January 22, 2013

Degrees for a Policy Career: Do You Need a Master’s?

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.

This week, we discuss the pros and cons of graduate degrees.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.


Economics: An econ Ph.D. is a fairly well-respected degree (probably more than any other) in the policy world. However, the relevance of your research and publications will carry a lot of weight and show that you are more than just an “ivory tower” academic but are able to apply your knowledge to policy debates. This is a major investment, so unless you are strongly interested in academia or policy as a career, it may not be worth the cost.

Political Science / Philosophy / Liberal Arts: A Ph.D. gives you the credentials that make your publications for a think tank more attractive, but do not assume that a Ph.D. in the social sciences makes you a shoo-in for a policy job. Employers know that Ph.D.’s demand higher salaries, so you will need to have demonstrated proof of your skill in the policy world, not just your academic credentials. In addition, your research work in these disciplines should have relevance to policy in order for the degree to be attractive.

Technical / Hard Sciences: If you are very narrowly focused on a policy area that requires a high level of technical know-how (e.g., climate policy), a Ph.D. in the hard sciences can open up job opportunities not available to a less-educated person. However, there are relatively few policy jobs in highly technical areas, and for more general roles, a Ph.D. in the hard sciences may signal that you not only need a high salary, but that you are not entirely focused on policy as a career.


Law school deserves a special section because it is such a common educational path for aspiring policy experts. Many wannabe policy wonks go to law school, and many corporate lawyers come out.

There’s nothing wrong with being a corporate, defense, or other kind of lawyer. But if you are passionate about policy, you should be fully aware that in general, law school limits your options; it does not expand them. The sheer cost of a JD often requires a job with a high salary right out of school to pay off loans. The salaries typical of an entry-level policy organization are nowhere near those of a law firm. Many take the law job with the intention of paying off debt and later returning to policy, but for most of them, it never happens. The reduction in salary when making the switch requires too great a lifestyle change. Unsurprisingly, this means that most law school students end up being lawyers for the rest of their lives.

There are some jobs in public interest law or legal policy that requires a law degree, but these are relatively few, especially in comparison with the large number of law school graduates seeking them.

Generally speaking, if you are passionate about a career in policy, avoid law school, at least until you have worked for a few years and have a better idea of exactly how a J.D. would help your career. The worst thing to do, which happens all too often, is to attend law school because you want to do policy but just aren’t sure what to do next. The high cost of this path is not worth the limited options afterward.

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.

Eric Alston is a JD candidate at the University of Chicago. Isaac Morehouse is Policy Programs Director at the Institute for Humane Studies. This post is an excerpt from the IHS Policy Career Guide.