Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs
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"The opportunity to help build a program that attracts remarkably talented students who are passionate about using knowledge to create a more just and peaceful world is an extraordinary privilege."

Eric Patashnik, director of Brown’s Public Policy Program

Better, Faster, Stronger

March 8, 2017

Round two of admissions for the MPA program is open until March 24.

Health care policy expert Eric Patashnik, director of Brown’s Public Policy Program at the Watson Institute, answers questions about what makes the Master of Public Affairs program unique, what its challenges are, and where it’s headed.

Watson Institute: Almost every other MPA program in the country takes two years to complete. Why is Brown’s a one-year program?

Eric Patashnik: The program at Brown is designed with today’s focused students in mind. Many talented people want to catalyze their career by obtaining advanced training in public policy, but a two-year degree is a significant commitment—it’s a long time to be out of the workforce. Even if you know that a master’s degree can be very valuable to your career, it can be difficult to take the time away from a full-time job to complete a graduate program, especially for students with family or personal commitments. The best students are strategic—they want to be sure the return on their higher education investment is high. Brown is at the vanguard of where professional master’s degree programs are going, creating an educational path that is educationally powerful but also economical with students’ time.

WI: What does the one-year curriculum look like?

EP: Following orientation, students take two months of classes during the summer, including integrated courses in economics, statistics, the foundations of policy analysis, and communication. These courses blend theory with applied problem-solving. Students then go abroad for the global policy experience (GPE), where they interact with high-level public leaders at an international site to gain a cross-cultural understanding of governance challenges. After the GPE, students return for fall classes, including electives in their area of policy interest. After winter break they do a 12-week consultancy, where they are placed in real policy organizations, putting their skills to work. Finally, they come back for spring semester courses, including system dynamics and social change.

The program has been designed to be rapid, intense, but also very manageable from the student standpoint. It gives students a chance to focus on key analytic and managerial skills, but also to step back, breathe, refocus, and then to step in again. There is a nice rhythm. We pack in a tremendous amount of learning over the course of the year, but the students earn their degree in a way that leaves them feeling more energized at the end of the program than they did at the beginning.

Incidentally, we’ve also launched several exciting new degree options, including a 5th-year MPA for Brown undergraduates, as well as MPA-MPH and MPA-MD dual degrees.

WI: Besides its one-year duration, what sets this program apart?

EP: The MPA program has a number of distinctive features. The most important is our base at the Watson Institute, one of the nation’s leading centers for the study of international and public affairs. Watson is brimming with intellectual excitement and energy. Whether you’re talking about climate, cybersecurity, immigration, health, or poverty, policy issues in the 21st century are inherently global. MPA students have access to the full range of Watson offerings. And with our Global Policy Experience, or GPE, all students go abroad for two weeks. They learn how public policy problems are defined in that country, how understanding of issues such as security, migration, or inequality varies across contexts, and how policy alternatives and solutions may or may not travel across institutions, cultures, and political systems.

A second defining feature is that we give students a chance to specialize in a concentration area. One of the most distinctive offerings is the data-driven policy specialization. Increasingly, employers in government, NGOs and private consulting firms are looking for public policy professionals who have data analytic skills. The Data-Driven Policy specialization introduces students to a variety of programming languages. It also gives students practical experience with data cleaning, visualization, and conducting program evaluations.

This data-driven policy specialization is unique. My colleague Justine Hastings, an economist here at Brown, is the director of the Rhode Island Policy Innovation Lab, or RIIPL, a partnership between Brown University and the State of Rhode Island. RIIPL is at the forefront of a national movement toward using economics and big data to solve social problems. RIIPL performs cutting-edge, systematic evaluation of national education, criminal justice, and health programs that are being implemented in Rhode Island. Policy labs are popping up at leading universities around the country, and they’re looking at RIIPL as the model. We’re holding a major conference this spring that will bring together leading social scientists and policy makers from around the country to look at how Brown does it.

What is so exciting for students in the data-driven policy specialization is the chance to work at RIIPL for their consultancy, working hand in hand with leading data scientists on these critical issues. No other master’s degree program in the country offers students that kind of opportunity. It is a uniquely powerful way for students to gain data analytic skills and apply them directly to major public policy problems.

WI: Tell us more about the 12 weeks of real-world experience.

EP: This is what we call the consultancy, where students are placed in a public policy organization aligned with their interests and professional goals. This year, students are doing consultancies in Providence, New York, Washington, Paris, and many other locations.  It is a phenomenal way for students who want to catalyze their career and get to the next level within a policy sector, or to make a transition. Maybe they’ve been working in environmental policy, but they want to pivot to education policy. The consultancy can be an effective way for them to gain knowledge and develop a professional network in a new policy sector.

WI: What challenges is the MPA program facing?

EP: The biggest challenge to this program is that we are new. There are a lot of strong master’s programs in the policy space. But our new MPA program has exceptional advantages—the reputation of Brown as a top research university with its unusual emphasis on teaching, the high level of faculty-student interaction, an exceptionally innovative curriculum geared to the complex policy challenges of the 21st century, the opportunity to study for an MPA in a state capital, where there’s direct interaction with policy makers, proximity to Boston and New York and an easy flight to Washington, not to mention being rooted in the Watson Institute. We’re new, but we have a tremendous amount to build on here.

WI: What made you want to lead this program?

EP: The opportunity to help build a program that attracts remarkably talented students who are passionate about using knowledge to create a more just and peaceful world is an extraordinary privilege. I also was incredibly impressed by the quality of the Watson Institute’s faculty hires in recent years. The economists, political scientists, and sociologists who teach in the MPA program are world-class scholars. When I saw the caliber of the faculty that Brown was bringing in to support the MPA program and public policy research initiatives, along with Brown’s longstanding strengths, I knew this program would succeed, and I wanted to be a part of it.

- Sarah C. Baldwin