What is it like to get a Masters in Public Policy?
January 31, 2010 4:17 PM   Subscribe

What is it like to get a Masters in Public Policy?

I am planning on going back to grad school in the next year or so after working for a few years post-college. My academic background is in the sciences and my work experience is in economics, so I'm considering both a PhD in the biological sciences and an MPP with a concentration in economic development. I've done my research and learned what I can about both degrees, but I have a much better understanding of what a PhD entails because I know more people in PhD programs. I'm wondering if you MPPers can help me out with a few questions.

I have a pretty good idea what the job opportunities are post-MPP; I'm more interested in the experience during grad-school (although I welcome post-school experience stories). Specifically:

- What's the lifestyle like while in a MPP program? For most of my PhD friends the lifestyle seems to pretty much suck, although this varies based on advisor and research/teaching responsibilities. On the other hand, I've heard that an MBA is relatively easy and gives you ample free time. What kind of time commitment does an MPP require? I'm not looking to coast through a program, but after working 70 hour weeks for the past two years lifestyle is a significant consideration.

- What are classes like? Most of the programs seem to have a core of 5-10 classes followed by electives in different areas of emphasis. The core usually includes a stats class and several "Policy Analysis"-type courses. What kind of topics do these courses cover, and is the subject matter interesting? Is there a textbook I could buy that would give me an idea what the material is like to assist my decision, or does this vary from school to school?

- Is there anything else I should know?

posted by btkuhn to Education (5 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
I can't help with the comparison across schools, as I only really know about the one I went to.

In my MPP program, 15 years ago, the first year was all about school. There was little time to do much else. It was overwhelming, but worth it, and I learned a huge amount. In my program, all first year students take the same core classes, including econ, quantitative methods, law & public policy, policy analysis, and a few other things. The focus was very much on skills and not content. In the second year we got to take classes that were more focused on specific policy areas (education, health, environment, etc.) including classes in other grad schools. For my program the 2nd year included a major paper (thesis) but the time demand wasn't nearly as all-consuming.

Whether or not the subject matter is interesting really really depends on whether you like policy analysis. If there's a school you're particularly interested in, ask for the curriculum for the core classes and see if that gives you a better sense of what the classes contain.

Also, some schools have a reputation of being more quantitative and numbers heavy, and others are less quantitative. Worth figuring out which kind of program you would prefer to help narrow things down.

This is sort of obvious, and I'm sure you've considered it, but there are enormous differences in time commitment and cost between a PhD and a Masters. Do you want to be done in 2 years, or 7?
posted by gingerbeer at 4:31 PM on January 31, 2010

I did a Masters of Public Policy and Management at the Heinz School at Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh, graduating within the past 5 years. I did it as part of an accelerated program where the 1st year of the Masters was also my final year of my undergraduate program.

I didn't really the lifestyle was that much different from undergraduate, apart from the social scene. It was a reasonable amount of work, but for me it was rather easier than the CS undergraduate program. Carnegie Mellon has a very analytical quantitative-heavy reputation. There were a number of papers to write each semester, and they require a reasonable amount of sophisticated analytical ability. If you are good at writing papers then it should not be too difficult. There were financial analysis and economics requirements as well, and a project course done in groups of around 6-10.

This shows the curriculum for the Pittsburgh program, but they now also have options for Australia, and a half/half Pittsburgh/DC option which I would have loved to have been able to do.
posted by that girl at 5:47 PM on January 31, 2010

I would strenuously advise you AGAINST getting a Ph.D. in the biological sciences if you have any interest in a career outside of research and/or post-secondary education in the biological sciences. Like you've seen, the lifestyle totally sucks unless you have a terrifying, near-obsessive, interest in your one tiny research problem AND a level of emotional resilience unknown to anybody outside academia except perhaps Navy SEALs. If you enter a Ph.D. program, be prepared for every single other aspect of your life to suffer. You will be broke, you won't have time to maintain your existing friendships or to form friendships with anyone who isn't also in your department, and you won't even have time to go to the gym unless you take to waking up at 4:45 AM. This continues after you graduate, because you need to get a post-doc in order to continue along the traditional career trajectory for a biologist. When you are a post-doc, you can expect to spend at least 3 years, and most likely at least 5 years, working like a dog or slave because you are fighting with about 200 other post-docs for 1 tenure-track faculty slot in East Bumfuck College.

I am at the tail end of my Ph.D. in a biomedical science. Overall, it has possibly been the worst decision I have ever made, and I have made some poor decisions in my life. I am currently attempting to devise an escape route; ironically enough, if I can find a job that pays enough to get my ass out of the mountain of student debt I accrued through college, I may well get my MPP. At which point I will be ten years older than everyone else, competing for the same jobs. I really fucked myself over. Don't get a Ph.D. just because you love a subject. You're a smart cookie, as my grandma would say. Read the open-access journals in your spare time, maybe even take a few advanced courses if you've got the extra cash. But please don't go for your Ph.D. because you don't know what else you want to do. You will most likely live to regret it.
posted by kataclysm at 11:23 AM on February 1, 2010 [2 favorites]

I know you were asking about getting an MPP, but I feel like the very fact that you're considering that option alongside a Ph.D. in biology means that you need to be much more strongly warned about what you would be getting into with the Ph.D.

Go for the MPP if you go at all -- no matter what it's actually like, it's a much less horrifying fate for a human.
posted by kataclysm at 11:25 AM on February 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm currently in my first year of an MPP. At least at my school, people tend to be very - even overwhelmingly - busy, but that's because everyone is attending the huge number of lectures, events, and activities available. Courses themselves are challenging but manageable - particularly if you come in without an absolute need for straight A's. The time commitment depends a lot on you, what you want out of the program and what you're willing to put in to it. I rarely get home before 10pm, and then I still have readings and problem sets to do - but that's because I was going to a great event on my policy area of interest, meeting with a professor on a project I'm working on, and then to a student meeting and then to a happy hour. MPPs tend to be pretty social - particularly, I would assume, compared to PhDs - so the lifestyle reflects that.

I think the content of courses depend heavily on which school you go to, and which professors you have. I've appreciated my core classes and felt like I gain useful skills and perspectives from them. The quantitative classes are different from those you may have taken in undergrad in that they are generally very applied -- so there's policy examples that really make the material feel relevant. That said, I enjoy my elective courses more because I can focus them on skills or subjects I've really interested. There's a lot of variation in the number of elective you can take among different schools, so you might want to keep that in mind. At least at my school, you would be able to cross register for a few classes in the graduate department of biological sciences, if that's something that interests you.

If you have additional questions, feel free to message me.
posted by purplevelvet at 8:20 PM on February 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

« Older How do I cut this pipe?   |   What is the easiest way to transfer all my music... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.