August 17, 2015


Career Perspective: Being a Policy Generalist Part 2

By: AFF Editors


Part 1.

Insight 2: I love to learn.

I would wager most policy analysts or researchers love to learn. At bottom, a policy analyst is a problem-solver, and solving new and ever-evolving problems requires a new and ever-evolving knowledge base. The question, then, may not be so much whether you love to learn, but what kind of learning comes naturally. As a generalist, I love to learn something new every day. That is to say, there must be an element of novelty in what I am learning. This may be the result of a certain confidence, or perhaps arrogance, that the essential points of many issues can be grasped rather quickly. I intuit it is also related to a creative streak that becomes somewhat restless at the thought of settling down too long upon any one theme. In any event, this insight is very much related to another.

Insight 3: It’s all connected.

In my view, everything is connected—and connectable. This may be the chief intuition that distinguishes the generalist from the specialist. Given that everything is connected, every subject is ultimately related to every other, and, more importantly, related to some one first principle. Even if the generalist cannot articulate this principle, I would argue it is the organizing impulse in all that he does.

To understand what I mean, let’s imagine a generalist and a specialist are asked to undertake a specific research project—say, on transportation spending. Initially, both the generalist and the specialist may approach the project with the same question: what is the best way to build good roads? The specialist answers this query by digging deeper, building layer upon layer of knowledge. But the primary question—how to build good roads—remains at the center of his work. By contrast, the generalist approaches the question, and its accompanying answer, as another layer, or rather, perspective, that reflects a deeper question. This question will differ somewhat, depending upon the analyst. Does this policy further good government? Does this policy further human rights? Does this policy respect and cultivate the integrity of the person? For all practical purposes, the answer to this deeper question may also recede into the background—say, owing to time and space considerations. But even if unstated, this primary question will remain as an organizing principle.

This, of course, is not to say the specialist does not also consider these more basic questions. The difference is one of approach. The specialist brackets such questions so as to better concentrate on the subject at hand. For the generalist, these fundamental questions remain front and center, demanding at least an acknowledgement.

Above, we wondered if the generalist suffers from intellectual arrogance. The counter to this hubris is a keen awareness that no matter how much specialized knowledge he acquires, the generalist still has not answered the more basic questions underlying these other inquiries. In the face of such unanswered questions, the generalist cannot help but be distracted from the acquisition of whatever specialized knowledge may be required to finish the project at hand—say, that policy report on transportation. If given proper direction, however, such distractions can be used to great benefit. And this leads to my final insight.


This post, written by Dr. Jameson Taylor, is an excerpt from the IHS “Creating Your Path to a Policy Career” guide. Tune in next week for the final insight.