Is public policy right for me?
March 19, 2011 11:31 AM   Subscribe

How does an English major start working/going to school in public policy? Bonus: is public policy really what I’m looking for? (Kind of a snowstorm inside.)

I’m 24, finished my bachelor’s in English at a (known in academic circles, not name-brand) liberal arts college two years ago, and have been working for a year at a women’s health clinic. Before my healthcare job, I was a union organizer; before that, I was in school, working various irrelevant on-campus jobs and doing on-campus political advocacy. I’ve done a lot of organizing through political fellowships, running on-campus groups, and working long hours at the union, and I now know that I’m not cut out for organizing full-time: I’m functionally an introvert, and--though I’ve been told have a knack for connecting with people--it exhausts me to try to move people to action, even for a cause I believe in.

The part of organizing I’ve always loved, and the part that kept me coming back long after I started getting burned out, was the planning and research. I love sitting or pacing with other committed people and figuring out a plan of action, integrating information and research into our planning, and developing strategies to make smart, effective social change. At the end of a really successful planning session, I feel energized and excited, in a way that I experience in very few other spheres. The way I explain it to friends is that I love figuring out what resources are and how best to use them: when I was a resume consultant, I enjoyed helping people understand how their disparate, seemingly unrelated experiences could make them great candidates for X job; when I was a sexual assault advocate, I was best at finding people community resources and making plans for “next steps.” My commitment to progressive/radical social change is one of the few constants in my life, and I’ve been considering public policy as a good fusion of my passion and my skills.

I have never, however, done research outside of the academic (and literary) sphere. I have not studied economics or statistics, and my experience utilizing research in organizing is relatively limited, though obviously influential on me. I’ve also taken this past year off from significant political involvement to recover from burnout and try to see past the smoke from said burnout, figuring out what I want to do, so my resume is a little less impressive right now than it used to be. I’m signed up for the GREs in a few weeks, but beyond that I’m not sure what I should do, where I should go, or who I should talk to to figure out a) if public policy is right for me and b) what I should do if I want to get an MPP in the next few years. My alma mater doesn’t have a public policy department.

So, after all that, my questions: 1) Based on my self-description here, is pursuing a degree in public policy something you think would fit my needs? What would I expect from studying public policy with my limited background, and (extra points!) is there anything special I should know if I’m particularly interested in labor and gender issues?
2) Is there a name for the type of work I outlined in the second paragraph? As I look for a job doing this work, what should I look for?
3) Are public policy programs looking for someone with my background, or should I be doing a lot more to be awesome and savvy before I even consider applying?

Thank you so much.
posted by c'mon sea legs to Work & Money (11 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Have you looked at programs offered in your local universities? Look at their websites, read the course descriptions, look up faculty members' research and see if you find it interesting.

You might also consider taking some undergrad statistics and economics courses, maybe at your local community college.
posted by mareli at 12:57 PM on March 19, 2011

Sounds to me like you'd enjoy campaign work-the logistic, advance, planning angle-the hard stuff. But it's hard and burnout heavy. And the people who are good at it, and make a career of it, do so mostly through experience, not degrees. The get in when they're young, like you are, at the ground local level and just keep going, learning and proving their worth. It's a hard and exhilarating (and addictive) life for a lot of people.
posted by atomicstone at 1:31 PM on March 19, 2011

I am actually at a public policy grad school right now. The admissions decision was thought to be heavy on the math part of the GRE, but the required statistics courses are pretty basic and they have a math camp calculus refresher before the beginning of classes proper. The more interesting stuff you have done, the better chance you have obviously. My sense is that the more actual work you have done along the lines of what you want to pursue, the better. I dont think they expect you to have done research, they will teach you that, but if you can point to some concreate, helping people type stuff that is really nice.

I am getting a Masters in Public Administration, which you should also consider, I think the MPA is a bit more common then the MPP. The average age is 27 but there are a few people right out of undergraduate and a few of us older types. My school is 55% from outside the US and like most professional schools, there is a strong social / group project aspect to it. The typical student is earnest, nerdy and wants to make the world a little better. I am having a great time.

You should try to dig into the programs you are considering a bit. There are a bunch of MPA programs out there that have amazing placement records because they put people right into local government management spots. Not what you are interested in.

Oh, you should also remember that getting funding for a professional degree is difficult.

Please feel free to MeMail me if there is more you want to know.
posted by shothotbot at 2:04 PM on March 19, 2011

"Go to law school" is not advice that one hears often these days, at least not without guffaws. But it might suit your goals, and maybe you should include it on the list of options you consider. My inclinations were quite similar to yours, and a law degree led me to an enormously satisfying career (in government, but there are lots of other relevant directions). I don't know the details, but there are law schools with strong public policy programs.
posted by Corvid at 2:05 PM on March 19, 2011

You might explore or test your interest by getting a job working in communications for an organization whose mission you appreciate.
The thing about public policy & research is that we often don't get to implement the best solutions, or any solutions.
I would also add that there is a difference between a MPA and a MPP (and between programs), and I'd encourage you to learn more about each before jumping in.
posted by Heart_on_Sleeve at 2:25 PM on March 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

I know an old college friend who went to a really excellent MPP program in the DC area and regretted the decision. She thought she would end up in a really prestigious job that had to do with public policy, but she ended up in a totally unrelated job she could have gotten without an MPP. This was two years ago, and she'd had good work experience in economic consulting, etc., and she ended up having to go back to it because she couldn't find her dream position. The career center, which was dedicated to the MPP program, I gathered (from her vents over coffee and dinner and lunches), was directed by a woman who thought posting jobs like "Pharmacist I Needed" at a CVS retail store was appropriate.

Be sure you talk to actual students in MPP programs and find out a lot about who they are. Don't listen to admissions people or students who are in their first year. Talk to the ones that are about to graduate and specifically ask about jobs and career support offered by the school.
posted by anniecat at 4:33 PM on March 19, 2011

and by " really excellent MPP program" I mean that it is ranked really highly and sounds super prestigious, like "Oh, you went to _____, WOW."
posted by anniecat at 4:34 PM on March 19, 2011

I graduated with an MPA from the University of Washington in 2009. I can't advise you on how best to develop your skills to get into an MPA or MPP program, as I had a very specific set of skills and specific goal in taking this program, which were different from yours (I earned my MPA concurrently with a Masters in Library and Information Science degree from the same university and focused pretty narrowly on public library administration and information policy). I also don't know much about the distinction between an MPA and MPP, but this looks like a pretty good analysis of the difference. Also, according to Wikipedia, "the course offerings of most MPA and MPP programs overlap to some degree, but MPP programs tend to provide more focused training in policy analysis and policy design, while MPA programs usually still provide more focused coursework in program implementation and public management."

But my impression is that many of my fellow MPA students had a very similar background and set of interests to yours, and it seems to me like, from your description, you would have fit in pretty well in my program. I have an undergraduate liberal arts degree from a very social-change-oriented school, and I always felt like public administration was the way in which people figured out how to make the change that they wanted actually happen. I think many of my fellow MPA students (like me) had a liberal arts background without specific research experience. There were people in my program interested in government as well as nonprofit work, but I think just about everyone was strongly motivated by social change and wanting to make a difference in the world.

The thing about an MPA (or MPP, probably) is that unlike some professional degrees, it's almost never a requirement for a particular job. As someone with a second professional degree that is a job requirement, I think this actually speaks in its favor of the MPA. I felt that it gave me some really excellent skills in management and problem-solving without simply being a hoop to jump through. But as anniecat says, you can't necessarily count on automatically getting the job you want just because you have an MPA or MPP.

It definitely helps if you have some background in economics or statistics, but this was definitely not a requirement of my program. Like shothotbot's program, mine had an optional math camp beforehand to help get people up to speed. I did not take advantage of this, even though I had never taken an economics or statistics class before, and I did fine.

Also, I think the kind of work that you're describing is called policy analysis--or, anyway, this is a process that is pretty similar. I think this term is more often used in the government sector than in nonprofits, but the problem-solving process is pretty similar. I recommend taking a look at Eugene Bardach's Practical Guide for Policy Analysis, which is a short, very accessible book describing one approach to this discipline.
posted by bokinney at 4:42 PM on March 19, 2011 [3 favorites]

You might explore or test your interest by getting a job working in communications for an organization whose mission you appreciate. The thing about public policy & research is that we often don't get to implement the best solutions, or any solutions.

This!!! A million times!!!

It's why I switched from policy to communications. No regrets.
posted by jgirl at 4:56 PM on March 19, 2011

Social work could be another possibility for you. I'm about to wrap up a Master's in Social Work with a concentration in Community and Administrative Practice and it sounds like my interests are similar to yours. Social work, and social work research, is about finding the most effective practices for the implementation of social justice and then implementing them in systems and/or the lives of individuals.
I like to think of it like the building of a bridge between people and the society in which they live. In order to do it one can start from either end (helping the individual to change to be more in tune with society or helping society to be more in tune with the needs of its members). It sounds like you're interested in the latter.
Here's an example of how this might play out: you get a job for an agency or organization that works to promote women's access to health care. You conduct and review research about the obstacles to the achievement of access. You then work with health care providers to remove those obstacles. For example, maybe you learn, either through your own study or through the review of previous studies, that women who are recent immigrants lack adequate health care even when they're insured due to the fact that they often live in areas where it's hard to get to health care facilities (I'm just making this up as an example). So you would meet with large health care providers to try to encourage them to bring mobile clinics in the area. You could also organize recruitment efforts for language bank volunteers. You might meet with stakeholders in public transportation to make the bus line connect poor neighborhoods with a wider variety of health clinics on a more regular schedule. You might also work to find leaders among the women of the fictional immigrant community to give them the tools to advocate on their own behalf.

Basically, this is community organizing. Political organizing might be a subset of this type of work, but it's not the only kind of organizing out there. So if that sounds like the kind of work you might like then maybe a social work degree would be another option for you.

Either way, good luck!
posted by Quizicalcoatl at 9:05 PM on March 19, 2011 [2 favorites]

I realize this is an old post...but I'm in a public policy program right now. Public policy is a pretty general degree and it doesn't really matter what your background is - one person in my program has a theater background. I don't know if I would recommend this degree though. I'm in a pretty good program, ranking wise, and I was pretty disappointed with a lot of it...but a lot of government jobs nowadays require a masters degree, so it's helpful if that's your thing.
posted by fromageball at 7:21 PM on July 12, 2011

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