The La Follette School’s accelerated program offers students a practical way to gain skills and launch a career in public policy by leveraging their time during their undergraduate experience at UW–Madison. Selected UW undergraduates can jumpstart the MPA or MIPA program by taking graduate public affairs courses in the last year of their undergraduate program. After completing their undergraduate requirements, students begin a fifth graduate year devoted to full-time graduate study. Because accelerated students are only responsible for one year of funding beyond their bachelor’s degree, the financial burden of completing their master’s degree is reduced significantly. Accelerated students are also well-placed to find assistantships, which cover tuition and offer low-cost health insurance and a stipend, due to the connections they make when they start coursework towards the degree in their final undergraduate year.
Spencer Johnson majored in political science and social welfare with a Certificate in Environmental Studies, and he is a second-year student in the MPA program. Johnson plans to pursue a career in policy analysis and public administration. When he first came across the accelerated MPA program, Johnson thought it would be a great opportunity to expand upon his undergraduate experience and develop professional skills for his future career. “The chance to earn a master’s degree with just a single year of postgraduate education was simply too valuable to pass up,” he says.
Johnson’s research interests include environmental policy, renewable energy policy, and higher education administration. Through his La Follette coursework, he has had the chance to investigate each of these areas; his projects have focused on issues ranging from water pollution in Wisconsin to the passage of the Great American Outdoors Act. “While my undergraduate coursework honed my research and writing skills broadly, the La Follette School provided the technical foundations which made those skills portable,” says Johnson. “The curriculum provided numerous opportunities to refine my craft, particularly with concepts that I had not explored in-depth during my undergraduate education. I especially enjoyed the chances to apply my skills to client-led group projects, such as Public Affairs 881: Cost-Benefit Analysis. These real-world experiences were invaluable to my professional development as I seek a career in public policy.”
Johnson says that prospective students who are interested in pursuing the accelerated program will have a chance to bolster quantitative skills through their La Follette coursework, so they should not let a lack of these skills deter them from pursuing the program. “Even though I lacked a strong background in economics and statistics when I first joined the program, I was able to be successful in my La Follette classes by studying with others and talking with my professors during office hours.” He even went beyond the core coursework, taking Public Affairs 809: Introduction to Energy Analysis and Policy and Public Affairs 881: Cost-Benefit Analysis during his second year.
Johnson currently works as a graduate fellow for the University of Wisconsin System, where he coordinates the System’s policy development process. He also volunteers as an intern coordinator for the Associated Students of Madison, where he mentors an undergraduate student as they learn about leadership, student government, and grassroots advocacy.
Makayla Pesch received a bachelor’s degree in human development and family studies and a second degree in social welfare, and she is currently a second-year student in the MPA program. When she began her undergraduate degree, she was unsure of what direction to take in her studies. “All I knew was that I was fascinated by people and the factors that shaped their lives,” says Pesch. Ultimately, she chose her majors because they focused on assisting and empowering underserved communities. “From the start, I knew that my primary interest was not going to be just working at one level of the ecological systems, but at multiple levels, and even perhaps bridging the gaps between the levels,” comments Pesch.
Currently, she is working as a project assistant for two UW–Madison faculty members who are involved with the Tribal Elder Food Box, which purchases food from Native producers and other local producers across Wisconsin and provides it to elders in all 11 tribes located in Wisconsin twice per month. Pesch’s primary role is to research how to use public policy to make the program sustainable and permanent.
Pesch is interested in social policy and how policy can improve the well-being of underserved communities, and after graduation she plans to work for an organization that is focused on housing or food accessibility. “My dream role would be something where I get to analyze social policy alternatives, and I can also work directly with communities to teach them how to advocate for and create change at the governmental level,” says Pesch.
Ben Vargas is a second-year MIPA student who double majored in political science and international studies with Certificates in Public Policy and International Studies. He hopes to one day put his data analysis and policy analysis skills to use through a position at the State Department.
While pursuing his undergraduate degree, Vargas decided he wanted to continue his education directly after graduation. “To have a master’s and bachelor’s degree by the age of 23 was too good of an opportunity to pass up,” says Vargas. While taking courses towards his MIPA, Vargas discovered a desire to learn new skills he would not have otherwise pursued. “Prior to La Follette, I had almost no statistical skills. Now, I feel I have the basics mastered with a desire to learn more about statistical coding so I can use it in my career.”
Vargas’ advice to prospective students who are interested in pursuing the accelerated program is to consider your goals carefully. Some might prefer to dive deeper into research, in which case a Ph.D. might be a better fit, says Vargas, while others might prefer to get some work experience before continuing their education. “But if you want to get your master’s while a lot of the knowledge from your undergraduate courses is still in your head, and you know you are interested in policy and drafting recommendations for others, then apply to the accelerated MPA/MIPA program now!”
In November, Pesch, Johnson, and Vargas hosted an event to welcome first-year accelerated students that focused on providing advice for new students and community building. Students interested in the accelerated program should contact the La Follette School’s graduate program advisor Mo O’Connor or visit the Academics page and the accelerated program section on the school’s website. Marie Koko, director of career and employer services, is also available to discuss career opportunities with prospective students.