How to get a public policy research job in DC?
March 30, 2009 11:17 AM   Subscribe

I'm a recent master's graduate in Applied Economics (Concentration: Community and Economic Development), and I’m looking for a research position with the government or a consulting firm that performs public policy-related research (e.g. The Urban Institute, Brookings, Pew Research Center, etc.). I've had no luck to this point (been looking for about two months), and I'd like some advice.

My main qualifications include a 4.0 GPA in the master's degree mentioned above from a middle-tier grad school in the Midwest, a year of experience as a graduate research assistant, and a year of experience serving in the Peace Corps. I also have advanced skills using Microsoft Office software, especially Excel, and experience using statistical software programs STATA and SAS.

I believe I am well qualified for most of the research assistant/research associate/economist positions to which I'm applying, but I haven't been contacted once about any of my applications (about 25-30 in total), let alone been given an interview or been offered a position. I have no contacts in DC and have been living with my parents in Indiana while I look for a job, thus all of my applications are for positions posted on organizational websites or listed on job boards. I realize that these positions are more competitive, but I expected to be contacted about some of them, if not most of them, because of my good credentials and what I believe to be a good resume and cover letter.

So, my question comes in two parts. One, am I less qualified for the types of positions that I'm applying to than I think (particularly with no experience in the DC area and not having a master's in public policy, etc.)? Two, what can I do to "break in" to DC to get a public policy-related research job (any employment agencies to recommend, is not living in DC hurting my chances to get an interview/job, etc.)?

Thanks for the advice.
posted by bcredrabbit to Work & Money (10 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Yes, not living in DC is hurting you. Not only because the organizations you're applying to prefer to hire people locally (less hassle for them), but also because you don't have the opportunity to make contacts who can help you in your search. All of the jobs you're looking at have hundreds of applicants. You are not well placed among them if you live in Indiana and don't know anyone in DC.

Sorry if this sounds harsh, but it's the truth.
posted by decathecting at 11:57 AM on March 30, 2009

Does your university (either your undergrad alma mater or the institution where you received your masters) have a career center or any kind of job postings? I was recently applying for similar positions, but with a Bachelors degree, and all of my applications were for positions that had been advertised by the firm specifically to my university. We were often told that although we could apply for the position through the company's website or more generic job boards, applying through the university's specific job posting gave our application a huge boost and prevented it from getting lost in the shuffle.
posted by telegraph at 12:52 PM on March 30, 2009

I agree with decathecting that not living in DC may be a big factor, because with the economy (particularly the implosion of the banking sector) the types of positions you're looking at have gotten much, much, much more competitive. With so many strong applicants to choose from, companies are less likely to spend money flying people in from across the country, particularly if you graduated from "a middle-tier grad school." I doubt it has much to do with having a masters in applied economics vs. public policy; in fact, I expect that actually is working in your favor. Just not enough to tip the scales yet, since you're up against people who are coming out of programs at LSE, Harvard, Yale, etc.

If I were you, there's two things I would do going forward:

1. Start listing two addresses on your resume--if you know ANYONE in DC, seriously anyone at all, ask them if you can use their address--and after the DC one put "(expected residence April 2009)" or something to that effect. Alternatively, you need to indicate in your cover letter that you will be in DC in April in preparation for a move (or about a month out from where you are now) and you'd like to schedule an interview about the position then. This signals to employers that they can treat you like local candidates in terms of just expecting you to get to the interview on your own, which will help. Obviously, you'll have to cover your own plane fare and hotel, which sucks.

2. Start looking for jobs (or internships in a pinch) in your area that will strengthen your application. I really cannot overemphasize how competitive the market is right now for the exact positions you're looking at, but this isn't going to be the case forever. You may or may not be able to land a job using #1, but if you start a similar sort of job in Indiana you'll be much better positioned to snag the job you want in about a year. Candidates straight out of school are evaluated 75% on the academic strength of their program and 25% on the work (e.g., research assistantships) they did, but that flips when you look at a candidate a year or two out of school, so you can definitely overcome not having gone to a top school if you get a relevant job now, even if it's a state-level rather than national-level policy job. A lot of state legislatures have a state equivalent to the CBO; getting a job at that sort of organization would put you in good stead when you re-apply to jobs in DC. You could also see about getting some sort of job with a professor to assist with research; however, this will only pay off if you can finagle a publication out of it.

Also, have you looked much at jobs with the federal government? In terms of day-to-day job responsibilities, there's not much difference between the places you're looking at and somewhere like GAO or CBO. My sense is that it's a little bit easier to get a research job in the government right now (although the process is much slower) because they've recently expanded the number of positions they have in anticipation of some major new legislative proposals coming down the pike.
posted by iminurmefi at 12:59 PM on March 30, 2009

You are competing with ALOT of people, everyone who wants to work on policy comes to D.C.. Not just people with economics graduate degrees, but international relations, political science and so on, bear that in mind.

Also what others have said.
posted by stratastar at 1:48 PM on March 30, 2009

Best answer: Also, did you have someone in your school's career center look over your resume and cover letter? I'm just throwing this out there because on second viewing, your list of things about yourself that you think make you well-qualified don't match up exactly with what policy places looking for masters-level candidates look for. In order:

*a 4.0 GPA in the master's degree...from a middle-tier grad school in the Midwest

A 4.0 GPA is great, but unfortunately it's just not terribly uncommon (anything less than B is considered failing in many grad programs, so you see a pretty tight range of GPAs from 3.8 to 4.0 for these jobs). Are you emphasizing (1) classes you've taken that are relevant to the jobs you want and (2) analyses you've conducted or papers you've written for those classes? More impressive than the 4.0 is to note that you've taken X classes in statistical analysis and as part of that you did a time-series analysis of Y data set to answer Z research question, especially if that research question or data set is one commonly used by the policy shop you're applying to.

*a year of experience as a graduate research assistant

Did you get co-authorship on anything? If you didn't get co-authorship, were you responsible for or given autonomy over any discrete part of the research process? Again, being a graduate research assistant is not uncommon for people applying for these jobs, and can run the gamut from "I looked up articles that my professor gave me every week for two semesters and sent him the PDFs" to "I was given the parameters of the research question and asked to create 1-page summaries of all relevant previous literature, and to draft the outline for the literature review." Similarly, if you were involved in the data-collection part of the research, there's a world of difference between the RA who took notes during interviews and the RA who drafted the interview protocol and created the data management system used to store the responses. If you don't give many details on your cover letter or resume, people reading it are going to assume that was more menial and will discount the value of this experience.

*a year of experience serving in the Peace Corps

Probably not that relevant unless you're applying for jobs that specifically look at issues of development or policy in developing countries, or if you're applying for a federal job (as I recall, Peace Corps gives you a leg up for federal jobs, although this may not apply if you didn't finish out your commitment). The organizations you've listed don't fall into that group. I'd tend to think of this as an interesting thing on someone's resume that might spark some small talk at the beginning of an interview, but not something that would make you more likely to be interviewed if the rest of the application isn't compelling--unless you have some great hook (not "man this made me realize my interest in public policy!" but "during my experience I undertook a rigorous evaluation of the different agricultural methods used in the village and found blah blah blah, and I immediately went into a graduate program to strengthen my skills in formal evaluations.")

People coming out of masters programs vary so widely in their preparation for the type of work that you want to do that a big part of the interviewing process (including the weeding out of resumes stage that you're apparently getting caught in) is to discard those who sat through 2 years of graduate classes but don't necessarily have stronger skills or understanding of the research process than a bright undergraduate would. You may need to massage your resume to really emphasize that you have conducted or directed some hands-on research (yes?), and that you aren't the type that is going to show up and expect to just do tasks that someone else gives you--you're prepared to handle actually doing the research, not just tasks associated with the research. So, I'd expect to see something about your publications; or if you don't have any, about your masters thesis; or barring that, how you're preparing a paper for submission to journals that grew out of research you did for one of your upper-level classes. If you don't have that sort of experience, there's no harm in continuing to apply, but it'd probably be a good idea to beef up your resume with actual relevant work experience, even at the state level.
posted by iminurmefi at 2:47 PM on March 30, 2009 [2 favorites]

You may need a bit more work experience. The Research Assistant position on the Brookings site that I just looked at asks for two years of experience, but I wouldn't be surprised if they get some Ph.D. applicants. I'd be doing whatever you can to get relevant work experience.

They probably have tons of recent-grads from all around the country applying. You'll want to distinguish yourself in some way. Being local is a start. Having worked at a partner organization is the next step up from there -- institutional relationships and knowing the political context are important. Knowing actual people at the organization is the next step after that. I'd go to the places where you want a job and start volunteering.

Another (possibly more-sustainable idea if you can keep living at home) is to find a national-level issue that you want to be more involved in and get involved in it locally, where presumably it will be easier to break in, and then move up the chain to the DC area. For example, if you were interested in transportation funding policy, you might contact Transportation for America or one of their Indiana partners. I believe they're doing something in every state as part of a campaign on the federal transportation reauthorization. If you volunteered directly for them or for their Indiana partner (say, to research what the impact of better transportation policy would be on Indiana), it might be easier to get involved in DC after the state-level work was done.

You know about the Metropolitan Institute and the Lincoln Institute, right?
posted by salvia at 3:15 PM on March 30, 2009

Ditto iminurmefi's most recent comment. I went through almost that exact thought process when looking at your list of experience.

In general, I would be extremely specific about what your experience is and what skills you have, and I would quite tightly tailor those to the jobs. In addition to research and analysis skills, you might also include anything that required careful organization and tracking of many details, and anything where you were the project manager in charge of a long-term timeline and budget.
posted by salvia at 3:34 PM on March 30, 2009

My main qualifications include a 4.0 GPA in the master's degree mentioned above from a middle-tier grad school in the Midwest, a year of experience as a graduate research assistant, and a year of experience serving in the Peace Corps. I also have advanced skills using Microsoft Office software, especially Excel, and experience using statistical software programs STATA and SAS.

I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but this is not a terribly impressive resume for the sorts of "name" public policy research jobs that you've mentioned, unless you have done some good research that you have not told us about. It's also true that two months is not enough time to be on the market and expect to have a plum job, but I'm not sure that another x months of sending out resumes will do the trick for you.

I don't think you should move to D.C. Rather, think local. You went to a middle tier grad school and that means that you can sell yourself best at the biggest city in that grad school's region. The biggest problem with your resume is that you haven't done anything. So, do things. Volunteer. Network with your professors for volunteer opportunities. Run somebody's school board campaign. Volunteer to do data entry at the city budget office; do it well and earn more responsibility. Hang around at market research firms until they give you something to do; do it well and earn more responsibility. Make an impact and meet people wherever you go and whatever you do. Wait tables to pay the bills.

Though you are now one of many, the field will narrow considerably when others fail to persistently show up and work hard. Your position requires patience, but involves much opportunity.
posted by Kwine at 12:17 AM on March 31, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks for all the good advice. Based on the responses, here are some of my thoughts:

1) I've began considering moving to DC. I think I would be able to swing it financially for about 6 months, with the hope that I could get a few temp jobs while I search and eventually land a decent permanent position. I'm not ready to make the move yet, but its' definitely something I'm considering.

2) I have applied to about 8-10 federal government positions. I haven't heard anything back from any of them, but I know their hiring process tends to take awhile. I am very willing to work for the federal government, but at this point I don't feel like I should pin my hopes on these positions and should instead explore every opportunity out there.

3) I understand everyone's comments about the apparent lack of strength of my resume as I presented it. In regards to my graduate assistantship, I worked with a diverse research team for an education-related research grant where I collected, compiled, and converted raw demographic and economic data from various sources into usable research variables, and managed data for the 30 year, 10,000 unit of observation, and 50 variable time-series study in Microsoft Excel and STATA. This was a three-year research project that I worked on during the second year. Unfortunately, this means that I did not have the opportunity to design or formulate the research or write any of the final reports. However, within the data collection process I was given a great deal of responsibility and independence, and will be given credit when the first papers are published later this year.

In regards to my graduate degree, from everyone's comments I realize that I need to emphasize it more in my resume. Right now, it is listed first with my GPA, concentration, and capstone paper title included, but I could include more. I do not emphasize any courses taken or topics covered, which could be helpful additions.

4) I'm not only looking for positions at "name" public policy institutions. I'm willing to consider any think tank-type of organization, but the one's I listed are just examples of well known organizations.

Thanks again for the helpful comments.
posted by bcredrabbit at 8:02 AM on March 31, 2009

Well, good luck, bcredrabbit! I hope that my comments above didn't come across as too harsh; obviously I don't have your resume so I was shooting in the dark a bit. Just thought you might like the perspective of someone who is somewhat familiar with the hiring process in the type of job you're interested in.

If I could give one last piece of advice--don't short charge the search for contacts you may have right now, in Indiana. The most common type of "connection" I see for people in your position--straight out of school, not a lot of work experience yet--is professors from graduate school. I would be a bit surprised if there wasn't *someone* working in your program who didn't have a current or past connection to a policy place in DC, either in terms of a job or partnering with an org for some of their research. If you haven't taken the time to talk to your professors about your desire to work in DC, and ask whether they have any recommendations for companies you haven't thought of, now (before you move!) would be the time to do so. DC is a wonderful place, and I'm sure you'll love it, but I wouldn't hold out too much hope about getting here and making all sorts of contacts that will land you job in a research organization. I've never seen something like that happen (although I'm just one data point, so perhaps it does happen elsewhere).
posted by iminurmefi at 10:32 AM on March 31, 2009

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