MPA vs. JD: Which Degree Is Better?

As you plan out your education and career paths, you may have decided that you want to work with public policy and make changes that improve society. Both an MPA and a JD degree may help you to achieve those goals, but in different ways. 

Deciding between an MPA and a JD is a personal and subjective decision, and neither education path is better than the other. However, the more you understand about the focus of each program and its potential career paths, the better you may choose a degree that supports your career goals. 

Should You Go to Law School or Earn an MPA?

Deciding whether to attend law school or obtain an MPA may be a difficult decision to make. It’s important to consider your interests and your desires when choosing which path is right for you. 

Both going to law school and earning an MPA may prepare you for careers that can improve situations for individuals and society as a whole. However, the potential job positions that you’ll be eligible for may vary. 

With a law degree such as a juris doctor (JD), you’ll be prepared to take the bar and become an attorney. An MPA degree—master of public administration—helps you to develop skills and knowledge beneficial for leadership positions in a variety of settings and concentrations.

The right education path may depend on your experience and your career aspirations. This may be a tough choice, so think carefully about the type of career you want, how much time you’re willing to spend in school and the ideal setting and industry where you’d eventually like to look.

Do You Want to Make Policies or Enforce Them?

One of the best ways to understand the differences between an MPA and a JD is to consider the type of work that each program prepares you to do. 

An MPA program (or a master of public policy program) focuses on the skills that may be beneficial for public policy development and implementation. You may study topics like economics, public ethics, public policy law and organization theory. As a result, you’ll understand how policy development works and how to enact policy. You might work as a city manager, a budget analyst or a political analyst, and in many positions, you’ll have an active role in policymaking. These roles may be in the government, health, nonprofit industries and more. 

In contrast, a JD degree program may help you develop skills for a legal role that would enforce those public policies. The JD degree may prepare you to take the bar exam and become a lawyer. Lawyers may specialize in many different fields, like employment or tax law, and then help to ensure that policies are appropriately enforced. 

The education path that’s right for you may largely depend on whether you want to make policies or enforce them. 

Why Choose a Master’s in Public Administration?

Sometimes called the MBA for the public sector, the MPA is a versatile degree program that may prepare you for a variety of degrees in the public or nonprofit sector. Depending on your career goals, there are many reasons to get an MPA. Whether you’re just completing your undergraduate degree or have been working in the field for a few years, an MPA might be the next logical step in your career. 

MPA Degree Prerequisites

Common prerequisites for an MPA include a bachelor’s degree from an accredited institution. Some programs may also require that applicants take the Graduate Records Exam (GRE) and include those test scores with their application.

While application requirements may vary depending on the school, specific programs may have specific undergraduate GPA requirements. You might be required to provide letters of recommendation, as well as a personal statement. Some schools also may require a resume. Be sure to check the program you are interested in for specific prerequisites.

MPA Coursework

An MPA curriculum may be designed to help you better understand modern public policy. Your courses may include topics like public administration history, ethics and other areas that provide you with a well-rounded background in and understanding of how public policy works.

In addition to these policy-specific courses, some programs may also include master’s-level business courses to prepare you for managerial roles. You’ll learn about project management techniques, emotional intelligence and other business principles that are essential for thoughtful and effective leadership and decision-making.

Common core MPA courses may focus on the fundamentals of public service, the economic principles of public service, data analysis, applied research methods, public policy and politics and more. 

In addition to the standard MPA courses, many programs allow you to focus on concentrations. Some of the potential concentrations include: 

  • Nonprofit management
  • Public management
  • International management
  • Policy analysis
  • Public policy
  • Applied politics
  • State and local administration
  • Public financial management
  • Health care administration
  • Human resources administration

If you choose a concentration, then you may take your core courses as well as elective courses that focus on your concentration area.

In addition to traditional coursework, many MPA programs may also require that you complete seminars and capstone courses. These more hands-on experiences help you to utilize the information that you’ve learned through your coursework, preparing you to put that information to use in your career.

MPA Time Commitment

How long does an MPA take? It may depend on whether you’re pursuing the program on a full-time or part-time basis. Most MPA programs can be completed in two years when taken on a full-time basis. If you’re eager to become a public administrator sooner, you might want to explore an accelerated or fast-track program. These programs offer an accelerated pace, sometimes allowing students to begin their graduate-level coursework while still completing their bachelor’s degrees. These accelerated programs may often be completed within one year.

What Skills Does an MPA Teach You?

An MPA teaches you valuable skills that you may use in your public service career, but many of those skills also transfer to other fields, too: 

  • Creative and critical thinking and problem-solving skills: While earning your degree, you may be prompted to think critically and to solve problems. These are essential skills that apply to almost any career. 
  • Public speaking and written communication talents: As an MPA student, you may develop your oral and written communication skills, which can help you in many public sector careers as well as jobs in different fields.
  • Leadership and managerial skills: Your MPA degree program may prepare you for leadership positions as a public administrator, policy analyst and more. You may learn how to effectively lead and manage teams.
  • Collaboration skills: Your degree program may help you to develop and refine collaboration skills. You may learn how to work as part of a team, how to be diplomatic in a wide array of situations and how to effectively communicate with others.
  • Research skills and planning skills: As an MPA student, you may learn how to research and develop plans. You may gain experience in performing program analyses. These skills are highly valuable in many fields, including business-related opportunities.
  • Budgeting talents: An MPA program focuses on essential finance skills, like how to develop a budget for a program. These may be important skills in many business, nonprofit and management settings.

Potential Careers With an MPA or MPP Degree

Earning an MPA may prepare you for a wide variety of career options. Since you may learn how to implement government policies, you could work in settings including government offices, nonprofits, education, healthcare or in the private sector. 

Potential MPA careers may depend on the industry in which you want to work, as well as your degree specialization and areas of interest: 

  • Nonprofit management career options
    • Public policy director 
    • Director of operations
    • Government relations manager

  • Government careers at the local, state and federal levels
    • City councilor
    • Director of community services
    • Civil rights analyst
    • Budget analyst

  • Public administrative careers 
    • Education administrator
    • Elementary, middle and high school principal
    • Postsecondary education administrator
    • Preschool and childcare center director

  • Private sector career options
    • Human resources manager
    • Top executive
    • Management analyst

  • Healthcare careers
    • Manager of training and quality assurance
    • Director of health access programs
    • Director of government and regulatory affairs
    • Policy analyst

It’s helpful to consider your overall career goals and the type of work you want to do when determining which potential MPA career is right for you.

Why Choose a Juris Doctor?

The juris doctorate or juris doctor (JD) degree is a broad law degree that you might earn before you take the bar exam. Common reasons to get a JD include wanting to prepare for a career as an attorney or wanting to pursue a career that requires a background in law.

JD Prerequisites

Most JD programs have specific requirements for acceptance. In addition to completing your bachelor’s degree, you will need to take the Law School Admission Test (LSAT) and submit your LSAT score to the school. Many schools also require college transcripts, letters of recommendation, a personal statement and a record of your work experience. Law schools tend to put heavy emphasis on applicants’ undergraduate GPA and LSAT scores. Be sure to check the program you are interested in for specific prerequisites. 

JD Coursework

JD programs provide a broad education on law. Common topics include civil procedure, contracts, criminal law, constitutional law, property, torts and administrative or regulatory law. 

Schools accredited by the American Bar Association also include specific classes and courses in their JD programs. Students may complete a professional responsibility course, as well as a legal writing course. Additionally, students may take part in a course that provides experiential learning, such as a field placement or a simulation.

While MPA coursework focuses on public service fundamentals like leadership and planning, JD courses focus on the different areas of law that may give you a well-rounded foundation as a lawyer. 

JD Time Commitment

So how long does a JD take? Most JD programs take three years to complete, but if you pursue a program online, it might take a little longer. JD programs are rigorous and demanding programs that require your full focus, and the first year of law school tends to be the most demanding. Be prepared to fully dedicate yourself to your studies while you’re pursuing a JD. 

To become a lawyer, you will need to complete a JD program, pass the ethics exam and complete other requirements before the state swears you in as a lawyer. You’ll also want to prepare for the bar exam and apply to sit for the bar. The bar is lengthy and highly difficult, and it’s possible you may have to take it multiple times before you pass. The amount of time that it takes to become an attorney may depend on when you take the ethics and bar exams and how quickly you pass. 

What Skills Does a JD Teach You?

A JD program may teach you many important skills beyond the legal-specific knowledge that you’ll gain. Many of the skills that you’ll develop in this program are versatile and applicable to careers within many different industries: 

  • Communication skills: Your degree program may teach you valuable oral and written skills, as well as the art of debate. You’ll be a more effective communicator as a result. 
  • Analytical skills: During a JD program, you may develop critical thinking and reasoning skills, as well as problem-solving skills that are valuable in nearly any career. 
  • Research skills: You may learn how to perform thorough and detailed legal research, and you may develop attention to detail. 
  • Relationship skills: As a JD student, you may learn how to develop a rapport with clients and how to build trust. 

Potential Careers With a Law Degree

If you want to practice law or become a lawyer, most states require a JD degree. For JD holders who pass the bar, there are plenty of potential jobs, depending on your area of interest: 

  • Advertising lawyer
  • Administrative or regulatory attorney
  • Admiralty and maritime lawyer
  • Antitrust lawyer
  • Appellate lawyer
  • Arbitration, mediation and dispute resolution attorney
  • Banking lawyer
  • Compliance attorney
  • Corporate lawyer
  • Criminal prosecutor
  • Education lawyer
  • Elder law attorney
  • Energy lawyer
  • Environmental lawyer
  • Divorce attorney
  • Health care lawyer
  • Civil rights lawyer
  • Immigration attorney
  • Intellectual property lawyer
  • Judicial clerk
  • Employment lawyer
  • Political attorney
  • Tax lawyer
  • Trial lawyer

But your JD degree doesn’t limit you only to being a practicing lawyer. In fact, you may explore careers in many different fields, like becoming a law librarian, working as a consultant or teaching law in academic settings. If you want to work in politics or advocacy, a law background may also be useful. 

If you don’t want to go through the process of getting a JD, but you are still interested in law, then consider a Master of Legal Studies (MLS). The MLS program focuses on teaching you how to apply legal procedures and theory in your workplace, giving you professional-level legal training that you may use to navigate negotiations, contracts, human resource management and other on-the-job challenges. 

With an MLS degree, you might choose to become a paralegal or legal assistant, a compliance officer and more.

JD/MPA Dual Degree Programs

If the benefits of both a JD and MPA program appeal to you, you don’t necessarily have to choose between the two. Joint degree programs allow you to obtain both JD and MPA degrees simultaneously. These programs prepare you to be a leader in law, government, policy organizations, non-governmental organizations and other settings. 

Potential career options include working as a career executive, administrator or policy official in government and nonprofit organization careers. This broad education in law and government is highly versatile and ideal for many career paths.

When Do You Need an MPA, JD or Both?

Both an MPA and JD degree may be useful for public service careers. To determine which  one you may need, it’s important to consider your desired career path. 

An MPA degree may provide you with valuable skills in leadership, analysis and program management. Is an MPA worth it? If you plan to hold a thought-leadership position in economics or public policy, an MPA may prepare you to succeed in these fields and help make you a strong candidate for job opportunities. 

If you want to have a career that’s more focused in the legal field, then a JD may be a better option. Is a law degree worth it? Pursuing a JD program may be expensive, but it may be beneficial if you want to become a practicing attorney. The information you learn and the skills you develop in your JD program may also be helpful in policy enforcement and other related fields. 

In some cases, earning both an MPA and a JD might be the best route. A JD/MPA dual degree program may prepare you for leadership positions in many settings, including in government, public policy and more. You’ll receive a broad education that may support you in many career ventures.

Getting an MPA or JD: You Decide

Both an MPA and a JD can be valuable education paths that can prepare you for careers in public policy, government and more. However, the degree programs are quite different, and deciding which one is right for you may largely depend on your career goals. Every career journey is different, and ultimately, it’s up to you to decide which degree (or both) is the best education path for you.

Last updated May 2022