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Carefully consider costs.

Brent F.
Masters in Public Policy (concentration in environmental and energy policy)
American University, 2011

My first job after finishing my undergraduate degree was in the higher education sector, as an admissions counselor.  I enjoyed the work, but it wasn’t what I saw as my “calling.”  I wanted to study public policy, and environmental policy in particular.  I had always had an interest in the natural environment, and in protecting it, and I considered an advanced degree the ideal way to break into the field.

I applied to only two programs: the Maxwell School at Syracuse University, and American University’s School of Public Affairs.  I was accepted to both, but I chose American over the nation’s highest ranked public affairs program for three reasons:

1.) Maxwell offered only a Master of Public Administration (MPA) degree, and I wanted the option of receiving a Master of Public Policy (MPP) in case I wasn’t happy with the MPA

2.) I wanted to study policy in the place where most major policies are made (Washington, DC)

3.) American offered me a full academic scholarship.

I took all of my Master’s degree classes at American on campus, although I lived off campus in houses and apartments.

I received a full academic scholarship for my graduate degree, but I received federal loans for other expenses.  Between undergrad and grad school debt, I currently owe the federal government and private lenders about $50-60K.  I am currently unable to make payments due to my financial situation.

I did work part-time while pursuing my Master’s degree, but I didn’t make enough money to cover much more than minimal auxiliary expenses.

My current job is related to the policy field, but it would not require an MPP degree to perform, nor is it in the environmental or energy fields.  My job title is “consultant” (I work freelance), but I don’t actually consult, per se.  Most of my work involves note-taking and the preparation of meeting summaries and reports, which are then delivered to relevant federal government agencies and project partners.  The situation is not ideal and I am working on finding a position that is more relevant to my education, interests, and experience.

When searching for a graduate program, it can be difficult to decide what degree one wants to pursue.  Because graduate education is usually much more specialized, the choice between, for example, an MPA and an MPP can involve both self-reflection and a cost-benefit analysis (i.e. pros vs. cons).

I cannot stress enough that anyone considering a graduate degree needs to think seriously about whether or not pursuing that degree will help them, and whether that help will be more short-term or long-term.  I left a career that I enjoyed to enter a public policy program during a time of recession and government cut-backs.  At this point, it may be the worst decision I have ever made, from a financial point of view.  Only time will tell whether my decision will pay off in the long run.

For students who are less concerned about finances, this may be irrelevant.  Besides, had I made a different decision, I would have lost out on some great experiences.  I would not have experienced life in a beautiful, thriving city, and I would not have made some good friends or met the great girl that I am dating.  To use a cliché, hindsight is 20/20, and potential grad students won’t be able to fully evaluate their experience until after they graduate, and maybe not for many years after.  I would just recommend careful consideration of one’s finances and current life situation.

EduTrek Comments

  • Think about whether or not getting a degree is going to help you advance your career, and if that boost will be in the short-term or long-term. Not all graduate programs will result in immediate career progress.
  • Thoroughly examine your current financial situation before taking the plunge into higher education.
  • When pursuing a degree, carefully consider what type of degree to get in your chosen field.