Guide to College Majors in Public Administration

I have the consolation of having added nothing to my private fortune during my public service, and of retiring with hands clean as they are empty
--Thomas Jefferson
Table of Contents

What Is Public Administration?

Public administration can be defined as the implementation of policy by civil servants within an official government's executive framework. Public administrators manage nearly every aspect of public service at the federal, state and local levels offering the opportunity to help shape the future.

A public administration degree provides an academic background for individuals pursuing a career in either government or non-governmental/nonprofit organizations. There are several areas of overlap between these pursuits, so an education that combines both will give you competitive strength and allow you to move into either area, according to your own career interests. For example, you may start your career in fundraising for a nonprofit organization, and later become a member of a governmental grant-awarding body. A public administration degree or public policy degree gives you great flexibility in changing career titles.

Like a regular degree in management, a public administration or public policy degree can focus on organizational governance, finance, and administration. With this specialization you can look into jobs in local, state, or federal government; in public service sectors such as healthcare and animal welfare; or non-profit organizations such as arts or international relief agencies.

The one thing all these potential jobs share is motivation--you won't be working for the "bottom line". Your focus will be on intangible factors such as providing services, setting and implementing policies, or the evaluation of social programs. You may be involved in research and development, marketing, financial planning, public relations, or human resource development.

A college degree is increasingly important in public administration and policy. You'll need to have a solid background in computer software applications, but because public administration and policy involve so many "soft" skills, this is an area that is least susceptible to technology advancements. Human contact, judgment, intuition and compassion are not duties that computers can replace.

Career Education in Public Administration

Governmental and non-governmental institutions are evolving, maturing, and overlapping in services, which in turn creates a higher demand for well-educated management specialists in public service. A degree in public administration prepares public/nonprofit professionals to excel in this increasingly complex, politicized, intergovernmental environment. As job competition increases in this growing sector, online degrees in public administration have become more popular among working professionals who want to improve their academic credentials without putting their careers on hold.

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Bachelor's Degrees in Public Administration

To be considered a strong candidate, you should come prepared with at least a bachelor's degree in public administration. Coursework combines standard business principles with the specific knowledge base required in a public organizational setting. Degree programs can emphasize public administration, public policy formulation, public finance problem solving, program development, implementation and valuation, human resources and labor relations, leadership through service to others, management strategies, and critical thinking.

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Learn more about online public administration degree programs offered at these universities:

University of PhoenixKaplan University, & DeVry University

What Can You Do With a College Major in Public Administration?

A career in public administration can cover a broad area of interests and talents. Even if you were to find a book or website entitled "Careers in Public Administration," you would still not have an exhaustive list of your potential professional options. The brief descriptions below might give you a few ideas of where your career path may lead. You will find that most positions require a master's degree in a related business field.

Government Jobs

At the federal government level, you can work as a policy advisor or budget analyst, or jobs focused on constituent service. These careers require at least a master's degree and considerable background interest in the political issues of your chosen agency, division, or bureau.

As a city manager, you would supervise the daily operations of a local government, according to the directives of the elected council. A bachelor's degree is the minimum requirement, but with the level of responsibilities you'll have, a Master of Public Administration (MPA) is more appropriate. You'll use your managerial training and experience to determine what societal programs are needed, to oversee their design and implementation, and to provide an accurate system for monitoring and evaluation. You'll be involved with every department--from crime prevention to senior housing to garbage collection--and you'll answer to the elected officials and the citizens affected by your decisions. Similar job titles include city planner and executive assistant.

If you're interested in more direct contact with the people you're serving, a degree in public administration can prepare you for an upper-level career in social work.

Association Jobs

Associations cater to everyone from special interest groups, trades and professions to religious or political groups. Association executives perform a variety of duties depending on their positions and the size of the association. Their primary duties involve advancing policy agendas and setting goals that will benefit their membership.

Certification, Licensure, and Associations

No specific public administration certification exists since the designation covers such a broad area of careers. You can pursue the same professional designations as your counterparts who work in domestic business arenas. For example, if you're working on international projects, you might go for a Project Management Professional (PMP) certification or Certified Associate in Project Management (CAPM).

The ASPA (American Society for Public Administration) provides members with discussion forums, directed publications, career pools and networking opportunities. Their mandate includes acting as advocates for greater effectiveness in government and promoting change at both the local and international levels.

The National Academy of Public Administration is an independent, non-partisan organization chartered by Congress to assist federal, state, and local governments to improve their effectiveness, efficiency, and accountability. It produces recommendations for member organizations on how to improve their administration and governance, and provides assistance in implementation and follow-up evaluations.

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  • Ranked #23 in National Universities by U.S. News & World Report in 2014.
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