A Master of Public Administration (MPA) degree and a Master of International Relations degree are two of the more common graduate degree options for students interested in government and public affairs. With the line sometimes blurring between the domestic and international realms, it can be difficult to know which degree is more closely aligned with your interests and goals. This article highlights some of the differences between the two degree programs and the career areas where each degree might be more advantageous.
An MPA is primarily designed to prepare students for leadership in the public sector, which includes local, state or federal government, and in nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). Combining coursework from a Master of Business Administration (MBA) and a Master of Public Policy (MPP), an MPA focuses on theory, management and ethics through exploring and analyzing the work of public institutions. With this coursework, students can become better prepared for a career in progressively higher positions of public service. An MPA is generally a two-year, full-time degree, and some universities offer online course options for study at home.
MPA curricula tend to focus on three areas. First, the MPP element of the degree focuses on analyzing and implementing public policy. Second, the MBA element provides instruction in management of individuals, teams and overall strategic planning of an organization. Third, MPA students take coursework in ethics and transparency. As public institutions are held accountable by a nation’s citizens, public service professionals must learn to make their decisions with transparency, laws and regulations in mind.
Like an MPA, a master’s degree in international relations focuses on both governmental and nongovernmental organizations. However, in international relations, these organizations are examined in the context of their relationships and influence with other countries. International relations students combine theory and practical analysis to examine global issues like war, poverty, security, economics, trade and diplomacy. As a social science, international relations students learn to make future predictions by analyzing current trends in foreign affairs. These predictions can be used by researchers, citizens and public leaders to inform and guide opinions and policy decisions.
Given the international focus in this discipline, international relations degrees tend to be multi-disciplinary and include a strong foreign language component. Other subjects include government, economics, history, law, sociology, ethics and political philosophy. International relations students are tasked with understanding a great deal about a diverse world and its people. With this breadth comes the requirement of learning about several different subject areas at once.
The MPA and the Master of International Relations programs are both designed to prepare professionals for leadership roles in government. The key difference lies in the focus of the degrees. While an MPA does include some discussion of international issues, particularly in terms of providing context for national developments, the degree typically tends to be domestic in focus. That is, students choose an MPA program if they wish to work primarily with national issues in local, state or federal organizations. The Master of International Relations degree, as you might expect, shifts this focus to the wider world. International relations students do analyze domestic policy decisions, but they tend to do so with the greater aim of understanding how international events are affected by the decisions.
It can also be useful to think about future career goals before choosing one program over the other. MPA graduates are qualified to work in a wide range of public institutions, including those that may have some international policy focus. MPA graduates can also be found in NGOs and public service organizations in the nonprofit or private sectors. If there is a job with a link to the public sector, an MPA graduate is likely qualified to fill it. International relations graduates, however, tend to be found in organizations with explicit international ties, as these graduates can excel in arenas where foreign policy is the key professional focus.