The idea of going to grad school is exciting. For many master’s degree seekers, it means becoming a student again after years in the workforce, the opportunity to advance in your career or transition into a new one, and a chance to better yourself. But the application process itself can be intimidating, especially in the highly complex field of public service. How do you know which degree or is right for you? Or which school? Here are five basic tips that will help you realistically evaluate your options, prepare for the graduate school application process, and make the decision that will help you best achieve your goals:
1. Evaluate Your Degree Options Before selecting particular graduate schools to apply to, make sure that you understand all the degree options relevant to your professional interests. For those interested in public service, the two primary degree options are a Masters of Public Administration and a Masters of Public Policy. Coursework for the two degrees overlaps significantly, as do potential job options. However, MPA programs emphasize program implementation and public management, while MPP programs emphasize policy analysis and design. While these two degrees do not lead to mutually exclusive job options, you should still seriously consider which career path interests you the most.
2. Understand the Career Opportunities Once you have chosen your desired degree, research the realistic career opportunities for MPA graduates. Be conscious of the difference between entry-level opportunities and jobs that you might attain after gaining years of experience. For instance, some positions may require an MPA, but you may also need other key qualifications in order to even be considered for the job. Mid-level managerial positions at a local, state, or federal government agency or a nonprofit organization are more realistic possibilities for newly-minted MPAs, while a few years of experience will lead to opportunities for further advancement. Regardless of what degree you seek, a range of possibilities should be open to you upon graduation.
3. Determine the Requirements In addition to a bachelor’s degree and the desire to better yourself, every graduate program has some requirements for admission. Specifics vary from school to school, but most schools will have relatively similar requirements for entry into a given degree program. Most MPA programs, for example, will require a bachelor’s degree with some coursework in American government or politics, a GPA in the A or B range, and GMAT or GRE scores within a given bracket. Although many schools do not state precise requirements (and some allow a degree of flexibility for exceptional candidates), looking at statistical profiles of accepted students should reveal expectations.
4. Evaluate Schools Finding the right graduate school is a different process for every individual. Among the schools that offer your degree of choice, you will have to look closely at factors like school ranking, tuition, funding, location, culture, and faculty. Many applicants find themselves intensely attracted to the most prestigious institutions in their field, but other factors often have greater influence over a student’s satisfaction and academic engagement. Choosing a place you really believe you can happily be a part of for two or three years, and where you will comfortably connect with other students and faculty is wiser than choosing a big-name school on reflex. If you are unable to relocate to attend graduate school on campus, online MPA programs such as University of North Carolina’s MPA@UNC can provide you with the same degree as students who complete the school’s on-campus program.
5. Meet with Admissions Counselors, Students, and Graduates Once you have selected a small range of target schools, you will want to talk to the people who know those institutions best. This will help you to get a clear picture of what to emphasize in your application, what to expect once you are admitted, and how to plan for your future beyond graduation. Ideally, you will be accepted into several programs and have the ability to choose the program that is best for you. Although it can be flattering to receive phone calls or emails from program representatives trying to persuade you to attend their institution, it is important to always keep your goals and priorities at the forefront of your mind and base your final decision on what is best for you. Whether you move across the country to live on campus and attend a traditional, bricks-and-mortar university, or you decide to stay where you are and enroll in an online program, remember why you chose to earn your degree in the first place and allow it to serve as your driver throughout your time as a graduate student.