On my mind: MBA or MPA?

grad school is still a few years away for me, but i know it’s never too early to research my options. i’ve teetered between so many options, that sometimes it’s hard to get a handle on it.

i’ve thought about getting a certificate in development from an extension program or community college… i’ve considered getting a master in visual arts management… a master in nonprofit management… but i’ve discovered programs that offer mba’s with concentration on nonprofit management. nothing new but still- cool, right? but i just discovered that there’s even such thing as an mpa- master of public administration that might possibly be more for my fancy of supporting nonprofits. grrr– another thing to research. 

so, to help myself but also to help you decide whether an mba or mpa is the right fit, here are some testimonials i came across from other professionals in the field of development.


MDW: I chose to pursue an MPA with a concentration in nonprofit management.  Overall, the program provided a broad background for someone to pursue a career in the public, nonprofit or private sectors.  It gave a good overview of how the three sectors interact with and influence one another.  Courses included general topics with a focus on these sectors, such as economics, statistics, and general management, as well as those such as law and public affairs, financial management for nonprofits, and a final capstone course.  There were also very specialized nonprofit courses like human and financial resources for philanthropy, ethics and values of philanthropy, nonprofit economy and public policy, human resource management in nonprofits, leadership and board development, fund development for nonprofits, proposal development and grant administration, etc.

The MBA programs seemed to focus more on meeting stockholder expectations and the corporate “bottom line,” something that isn’t the same kind of focus at a nonprofit.  Additionally, I feared not having coursework in things very specific to nonprofits – like proposal development and grant administration – would put me at a disadvantage to fundraise for a nonprofit.

AU: I attended NYU’s Wagner School of Public Service as a part-time student.  The program was attractive to me because of its large percentage of part-time students.  I didn’t want to stop working while attending graduate school, but at the same time, I did not want to attend a full-time program on a part-time basis.  I liked how Wagner encouraged part-time participation and highlighted how the diverse experiences of working students provided a rich learning environment.  I felt that the Wagner program encouraged students to study a wide range of important and applicable topics-everything from finance to managing human resources, to conflict negotiation.  We reviewed numerous case studies and were asked to solve problems that organizations were actually forced to tackle.  Before graduating, the culminating project brought us out of the classroom into real client offices to help them tackle various management obstacles.

I decided on an MPA over an MBA because I felt it covered much of the same information, but was geared toward the non-profit sector, which is where my interests laid.  I felt my program, in particular, forced me to learn an appropriate amount of finance, economics, statistics, policy, etc, all providing a great background for entering the nonprofit world as an employee and strategic manager.

I truly believe my graduate degree helped me get my current job at a nonprofit research foundation.  My current employer values my varied background and the management skills I gained at Wagner.  I do think it was helpful to enter the MPA program after having been in the working world for a couple of years.  It makes a huge difference to be able to apply what you learn in class to real experiences.  At the same time, it’s great to work through real experiences in graduate school and then be able to apply them to your job afterwards.  I think I am able to do this in my current position on a regular basis.


LB: I chose to purse an MBA for several reasons: 1. To advance my education and particularly develop areas and skill sets that I had not developed in my undergraduate studies (quantitative skills, strategic thinking, etc). 2. To allow myself the opportunity to explore a career in the for-profit sector in the short-term.  3. To build skills I had identified that I lacked, and needed, to lead a nonprofit organization in the long-term and provide better volunteer leadership to organizations in both the short- and long-terms.

I chose the top MBA programs in the country to apply to because they offer the best education, network and career services. The MBA is not a degree needed to do anything; it is optional, therefore I found the school’s ranking and name to be extremely significant.  I am seeking access to a network for life and that network is only strong for certain schools. Additionally, I preferred schools that would have more qualitative programs (some MBAs are much more quantitative), however the name recognition being at the top of my list led me to stray a bit from this distinction.

SKR: I selected Yale SOM because while it was an MBA program, I felt that it put a huge emphasis on a well-rounded approach to business and strategy, combining academic and practical curricula.  That’s even more true now that they have overhauled their program.  There are some business schools out there that are more like vocational schools than graduate schools…at Yale, you read academic economics articles and the WSJ.  It’s taken for granted that you need to know why something works instead of just how to make it work.  And rather than teaching business subjects as unrelated (marketing as independent from competitive strategy as independent from finance), they ask that students consider all aspects as interconnected, from the beginning of your program.

When I was looking at schools, I narrowed my search down to a handful of schools where I could get the education I wanted.  Then, the campus visits told me everything.  At one school, I got lost on my way to the admissions office, and when I asked a passing student for directions, I got a withering look, and she said “Oh, I’m not going that way,” before turning on her heel and walking off.  At Yale, the promises that students studying nonprofit management were not seen as second class citizens to those on a more standard MBA track were clearly true, mostly because the majority of the student body is interested in philanthropy in some way – if not as employees in the sector, then as future donors!  PONPO, the program on nonprofit organizations, run by Sharon Oster, was also a huge draw, as was the ability to take classes around the University.

I considered an MPA very briefly since a dear friend was at Fels, loving her experience.  But I am not drawn to government policy work, so it was not a good fit for me.

For the amount of money and time you spend on graduate school, I think you want a degree that impresses people into taking you seriously.  Unless you are going into public policy, exclusively, an MPA does not do that.


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