Law or public affairs: Choosing the best course of study for Hill work

Every summer, thousands of recent college graduates trickle into D.C. in search of a job. Many of these end up seeking — and finding — employment in the fast-paced world of Capitol Hill.

The traditional entry point for these young graduates is the position of staff assistant or legislative correspondent, where they will slave away, oftentimes for a year or more, answering phones, responding to constituent concerns and scheduling tours.

With the Hill’s fluid job market, they will soon be presented with opportunities to move into positions of greater responsibility. But as they move up, many see the need for advanced degrees to prepare them for careers in public service and to help make themselves more competitive for future openings. The question then becomes: What type of advanced degree should they pursue?

The obvious choice would seem to be to enroll in a program for a master’s in public policy (MPP) or public administration (MPA); after all, prospective doctors attend medical school and prospective attorneys attend law school. However, there is no consensus that an MPP is the best preparation for a career in government.

For those who know that they want to focus in a specific policy area, such as foreign policy, obtaining a focused master’s or doctoral degree may be the most advantageous. For those who know simply that they want to work in policy, the debate lies primarily between pursuing a law degree or an MPP/MPA.

The traditional wisdom has been to pursue law. From the most basic perspective, it makes sense that people constructing laws should know the field of law. Additionally, legal educations are intense, honing the skills of critical thinking and clear communication, all while proving the graduate’s mettle. From a career standpoint, a law degree provides a specific skill set that would allow for a relatively easy transition into the legal sector, either permanently or while the other political party is in power.

Recently there has been a rise in attention to MPP/MPA programs, the relative newcomer among professional degrees. At Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, for example, the number of applicants has risen by more than 80 percent since 2001. Compare that to Harvard Law, where applications in the same period have seen modest gains.

Public-affairs programs offer many degree options, but most students choose between an MPP and an MPA. The distinction between these degrees depends on the school, but the former focuses loosely on policy analysis while the latter focuses on management. The vast majority — 80 percent — of people leaving school with one of these degrees will enter the work force with an MPA.

The advantages of the MPP/MPA option are several. First, the MPP/MPA program itself is usually only two years, compared with three for a law degree. Second, these degrees are less focused, allowing students to choose from a wider range of courses than in law school. Third, according to the National Association of Schools of Public Affairs and Administration, these “degrees offer students a unique flexibility in choosing what field they want to enter upon graduation.”

For those who want to enter the field of government, which degree will offer greater competitiveness during the job application process? According to the office of Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), the Senate minority whip, the only position where one degree is preferred is for Judiciary Committee staffers, where a law degree is required. Otherwise, job candidates are evaluated on a case-by-case basis with no special preference given to one educational track over another.

Joseph Cordes, associate director at George Washington University’s School of Public Policy and Public Administration, suggests that the question is a toss-up. He says, “If, for example, a student is interested in doing policy analysis and evaluation [of the sort done at the Congressional Budget Office, the Government Accountability Office, the policy-development units of Cabinet agencies, think tanks, etc.], then either the MPP or an MPA with a program evaluation component provide good preparation. A law degree will provide fewer formal analytic skills; however, it does provide invaluable education in the areas of drafting legislation and regulations.”