Are more established programs a better idea than new ones?

  16. Chris, since you teach at SIPA and the Columbia MDP is there as well, could you share your thoughts as to the differences you see between the two programs? And, as a researcher in the field, how do you and your peers view and interact with MDP graduates?

  17. Chris, do you think that the MPA/ID has better curriculum and job placement than WWS MPA (field iv)? Which program would you say is perceived as strongest by the market (including organizations such as the WB)

  18. Chris, your thoughts on the value of a Phd in Public Policy? Other than probably being more academic inclined does it send out signals vastly different from an MPA/MPP degree?

  19. Chris, although having MPA/MPP/MIA degrees (as you mentioned) do not necessarily give you a leg up in the admissions process for a PhD program, will some prestigious PhD programs focused on international affairs allow admitted students who have previously earned MPA/MPP/MIA degrees to consequently have their total time required to complete the PhD reduced? Do you by chance know of any schools off hand that will allow admitted students to do this?

  20. Thank you so much for this information. I sincerely appreciate it. I am far from being a mathematician and this information helped serve as a lighthouse for me. I sincerely appreciate your time in drafting this article for the general public. All the best.

  21. Chris, how do you feel about Georgetown’s new Master in International Development Policy as compared to SIPA’s MIA-EPD. Any thoughts on newer/smaller programs?

  22. Hi Chris,

    Thanks for this article. Its very informative. Do you think that the SIPA MPA gives the same policy analysis skills as an MPP program (I’m looking at Duke’s and U Chicago Harris). Those MPP programs have Policy Analysis courses embedded in the core, in addition to the standard economics and quantitative analysis sequences. I don’t see a comparable course in the MPA at SIPA, so I’m wondering if there’s less emphasis there on general policy analysis skills.

    Thanks!

  23. Dear fellows

    thanks for all your comments about best MA program. Since Im not a EU/US citizen and reading that there are 3 o 4 best MA ID schools in US, and some more in UK, I would like to know about ID programs in Holland specially the MA program of development studies in economics for development of ISS. Has anybody have attended that school program? Would like to hear about your personal opinion. Also what european MA program in ID would you recommend besides UK schools?

    Thanks for your answers

  24. I was led to this site by your vox.com article. Here’s my two cents worth after over 50 years in university education.

    Rule #1 for looking at grad schools: Unless you can clearly see a job at the end of your grad degree that will allow you to recover the complete cost of the degree within 5 years, never ever use your own money to pay for the degree. If you aren’t offered a full scholarship, at minimum, or fellowship or assistantship, don’t go to grad school or any other post-grad program! Why? All grad programs have some kind of full aid to offer prospective students. If such aid is not offered to you, a decision has already been made about your future in the field. BELIEVE IT. All the degree will do is burden you with debt. I have no sympathy whatsoever for college grads with a lot of debt. Educational debt comes from only one source: bad choices. Even if you get bad advice, you should always ask many sources when you future is involved.

    Rule #2: If you have an honestly good academic record and references (Be brutal here. Don’t believe all those “A”s you got for weak courses.), apply to a variety of grad schools, from excellent to so-so. Why? Whether you get accepted at any one school is a crap shoot and says nothing about your qualifications. The more you apply to, the better your chances of getting full aid. And sometime you hit the jackpot– full aid at one of the best. If none of your schools offer full aid, see Rule #1.

    Rule #3: Your final academic reputation depends on your last position, so always apply to a lot of good programs. Just because you received a BA from a middling state school doesn’t mean that a much better school won’t want you. Remember lotteries always have winners.

  25. Dear Chris,
    Thank you for this informative article. I personally need your valuable opinion for the next step in my career: my graduate studies. I have always knew that I wanted to work in the UN and be involved in the lives of children in war countries. With this in mind, I have applied and succeed in securing a place at NYU (master in international relations) and at Georgetown (master in public policy). The MPP offers a solid quantitative background in policy analysis, whereas the MIR offers a more theoretical approach to policy analysis. NYU’s has this competitive edge of being close to the UN headquarter while Georgetown in at the heart of DC with many opportunities for networking. Also, NYU has a stronger presence in the World (WEbometrics). I highly trust your opinion and would really like to know which master you think I will benefit the most from.

    PS: I applied to the MIA at SIPA but didn’t get in.

    Thank you so much for your time.

  26. Hey,
    That was a very valuable article and i am glad I came across it.
    I wanted to ask you is a degree MA political Science worth it?
    I have two choices
    MA political Science and MA in international Peace and Conflict Resolution. Which one would you recommend me?
    Thank you so much

  27. Hi Chris,

    Thank you for such a perceptive article. I understand that you have more knowledge about US rather than UK institutions. However, I still thought you might be able to guide me. I am planning to apply to LSE, University of Manchester and Sussex for Development Studies. However, King’s College London has recently started 3 programs: Political Economy of Emerging Markets, Emerging Markets and International Dvelopment, and Emerging Markets and Inclusive Development. Their international Development department specialises in middle-income countries, which is exactly what I want to do since I am from India. I am not sure that the International Development department at King’s is as reputed as at the other UK universities I mentioned above. However, do you think it is a good idea to specialise in emerging markets or getting a general degree in International Development is better in terms of career options? Are there any universities in USA that offer development-oriented programs in Emerging Markets?

  28. Hi Chris, Thanks for this informative article.

    Do you have any thoughts on people switching tracks. I.e. from finance to an international relations degree? What are some things to keep in mind? I applied last year and I got rejected. Maybe because my reasons for switching were not convincing. Any thoughts/observations on this?

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  30. Hello Chris,
    Any opinions on Stanford’s International Policy Studies program? And Yale’s Global Affairs?

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  32. Hi Chris, doubt you still read these but it be epic if you did! heres a curveball of a question – Should I just learn to Code over getting my MPA/MIA if I like coding better or at all?

    TL:DR version —

    Hi, I am a former International Development student (J Korbel 2012 w00t!!) turned web developer that could really use some advice. I really just want to make a positive impact on the world and not starve. I have a particular interest in M&E.

    Along those lines, what would you recommend as a next career step? Become a kick ass programmer? masters in M&E? Both?

    Longer story —

    My international studies degree didnt yield a job, and long story short I ended up getting super in to tech. I just spent the last year learning to code on nights and weekends, and I just got my first job as a python developer. Basically, I am just waking up from a year spent trying to just get on my feet and pay rent, and have come out the other end with a neat skill-set. So I need to know – Is this the skillset to focus on to do good, or should I go back to school for a Masters of some kind? what organizations use programmers for good, and is coding a top skill set they still need, or no?

    I have interests in economics, data science and just pure programming, and as previously stated a big interest in international development and doing good in general.

    So in summary, what would you tell me to do? Personal experience and data are +s

  33. Thank you very much for your informative article. I am currently considering whether to apply for a MACRM program or MSCAPP program at UChicago Harris. And I would be very interested to hear your thoughts about these programs.

  34. Thank you very much for your informative article. I am currently considering whether to apply for a MACRM program or MSCAPP program at UChicago Harris. And I would be very interested to hear your thoughts about these programs.

  35. Another terrific program for those who are interested in development and want to build their quantitative analysis and research skills is the Master’s in International and Development Economics (IDEC) at the University of San Francisco. USF has a great development-centric econ faculty, and the IDEC program includes three graduate-level econometrics classes and a summer field research component in which students collect primary data for their own theses, and often co-author papers with faculty. It sets students up well for Ph.D. programs or for work as an econometrically savvy development practitioner. The fact that it is in SF is the cherry on top. I’m a current student and feel GREAT about the investment I’ve made. Aside from the non-elite name, the IDEC program at USF has everything that you would want in a Master’s program if your goal is to build a career in international development.

  36. Hi Chris,

    I’m currently considering the MA – IDP at Harris @ University of Chicago. However I’ve also read your concerns of MA programs. How do you view your own program – acknowledging the bias of your current tenure? Do you think it avoids the traditional pitfalls.

  37. I wanted to know if choosing the MPA route at SIPA, with a specialization in Economic Policy, would be a better option then choosing an MSc in Economics at Georgetown University. I know the SIPA name is pretty established, but I know that quantitative skills and analysis are very important nowadays, so will I be forsaking that if I don’t do the MSc in Economic?

    Also, any thought on McCourt?