As a second year student in an MPA program much of one’s time is devoted to job hunting, clarifying one’s objectives and finessing one’s CV and cover letter to reflect this. This process demands that we understand the actors and context in which we are seeking to work.
As masters of public affairs students we are given a leg up in this process as the scope of our studies demand that we consider factors of complexity, dyanamicism and innovation. All of which require that we understand the context in which we work. However, in the course of my own job search I have struggled to define the context of public affairs. It is only recently that I have identified two distinct trends in defining the scope of public affairs – that of the public sector and that of the private sector.
Public affairs in the public sector often refers to those aspects of public policy which affect the general populace. This can be as immediate as education policy or remote as regulatory reform. These sweeping policy decisions are often lumped together as “public affairs,” better known as the role of government.
In the private sector, public affairs can take on a very different meaning. It can refer to communications, government relations, lobbying, advocacy, business development or marketing and PR. As a result public affairs expands in scope to include private sector actors and can be devoid of public sector actors, all together.
In light of this, what does a public affairs degree mean to students entering this jungle of definitions and meanings? As any well informed public affairs student can attest to, there is no one or easy answer to even the most seemingly banal of questions.
Its about context
Public affairs students hear this from the moment they enter a classroom to the moment they leave the building. Context is king. If one thing has become clear in my job hunt this truism doesn’t cease once students receive their higher degree. To understand what public affairs means for ourselves and our future employers we must look at how it is presented, shaped and executed in the context we are seeking to work.
This can change from company-to-company, sector-to-sector, industry-to-industry. While some may hesitate to embrace this, this is reality of the environment we have chosen to study and work. It is the complexity of public affairs that gives individuals the ability to look at a problem, break with the past and approach it with a completely new and informed perspective. It also means being able to acknowledge when there is a dearth of skills or knowledge and knowing how and where to look to acquire them.
So regardless if one is going to pursue government relations, regulatory reform or marketing and PR, a degree in public affairs equips students with the skills, perspective and insight to understand how the various sub-parts interact to create a larger picture. By being clear in what we want from our future careers, we define public affairs for ourselves.
Unique? Yes. Weakness? Undoubtedly not.