MPA and MBA graduates often guide the work of teams.

MPA vs. MBA: Is Your Career Track in Business or Public Administration?

Business Administration

People interested in advancing their business careers through a master’s degree may ask whether a Master of Business Administration (MBA) or Master of Public Administration (MPA) is the right choice. While the two graduate degrees are similar in terms of the core curriculum, each will support different professional goals.

An MPA is often recommended for individuals looking to work in positions within the public sector, perhaps in leading a nonprofit or philanthropic organization or crafting policy at the federal or state levels. An MPA is a more interdisciplinary degree, often drawing students with a wider variety of academic backgrounds and interests. An MBA is widely regarded as the more traditional pathway toward an advanced business career. The degree helps graduates find work in the private sector in roles related to marketing, finance, sales, and management.

Other differences exist between the two degrees in terms of academic focus, hands-on training, and potential jobs. This article outlines the key factors that differentiate an MBA from an MPA to help students determine which one will best support their personal and professional goals.

An In-Depth Look at an MPA vs. MBA

An MBA is a graduate degree earned after attaining an undergraduate degree. MBA programs help graduates improve their understanding of general business management functions. Typically, MBA programs include core classes in finance, accounting, management, marketing, and business law. Management training is at the basis of the curriculum, with an emphasis on planning, leadership, business strategy, and organizational behavior.

An MPA is a master’s degree in public affairs that gives graduates the skills to serve in executive positions at the federal, state, and municipal levels of government and non-governmental organizations. MPA programs emphasize principles of policy development and management, public administration, and policy implementation. An MPA is widely considered a public sector degree while an MBA is considered a private sector degree.

MPA vs. MBA: Similarities and Differences

An MPA program prepares students for executive careers in government or public roles, while an MBA program can equip students to pursue top-level roles in business. The most important difference between the two is that MPA courses focus on social impact, while MBA courses focus on business operations and cost-efficiency.

An MBA program teaches students the skills to generate profit and increase shareholder value along with delivering value for customers. An MPA program focuses on the public good through governmental response to community interests. MPA programs include lessons on how to judge which policies have the most positive social impact. Graduates learn how to strengthen communities by leading people through shared missions or causes and how to glean input from a wide range of stakeholders.

Skills Gained from the Degrees

Both MPA and MBA programs cultivate leadership, critical thinking, and communication competencies. MPA programs, such as Norwich University’s online Master of Public Administration, focus on problem-solving skills required for innovative leadership in the public sector. Strategic planning, ethics, financial management, and data analysis are crucial elements. By developing leadership abilities through programs like Norwich University’s online Master of Business Administration, students learn how to become inspiring team members to make meaningful contributions. They gain entrepreneurial skills to evaluate markets, set and attain ambitious goals, and think creatively. Developed communication skills help them to effectively convey core values.

MBA programs teach students networking tactics, analytical proficiencies, strategic thinking, and the skills to work efficiently and collaboratively with others.  Norwich University’s online Master of Business Administration program has concentrations in finance, construction management, project management, energy management, organizational leadership, supply chain management, and technology management. Students can refine skills in business management by learning how to apply creative, critical thinking, analytical, and project management skills to identify problems and solutions in line with business goals.

MPA vs. MBA: Career Opportunities

Both the MPA and MBA degrees can help graduates become candidates for a wide variety of career opportunities. MPA roles often relate to policy, while roles for MBA graduates may involve operations or management.

MPA Job Opportunities

An MPA degree can help graduates qualify for roles such as policy manager, public affairs director, and foreign service officer.

Policy Manager

A policy manager typically works to ensure an organization achieves its strategic objectives. Policy managers often work in advocacy, human rights, health care, or other nonprofit institutions. The responsibilities of a policy manager include policy analysis, lobbying, marketing communications, legislative policy, community outreach, and activism. Skills necessary for these jobs, which can be enhanced by MPA coursework, include oral and written communication, time management, project management, and marketing. According to PayScale, as of August 2019, the average annual salary for a policy and advocacy manager is $60,851.  

Public Affairs Director

A public affairs director is responsible for maintaining an organization’s public image and protecting its reputation by working with the media, writing or editing news releases, organizing public events, creating and distributing media kits, organizing fundraising campaigns, and developing branding initiatives. MPA graduates can gain an edge in skills needed for this role such as strategic planning and financial management. According to PayScale as of August 2019, the average annual salary for a public affairs director is $80,558.

Foreign Service Officer

The responsibilities of a foreign service officer include advancing U.S. interests abroad, promoting peace, and supporting prosperity. Foreign service officers serve at embassies, consulates, and other diplomatic missions all over the world. According to PayScale as of August 2019, the average annual salary for a foreign service officer is $89,524.

MBA Job Opportunities

Graduates of MBA programs may find career opportunities such as operations officer, finance director, or chief executive officer.

Operations Officer

An operations officer for the CIA identifies, assesses, develops, recruits, and works with persons who aren’t U.S. citizens but have access to important foreign intelligence affecting U.S. interests. Starting salaries for operations officers range from $59,426 to $90,461, according to the agency.

All CIA operations officers train as a team. In the first one or two years, they learn the basics of clandestine operational tradecraft via practical exercises, classroom training, and on-the-job experience. Advanced training activities prepare them for an occupational specialty.

Director of Finance

Finance directors guide teams in creating strategic plans for the finances of the enterprise. They may develop financial analyses and projections as well as oversee accounting duties. Finance directors prepare budgets and forecasts. They also oversee staff operations, budget compliance, and business planning. According to PayScale as of August 2019, the average annual salary for a finance director is $111,920.

Chief Executive Officer

Often the face of a business, the CEO guides a business with clear goals and strong leadership. CEOs define and formulate the policies and overall direction of the company, adhering to the guidelines set by the founders, board of directors, or other governing bodies. They’re responsible for communicating with investors and shareholders. Occasionally, they serve on a trade association board or committee. According to PayScale as of August 2019, the average annual salary for a CEO is $158,978.

Get Started on Your Graduate Degree with Norwich’s MBA or MPA Program

For graduates seeking to improve their understanding of general business management functions, MBA programs can provide a strong foundation. A program such as Norwich University’s online Master of Business Administration can equip students to pursue top-level roles in business. The University also offers an online Master of Public Administration for those looking to work in the public sector.

As the nation’s oldest private military college, Norwich University has maintained a leadership position in innovative education since 1819. The online MBA curriculum emphasizes planning, leadership, business strategy, and organizational behavior and can prepare students to succeed in areas such as operations, finance, and executive management. In the online MPA program, students focus on the leadership and innovation skills that can enable them to thrive in the government and not-for-profit sectors.

Recommended Readings
What Can You Do with an MBA? 7 Career Paths in the Business World
5 Key Tactics of Successful Project Managers

Career Outlook: Chief Executive Officer

Master of Public Administration (MPA), Investopedia
Master of Business Administration, Norwich University
Master of Public Administration, Norwich University
Average Policy & Advocacy Manager Salary, PayScale
Average Director of Public Affairs Salary, PayScale
Foreign Service Officer, U.S. Department of State
Average Foreign Service Officer Salary, PayScale
Operations Officer, Central Intelligence Agency
Average Finance Director Salary, PayScale
Average Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Salary, PayScale
Career Outlook: Chief Executive Officer, Norwich University