Master’s degrees are becoming essential for future employment and overall career advancement. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that employment in occupations that already require a master’s degree will increase by 18 percent between 2008 and 2018, nearly twice the 10 percent rate of growth expected for all occupations. Making the decision to obtain an advanced degree is unmistakably critical to career advancement, but what degree should park and recreation professionals pursue?
For most in the field, the typical choice for an advanced degree is a “Master of Parks and Recreation Management” or something with a similar title. This degree is beneficial as it prepares individuals for successful careers in a variety of leisure-service settings and is a good next step toward attaining management positions. Students and professionals have the opportunity to specialize in various tracks including recreational sports programming, rural and community tourism development, special event planning, and parks and recreation management. Having a master’s degree of any kind opens new doors of opportunity and is a worthwhile endeavor.
However, a common drawback for an advanced degree program related only to parks and recreation is that it is often very similar to the body of work done in undergraduate studies. The degree program is narrowly focused on the field of parks and recreation, which could limit career possibilities. Someone who may have aspirations to eventually work in municipal management or for other government and nonprofit agencies might benefit from alternative degrees.
A Master of Public Administration (MPA) is the recognized graduate degree for professional positions focusing on public service primarily in a government capacity. This program develops skills used by public-sector employees to implement policies, projects and programs. A huge advantage of an MPA degree is its diverse career opportunities. Professionals equipped with an MPA degree work in all levels of government, nonprofit organizations, international development, school systems and public service-related private businesses. Each MPA program varies, but most offer an emphasis in local government management or public administration.
For myself, I looked into an MPA program because I had an interest in city management as well as parks and recreation. Fresh out of college, I elected to pursue an MPA right away, because I sought to break into the profession and employment opportunities were limited. I started my MPA program while working as an intern but applied and interviewed for several park and recreation positions and eventually was offered a full-time job in my field. For the last three years, I have continued my studies through night classes and will graduate with an MPA this spring. This program has been extremely valuable early on in my career, as I learned things about how a city functions that I may not have learned otherwise in an entry-level position. I have gained skills in areas such as public finance, municipal administration and policy evaluation that are outside my normal work responsibilities.
To get another perspective, I spoke with Ron Hopp, who is an MPA graduate and the executive director of the Foothills Park and Recreation District in Colorado. Hopp had been working in the field for several years when he decided to earn his MPA. Similarly, he elected to get an MPA because his undergraduate degree was in parks and recreation, and an MPA was a way of diversifying his career options. Not only was Hopp’s MPA key in getting a director’s job, but this particular degree has been very helpful in his current responsibilities. Hopp works in a special park district that operates much like a small town, and he oversees human resources, finance and information technology as well as the day-to-day administration issues of parks and programs. Hopp’s MPA program introduced principles and policies in each of those areas before he assumed those responsibilities himself.
Hopp also mentioned that when he is in the hiring process, those candidates with an MPA immediately stand out. According to Hopp, “It shows initiative, ambition and hard work to have an MPA as a young professional in the field and proves the ability to handle diverse responsibilities.” His advice for young professionals is to be proactive in furthering your career and seek ways to differentiate yourself.
If young professionals have a career goal to eventually reach a director’s level or other top management position, then an MPA is worth pursuing. Rather than only seeing the narrow scope of parks and recreation, MPA students are introduced to the broader picture of government operations and can pursue a wider variety of career tracks to gain a competitive edge for promotions. It might take several years of night or online classes, but having an MPA can be a valuable long-term resource. Graduates can advance their career, earn a higher salary and hone professional skills. It is especially important for young professionals to take every opportunity possible to increase their knowledge base and build management skills early in their careers.
Skyler Beck is the Project Coordinator for Council Bluffs Parks, Recreation and Public Property, Iowa.