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5 Myths Surrounding Public Administration — Debunked

Posted by Cornell MPA Program Admissions Team on 4/13/22 7:38 AM

We all crave purpose.

Think about it — why is figuring out the meaning of life such a popular question? A sense of purpose gives us the motivation to do a job to the best of our ability and to overcome challenges with poise and perspective. In our current society, more and more people are seeking purpose through fulfilling, mission-driven careers.

Many have chosen to dedicate themselves to work in public administration because this field enables forward-thinking, passionate individuals to create positive change. Some people’s perceptions of a career in public administration are often colored by faulty or misguided assumptions. It is important to sort out what is fact and what is not, especially when it comes to choosing a complex and sometimes challenging career in public service.  

For a clearer understanding of what public administration is and isn't, read on as we debunk five myths surrounding getting an MPA and work in public affairs.

Download Cornell University's MPA Career Report to explore a variety of MPA  alumni who have pursued diverse careers in fields related to public  administration!

Myth 1: You have to work for the government.

Our world is full of complicated challenges waiting to be solved. Climate change, poverty and income inequality, homelessness, lack of access to healthcare, food security, unemployment, and rising tensions over immigration and asylum, are just a few of the many areas within our society where passionate, mission-driven, and service-oriented professionals are needed to step in and make a tangible difference.

To create sound policy, organizations in the public, private, and nonprofit arenas must work together to develop and implement sustainable solutions. No amount of legislation by itself can create a lasting remedy nor can the government alone fix these problems. Public administration professionals are needed in every industry — public and private. Career options are available at every level and in every occupation pertaining to public service.

Visit the Cornell Institute for Public Affairs (CIPA) website to see the variety of employment positions held by past graduates, including but certainly not limited to:

  • Millennium Challenge Corporation, Africa Program Officer

  • New York City Council, Legislative Financial Analyst

  • Michael & Susan Dell Foundation, Workforce Development Contractor

  • National Academy of Public Administration, Senior Research Associate

  • NextEra Energy Resources, Regulatory Affairs Analyst

  • Plectica, Research Associate; Senior Research Associate

  • PwC, Experienced Associate

Myth 2: The work might be rewarding, but the pay is not great.

On average, those with a Master of Public Administration can expect a median salary of $68,000. In addition to the vital training and specific subject knowledge that an MPA provides, those with a master’s degree can expect to earn approximately $18,000 more per year over those with a bachelor’s alone.

The salary, of course, varies greatly based on work experience, the sector of employment, company size, and the potential for raises, bonuses, and promotions. For example, within both the public and private sectors, salaries can range from $40K-$100K.

Myth 3: You’re going to be stuck in a cubical — aka public administration is not exciting.

False. One of the things that attracts many individuals to public administration is the opportunity to work in companies and organizations throughout the world and on a number of exciting, impactful, and pressing issues. The public affairs profession is for passionate, ambitious, and intelligent professionals looking to make a real difference in people’s lives through strategic policy development.

Graduates of Cornell’s MPA program are armed with innovative ideas and tools that really matter for improving the political, economic, environmental, and social climate of our world. Issues of food insecurity, poverty, and disaster management and recovery in developing countries, along with healthcare, housing, education for those in poor American neighborhoods, and other areas of domestic policy — will not improve unless leaders in public affairs look past their desk and implement strategies for lasting change.

Myth 4: Job experience is more valuable than a master’s degree.

Both job experience and an advanced degree are important — no question. But there are several important skills that are necessary for leaders in public affairs to master, which are best acquired in a graduate program. An MPA is a professional degree, and relative to other professional degrees, the MPA is far more interdisciplinary, drawing on the fields of economics, finance, management, political science, and psychology. By promoting an interdisciplinary perspective, the MPA provides students with the tools required to navigate conflict and bring people together to improve lives.

Download Cornell University's 2020 MPA Career Report to explore a variety of  MPA alumni who have pursued diverse careers in fields related to public service!

By choosing Cornell’s MPA program, you’ll have the opportunity to further customize your degree by choosing from one of eight concentrations, pursuing a dual degree option, or adding a graduate certificate to your MPA coursework. Below are the eight available concentrations for MPA students at Cornell.

  1. Economic and Financial Policy
  2. Environmental Policy
  3. Government, Politics and Policy Studies
  4. Human Rights and Social Justice
  5. International Development Studies
  6. Public and Nonprofit Management
  7. Science, Technology and Infrastructure Policy
  8. Social Policy

Experience is invaluable. For that reason, the MPA at Cornell places a strong emphasis on experiential learning, and the MPA curriculum requires students to fulfill a Practical Experience component. Real-world consulting opportunities, internships, off-campus study, and Capstone experiences provide you with the skill set you need to be successful in your future career and offer relevant experiences to include in résumés and job interviews.

Myth 5: An MPA is the same as an MBA.

While there is some overlap, the two degrees are not the same. Both degrees cover many of the same areas of interdisciplinary study, including management, economics, and organizational behavior. However, the MPA degree provides insight into the intricacies of how these disciplines apply in the context of public service, while the MBA is focused on profit-driven results.

Those who pursue an MPA do so to improve the lives of individuals and communities and to serve the public interest, a mission-driven mindset that is not always at the forefront in an MBA program.

Note: For more information on this subject, read this blog post: What's the Difference Between an MPA and an MBA?

If you’re ready to transform the world, Cornell’s MPA program is ready to help.

The best leaders in public administration are those with a deep desire and drive to help others, a passion for justice, and a tireless disposition for service. The world needs professionals who are prepared to think strategically, to problem-solve in an innovative way, and to work in an interdisciplinary manner to tackle “wicked” public policy issues and ensure a bright future for all. If you are ready to begin this honorable work, connect with us today!

Cornell MPA Guide Cover-min

Explore our digital resource — An Educational Guide for Future Leaders in Public Affairs — for tips and tools related to pursuing a Master of Public Administration degree and a career in public affairs!

Explore the MPA Resource


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