MBA or MPA: Nina Sharma West

About a year ago I told my friend and former co-worker (from Carnegie Hall), Nina Sharma West, that I was thinking about going back to school, part-time. I couldn’t (and, to be honest, still can’t) decide what degree might be most useful for my career. For me (and for many of you, I imagine), it comes down to MBA vs. MPA. Which is better?

So, Nina got right on it and interviewed five of her friends, some in grad-programs, others recently out of school. So, she sent me the interviews, and I couldn’t get FLiP’s act together for over a year to publish them. However, with our recent partnership with Academic Impressions, and our impending trip to the University of Michigan, it seemed like the right time to finally acknowledge Nina’s hard work. So, Nina, at long last FLiP is going to start publishing these interviews, one at a time, over the next two weeks. Without further ado, the first interview, with Nina!

Future Leaders in Philanthropy (FLiP): Why did you choose to pursue a graduate degree?

Nina Sharma West (NSW): I felt that after having been in the fundraising world for roughly six years, I was well on my way to a career path that had chosen me – not the other way around.  I wound up in fundraising because I needed a job.  I knew I was interested in the nonprofit sector, but at age 22, was willing to take the best thing that came my way, and that was a position in individual giving at the New York Public Library – a great start!  I continued on to positions at Carnegie Hall, Yale, and the Ad Council.  While at the Ad Council, I started asking around about graduate degrees – my boss was a guest lecturer for Columbia’s Masters in Fundraising program, and some other colleagues were students at Wagner and Stern at NYU.

FLiP: Why did you choose the program you ultimately selected?

NSW: I knew that I needed a part-time program.  I was very interested in Columbia’s SIPA program, but they don’t allow part-timers.  I also toyed with Columbia’s Master in Fundraising, but thought it was too much of a niche; I’d already been in fundraising for six years, and thought it would be too much time and money spent on the basics.  I ultimately chose the Wagner School of Public Service at NYU because it was a part-time program, because it was NYU, and because I had friends who had gone and enjoyed their experience.  I liked that there were options of taking policy, management, and finance courses, so I thought I could get a great smattering of everything they offered – even just through the core courses.  Also, I liked that it was at NYU – I’d gone to a small liberal arts college in a rural setting for undergrad, and I loved that the setting was basically the complete opposite of my current impressions of higher learning institutions.

FLiP: Did you consider choosing an MBA instead?

I considered pursuing an MBA for a while, mostly earlier on when I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do… I thought that an MBA would give me more of an edge – it is perceived as a tougher, more rigorous degree, and I know that many people in the nonprofit world don’t pursue MBAs, so I thought it would help me stand out.

FLiP: Why did you not ultimately choose an MBA?

NSW: I ultimately chose to pursue an MPA instead of an MBA for a silly reason – I am not a strong standardized test taker, and I was afraid of taking the GMAT!  More than that however, I wasn’t sure that I wanted the finance-heavy graduate education that comes with an MBA.  I knew that I wanted to continue in the nonprofit world – or at least work with it in some capacity.  I thought that pursuing an MPA instead of an MBA would allow me to really pick my own courses and wind up with an education that I had designed, rather than one that was chosen for me.  I also associate MBA programs with a competitive, cutthroat environment, where everyone is vying for the best summer intern spot – I didn’t really want to be part of that culture.

FLiP: How do you think your program will help your future career prospects?

NSW: I think that pursing an MPA at Wagner will very much help in my future career prospects – I’ve chosen to specialize in international relations – a combination of finance, policy, and management for international organizations.  I’ve currently only had experience working in cultural or social organizations that are based in and focused on America – and I think that my exposure to other organizations, professors, lecturers, etc. through this program at Wagner will open doors for me that I otherwise would have struggled to get through.  Additionally, it will give me a great background of understanding when it comes to international politics, American foreign policy, and international finance when it comes to governing an international organization – I have never been a very politically-minded person, but Wagner makes me think about things differently, and that alone opens doors.

FLiP: What standardized test did you have to take for your program, if any?

NSW: None.

FLiP: Did you attend part-time or full-time?

NSW: I attend part-time

FLiP: How many schools/programs did you apply to?

NSW: I applied to two programs – Columbia and Wagner

FLiP: If not for pursuing your degree, what track would you have considered taking?

I would have likely continued in fundraising for a while longer, and possibly have entered the private sector in a consultant capacity.  Also, I had toyed with the idea of working in fundraising for private equity, which would have been a learning experience equivalent to or even more difficult than grad school, I think!

FLiP: What advice, if any, would you give to someone who was considering getting an MBA or an MPA?

NSW: I think anyone who’s interested in pursuing a graduate degree has to first determine why they want to do so – are they interested in making more money?  Changing careers?  Being more attractive to employers?  Making a difference in a particular sector?  All of these things were important to me, but ultimately for me, it was about learning something I couldn’t learn on the job – I knew that I understood fundraising and that I had a good grasp of how nonprofits worked, but I didn’t fully understand management or finance.  And I really didn’t understand public policy and how much our daily lives are affected by it – even at work!  My choice of degree had to do with what would stimulate me most.  Being a cutthroat environment of a whole bunch of 20-somethings trying to get ahead and beat one another was not for me.  I wanted an environment where I could explore and also learn the basics of business and nonprofit management.

I just think that anyone who wants to pursue an MBA or an MPA really needs to do some soul searching – and talk to people who you respect – ask your boss, your parents, your advisors, your mentors what they think – everyone will have a different opinion, but don’t just ask them that – ask them what they see as your strengths – you’ll learn a lot about yourself in the process that will allow you to more easily choose the right path for you

FLiP: Are you happy with your decision?

NSW: I’m very happy with my decision thus far – though, I’m only one year into a three year program!

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