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Importance of public sector experience for MPA applications


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Hello,

I am currently thinking about applying for MPA / MPP programmes in the US for next academic year starting 2010. However I am unsure as to how qualified I am to get onto such a course. My academic background is as a historian, with both an undergraduate degree and a Masters from Oxford. I have since spent 5 years in investment banking in London and the Far East. I am very interested in British politics and wish to get involved there in the medium term.

Does the fact that I have not had any formal public sector experience prejudice my application? Personally I am at a loss as to why such direct experience should be a prerequisite for such programmes but I hear that they may be. To that end, what is the real difference between MPA and MPP programmes, and should I be aiming at only one of the two? Do different schools take differing views on this? I had cherished hopes most particularly for the Princeton MPA, but am also considering Harvard, Berkeley and Johns Hopkins. Clearly given my lack of focus on the domestic US scene, I had intended to look more at the IR side of such courses.

Any advice would be most gratefully recieved.

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I just wrote a long reply, but my browser closed unexpectedly. This one will be much shorter, and only cover one of your questions.

The difference between an MPP program and MPA programs are discussed at the Berkeley MPP program website: http://gspp.berkeley.edu/admissions/faq.html . You mentioned that you are interested in Princeton. Although the Princeton program is abbreviated MPA, it is not an MPA program as defined on that website. The Princeton MPA abbreviates Master of Public Affairs, which is the precursor to the masters of public policy. (Princeton's program started in 1948 and has retained the same name even though new programs offering the same curriculum are now referred to as MPPs/)Of course, the ubiquitous "MPA" title represents master of public administration.

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Thanks, I shall investigate that further.

However I am still mystified and disconcerted. Why on earth would they reject people on the basis that they do not have public sector experience? Surely if anything they should be desperately trying to attract the skills of ambitious and talented people from the private sector compared to the backwater of those who choose public service from the off.

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Thanks, I shall investigate that further.

However I am still mystified and disconcerted. Why on earth would they reject people on the basis that they do not have public sector experience? Surely if anything they should be desperately trying to attract the skills of ambitious and talented people from the private sector compared to the backwater of those who choose public service from the off.

The public sector and the private sector are different, and you might not be able to to benefit as much from a program (or be able to contribute as much during classes) if you do not have public sector experience. That said, I don't think most programs will reject you because you only have private sector work experience. (The only exception is probably Princeton; if you look at their student bios you will see all have had a public service career focus. I also read somewhere earlier this year that HKS is focusing more on public sector work experience in determining admission.) Indeed, there are examples on this board of people who were accepted into respected MPA/MPP programs without work experience in the public sector.

I would, however, avoid calling public service a "backwater" career choice in your essays; it might not sit well with MPP/MPA admissions committees. You might also not want to mention that the private sector is the domain of ambitious and talented people. If you truly feel this way about public service and about the people who will surround you in class, you will probably be more comfortable in an MBA program and in the private sector.

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Yes I suppose I am letting my prejudices show through! However from a UK perspective I feel the whole system suffers from being flooded with people who want to enter "public service" as a career choice straight out of school. Public governance fundamentally cannot be too divorced from "reality" - by which I mean experience of the private sector; indeed the impact of not having such experience could be disastrous and often is. I cannot think of a worse CV for government than having spent all your life ... getting involved in government. It would be like trying to get academics to run the country - notionally useful but practically silly.

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I am assuming you want to transition to the public sector, hence your interest in an MPA program. However, given such a condescending perception, I wonder how you'll be able to get along with your prospective colleagues ( or even make the transition in the first place).

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I would hope that the actual transition won't be too difficult given that I am driven by something lacking in most of my soon-to-be-colleagues: an actual (as opposed to lip-service) love of country and a desire to drive through change and reform in the best interests of the people. Sad to say, I have yet to meet a mandarin who is motivated by anything approaching such an idea and as for the majority of those in Parliament, the less said the better ...

Okay I have been speaking tongue-in-cheek so far on this thread, but I do feel bemused at the idea that private sector experience is something to be discriminated against on a course such as an MPA rather than something to be welcomed. After all, do none of you think it strange for a future politician or statesman to have spent their entire lives in public or voluntary sectors as some sort of preparation for government? Lawyers at least have an area of expertise to offer but to spend your life only with other people whose whole lives have been dedicated to the process and structure of governance rather than to the real ideas behind them is, I feel, rather limited.

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unigenitus - I don't think most schools are going to discriminate against your private sector experience. In fact, I believe most will embrace it, but only if your commitment to the public sector is revealed through your activities outside of work. Do you volunteer, do you belong on any foundation oversight boards, have you involved yourself in the political process, etc? You don't need your public activities to dominant your body of work, but there must be at least something of substance. Remember, actions reveal preferences.

Linden pointed out that Princeton values previous public sector experience more so than other schools. Broadly defined, this is true. Princeton is in the unique, and enviable, position of having a gigantic (recently $800-million) endowment that stipulates that the money must be used to train future public leaders. If the school doesn't meet this mission, the security of those funds becomes jeopardized. In fact, the school recently reached a settlement with the donor's heirs for a case in which the heirs claimed the school wasn't meeting this mission because, among other reasons, not a sufficient percentage of WWS graduates were pursuing public careers. Princeton needs to ensure that its students are going to pursue public service careers after graduation, and I'm sure they've determined that previous public sector involvement is a great predictor for that.

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Thanks for that very enlightening answer! Useful to chew over.

Well I can certainly point out involvement in the political process - indeed I have been a candidate in the local elections in the UK before. However I am not sure what part of this qualifies as "public service" as it is all partisan rather than bureaucratic. My voluntary work has therefore also been party political rather than NGO-related. How do you think this is viewed?

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"I am driven by something lacking in most of my soon-to-be-colleagues: an actual (as opposed to lip-service) love of country and a desire to drive through change and reform in the best interests of the people." That sounds like public service to me. Just make sure it comes through in your personal statement--I think not focusing in on the public service aspect is one of the biggest mistakes prospective students make. Also, I probably don't even need to say this, but make sure to tone down the cheekiness in the personal statement. I probably wouldn't point out faults in any other group.

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Out of interest, what do people mean when they talk of MPA students going into the "private sector" afterwards? Presumably we are not referring to people using MPAs as a proxy for MBAs and working in corporates / finance? Is there some strain of semi-public work such as lobbying which is not considered "public service"? In the UK this does not really exist.

How would the following career types be viewed vis-a-vis "public service":

1. Party political work (special advisors, electoral agents and managers, &c)

2. Think tanks

3. Political journalists

4. Lobbying firms

5. The World Bank / IFC / WTO / IMF

6. Government consultancy (eg government-facing arm of McKinsey &c)

7. Full-time politician

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Unigenitus,

I don't think that your private sector experience would hurt you in admissions so long as you could clearly articulate what you want to do after completing an MPP/MPA and why the MPP/MPA and not an MBA or other degree is the best program to prepare you for your future career plans. The reason MPP/MPA programs value work experience is similar to the reason that MBA programs also value work experience. You will be able to contribute more and apply the concepts better if you have a practical framework in which to apply them. For example, as an investment banker, you've likely had experience dealing with trade and economic policy in several ways and you could probably share a lot of insight in those fields.

However, if I were looking at you as an applicant based on your posts here, I would be unlikely to admit you because you sound like a condescending @$$ who would not work well with others. A lot of policy programs require significant amounts of group work and based on your posts, it seems like you have nothing but disdain for people with public sector experience and that may well include a significant number of your classmates. I would also question how successful you would be post-MPP if you see everyone who works in government as incompetent and unpatriotic idiots, because, again, those are going to be the people with whom you're going to have to work to make and implement policy and policy changes. If you're not able to give most of your coworkers the benefit of the doubt that they are good people who want to and are trying to do good work, and find a way to encourage good work rather than just discourage them you're not likely to be very effective at all.

There is certainly something to be said for bringing a practical, private-sector approach to a policy program and to public sector work, but you're not likely to get very far if you treat the people around you like something you stepped in on the street.

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Ha, very well, I shall take that on board and hide such condescension from the selection panels. It will be good practice for having to hide it year after year from my future electorate ... ;-)

"The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter." - Winston Churchill

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