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MIA/MPA Application Mistakes from SIPA grad

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Hey everybody. I'm a graduate of Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and had a great experience. Not all of my classmates did though and some were even wasting their money by attending this program. I want to share some of the mistakes that I think people make when planning their public policy grad school experience.


Mistake #1: Going in without a plan.

At SIPA there were smart students with a plan, smart students without a plan, and everyone else. Taking away one or two years of your life to invest in education unplanned is silly. In some cases the unplanned were able to course correct in the last semester and get what they needed, in other cases they were totally unexpected for the education they were getting and (in the least) not getting the most out of their time at SIPA or (worst) wasting two years of their life and taking on a lot of debt. 


Your planning should begin in general terms when you start the application process. What types of jobs would you like to learn after school? What kind of skills do you need to learn? What part of the world do you want to live in? More academic or practical? These questions will guide which schools are appropriate for you. Maybe you don't know what type of job you want after school, in which case the plan should be to take the variety of classes and internships that will help you figure this out. A minority of students pick classes seemingly on a whim, selecting whatever sounds interesting without reviewing the evaluations, thinking about what they need in the long term or getting help from professors. This is a big mistake as they miss on the classes that were good and they really needed.


Once in the program plan your curriculum, the whole two years, before you step foot on campus. The pre registration process for the next semester creeps up on you and some course that you will want to take in the second semester/year may have prereqs in the first semester/year. Others may have special application requirements. Time is limited, you can't take everything and you'll want to avoid the dud classes. Of course you will learn a lot about new classes from students once you arrive (getting advice from second year MA students should be part of the plan).


I read all of the course listings before I arrived on campus twice, and made a spreadsheet of possible course to take each semester for my two year program. This list changed a lot, but I didn't feel like I got any dud classes or missed out on the goals I wanted to accomplish.


Also plan the finances and the job search. Are there fellowships available for good grades? Then don't overload on classes the first semester/year so you can be competitive for them.


Those with a plan figure out what they need to do to get the internships and jobs they want. Those without a plan usually don't prioritize the job search and end up unemployed for 6 months or sometimes even a year after graduation.


Mistake #2: Not prioritizing the job search.

This is what you are taking the professional program for, to get a job. Not to write a thesis, not to get caught up in student groups, not to go to happy hours. You can do all those things, but make sure you keep your eye on the ball and spend time on the job search from the first month of school.


The job search starts by getting acquainted with the recruitment process for your select industries and making time to attend the on campus information sessions and any trainings that you need (such as case interviews) that can help you get there. At SIPA there was info and reviews on where people had done internships previously, I began viewing these in my first semester. Even if you already know what you want to do, there's great opportunities to get exposed to new companies which you may not have known existed.


The job search continues in how you select your classes. What classes do people in said industry need? Which professors are great to work with? What classes can teach you the skills you need?


Some application time cycles start early, very early. Many don't have jobs around April or May shouldn't be cause for panic as public sector jobs sometimes don't advertise until right when they need them. However the prepared student already has their birds in place and networked across their sector. At the least, you want to be eyeing the job/internship listings once a week so when that dream job or internship comes up, you are ready to press apply. Your CV is up to date right?


As an example: one of my classmates applied to one internship in the fall that was for the next summer, got it, then applied back to the company for an excellent job after school and got it. Two applications and he had it all sorted out. He had is eye on the ball. On the other hand I knew a few who didn't start applying for jobs for April or May, they weren't even looking, but still had time to complain about the Office of Career Services. Career Services cannot apply for you. You have to do it yourself.


Mistake #3: Thinking the MIA/MPA is next best thing to an MBA.

This was true at Columbia: some students expected the recruitment level and job prospects of the MBA. An MPA/MIA is not the same as an MBA and most students would be better getting a second tier MBA than spending a chunk of change on public policy program.


All of the differences are apparent to the well researched: job outcomes, class offerings and professors. It's all on the web. About 90% of MBAs go to the private sector, at SIPA 1/3 go private 1/3 go government and 1/3 go nonprofit. Those are three very different sectors with very different recruitment and job search strategies, as a result, there are just not as much resources or recruitment at public policy schools for the private sector.


Some might say: "Sure some MBA professors teach at SIPA, sure they have some of the same course offerings, hey, I can even take some classes at the MBA school and attend their events! So it's safe to say I'm at least partially getting a Columbia MBA right?" Well, yes you're getting some similar technical training but it's far from passing it off as an MBA. The MBA is a commodity, the private sector know what it is and there is more homogeny among MBA graduates than public policy grads. 


The most important part of an MBA is getting in: they have much lower acceptance rates for the same schools (Columbia SIPA >30% vs Columbia MBA <10%) so it's a more competitive badge of honor. Also the network you get out of it makes you a more valuable employee to the private sector: your classmates are future clients, partners and service providers that can directly benefit the performance of your business which in turn affects your salary and bonus. I don't get a bonus if my classmate in the foreign service helps my NGO get some funding, so I don't get as much bang for my buck financially speaking. My friends who have gone to tier 2 and even tier 3 MBAs have paid off in spades, mostly because they paid less. This is important if you underestimate the cost.


Mistake #4: Underestimating the cost.

It can cost a lot, or it can be for free. Looking at the employment outcomes for the top ten schools the salary range does not vary too much from school to school. This means if you get a free ride to a state school and no funds from ivy league, the benefit of going ivy might be marginal and lead to suffering debt.


Some classmates paid in full with the plan to go to the nonprofit sector after school. I'm not sure if that's worth it, but then again there are several intangible and tangible benefits to a degree from a top school that can't be measured in the first job after graduation.


Is there room for second year financial aid? What does it take to get it? Those are some of the questions to ask.




So those are my two cents, any other mistakes people make?



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This should be stickied for a lot of people to see. You might not be able to plan your future career to a T, but you can plan your education to put you in the best position for your future career goals.

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