What is a Public Administration Degree?

Students who want to be public administrators learn about the process of implementing policy at the various levels of government and within non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and non-profits.

As part of their studies, they typically investigate a variety of public issues, from environmental protection to crime fighting, homelessness, unemployment, and drug abuse.

A typical curriculum in this field includes courses in:

  • Community Assessment (the process of identifying the strengths, weaknesses, and challenges of a community)
  • Economic Development
  • Local Politics and Administration
  • Public Budgeting and Finances
  • Organizational Theory (the study of organizations to find how they solve problems and remain productive)
  • Grant Writing
  • The Non-profit Sector and Volunteerism

Program Options

Associate Degree in Public Administration - Two Year Duration
Public administration programs at this level introduce students to the workings of various public sector institutions, government agencies, and non-profit organizations. Holders of an associate degree in this field may go on to further study in a bachelor’s program or find employment in entry-level roles such as legislative staffer; human services assistant; or city planning, accounting, or auditing clerk.

Typical coursework covers:

  • Fundamentals of Public Policy and Public Administration
  • Administrative Law
  • Government and Politics
  • Introduction to Financial Accounting
  • Introduction to Organizational Management

Bachelor’s Degree in Public Administration - Four Year Duration
Bachelor’s programs in public administration provide more in-depth study of the subjects taught in an associate program and offer students the option to choose a specialization, such as non-profit organizations. These degree programs typically include hands-on, real-world experience through internships. Graduates generally qualify for mid-level positions as officers, managers, and administrators with public sector institutions and non-profits.

Classes commonly include:

  • The Public Policy Process
  • Managing in Public and Non-Profit Sector Organizations
  • Strategic Planning and Implementation
  • Program Evaluation and Performance Measurement
  • Public Sector Human Resource Management
  • Ethical Public Management
  • Fundraising for Non-Profits

Master’s Degree in Public Administration - One to Two Year Duration
Master of Public Administration (MPA) programs are made up of core and elective courses. Core topics addressed include government and public policy, economics, organizational theory, and decision and policy analysis. Students choose electives that are in line with their specialization. Areas of specialization often include non-profit management, social policy, security policy, information management, and environmental administration. MPA graduates often work as public sector or non-profit managers and directors or policy analysts.

Some sample elective courses at the master’s level are:

  • Cost-Benefit Analysis and Budgeting
  • The Politics of Policy
  • Regulatory Law
  • Management Information Systems for Public Administration
  • Research Methods

Doctoral Degree in Public Administration - Two to Three Year Duration
Programs at this level are focused on teaching students how to create policy, write laws, and conduct advanced research. Most graduates with a Doctorate in Public Administration work in the academic field teaching and/or conducting research or as public policy consultants in government.

Classes include:

  • History of Public Administration
  • Research Methodologies for Public Organizations
  • Implementing Public Policy
  • Comparing Different Public Administration Systems

Degrees Similar to Public Administration

Public Policy Analysis
This degree field is very closely aligned with the degree field of public administration. Its focus, though, is not on administration and policy making, but on policy analysis. Coursework, therefore, covers topics like criminal justice issues, policy process and development, political analysis for public policy, and statistics and data in public policy.

Business Administration
Public administration and business administration are closely related. Degree programs in both disciplines teach students how to plan, organize, and direct all the activities of an organization. The major difference is that public administration is concerned with these processes in the public sector and business administration is focused on similar processes in the private sector.

Public administration asks questions about policy at a specific level of government in a specific region. Economics asks wider questions about world economies, how governments should respond to financial crises, how stock prices and exchange rates are set, and how to help people living in poverty.

Emergency and Security Management
Students of emergency and security management learn about disaster response and recovery. Their coursework includes emergency planning and preparedness, crisis management, and public policy and legal issues in emergency management.

Healthcare Administration
While public administration is focused on the administration of public policy, this degree field is focused on administration of healthcare policy, services, and facilities. Students learn about healthcare law; healthcare ethics; healthcare economics, finance, and human resources; and long-term care and aging.

Law Enforcement Administration
This degree field addresses management practices and criminal justice and prepares students for leadership roles in law enforcement. Common classes include criminology, criminal law, criminal justice administration, and police and community relations.

Urban and Regional Planning
This field of study is closely connected to public administration in that both are concerned with issues that impact citizens. In simple terms, urban planners design communities and determine where buildings will go. They must also make these decisions while considering the placement of roads, highways, utilities, parks, and other urban projects.

Skills You’ll Learn

Throughout their course of studies, public administration majors develop an understanding of the political, social, and economic factors that influence public policy. They also cultivate soft, transferable skills that are useful in other fields as well:

  • Managing and Raising Resources – fundraising is a component of many public administration programs
  • Team Building and Networking – students learn that a large part of working in public administration is engaging with government officials, business leaders, advocates for many causes, and donors
  • Making Informed Decisions – students learn when public administrators are making decisions they must consider ethical implications and other fields like public safety and healthcare
  • Developing Innovative Solutions – students learn that public administration demands innovation because old solutions rarely apply to new challenges
  • Organizational Behavior and Management
  • Analysis and Research Methods
  • Budgeting

What Can You Do with a Public Administration Degree?

Government / Politics
Government officials and legislators work at various levels of government to pass laws. They can face a vast variety of issues and problems, from healthcare and social services to environmental management. And while it is difficult to imagine the best way to prepare for such a job, a degree in public administration provides a solid foundation in the fundamental skills needed.

Non-Governmental Organizations / Non-profit Organizations
In this sector, public administration graduates find jobs with institutions such as the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the American Enterprise Institute, chambers of commerce, trade associations, and labor unions. Opportunities also exist with non-profit international aid and development organizations, such as World Vision International, Save the Children, Habitat for Humanity International, and WaterAid.

Public Interest / Advocacy / Lobbying
Individuals who work in this area can affect government policies by raising public awareness of the issues they believe in.

It is not uncommon for public administration majors to end up working in the business world. Many sectors – banking, marketing, advertising, communications, public relations, and human resources – appreciate the level of understanding of topics like planning, performance measurement, and cost-benefit analysis that public administration graduates bring to the table.

Educational institutions hire planning administrators and welcome the background of public administration grads. In addition, while true ‘public administration’ is generally taught only at the college and university level, graduates in the field may find positions teaching social studies, economics, or civics courses at the secondary school level. Depending on the school system, teacher certification may also be required.

News analysts, reporters, and correspondents cover a wide variety of topics and stories. A degree in public administration can prove to be very useful in covering government, public policy, and politics.


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