January 29, 2013

Degrees for a Policy Career: Do You Need a PhD?

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.

Last time, we discussed Master’s degrees. This week, we discuss the pros and cons of a Ph.D.


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.

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.