January 15, 2013

Career Advice

Degrees for a Policy Career: Undergraduate

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.

What are the pros and cons of different degrees when seeking a policy career? Today we will cover undergraduate degrees, and over the next three weeks we will discuss Master’s degrees, PhDs, and JDs.

Undergraduate Degree

Economics: As far as undergrad degrees go for policy work, economics is probably the most valuable. Nearly every policy issue involves economic analysis, and economic thinking in general helps one look beyond the obvious effects of policies and see the “unseen.” Employers tend to look more favorably on an economics degree than on other undergrad degrees, but the difference is relatively small. Coursework in quantitative methods or statistics is even more valuable.

Political Science: An undergraduate degree in political science may seem like an obvious choice for a career in policy, and in some ways it is. It gives you some theoretical knowledge of political systems and familiarity with policy terminology. However, political science does not necessarily signal a high level of relevant knowledge to policy employers. Many poli-sci undergrads do not have useful knowledge, and many choose the major simply because they don’t know what else to do. You’ll want a record of published articles, student activity, internships or other experiences to send a clear signal that you are serious about policy.

Philosophy / Liberal Arts: Liberal arts or other social science degrees as an undergrad do not signal much of anything to policy employers. This is not to say you should avoid them entirely. If you are passionate about sociology or philosophy, by all means major in it. But be aware that you will need some other way to demonstrate the relevance of your skills and knowledge to the policy world—well-written articles or blog posts, internships, campus clubs, and other extra-curricular activities are key signals to employers that your degree actually means something.

Technical Sciences / Hard Sciences: Though less easily applied to the policy world, undergrad degrees in a technical field or the hard sciences, when coupled with a strong GPA, do signal logical thinking and work ethic. An undergraduate degree here is not likely to hurt you and may even help you, as employers may be curious why an engineer wants to do policy. If you want to work on related policy issues, your technical expertise may give you an edge over the competition. But again, you’ll need some additional experience demonstrating crucial skills in written and oral communication.

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.