February 18, 2014

Steps for Success in a Policy Career: Do You Need a Master’s Degree?

By: Eric Alston and Isaac Morehouse

There is no simple way to determine what level and type of degree is best for you and your budding policy career. Don’t fret; you don’t have to have the perfect answer.

Here are three broadly applicable considerations:

1. Your degree is less important than attributes like hard work, excellent writing, confident and clear communication, relevant knowledge, and internship or work experience.

2. The institution is probably more important than the type or level of degree.

3. Generic degrees diminish your competitive edge over other candidates, but specialized degrees will limit your opportunities outside of your area of specialization. Specialize only if you are especially passionate about that area.

In this piece, we discuss the pros and cons of pursuing a Master’s degree.

In general when considering an advanced degree, you should weigh all the costs with the expected benefits. While a better salary and empowered jobs are typical of these benefits, this doesn’t always mean accruing a large amount of debt and spending two to five years are worth it . Often, candidates with a bachelor’s and three years of specialized professional experience are as sought after as candidates fresh out of graduate school.

  1. Economics: A master’s in economics is more valuable than a B.A. in economics, but probably not by much. It may signal a more in-depth interest in the subject, which is valuable in the policy world, but it can also signal indecision about going all the way and doing a Ph.D., which is not necessarily an attractive quality. The caliber of the degree-granting institution and supplementary experience combined can make an economics M.A. more valuable, but don’t assume that an M.A. automatically makes you sufficiently more attractive than a B.A. to justify the cost. Two caveats: if you have a B.A. or B.S. in a field less relevant to policy and you do not intend to be a professor, an M.A. in economics may be a good next step. An M.A. may also be a good vehicle to acquire quantitative economics training.
  2. Political Science / Philosophy / Liberal Arts: A master’s in poli-sci, philosophy, or other liberal arts fields are similarly slightly more valuable than a B.A., but not by a huge margin. Pursue these if you love the course work and if you are building good experiences simultaneously.
  3. Public Policy/Public Administration: Many people assume an M.P.P. or M.P.A. will make them a better prospect for a policy job. Presidents and CEO’s of think tanks have told me on several occasions that this is simply not the case. An M.P.P. is not any better than a master’s in any other discipline, and an M.P.A. is treated as possibly worse. In the case of the M.P.P., it is questionable to employers why someone would get an advanced degree in such a generic field, versus more specialized training in economics, statistics, or hard science. An M.P.A. often carries a perception of a “bureaucrat in training,” which is not the mindset most freedom-oriented policy organizations are looking for. Do not get an M.P.P. or M.P.A. simply because you don’t know your next step. Think about an area you have a specific interest in, as this will prove more valuable in the end.
  4. Business: An M.B.A. is not an obvious choice for a policy career and may not help you stand out to employers unless you are applying for a management role within a policy organization. This can be a valuable degree, but it should be coupled with relevant experiences.
  5. Technical Sciences/Hard Sciences: A master’s in a hard science can signal that you are fairly serious about your field, and if that field is not directly relevant to policy (e.g., a biology degree with a focus on public health), employers may be skeptical about your seriousness in pursuit of a policy job.

Finally, one should not seek out a given degree simply because of the perceived financial rewards associated with it. A keen interest in the field of study chosen is perhaps the most important prerequisite to success in graduate school.

This post was written by Eric Alston and  Isaac Morehouse and is a previously published excerpt from the IHS Policy Career Guide.  Visit the Institute for Humane Studies to learn more about pursuing a policy career.