Dear Bureaucrat,

I’ve been working as an assistant investigator in a public defender office for nearly two years. I like it, and I want to continue a career helping people caught up in the criminal justice system, but there is no room to promote me in my agency. Should I go back to school for a Master in Public Administration degree so I can move ahead in my career?

Signed, Woodrow W.

Dear Woodrow,

It makes sense to get a graduate degree, even though you can pick up knowledge to do your job from books, web courses or classes outside a degree program. The degree will make employers more comfortable with hiring or promoting you. You face three decisions: which degree, which school, and full-time in-person classes or a different format.

An MPA or an MPP (Master in Public Policy) is not necessarily better than other graduate degrees for getting public sector jobs. For example, the federal civil service does not have any job series that requires education specifically in public administration, public policy or public management, even though it has job series that require education specifically in other fields, including accounting, economics and social work. So for you, a Master in Criminal Justice might impress employers as much or more than an MPA. Similarly, a degree in urban planning, public health, etc., would do as well as an MPA for people working in those fields.

It is also worth considering law school, even if you do not intend to practice law. Research by Nick Robinson found that throughout history the majority of U.S. presidents, vice presidents and cabinet officers, as well as the plurality of members of Congress, have been lawyers. These lawyer politicians tend to hire lawyers as political appointees, who then hire lawyers as senior executives, even for non-law jobs. So the upper echelons of many agencies are clubs of non-practicing lawyers.

Programs that award a certificate are generally not good substitutes for a degree. Prospective employers do not know what level of learning a certificate represents, unless they happen to be familiar with that particular certificate from that particular school.

To choose which degree to pursue, identify some people who have jobs you will want in the future, and find out what degrees they have. You don’t need to know these people, since you can find their educational background on the web.

For any degree, you will find programs ranging from attending classes full time in residence, to night school and “low residency” programs, to completely online. Full-time programs are great if you can afford them. They put the least strain on your self-discipline, because you are in an environment where schoolwork is the primary job. They make it easier to develop relationships with faculty and fellow students that might lead to opportunities in your career. Some of the most prestigious schools only offer their degrees through full time programs. And it can be fun to live as a full time graduate student for a year or two. But giving up your job to attend school might be unaffordable for you, or you might have family responsibilities that preclude moving for school. Online programs, or those with an in-person schedule that works around your job, can provide a degree with less financial sacrifice and disruption to your life.

The reputation of the graduate school you attend, and the connections of its faculty to your potential employers, can make a big difference early in your career. I think the reputation of my graduate school helped me land my first job. And I know faculty connections mattered for getting my second job, because I was hired by a government official who had been one of my professors. Assess the reputation of the schools you are considering by asking senior people in your field. If they have a favorable impression of the school, great. If they show any indication of suspecting the school is a diploma mill, then be warned that potential employers may have the same impression, whether justified or not.

To assess whether a school’s faculty have connections that may help you later in your career, look up who teaches the courses you would take, then check their curricula vitae and web sites. Are they involved in jobs, committees or research projects that give them connections to the people you will want to hire you?

You are already a step ahead. Because you have been working in your field, you can identify the jobs you might want to advance to, and choose a degree and school based on what has worked for people who have those jobs.

Dear Bureaucrat is a new feature on Federal Times, providing advice for people who work in the public sector and the opportunity for the federal workforce to submit questions about their careers to David S. Reed, founder of the Center for Public Administrators, a 501(c)(3) civil society organization that builds communities of practice in the public sector. Reed has spent 35 years in and around government. He has worked for large contractors, owned a small contractor, and is currently a government employee. He holds a Master in Public Policy from the Harvard Kennedy School, and is a frequent speaker at public administration conferences.

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