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Should I pursue a Master's in Public Policy?
January 24, 2014 7:46 PM   Subscribe

I'm interested in math, programming and politics. Is a M.A. in Public Policy for me? Snowflakes inside.

I'm set to graduate next semester with a B.S. in Applied Mathematics and Statistics and a B.A. in Political Science (previously). I'm looking into my university's accelerated B.A./M.A. Public Policy program. I would be able to take 6 graduate credits next semester and the remaining 24 graduate credits over Spring 2015 and Fall 2015, with a mandatory internship in the summer. It would cost about $8,000.

Pros:
- It's $8,000 and one year for a M.A. in a school I like with faculty I like. I don't have to take the GRE, pay application fees or get recommendations. I basically just have to get a few pieces of paper signed.
- There are several classes very relevant to my interests (2 stats courses, data applications, survey research). I don't think I would be able to handle a master's in statistics, so it would be nice to take more application-focused math classes.
- It gives me more time to find internships and learn more technical skills before applying for jobs.

Cons:
- I'm not entirely sure what doors this degree will open up for me. I'm not entirely sure what kind of career I want to pursue. In a way, this is just putting off my inevitable post-college job search.
- I've been researching the degree and the types of jobs it leads to, and it seems like a very general degree with no set career track. It also seems like people generally work for a while and then come back and get this degree, so looking alumni profiles aren't really indicative of the types of jobs I could reasonable get.
- I will be 24.5 years old when I graduate, having never worked a full-time job. I've been a full-time college student since Fall of 2009. I'll have some volunteer work, internships and technical skills, but no work experience other than jobs in high school.

Does anyone have any advice? Ultimately, I would like to work in public opinion research/polling for an advocacy group or campaigns, but I haven't seen many entry-level positions for people with bachelor's degrees. I feel like it would be better to pursue a master's in statistics, but I don't think I can handle it intellectually and I know I can't handle it emotionally or financially. I'm planning on speaking with all of my advisers and the director of the program, but I would appreciate some outside input. Thanks for any help!
posted by Hey Judas! to Education (8 answers total)
 
It is a pretty terrible idea in this economic and academic environment to pay for your own graduate degree in nearly anything except maybe the super professional career-oriented stuff. Maybe if you had someone promise you a job afterwards, it might be worth the risk, but since you clearly state you have no idea what this might lead to, we're back in "it's a terrible idea" land.

Also, no one I know with anything even vaguely like the kind of job you want, got it by going to grad school. Most of them got it through sweat equity - they volunteered a ton of time and it happened to be for a candidate or cause that really took off. Rising tides lift all boats, basically, including the boats of people who just know they kind of want to be an activist I guess.

At this point I don't think it's especially sensible to even pay for your own MBA or JD. Might be willing to accept an accounting degree as a legit option, though.
posted by SMPA at 8:05 PM on January 24


Oh, also, a lot of people I know in those jobs do in fact have a graduate degree - it was just paid for by the government agencies they got entry-level analyst or administration type jobs with.
posted by SMPA at 8:06 PM on January 24


I have a MPP and work for an advocacy organization in a "data-adjacent" role, and have worked with many pollsters. I think the MPP is a great degree, but I would not recommend you doing a MPP at this point, unless you use it as a way to do internships that would otherwise be impossible for financial reasons.

Here's why I'm advising against it:

1. You're right that most MPPs have work experience. Not just because it makes it easier to get into programs (which is irrelevant to you) but because the work experience is really important to grasping and contextualizing what you learn. In my experience, people who came in with less than, say, two years of experience just did not seem to have as rich an educational experience as those with more.

2. Again, you're right that the MPP does not really have a set career path. It's a great degree for someone who knows what they want to get out of it, but it's unlikely to give you direction.

3. Hitting the job market as a 24-year-old with a masters degree and no post-college work experience is tough. In the political/advocacy world, you'll basically be seen as a recent grad and your degree is unlikely to help you much.

Breaking into polling is tough, I know. But a masters at this point will not help - you really do need practical experience. I might be able to give you some advice on that front - feel free to memail me.
posted by lunasol at 8:11 PM on January 24 [2 favorites]


Oh, and there are lots of entry-level jobs in politics and advocacy - they are just very much grunt jobs. Happy to advise on those as well.
posted by lunasol at 8:12 PM on January 24


Ultimately, I would like to work in public opinion research/polling for an advocacy group or campaigns, but I haven't seen many entry-level positions for people with bachelor's degrees. I feel like it would be better to pursue a master's in statistics, but I don't think I can handle it intellectually and I know I can't handle it emotionally or financially.

I'm getting my MPP (in DC) right now. I think an M.A. in Public Policy would line up perfectly with your interests, you'll learn a ton, love the program, and -- at absolute worst -- won't be at a disadvantage compared to someone trying to break into the marketplace with a BA in poli sci/math. This definitely sounds like the right *degree,* but I'd consider whether this is the right time and the right place for you to get that degree.

$8K is very cheap for a professional master's program, and it might be a good idea to strike while the iron's hot. However, some things to consider:

-- Does your school has a strong career/alumni network? (It's important that it does, since this is a generalist degree).

-- Are there any related jobs/internships/professional growth opportunities in your school's geographic area? (If not, that's a handicap in terms of "breaking in" professionally after graduation).

-- What will your other living expenses be, and how will you pay for them? (Getting a cut in your tuition is great, but you've still got eat and pay rent. Think about the total costs, not just the tuition costs).

Hitting the job market as a 24-year-old with a masters degree and no post-college work experience is tough. In the political/advocacy world, you'll basically be seen as a recent grad and your degree is unlikely to help you much.

In general, I think this is true. However, I think that the OP is in a slightly different situation because:

1. She's interested in statistics specifically, and this program will give her quant/stats skills that will be useful in job-hunting and on the job in their own right. After this program, the OP will be able to claim "proven" expertise in Stata (and/or R, etc), and will have a thesis/capstone project that shows off those skills. To me, learning quantifiable, marketable, and useful skills is a great reason to go through a program, especially a program this short.

2. The types of organizations that she's likely to work for tend to reward or even require master's degrees. Campaigns and advocacy groups might be an option, but I would think that in the course of her career, the OP would at least dip her feet into consulting and the federal government, since those are places where I'd actually expect to see stats and policy intersect a lot more often. Off the top of my head, it seems to me like the OP would be a fantastic candidate for so many positions with HHS or OMB. It's true that getting your foot in the door is tough anyway, but grad students also get access to much better internships than undergrads or people out of school, so if anything, I think that being enrolled in the MA program might help with that.

3. The program is so short, and you're so early in your career, that I have a hard time believing that there's any other way that you could spend the next year and a half that would be more productive. A year working as a consultant (if you're lucky) or in admin (if you're not) or volunteering for campaigns, etc, and applying to job after job (if you're really not) is just not that useful, either in terms of learning skills or in terms of your resume. That's especially true if you aren't even sure what you'd like your professional path to be. You honestly have the least to lose at this point, as far as I'm concerned, so I think this would be a good time to go.

I agree that more mature, more experienced students get more out of their classes, but they don't necessarily get better grades or have an easier time than students who have been in school continuously. I also think that the people only a couple years out of college who just have their entry level jobs under their belts have the worst of both worlds, in that they don't have a lot of (post-grad) life experience or maturity, but they also have the same tough transition back into being students as everyone else who didn't go straight from undergrad -- I think that the students coming straight from undergrad are actually better off than they are.

Anyway, I think that this degree sounds like a good fit (though if you're interested in health at all, I would also urge you to look at MPH programs). There definitely *are* jobs for people with a dual interest in statistics and policy (though you may get a better response from consultancy firms or government internships/postings than campaigns). I also don't think you should put off school just to push paper for a couple years, only to go back having to pay full tuition and get used to grades instead of paychecks again. However, before you make up your mind, I would think more about whether this specific program is the right one for you.

Ideally, your policy school will act as a feeder school for the organization you want to work for afterward, and its name/network will carry enough weight with that organization that you'll be boosted into the type of position you want. That's the kind of thing you should be looking for when you look at what alumni are saying and doing -- are any of them working in organizations that you'd be interested in, what level did they start at there, and what role would you estimate the on-campus recruiting and the alumni network had in getting them there?
posted by rue72 at 9:35 PM on January 24 [2 favorites]


As with most "should I get an advanced degree" questions, the answer is strongly tied to what you're hoping to get out of it. If you're primarily anxious about entering the job market and looking to postpone that for a year, the answer is no--don't stay in school. Find a gig somewhere, learn how to operate in the workforce, develop skills, participate in a 401k matching plan, etc. There are some royal opportunity costs associated with delayed entry into the workforce.

However, if you're legitimately interested in the coursework and the field as a whole and you can get a graduate degree in a year for $8k, I personally can't see not doing it. Several years after I got my BA, I earned a master's degree (for a princely sum!) in a field in which I really didn't expect to work professionally. In a strictly monetary sense, the return on investment has been ridiculously low... but I don't regret it for a minute as I wasn't pursuing monetary returns. I learned more about what I was interested in, explored thoughts I wouldn't have otherwise explored, and gained a greater understanding of the world. If that's worth a few thousand bucks to you (and if you're borrowing, please note that your overall investment could ultimately be a *lot* more than $8k), do it. Based on your interests, it could open doors in your career, and you may not have the freedom to make this decision in the years to come if a mortgage, nuclear family, etc, enter the picture.
posted by BestiaDeAmor at 2:03 AM on January 25


I have an MPP. If you have a degree in math and statistics, the two stats classes you take in the program are not going to teach you anything new. Is it possible to take a survey research course before you graduate?

I recommend waiting just because public policy is such a broad field, and work experience can help you narrow your focus on what you really want to do. I also think a longer program with an internship component would be more useful in getting a job.

Quant skills are valuable. I think you're in good shape to get a job in the field without a Masters.
posted by unannihilated at 5:21 AM on January 25


I'm not entirely sure what doors this degree will open up for me. I'm not entirely sure what kind of career I want to pursue. In a way, this is just putting off my inevitable post-college job search.

This is the most important part of your question, and I think you already answered it for yourself.

I just finished a self-funded graduate degree, so I'm not going to advise against doing the MPP. However, I do work in politics, and I think you will be much better served getting a job now, giving yourself a year/several years to get experience and think it over, and then trying grad school. I would even suggest working part/full time during school, if at all possible. In this field, experience and relationships matter SO much more than credentials.

I don't know where you're based, but you basically have two options if you're interested in polling and quant research. Option A, this is congressional midterms year, and you find yourself a campaign with a candidate you respect and believe in, and go work that campaign. Campaigns snap up tons of people just like you every cycle. Option B, come down to the DC area and find an office drone job at one of the party or labor organizations with a big research arm. Don't worry so much about the department you're hired into; the foot in the door is the hardest part.

Either way, things will probably be much easier and your path forward will likely become clearer after you get a job. And if you do decide to pursue a graduate degree at some point, you'll get more out of it when you already know what skills and knowledge you need to excel in your chosen career.
posted by bowtiesarecool at 6:42 PM on January 26


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