Consider a Master's in Public Policy for Pursuing a Law-Related Career

Delece Smith-Barrow

Ann Johnson couldn't be happier teaching about administrative law and business law at California State University--San Bernardino. But finding her niche in public administration has taken many years and several degrees -- one of the pricier ones being her J.D.

As an undergraduate, Johnson was interested in human rights and government, topics that are in line with policy degree programs, which prepare students to work in public service. But Johnson chose to go to law school.

"Law school was sort of the next logical step for me," she says, because of it's more direct career path than a Ph.D. program. She studied law at the University of Cincinnati, but because she wasn't totally sold on a career in law, she also pursued her master's in political science at the same time.

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Johnson graduated from the dual degree program. As a lawyer she worked in the state appeals court for Michigan and then later in the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Then, the policy itch came back. She quit her job and enrolled full-time at University of Delaware. She graduated in 2011 with a Ph.D in urban affairs and public policy and is now teaching about things she learned while working in the government, among other topics.

"I really enjoy the student interaction and the student engagement," she says. "I find that very satisfying."

Johnson isn't the only person with a passion for policy-related work to end up in law school, only to switch to policy, says Maria Aristigueta, the director of the school of public policy and administration at University of Delaware.

Students may initially pursue a J.D. because people are more familiar with law degrees, she says. "I think public administration is less well-known," says Aristigueta.

A master's in public administration or public policy can prepare students to do a number of jobs that intersect with law, such as working on housing policy at a government agency where lawyers also work on specific cases that deal with housing loans. "Policy influences the law," Johnson says.

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There are a variety of positions within government at the federal, state and local level, says Carol Ebdon, a professor of public administration and director of the MPA program at University of Nebraska--Omaha. Graduates of these programs can also work as a city manager in a local government, policy analyst, budget analyst, program evaluator or program manager.

"There are many elected officials that have MPA or MPP degrees that find the degree useful in making policy decisions," she says. Some students may also work in the public sector as a consultant once they finish school, Ebdon says.

Master's students sometimes enter these programs immediately after undergrad, while others work in the field for a few years end then go to graduate school to advance their careers. They can take classes in budgeting, financing, grant writing, communicating and other courses that prepare them to work in the public or private sector, or for nonprofits. Some schools, such as University of Nebraska--Omaha, may also allow them to specialize by offering concentrations in topics such as health care and information technology.

Master's in public administration or policy programs typically take two years to complete. The former can be more focused on quantitative and statistical analysis, as well as policy analysis and creation and other topics, says Kaneisha Grayson, the founder of The Art of Applying, which provides admissions consulting for MBA, MPP and graduate fellowship applicants.

The MPA is often referred to as the MBA for the public sector, and teaches students about project and program management, says Grayson, who received her MBA and MPA from Harvard University.

Whether students pursue an MPP or MPA, though, one thing that they should not expect is a big paycheck after graduation.

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"You're typically not going to get rich in the public or nonprofit sector," Ebdon says.

Students who pursue these degrees are more focused on public service. "They really want to help people," Ebdon says.

MPP graduates from the class of 2013 at Harvard University's JFK School of Government, for example, had a median salary of $60,000 if they worked at an NGO or for a nonprofit based in the U.S., according to a report from the school. Those working in the public sector with a national reach made $62,500, and private sector grads -- who were only 34 percent of the class -- had a median salary of $102,500.

If students are trying to decide between pursuing a graduate degree in policy or a law degree, there are a few things they can do. Prospective students should ask themselves "Do I need a graduate degree at all?" says Grayson. Getting the right work experience, she says, can sometimes better position people for other jobs that appeal to them.

Prospective students can also contact people who have attended policy school and law school, who are working in positions that they would like to be in, Grayson says. She encourages them to ask open-ended questions such as "How do you feel about your law school experience?" to figure out if that kind of experience and schooling is something they want.

"It's very important to think through what your long-term career goals are," says Grayson.

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Delece Smith-Barrow is an education reporter at U.S. News, covering graduate schools. You can follow her on Twitter or email her at