What Is an MPA?

Written by Coursera Staff • Updated on

Earning your Master of Public Administration can prepare you for a career in public service, which often means working on behalf of the government or for a non-profit organization.

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Government agencies and non-profit organizations often have different business goals and needs than companies in the private sector. With a Master of Public Administration (MPA) degree, you can gain an important education to prepare you for a leadership role in the public or non-profit sectors. Once you earn the graduate degree, you can explore many career opportunities, including grant administrator, policy analyst, or local government manager.

In this article, we’ll review more about MPA degree programs and the roles you can pursue after graduation. 

Master of Public Administration (MPA): Key facts

The MPA is a master's degree that covers subjects like public policy, finances, communication, and management. Earning your MPA can prepare you for a career in public service, which often means working on behalf of the government at the local, state, or federal level, or for a non-profit organization. 

It typically takes two years of full-time study to earn an MPA, but it can take longer if you attend part-time. A number of schools also offer online MPA programs, which can be completed as quickly as 18 months or as long as five years if you need more time to work through the requirements. 

To qualify for most MPA programs, you will need to have a bachelor’s degree. A related degree in political science, economics, and sociology can be helpful foundations to build upon. Some schools also require work experience, including working or volunteering for a government agency, nonprofit organization, or humanitarian group.

Learn more: A Guide to Online Master’s Degrees

MPA coursework

When pursuing your MPA, you will take a range of classes that cover the principles of business, including courses on finance and accounting, human resource management, and professional communication. Several of your classes will also cover topics pertaining to public administration, such as values, ethics, and even law. 

Some schools also require you to participate in an internship, though you may be able to waive that requirement if you have work experience. 

Sample MPA coursework:

  • Public policy economics 

  • Professional development 

  • Human resource management 

  • Political economy

  • Public information management 

  • Public affairs colloquium

  • Introduction to statistics

  • Executive leadership and policy politics 

  • Nonprofit governance 

  • Arts and cultural administration

  • Social policy

MPA concentrations

Many programs encourage you to concentrate in a specific area of public administration. Concentration offerings vary from school to school, so if you’re interested in a certain area it can help to find programs that align with your interests. 

MPA concentrations can include: 

  • Health policy 

  • Local government management 

  • Nonprofit management  

  • International management 

  • Public management 

  • Ethical leadership

  • Analytics 

  • Gender and public policy 

  • International security


Each MPA program has different requirements. You may be expected to complete a thesis or capstone project before graduating. Your thesis should align with the concentration you’ve chosen and present original research or analysis. A capstone project, on the other hand, isn’t always written. It can be an exhibit or video presentation. Like a thesis, it should demonstrate the knowledge and skills you’ve acquired through your studies and focus on how you can solve a problem.

Alternative master’s degrees

When you’re interested in working in public administration, there are other relevant master’s degrees that may be worth exploring, including the Master of Business Administration (MBA) and Master of Public Policy (MPP). Both take around the same amount of time to complete when you attend full-time, but the goals and outcomes can differ. 

MPA vs. Master of Business Administration (MBA)

The MPA and MBA programs are similar because they prepare students for management positions. The difference, however, is in each program’s focus. While an MPA focuses on future public administration leaders, the MBA focuses on future business leaders. Earning one type of degree doesn’t limit you to a specific career track: MPA graduates can work in the private sector, and MBA graduates can qualify for public sector positions. 

Learn more: Is an MBA Worth It?

MPA vs. Master of Public Policy (MPP)

You can also earn your Master of Public Policy (MPP) if you’re interested in directly shaping the policies that affect communities. An MPA, on the other hand, will prepare you to lead agencies and organizations that implement those policies. In an MPP program, your coursework will focus more on research, data analytics, and statistics, which you’ll use to investigate and determine new and existing policies. 

Careers you can pursue with an MPA 

MPA degree holders have many opportunities, and the type of work you’re interested in will determine your potential salary. Most MPA graduates earn positions in the public sector, but some enter private sector roles. Public sector jobs traditionally have better benefits and job security than in the private sector.  However, working in the private sector can lead to higher-paying salaries. 

With your MPA degree, you can explore the following careers: 

Public relations manager 

Public relations managers plan and coordinate public images and brand identity. They write press releases and establish media relations. 

  • Median annual salary: $119,860 [1]

  • Anticipated job outlook: 13% growth

Community services manager 

As a community services manager, you oversee various programs for members of the community, ensuring that they are effective for the population being served. Community service managers may be responsible for grant writing and evaluating a program’s performance.

  • Median annual salary: $74,000 [2]

  • Anticipated job outlook: 15% growth

City manager (Administrative services and facilities management)

A city manager’s role is typically supervisory. The responsibilities include ensuring operations run smoothly and providing oversight of departments.

  • Median annual salary: $99,290 [3]

  • Anticipated job outlook: 9% growth

Urban and regional planner 

If you’re interested in land use and how to identify and plan community development, opportunities are available in the private and public sectors. However, private-sector positions generally work closely with government agencies. 

  • Median annual salary: $78,500 [4]

  • Anticipated job outlook: 7% growth

Next steps 

To learn more about working in the nonprofit sector, consider taking a course in nonprofit organizations and leadership offered by the University of Buffalo on Coursera. 

You can also earn your Master of Public Health from the University of Michigan or your Master of Business Administration online from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Both offer numerous specializations, and you can try a class before applying.

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Article sources

1. US Bureau of Labor Statistics. “Public Relations and Fundraising Managers, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/management/public-relations-managers.htm." Accessed August 16, 2022.

 2. US Bureau of Labor Statistics. “Social and Community Service Managers, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/management/social-and-community-service-managers.htm” Accessed August 16, 2022.

 3. US Bureau of Labor Statistics. “Administrative Services and Facilities Managers, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/management/administrative-services-managers.htm.” Accessed August 16, 2022.

 4. US Bureau of Labor Statistics. “Urban and Regional Planners, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/life-physical-and-social-science/urban-and-regional-planners.htm.” Accessed August 16, 2022.

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