Public Affairs Degrees: Master's, PhD & Online Class Info

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What will you learn in public affairs degree programs? Read about degree requirements, the pros and cons of a master's degree and a Ph.D. and potential careers.
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Studying Public Affairs: Degrees at a Glance

Public affairs degrees can lead to positions in government as well as in private and nonprofit sectors. Political scientist positions and planning and government executive positions, such as mayor and governor, are common career paths for master's degree holders. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects job growth for urban and regional planners to be at 16%, about as fast as average, between the years 2010 and 2020. Top executive positions are projected at 5% and political scientists at 8%, both slower than average, for this same time period. It is important to note that the top executives percentage includes all top executives, not just government positions.

Doctorates in public affairs are geared towards individuals who want to become postsecondary educators or conduct research in public affairs and administration matters. The BLS projects job growth for post-secondary educators to be average, at 17%, between the years 2010 and 2020.

Master's Doctorate
Who is this degree for? Individuals who wish to obtain administration, public policy and/or planning positions in or outside of government Individuals interested in postsecondary education or research positions in public affairs and related topics
Common Career Paths (with approximate mean annual salary) -Urban and regional planners ($67,000)*
-Top executives-state government ($101,000)*
-Political scientists ($105,000)*
-Post-secondary educator ($74,000)*
Time to Completion 2-3 years after the bachelor's degree, full time 3-5 years, full time
Common Graduation Requirements -Credit hour requirements can vary widely depending on program (generally 35-65)
-Internship completion
-Capstone project, professional report or thesis
- Practical experience
- Approximately 54 credit hours
-Field coursework
-Comprehensive exams
-Doctoral dissertation
Prerequisites -Bachelor's degree - Bachelor's or master's degree
- Professional experience in public affairs
Online Availability Yes Limited

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (May 2011 figures).

Master's in Public Affairs

Master of Public Affairs (MPA) degrees are also called Master of Public Administration or Master of Science in Public Policy and Management (MSPPM) degrees. Most programs have small cohorts and/or class sizes and are designed around working students. Coursework involves the lecture format as well as individual and group work, discussion and presentations. Full-time or part-time participation is generally acceptable. Other programs are more rigorous and expect full-time participation with residency. Still other programs are designed around individuals with extensive public affairs experience and are as short as one year with no internship requirements.

Credit hour requirements may be greater with the MSPPM degree than with an MPA. MSPPM degrees may also include technical coursework that traditional MPA programs do not. Though most programs don't require that your bachelor's degree be in a specific field, there may be specific courses that are required as prerequisites to enter these programs.

Pros and Cons


  • Most programs have internship opportunities, which allow you to network and set up professional relationships
  • Public affairs positions are generally involved in policy making and analysis; you may have the opportunity to make a difference in your community
  • There are shorter programs with less rigorous requirements for individuals who already have professional experience in public affairs


  • Many graduate programs prefer that you have some public affairs work experience
  • Programs can be highly selective and competitive
  • Public office positions generally require that you are elected into office; education may not be enough to get you the job that you want*

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Courses and Requirements

Master's degree programs in public affairs include foundation coursework in subjects like policy processes, economic analysis and public finance. You will also have concentration and specialized coursework which will be specific to your own career goals and plans. You will work closely with an adviser in the design of your concentration coursework. Specific coursework areas you may encounter at the master's degree level are:

  • Environmental policy
  • Human rights and social justice
  • International development
  • Nonprofit management
  • Science and technology policies
  • Social policy

Additional requirements include seminars, colloquiums and internship programs. Internship requirements may be waived if you have adequate and relevant previous work experience. Additionally, you will likely be required to complete a project that illustrates what you've learned throughout the program, which could include a capstone project, professional report or thesis.

Online Degree Options

Accredited MPA programs are available through online study. Though there may be an orientation or other event(s) that requires you to participate in on-campus activities for a day or more. Coursework is similar to on-campus programs except there are generally not the same internship and residency requirements. Final project or capstone project requirements are generally still present in the online version of this program.

Getting Ahead with this Program

In order to get experience and prepare for your career, you can look for options to stand out while you complete your degree program. At some schools, you can find volunteer opportunities to work in public policy or leadership fellows programs that can prepare you for careers in public policy. Another option is to look for schools that offer voluntary projects where you can attend conferences and participate in workshops learning about and addressing emerging issues in politics and worldwide concerns.

Ph.D. in Public Affairs

Ph.D. programs in public affairs are also available as Ph.D. programs in public policy and administration, public policy and management, and public affairs. To fulfill degree requirements, you may need to choose a concentration or specialization. Examples of concentrations include performance measurement, urban systems, nonprofit management and international development.

Some doctorate programs require an applicant to possess a graduate degree as well as professional experience in the public affairs arena, but they also accept applicants who only hold bachelor's degrees. It is important to note, however, these programs are highly competitive and selective and generally accept fewer than ten applicants per year.

Pros and Cons


  • Some programs offer the option to earn your master's degree in conjunction with your doctorate after completing a portion of the Ph.D. program
  • Research in public affairs at the doctorate level can impact national and global policy issues
  • Doctorate degree holders can teach at the college level; tenure track positions provide job security*


  • Only a handful of students are accepted to each program every year; admissions are highly competitive
  • Public sector jobs generally only require a master's degree
  • Tenure positions for college professors are very difficult to get; balancing research time with teaching time can make qualifying for tenure difficult*

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Courses and Requirements

Coursework in doctorate programs are interdisciplinary and cover topics such as politics, cultural studies, philanthropy and ethics. In addition, you'll spend time developing your research skills through courses in quantitative research and data analysis. In some schools, you could be required to complete additional coursework if you don't have a master's degree. Common doctorate level coursework can include classes in the following areas:

  • Nonprofit organizations
  • Organizational theory
  • Human resources
  • Leadership
  • Change management
  • Research design
  • Public policy

You will also have to complete a doctoral dissertation and defense as well as comprehensive exams.

Online Degree Options

Because Ph.D. programs and coursework are often built by you in conjunction with an adviser, these programs are generally available through on-campus study. While online options are available, fully online programs are typically only offered at for-profit schools. Non-profit and public schools may offer some online courses in public policy at the Ph.D. level. Fully online programs will likely also include in-person sessions or virtual residencies as a part of your online doctoral program.

Getting Ahead with this Degree

To prepare for your career while completing a Ph.D. program, you can pursue graduate assistantships in research or teaching. In research assistantship programs, you can work closely with faculty on public policy research or work in an on-campus institute or research center. You can learn how to prepare research proposals and manage budgets while engaging in research focused on public policy, environmental concerns and economic issues. You may also be able to find teaching assistantships, in which you could instruct undergraduate students, run a lab or serve as a guest lecturer.

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