By Seb Murray
As managers turn to careers with a social impact, and global development organizations hire more private sector executives, business students are looking to Master of Public Administration programs as an alternative to the MBA.
“Management skills are the top priority [in the public sector], even more than public policy expertise,” says Ian Macdonald, director of the MPA at the Schulich School of Business in Canada.
Schulich is one of a growing number of top business schools to offer MPA degrees. In the US, master and undergraduate degrees in public administration have grown from 17,000 in 2010 to almost 21,000 in 2013, says Kathy Gamboa, dean of operations for the College of Criminal Justice and Security at the University of Phoenix.
This is in response to increased applicant demand. The number of international applications for the MPA program at USC’s Price School of Public Policy, for instance, has surged from 78 in 2009 to 340 in 2014, says Peter J Robertson, associate professor. He says there is “more interest on the part of the younger generation to want to make a difference in the world, to help address the issues they see as challenging the human race”.
Research recently published by international business school INSEAD found that millennials – those born between the early 1980s and late 1990s, who populate most MPA and MBA programs – value work-life balance and personal development over money and status. Of 16,000 people surveyed, 73% chose work-life balance over a higher salary, and 82% value work-life balance over their position in a company.
“Students in the MPA program have stated overwhelmingly that they have a desire to help people,” says Kathy at the University of Phoenix.
These students are moving into careers in global organizations that increasingly are collaborating with the private sector. This includes at the World Bank, the African Development Bank and the UN Capital Development Fund, as well as newer organizations like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and even consultancy firms such as Accenture.
There are now a wider range of MPA programs to choose from. Many are at universities with top business schools, including the MPA program at UNC-Chapel Hill.
“We have experienced an increase in the number of applications we receive,” says Bill Rivenbark, director of the program, for both the online learning option and the campus course.
The MBA at UNC is popular but there are distinct differences. Bill says: “The goal [of MPA students] is to improve the quality of life for individuals across local, state, national, or international boundaries.”
Other US MPA options include at California State University – Northridge. As the boundaries between public and private sector begin to crumble, development careers for its students have begun to change.
“The type of management required has… changed, especially in terms of its ability to function effectively in a fast-paced and continually changing environment,” says Henrik P Minassians, director of the school’s public sector partnerships.
Across the Atlantic in the UK, there are MPA degrees at Warwick Business School, the London School of Economics and Political Science, and the University of York, to name but a few.
Increasingly, many business schools are blending MBA and MPA programs together into dual degrees.
It is a similar story at elite US institutions including Harvard Business School and Wharton School. While there is a demand for experienced private sector talent in the development world, social entrepreneurship is a popular route in both MBA and MPA programs.
“Many in our in master’s level classes state that when they finish their MBA, they would like to start their own business,” says Kathy at the University of Phoenix.
Divya Dhar is the co-founder of Seratis, a start-up trying to bring about a digital age in healthcare. The start-up offers a mobile communication platform which helps coordinate, track and analyse care across medical teams.
“Healthcare is a hard industry to understand,” says Divya, who studied both an MBA and MPA at Wharton’s business and government schools.
She previously trained as a doctor and worked for healthcare companies across New Zealand. “[But] often I had no idea how to communicate with my patients,” she says.
The start-up business is all about helping healthcare providers to improve patient care. The management side of her time at Wharton helped her to grow the venture. It has been valuable to understand the “language of business”, she says. “You can easily and with confidence talk to business leads, strategic partners and investors, and understand their viewpoints.”