What Does a Career in Public Administration Entail?
Public administration is a field that attempts to explain how government decisions are made to the general population, and workers also find ways to create projects that carry out those decisions. A public administration degree is the first step toward a career in the non-profit sector, the government, or for anyone who is interested in tackling the more significant challenges facing our society.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), people working in public administration jobs spend a good deal of time implementing government and public policy, managing people and resources, conducting inspections, and acting as a consultant. This role requires a great deal of analysis and a clear understanding of public policy and how to bridge the gap between decision-makers and their constituents.
Public Administrator jobs vary by location and may involve working in the government or with a non-profit organization.
Though many people pursue a public administration degree, not everyone is capable of turning that experience into a fulfilling and successful career. In many cases, employers prefer a candidate with a master’s degree.
Because the job of public administrator involves mastering a wide range of competencies, professionals must be aware of what’s required before enrolling in a program. Here are some of the traits essential for public administrators:
What can you do with a Degree in Public Administration?
Public Administration covers a broad range of workplace settings and positions. Meaning, earning your degree could land you in the healthcare system, a government agency, or a non-profit. Most jobs center around implementing programs designed to serve the public or help a particular population.
After earning a bachelor’s degree, you can pursue work as a public health administrator, public services administrator, or find a similar role within a public agency.
Typical Public Administration Degree Requirements
Many colleges and universities offer undergraduate coursework in public administration or public policy. To gain entry into a reputable program, you’ll need to submit high school transcripts or a score from your GED exam, and potentially, SAT or ACT scores, letters of recommendation, and a personal essay.
Relevant coursework will cover several areas including management theories, organizational structures, economics, sociology, and politics/government. To earn a bachelor’s degree, you’ll need to complete about 120 credit hours, spread across general education requirements and your area of specialization.
Typical Public Administration Degree Certifications Needed
Professional certification is not a requirement in this field, but it is an option. Professional organizations, like the American Academy of Certified Public Managers or the Public Health Practitioner Certification Board, offer credentials that can help you advance your career. Certain positions, like emergency management director may require a credential.
The National CPM Consortium offers 300-hour programs aimed at providing students with the Certified Public Manager credential. Program participants will learn about capital budgeting, labor laws, planning dynamics, and general management skills.
To enroll in a CPM program, you must have a minimum of a bachelor’s degree as well as some professional experience under your belt. We should mention that this is a voluntary credential, but it may help you increase your earning potential or secure a job in a competitive field.
Exam/Experience Needed for a Public Administration Degree
Training requirements vary by job level and employer. A bachelor’s degree is generally the minimum educational requirement, although many roles in public administration require a master’s degree.
To work in this field, you’ll need a degree from an accredited institution in a related field. Social work, public affairs, public policy, or business administration degrees are also viable options if you’re interested in this line of work.
If you’re looking to work in a management role, you’ll generally need to build up several years of experience working for a public agency. A master’s degree or certification can help you reduce the amount of time spent “paying your dues.”
Skills Needed to Succeed
Leadership Management, whether in the public sphere or the private sector, centers around effective leadership skills. But, leadership in the public services field means you’re approaching things with the public’s best interests in mind, rather than looking out for the bottom line above all.
Communication A big part of working in public administration is acting as a liaison between policymakers and the public. As such, you’ll need to be a good listener and skilled at relaying information in a way that’s easy to understand. Your ability to synthesize information and turn it into a public address or written document will help you go far in this business.
Project Management Public administration involves an awful lot of projects. In this role, you’ll be responsible for making public policy decisions a reality and will assign tasks, create deadlines, set budgets, and work to ensure milestones are met promptly.
Budgeting Public administrators must also have an in-depth knowledge of finances and the laws associated with spending tax-payer or donor dollars on public programs. While in school, you’ll learn more about funding sources and cash flow as they relate to public works.
Important Questions to Ask
How long does it take to earn a Public Administration bachelor's degree online?
A traditional on-campus degree in public administration takes about four years to complete. A credible online program will follow the same model as their in-person counterparts. So long as students are enrolled full-time, they can expect to take 120 credit hours over the course of four years.
That said, those taking online classes do have some additional flexibility built in. In some cases, you may be able to accelerate your online degree. However, you’re still subject to the institution’s scheduling and the cost of taking on additional classes. Online students generally opt for this route over on-campus learning as they have a full-time job, familial obligations, or live far away from a school.
How much does a Public Administration bachelor’s degree cost?
The costs associated with earning your online bachelor’s degree depends on several factors. State residents receive lower tuition than those pursuing a degree out-of-state. Some online degree programs allow all students access to resident rates, while others do not.
Private schools are generally more expensive than state schools, and prices range considerably based on location, reputation, and more. In short, the best answer is—it depends. Overall, you can expect to pay between $25,000 and $68,000 for an online degree in public administration.
On-campus degrees come with added costs like housing, meal plans, or transportation costs if you live off-campus. Online degrees may come with added costs in the form of technology fees. In general, though, you can expect to save some money by taking classes online, though cost-per-credit tends to be about the same either way.
Public Administration Bachelor's Degree Coursework
Coursework involved in a public administration degree includes general education requirements, as well as specialized courses covering public administration, government, leadership, and more.
Students will learn more about organizational management, in the context of non-profits and government agencies, as well as the US political culture. Students will also develop their problem-solving skills, communication, and organization ability.
Does the school have the major(s) you’re considering?
Naturally, whether the school even has the program you’re considering is going to weigh heavily in your decision. Not all schools have public administration programs, though many have similar programs like public policy, political science, or public relations. There are slight differences between these fields of study, so you’ll want to do some research and speak to an admissions officer before enrolling.
How many students graduate “on time,” in four years?
Graduation rates are often thought to be a key marker of accountability in higher education. In general, whether students finish what they started is indicative of the quality of an institution. If students tend to drop out or take several extra years to complete a degree, it may be a sign that the school has failed to provide the resources needed for students to succeed.
On the other hand, students drop out or take breaks for all sorts of reasons, so this doesn’t necessarily mean that a school is low-quality. A school that has a lower than average graduation rate might not be your best bet, but this isn’t the most important consideration when selecting a school.
What kind of accreditation does the program hold? How is it regarded in the field?
When evaluating colleges and universities, it is vital to ensure that the program is accredited. Accreditation guarantees that you’ll receive a quality education recognized by employers and potentially, graduate programs. The best public administration degrees will hold both regional and national accreditation.
There are many accrediting agencies recognized by the US Department of Education, including seven U.S. organizations awarding regional accreditation. Regional accreditation can be more prestigious than national, as there are more regulations in place that govern the curricula and the institution on the whole.
Software, Technology and Skills Needed
Overall, you don’t need to be a super tech-savvy person to excel in a public administration role. However, most students should enter the program with some computer skills. And, it’s worth noting that advances in artificial intelligence and data science are changing the face of just about every industry, including public administration.
As such, here are some software and tech skills you should learn—whether during your coursework or on your own.
Artificial Intelligence for Customer Service Machine learning methods that analyze customer sentiment are already hitting the private sector and expanding to public programs. AI can help administrators learn about problems facing the public and help admins identify issues quickly.
Social Media Many adults look to social media to find information. Social platforms help public administrators connect with the public. Tech-savvy public administrators can work to foster a connection with the people they serve.
Database Management This does sound like a vague skill but it’s a desirable one. As data collection becomes an increasingly vital piece of the business organization, so does the ability to manage that information effectively and securely.
Project Management Software Project management is a big piece of the public administration skillset. There are countless project management tools out there and many companies develop their own.
Becoming a public administrator involves getting at least a bachelor’s degree, though many positions prefer candidates with a master’s degree. That said, there is a range of options available to aspiring public administrators.
An associate’s in public administration has the same downside that most associate degrees have. It will only prepare you for entry-level positions and it may hinder any upward mobility in the available positions. However, if you research programs, you may be able to find one that you can complete from home and then transfer those credits to a bachelor’s later on. This can give you the flexibility to get started n your degree and gain you bachelors in a shorter timeframe.
While the educational requirements for jobs in this field vary by role, location, or organization, students interested in this degree can build a strong foundation by earning a bachelor’s degree first. Programs, like a degree in public policy, public management, political science, or public administration will teach more about the ins and outs of the government and the process of creating and implementing policies.
Bachelor’s degrees usually consist of about 120 credit hours of coursework, which the student should be able to finish in 4 years if they are taking a full load of credits each semester. If a student has already completed an associate’s, with transferrable credits, that time can be shortened considerably. After finishing their degree students will have the option to continue their education with a masters, as most advanced positions in this field require an advanced degree to match, or move into a career in the field.
Remember as you consider moving from your bachelors to either your masters or career, there is certification you can attain after your masters that focuses on becoming a Certified Public Manager.
Institutions requirements vary, but this is some of the coursework you might see in a bachelor’s program:
General Education Courses (Much of your first 2 years will be devoted to Gen. Ed.)
A master’s degree in public administration will prepare you to manage an organization that provides a public service. Public administrators work in all areas of the public sphere, at the federal, state, and local levels. The degree program typically gives students the skills needed to handle government relations, work with the public, as well as excel in general organizational management after graduation.
Most degree programs take about 24 months to complete—whether you choose to learn online or off. Curriculum generally covers leadership development, theory, and a deep dive into public policy issues, public safety, project management, and more.
Master’s Degree coursework in Public Administration includes:
Social and Cultural Environments
Public Budgeting and Financial Management
Concentrations: Government, Public Health, Non-Profit Administration, and City Management
Public Administration Careers and Earning Potential
A bachelor’s degree in Public Administration provides a decent selection of job opportunities upon graduation. There are roles at every level—from assistant to manager and beyond, and there’s no requirement that prospective job seekers have a master’s degree to enter the field.
According to the BLS, those with a bachelor’s degree working in public administration have a median salary of about $60,000, though earnings vary depending on role and work environment. For example, you’ll likely earn more at a government organization or in the healthcare industry than you would in a nonprofit setting. Those with an associate degree will likely make less, but if they have connections in the industry, or luck, they could find a position that makes a similar amount. The issue then will be the lack of opportunities to move up.
So, earning a master’s degree in Public Administration, Public Health, or Public Policy will likely pay off. The US Census Bureau reports that those with a master’s degree can earn around $19,000 more per year than their counterparts without an advanced degree. Master’s grads may also have more opportunities available, at a higher level—think management positions or high-profile roles in governmental organizations.
Public Administration Fields of Study Median Salaries
Field of Study
Entry Level Salary
Public Affairs programs focus on policy development and analysis, as well as economics, public health, and government. Public affairs are part public service - part social science; a discipline focused on learning and leveraging theories into applied knowledge to improve society.
Students will be expected to complete traditional coursework, along with community-based internships aimed at deepening their knowledge.
Public Administration students will study public policy, management of civic organizations like government agencies or non-profits, as well as politics, economics, budgeting, and human resources.
This degree is similar to political science or public policy. However, this field focuses a bit more on the business management side of public organizations. Students will learn project management skills and gain some background knowledge in what it takes to run a program. You’ll likely need to complete an internship or capstone project within the community, along with your traditional coursework.
Political Science programs combine humanities with quantitative subjects like statistics, demographic research, and a look at public policy. A bachelor’s program will cover areas of general studies, as well as a look at world governments, political theories, and world events.
This area of study provides a broad, general knowledge that can be applied to jobs in media, non-profits, government organizations, or as an analyst.
In other cases, political science majors may choose to further their education by going to law school, obtaining a teaching credential, or earning a master’s in public administration, public health, or a related field.
Public Policy majors focus on a combination of economics, political science, sociology, and more and will develop a keen understanding of how public policies are shaped and implemented. This degree will prepare students for work in law, government, activism, public service, or business.
Public Administration Salaries by Occupation
Public Administration Consultant
Executive Director Nonprofit
Public Relations Specialist
Human Resources Manager
Public Policy Director
Public Administration Consultant
A public administration consultant provides professional advice on policy development and decision making. This person should have an in-depth understanding of budgeting and finance, as well as the ability to make informed recommendations to public figures, non-profits, and government agencies.
Additionally, you might work to help organizations increase funding or meet other significant goals.
Executive Director, Non-Profit
This person functions as a CEO for a non-profit or public organization. Directors are responsible for day to day operations and work closely with the board of directors, as well as other internal leaders.
City managers work to improve a city’s government and make public agencies run more efficiently. In this role, you’ll apply business theories and principles to managing a city, looking for ways to increase revenue, setting budgets, and overseeing operations.
Public Relations Specialist
Public relations specialists help to create a positive public image for the organizations they work with. In the context of public administration, this professional works to bridge the gap between the public and the policymakers. Meaning, they may work to get the public on board with specific initiatives as well as create an accessible online presence for an organization.
Human Resources Manager
Human resources is another solid choice for someone with a public administration background. In this role, you can work in the public or private sector developing policies that ensure an organization runs smoothly. Human resources managers must have an in-depth knowledge of leadership development, benefits, employee relations, and recruiting.
Harry S. Truman Scholarship Program A competitive scholarship open to rising juniors and seniors planning to continue on to graduate studies in Public Administration. Students cannot apply to this scholarship on their own but may be nominated by a faculty member at their college. Recipients will receive monetary aid, as well as the opportunity to participate in leadership programs and access to employment opportunities.
NFBPA National Scholarship Program The National Forum for Black Public Administrators offers a scholarship to minority students currently enrolled in a full-time undergraduate or graduate program at an accredited college. Students must display outstanding leadership skills, submit a signed application, official college transcripts, two letters of recommendation, and a three-page autobiographical essay.
Pride Foundation Political Leadership Scholarship The Pride Foundation scholarship is awarded to students enrolled in a public policy program such as public administration, law, or public policy and interested in doing work that improves the lives of the LQBTQ community. Students must be enrolled in a full-time program in Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, or Washington and preference will be given to LGBTQ students, or low-income, minority, or first-generation applicants.
Young Women in Public Affairs Awards The Zonta International organization grants the Young Women in Public Affairs Scholarship to students on an annual basis. To qualify, students must identify as female and be pursuing a degree in public administration, international affairs, or government. Qualified students must live in a Zonta district and be committed to volunteerism, have leadership experience, and be committed to advancing the status of women on a global scale. Applicants must provide two letters of recommendation, four short essay responses, and proof of current enrollment at an accredited college or university.
George D. Miller Scholarship Fund Created in memory of retired Air Force Lieutenant General, George D. Miller, this scholarship fund assists students enrolled in public administration or fire service degree programs. Qualified students must be planning on pursuing a career in fire service, have completed at least one year of post-secondary schooling, and be attending an accredited college or university in the US or Canada.
American Society for Public Administration
The ASPA promotes both the teaching and practice of public administration and non-profit work. This organization provides several online resources to members including news, a quarterly magazine, an annual conference, and a code of ethics to those working in the field. This also serves as an excellent resource for those just starting their career in public administration.
National Academy of Public Administration
The National Academy of Public Administration is a nonpartisan, congressionally-chartered organization that provides advice to government officials. The organization is composed of former government leaders, scholars, public policy workers, business leaders, and more.
The 850+ fellows serve as thought leaders in all things public policy, from finances to organizational management.
Public Management Research Association
The PMRA is a non-profit academic association that furthers research on public management. This organization supports theory building and analysis based on social science principles and how they play out in the public sector. Members may attend the annual conference, as well as access the academic journal.
American Political Science Association
This organization has been around since 1903 and serves as the leading professional organization for political science and public policy. The APSA has put together a range of programs aimed at bringing together public policy professionals at all ends of the field. Membership is offered on a sliding scale based on income levels, and individual members will gain access to networking opportunities, career resources, data and research, publications, and professional development opportunities.
Choosing an Accredited College
It’s important to know that the degree program you choose is fully accredited. You’ll want to seek out a program that will allow you to secure the job you want after graduation and that is recognized by other institutions should you decide to continue your studies down the road.
In some cases, a school that lacks accreditation isn’t a deal breaker for an employer, but it may be a bigger deal when you’re working in the public sector than in other fields where you’re working for yourself or performing a hands-on trade like plumbing or computer programming.
Make sure you do your research and that you choose a program that has both national and regional accreditation if possible. The latter is more prestigious, as states set higher standards that their educational institutions must meet. At the national level, accreditation standards have a different focus..
Online vs. On-Campus vs. Hybrid
Another thing you’ll want to consider is how you’d like to earn your degree. In recent years, online learning has become an increasingly viable option, perfect for those who work full-time or have other obligations during their stint as a student. Online courses are generally just as rigorous as their on-campus counterparts, but you’ll need to do a bit more research to ensure that your program is accredited.
There are a lot of programs out there advertised as a way to further your career, but many don’t have accreditation. Start your search by looking into online programs offered through state or private universities that provide traditional, on-campus courses.
Additionally, when you’re considering how you’ll earn your degree, don’t discount hybrid courses. Hybrid programs strike a happy medium between fully online programs and on-campus degree options. Here, you’ll be able to attend a lecture here and there, or meet for an event, while doing the bulk of your work at home.
A hybrid program can give you a bit more connection to a school—contact with fellow students and faculty, which is, of course, a valuable component of earning a degree.
Does the College Have Post-Graduate Job Placement Help & Assistance?
Another thing to consider is whether the program has any resources for graduates available. Some schools offer help finding a job, securing an internship, and valuable mentorship opportunities.
If you’re pursuing an online degree, you will also want to find out whether the school provides the same resources to online students as to those participating in offline learning. Ideally, your program will value all students equally—otherwise, it might be time to look elsewhere.
Why You Need to Consider that Rating/accreditation Can Affect Your Salary
A school’s reputation can make or break your career. It’s not necessarily true that you need to attend the highest profile school, but you should ensure that your degree comes from an accredited school with a decent reputation, as it could make a difference in how employers perceive your ability to do the job.
Beyond looking into accreditation, see what students have to say. Online reviews can reveal what admissions officers do not—an honest look at what it’s like to attend a particular school. This will allow you to learn more about the faculty, the school’s resources, as well as student outcomes.