Is a Master's in Public Policy something I want to do?
July 26, 2012 10:59 AM   Subscribe

What sort of entry-level type jobs can I look for now to help me figure out if a Master’s in Public Policy is something I want to pursue?

Little more background: I’m 26. My Bachelor’s is in Political Science with a minor in Asian Studies. After graduating I was unemployed for several months before working a low-paying, menial labor job in a nursing home for five months. Then I spent a year teaching English in Asia. When I came home last summer I was hired to work customer service at a small startup. I was laid off in June when the company went out of business. So, while I’ve been working steadily since since graduation, I don’t have (I think) a very strong work history, and I don’t want to continue doing any of the things I’ve done.

In one of my upper-level classes, a professor once told me I should be a policy analyst/work in public policy. That line has really stayed with me through the years. I think working in public policy would play to my strengths (writing, research), and would let me work in areas I’m interested in. However it seems, I need a Master’s in Public Policy for this, correct me if I’m wrong. As my work history shows, I don’t really have relevant policy experience, so I'm thinking I should try and find something now that is somewhat related to give me an idea if policy work is something I would want to continue in the future.

My question: Now that I’m on the job hunt again, what kinds of positions, or even volunteer opportunities, could I pursue to help me determine if public policy is a career move I want to make? Thanks!
posted by Shesthefastest to Work & Money (7 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
I can't speak to policy school directly, but I'm a masters student in a similar field, city planning. Others might disagree, but I'd say if you've got the desire and ability to go back to school, just go. If you can create some sort of narrative weaving your background into your interest in policy, your application should be fine, I'd imagine. I'm not saying you shouldn't try to get a job in public policy -- it's just that, if you're able to get one without the degree...why get the degree so soon? In my experience with planning, if you can get an entry level job, moving upwards from there is as viable for breaking into the field than going and getting a degree. Hmm; not sure if I'm making sense; basically, my opinion is that getting relevant experience and getting a masters are both great ideas, but I think you can choose to see them more as parallel choices than as consecutive steps.
posted by threeants at 11:07 AM on July 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

Entry level jobs at think tanks are typically staffed by recent college graduates and other people in their early to mid-20s. The job titles to look for are things like "Research Assistant" and "Program Coordinator," rather than "Policy Analyst" or "Director." The typical career path I've seen is that people do those jobs for 2-5 years, then go to grad school, then come back to take the higher level jobs as scholars and analysts.

For the most part, people in those entry level jobs aren't doing independent research or authoring papers, but they are doing a lot of the research, planning, writing, and editing for the bigwigs. It's a great way to get a taste of the field, develop relationships with potential mentors and references, and decide for sure whether or not this is the field for you.

Those jobs aren't easy to get. Even in a good economy, dozens of talented, smart people want to work at top think tanks. The pay will likely be low, and you'll spend a lot of your time doing grunt work like creating bibliographies and organizing paperwork. But you'll also get to see what people who do this work actually do all day, and if you're talented, you'll likely get chances to do some interesting work.

So that's what I'd recommend. Start applying for entry level jobs at basically any organization whose research interests you. I worked my way up in this field in my 20s, so feel free to respond in-thread or MeMail me if you have more questions.
posted by decathecting at 11:14 AM on July 26, 2012

a professor once told me I should be a policy analyst/work in public policy

This isn't really a thing. Or rather, it's a bunch of different things tangentially connected by the "public policy" moniker. Take a look at the list of notable alumni at Columbia's School of International and Public Affairs. The people on that list have jobs that range from city councilmen, to journalists, to executives at major corporations, to more-or-less high-level bureaucrats, to union bosses, to the freaking President of East Timor. A Masters in Public Policy does not direct one towards any particular career path the way, say, a law or medical degree, or even a Masters in Education or one of the hard sciences does.

Saying you have an interest in "public policy" is kind of like saying you have an interest in "professionalism." I mean, yeah, but what kind? That or you're talking about a very specific academic discipline. There are a very small number of people who go out for policy qua policy and a much larger number of people who go out for X and then get involved in the policy side of X.

I get the distinct impression that people who are successful at places like SIPA are people who have a pretty strong idea about what it is they want to do, and then decide or are drawn to the public policy aspects of whatever that happens to be. That or people who are already pretty damned successful as it is but are looking for a place to network the hell out of things.

So rather than trying to get an entry-level policy job, just go get an entry level job. Then, if you like the field, see if you can't leverage that interest into the public policy side of things.
posted by valkyryn at 11:18 AM on July 26, 2012

decathecting answered it well. When I was interviewing for the RA position I took before getting an MPP, I explained that I would probably be going back to school and asked if that would be a problem. My boss said that no, that's what they were looking for, because they wanted people who were smart enough to get bored with the work after a couple of years. If you are interested in a list, you could contact the career office of a policy grad school and explain what you're looking for.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 11:19 AM on July 26, 2012

As valkyryn said, policy school can lead to a range of careers. It's a lot like business school: you can go into the politics, administration, analysis, or a range of related issues. You can work for the public sector, nonprofits, private firms who work directly for the government, or private firms whose business depends on understanding or working for government. However, you wrote, " I think working in public policy would play to my strengths (writing, research), and would let me work in areas I’m interested in." That's a relatively focused area: It sounds like you want to be on the research/analysis side rather than do administration, and you are interested in topics that government has influence on." So look for jobs that incorporate those areas.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 11:48 AM on July 26, 2012

Check out civil service jobs in your area. That may be more along the "public administration" side of things, but there is (in my experience) always a healthy dose of policy involved. Civil service isn't terribly sexy, but it is a good place to get some introductory experience and to learn more about what policy really looks like on the ground. I work in regulatory compliance in part of a major state university system, and a great deal of my work is drafting institutional policy (which has the effect of state law) that complies with various federal and state regulatory schemes.
posted by jph at 12:09 PM on July 26, 2012

It'd be weird if I marked everyone Best Answer, wouldn't it? I realize this question was vague and maybe even a bit naive, but I don't know anyone personally who has done this kind of thing. Thanks for the great advice and insight, everyone!
posted by Shesthefastest at 12:19 PM on July 30, 2012

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