Public policy encompasses the nation's laws, regulations, and social constructs upheld by jurisprudence. Policies can respond to specific issues like educational accessibility, workforce development, and housing practices. They also exist in institutional contexts when organizations create guidelines and rules for how they conduct business.
Because public policy cuts across multiple sectors, pursuing this field can provide you with diverse employment opportunities. Possible career paths include civil service administrator, city manager, and diplomat. Public policy specialists may also pursue careers with private employers, acting as higher education advisors, public relations specialists, and healthcare coordinators. By obtaining graduate degrees and work experience, they can occupy roles as researchers, postsecondary teachers, lawyers, and executives.
This guide provides you with in-depth information on degree planning including program structures, concentrations, and skill development and application. You'll also gain insight into public policy career options and corresponding entry requirements. The guide concludes with job search tips and professional development resources.
Skills Gained in a Public Policy Program
You can gain core competencies in public policy by earning a bachelor's degree. Due to the broad nature of the field, most students pursue specialized certification or licensure in addition to their college credentials. The list below details five core public policy skills and their application in work settings.
- Public Administration
- Public policy students learn to plan, implement, and assess programs. They gain the skills to lead multidisciplinary teams, train employees, and allocate resources. They also learn to align an organization's policies with government regulations and standards.
- Policy Analysis
- Students develop a holistic understanding of the policymaking process, including how social, political, economic, and technological factors affect government regulations and laws. They learn to analyze the effects of public policies on individuals and communities. Students also learn to guide policy formation by examining key legislative and executive institutional objectives.
- A core skill for any career, communication skills enable all students to convey information clearly and persuasively in written, oral, and multimedia forms. Public policy professionals must communicate complex and technical ideas to individuals and teams. They also need to tactfully engage with government officials and community members to cultivate productive relationships.
- Ethical Leadership
- Students need to be able to assess the ethical implications of individual, organizational, and societal actions. They learn to analyze a leader's decisions, including how external and internal pressures affect decision-making processes. They develop a personal model of ethical leadership with regards to social responsibility and stakeholder engagement.
- Strategic Decision-Making
- Public policy professionals make decisions with widespread and long-lasting effects. Students must learn to identify the most important features of a decision based on setting and context and evaluate its limitations and the psychological factors that impact decision quality.
Why Pursue a Career in Public Policy?
Your public policy career options cover a variety of industries including education, social services, urban planning, and law and policy enforcement. With specialized training, you can work in homeland security or emergency planning. Public policy represents a lucrative career path, with increasing numbers of students enrolling in relevant academic programs. The nonprofit research organization, Data USA, reports that in 2016, colleges and universities awarded over 17,150 public administration degrees. That same year, U.S. companies and organizations employed nearly 735,300 public policy professionals.
With a public policy degree, you also can work in private enterprise as a public relations specialist or market research analyst, positions that the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects will increase from 2016 to 2026 by 9% and 23%, respectively. The BLS also projects that emergency management director positions will increase by 8% from 2016 to 2026.
By pursuing graduate-level training, you can develop advanced research and leadership skills needed to become a sociologist, political scientist, dedicated researcher, or postsecondary teacher. You may also apply for executive positions in private companies, government agencies, and nonprofit organizations. The multiplicity of public policy career paths means that you must stay current with emerging trends by engaging with industry organizations, taking continuing education classes, and pursuing certification or licensure.
How Much Do Public Policy Graduates Make?
The BLS reports that public relations specialists earn from $33,690 (bottom 10%) to $112,310 (top 10%). Industry and location also impact public policy career salaries. Furthermore, your degree level significantly affects how much you can earn. BLS data reveals that master's degree holders enjoy $12,000 more in median annual salary than individuals with bachelor's degrees.
Na'ilah Amaru is an advocacy and policy strategist with more than 15 years' experience spearheading visible and highly demanding positions in both the nonprofit and government arenas, with expertise in community engagement, issue campaigns, government relations, and coalition building at the local, state, and national levels. Na'ilah served as policy advisor to former Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, legislative aide to U.S. Rep. John Lewis, and executive director of the New York City Council's Black, Latino, and Asian caucus.
Na'ilah is a distinguished U.S. Army veteran and ammunition specialist who served in Iraq and was awarded an Army commendation medal for exemplary service. She consults with community-based organizations on issue-based and legislative campaigns, and she consults with nonprofits to help maximize their social impact by providing expertise in strategic planning, program evaluation, and operations analysis. Na'ilah earned her master of public policy degree from Georgia State University.
- What is public policy?
Public policy is a governmental decision to pursue a specific course of action in order to solve a problem or achieve a goal. More importantly, these governmental decisions express certain values and beliefs about different groups of people in society that impact policy design. These policy designs create winners and losers and reflect who government deems as deserving (or not) of support or punishment through public policy.
Through a political lens, the process of creating public policy is a multistage cycle that never ends. From legislative agenda setting to evaluation, each step reflects different issues and competing stakeholders. While issues and stakeholders may vary, their goal is the same: to influence policy decision-makers in prioritizing their respective issues and implementing their chosen solutions. Although all steps in the policy process are critical, I've learned that it is the agenda-setting phase that is key because the winners control which issues are focused on and how those issues are addressed. This power sets the stage for every subsequent step in the policy process. The social issues we talk about, how we talk about them, and our solutions to those problems are all connected through the public policy process.
Public policy determines who wins and who loses, while the political arena determines who has the power to decide.
- What is so valuable about earning a degree in this field right now?
A public policy degree is timeless. No matter the political landscape or geography, there is always a need to solve society's problems and create meaningful social change. The value of a public policy degree is anchored in its versatility, the skill sets one develops, and the ultimate impact policy has on society.
Versatility is key for those who want the freedom to work across the government, nonprofit, and private sectors; tackle various issues; operate in different capacities; or all of the above. A policy degree is not limited to a specific expertise but rather provides a multitude of options for one to explore different opportunities throughout one's career.
Skill sets developed in a policy program include research, writing, analysis, problem-solving, and communications. While all these skills are crucial in the policymaking process, problem-solving and effective communication skills are the most critical because policy professionals are in the business of solving social problems and must be able to translate different information to vastly different stakeholders at any given time. From interacting with elected officials, government agency heads, nonprofit leaders, lobbyists, and the general public, effective problem-solving and strong communication skills create the necessary thread connecting different aspects of the policy process and lay the groundwork for a successful career.
The impact of a public policy degree cannot be overstated, because public policy changes lives. Today's world needs a new generation of leaders who are driven to find the best solutions to society's problems. A public policy degree begins that journey.
- Can graduates of public policy programs find careers all over the country?
Graduates of public policy programs lead successful careers across sectors and throughout the United States. Public policy graduates shape policy in a variety of ways, from leading nonprofit organizations, researching data for think tanks, working within government institutions, or representing clients before elected officials. Therefore, the possibilities for a career in public policy are bountiful and meaningful.
- What did your career trajectory look like after you graduated? How did you end up in your current position?
Before I graduated with my public policy degree, I worked as a community organizer, nonprofit program coordinator, public interest lobbyist, government grants manager, and electoral campaign operative. These combined experiences led me to pursue a master of public policy. After I graduated, I worked on Capitol Hill as a legislative aide, served as executive director of the Black, Latino, and Asian Caucus for the New York City Council, and returned to public interest lobbying at the state level.
Given my diverse and deep experience navigating policy landscapes from the grassroots to Capitol Hill, my consulting services have evolved to collaborating with community-based organizations on issue-based campaigns and legislative advocacy.
- What are the pros and cons of working in public policy?
The benefits of working in the public policy field are numerous, but chief among them are expanding one's worldview, diverse work environments, and making a difference. Constantly being challenged to expand one's own understanding of the world is a key benefit of the public policy field. Given the nature of politics and advocacy, as policy professionals we are exposed to different ways of thinking about the same issue. New information and different lenses provide unique perspectives to addressing age-old problems.
The possible variety of work environments in the public policy field is also a benefit. Are you an introvert who prefers to work quietly in a stable 9-5 job in an office setting? Or are you more of an extrovert who loves talking with people from all walks of life and prefers to be "on the go"? The public policy field has jobs for each side of the spectrum and everything in between. From cubicles to town halls, the public policy field offers opportunities for nearly every type of personality, preference, and passion. Although the negative aspects of the public policy field may include navigating inflated egos, enduring power dynamics, and fighting against political expediency over sound public policy, in the end, the greatest benefit of a public policy career is using your time and talent to make positive change for the greatest number of people.
In truth, public policy exposes one to all different types of personalities, and there is no shortage of inflated egos, particularly in the political arena. Egos can get in the way of good policy. One must learn quickly how to work with those types of people in a way that neutralizes their potential damage and moves your projects forward. In addition, power dynamics are a constant struggle. Financial power and political power deeply impact the field of public policy. By understanding the motivations and the political, social, and financial capital of each stakeholder, you will be able to navigate an ever-changing political landscape.
Political expediency over sound public policy is a challenge at every level of government. It is an unfortunate truth that policy decision-makers will often choose the easy way instead of the right way. For example, many public policies are reactionary, and some laws are passed swiftly to appease certain segments of the public rather than creating a thoughtful, inclusionary approach to solving the issue. Thus, the consequence of political expediency can be ineffective at best and devastating at its worst.
- What advice would you give to public policy graduates and lawyers just starting their job search?
The public policy field is inundated with people who prioritize building a professional network based on titles and access to certain people. When I worked on Capitol Hill, people would ask me, "Who do you work for, and what do you do?" before they asked me my name. Don't be that person. Building meaningful relationships with people rooted in a shared sense of purpose will be far more valuable than any Rolodex full of fancy job titles. Ask yourself (and answer honestly): Why do you want to embark on a career in public policy? The public policy arena is a battlefield, one in which you will achieve hard-fought victories and suffer soul-crushing defeat. It comes with the territory when you're working with opposing forces, different stakeholders, and competing political agendas. Your "why" is your North Star, and it will guide you through every possible scenario and give you purpose on the dark days.
One of the best lessons I've learned is that public policy is like a hammer -- it can be used to build or destroy. By mastering political dynamics and building authentic social networks, we can turn our passion for doing good into positive social impact for all.
How to Become a Political Scientist
Earn Your Degree
Political scientists study the history and development of government systems. They analyze public policies, political trends, and foreign relations for academic and practical purposes. As a political scientist, you can work in postsecondary institutions as a professor or researcher, providing classroom instruction and publishing research findings in journals and magazines. You can also work in an advisor capacity for private companies and nonprofit organizations, helping to guide their operational strategies and programming.
You need to earn at least a master's degree to pursue a political scientist career. Online undergraduate programs in public policy, political science, or public administration provide training in the fundamentals of government structure, purposes, and the interactions between agencies. Students learn about public policy creation, including lobbying practices and other techniques to build consensus. They also develop the integrative communication skills needed to write persuasively, lead advocacy initiatives, and build coalitions.
At the graduate level, learners cultivate the leadership skills to become public officials and political practitioners. Students delve into comparative political theories and examine the international landscape. They also train in advanced research techniques, which they apply through an internship or practicum, and complete a thesis project to tackle a pertinent issue in the field.
How Many Years of College Does It Take to Become a Political Scientist?
Students usually need 4-7 years to earn a master's degree, depending on their enrollment status and the specific academic program. To work as tenure-eligible college professors and dedicated researchers, political scientists usually need a doctoral degree and a portfolio of published works. They also need to gain at least three years of relevant work experience, preferably while occupying policybuilding and management roles.
Concentrations Available for Public Policy Majors
- Public Administration
Public administration and management trains students to adopt and implement policy at the executive level. They examine how bureaucracies function in a democracy, including their structures, processes, and objectives. This concentration prepares learners for roles like social services coordinator and community development director.
- Policy Analysis
An important concentration for researchers, educators, and government consultants, policy analysis teaches students to examine vast amounts of complex information and design quantitative and qualitative research methods. They learn to visualize data and create program plans, predict the effects of public policies, and support decision-making processes.
- Health Policy
Healthcare is one of the fastest-growing U.S. sectors. Students who pursue this concentration will be well-prepared to work as health services administrators, community health advocates, and public health specialists. Learners delve into healthcare delivery systems organization and financing. They also examine the connections between the labor market, political actions, and health insurance.
- Energy and Environmental Policy
In this timely concentration, students analyze the environmental effects of human economic activity. They explore the public measures that government and companies enact to better use resources and reduce waste. The environmental policy concentration also covers alternative energy sources, preparing candidates for careers as government regulatory officials and private sustainability consultants.
- National Security
This concentration benefits students interested in homeland security and emergency management careers. Learners examine government policy on trade, foreign affairs, and economic development. They learn about U.S. relations with foreign nations and collaborative efforts like humanitarian action. The national security concentration also covers global justice, terrorism and its countermeasures, and the role of intelligence in U.S. policy.
What Can You Do With a Public Policy Degree?
Because public policy careers stretch across diverse industries, your job options greatly depend on your field of study and degree level. The best online bachelor's programs in public administration prepare you for government occupations like legislative aide and policy communication associate. Concentrations in environmental policy and sustainability can provide you with the skills needed for working as an urban planner. With additional college training and work experience, you may qualify for high-ranking roles like city manager or other elected official positions. Additional opportunities exist in transportation, housing affairs, and criminal justice.
Public policy careers abound in the private sector and include program analyst and manager. You can act as an intermediary between companies and government officials by working as a public policy consultant or public relations specialist. Because the degree coursework covers core business skills, public policy students are also prepared for careers in marketing, financial management, and human resources management.
For students with professional interests in the nonprofit sector, career options include healthcare advocate, community outreach manager, and government relations specialist. Public policy professionals may also use their analytical skills to drive program development. Lastly, they can pursue work as researchers and educators.
Bachelor's Degree in Public Policy
Bachelor's programs in public administration and policy typically span four years, requiring students to earn at least 120 credits. Online accelerated tracks and degree completion plans enable distance learners to earn their credentials in two years. Bachelor's programs train students in foundational skills like administrative leadership, policy development and implementation, and research methods. Students develop advanced competencies through open electives and coursework in their chosen concentration and gain crucial hands-on experience by completing internships.
- Public Relations Specialist
Public relations specialists work in all fields and industries. They help companies cultivate and maintain a positive public image. They develop social media and traditional marketing campaigns to raise awareness of an organization's goals and projects. They also help organizational leaders communicate with the media by drafting speeches and reviewing official correspondence.
Average Annual Salary: $60,000
- Market Research Analyst
Market research analysts work for manufacturers and other corporations, examining economic conditions to determine the value and sales potential of a service or product. They devise data collection methods and analyze findings using statistical software. Research analysts translate complex data into cogent and actionable information for the company's leaders and stakeholders.
Average Annual Salary: $63,120
Master's Degree in Public Policy
Master's programs in public policy require students to complete at least 30 credits, which generally takes two years. However, some higher education institutions offer flexible online options that allow students to earn their degree in as little as 12 months. Like bachelor's degree candidates, graduate students can align their coursework with career objectives by pursuing concentrations.
The master's curriculum builds on undergraduate training and typically includes classes like public budgeting, ethics and law, and advanced policy analysis and program evaluation. Students also cultivate creative leadership skills to work as managers and directors. They round out graduate training with an applied project that combines service learning with self-motivated research.
- Political Scientist
These research scientists study political topics on a national and international scale. They develop and test political theories using methods like public opinion surveys. They often work as academics who publish their research findings and teach at universities. They can also hold advising positions, monitoring current events and forecasting political developments for government agencies and private enterprises.
Average Annual Salary: $117,570
- Survey Researcher
Survey researchers design sampling tools and collect data for private companies, nonprofits, government bodies, and polling organizations. They can specialize in diverse fields including social sciences, political science, and consumer research. They also coordinate the functions of interviewers and data collectors. Working with their teams, survey researchers evaluate findings and account for problems caused by sampling issues.
Average Annual Salary: $57,700
Doctoral Degree in Public Policy
Doctoral degrees in public policy allow professionals to maximize their earning potential and gain executive-level positions within nonprofit organizations, private companies, and government agencies. Doctor of philosophy programs in public administration and policy analysis range from 50-70 credits. In general, students take 5-7 years to earn their Ph.D., depending on the rate they complete coursework and time needed to research, write, and defend their dissertation.
- Postsecondary Teacher
In addition to providing classroom instruction, postsecondary teachers help students pursue internships, complete research projects, and plan for career entry or graduate school. They conduct their own research for publication and presentation. They also occupy administrative roles in their departments, assisting with curriculum development and student enrollment.
Average Annual Salary: $78,470
Sociologists study people, communities, social institutions, and personal interactions. They may work in a dedicated research role within academic institutions, where they design projects to test theories about social issues. Sociologists can also work as practitioners, using their skills to help government officials and corporate leaders make strategic decisions.
Average Annual Salary: $82,050
Where Can I Work as a Public Policy Graduate?
A public policy degree provides you with the knowledge and skills to analyze vast datasets, engage with national and international political processes, and manage diverse programs. You can work in the nonprofit and private sectors or pursue occupations with local and state government, acting as a budget analyst, outreach coordinator, or project administrator. Healthcare represents another major industry for policy experts who want to advocate for underserved patient populations or negotiate the interactions between insurance companies and care providers.
Graduates of public policy benefit from ample career options in both rural and urban areas. In fact, rural development and economic policy represents an expanding subfield with lucrative opportunities, especially in government-sponsored occupations. However, location still impacts job prospects and pay potential. Unsurprisingly, Washington, D.C. boasts the highest employment level for political scientists, followed by Virginia, Texas, California, and Washington state. Political scientists enjoy the highest median salaries when working in Virginia, Maryland, and New York. In addition to salary, you should factor in quality of life (including housing prices and public transportation accessibility) and cost of living when deciding where to work and reside.
- Federal Executive Branch
The federal government employs public policy analysts in civil service, military, and political appointment capacities. Professionals who work for government bodies usually specialize in an area of public policy like housing, agriculture, economic development, and foreign affairs.
Average Salary: $126,770
- Scientific Research and Development Services
Researchers work for government agencies, nonprofits, and private businesses. They conduct studies to gauge public opinion about specific issues and use the findings to facilitate policy development and program implementation.
Average Salary: $117,070
- Management, Scientific, and Technical Consulting Services
This industry encompasses the majority of private sector occupations. Here, public policy experts work as company executives, project managers, and program administrators. They can also pursue self-employment, acting as technical and managerial consultants.
Average Salary: $104,990
- Colleges, Universities, and Professional Schools
Public policy professionals who work for higher education institutions usually hold teaching and research roles. They can also pursue administrative positions, using their analytical skills to bolster university operations and improve student retention.
Average Salary: $81,270
- Local Government, Excluding Schools and Hospitals
In this industry, professionals work for publicly funded committees, departments, and agencies that oversee specific logistical and political functions. Careers include chief administrative officer, transportation coordinator, urban planner, and community liaison.
Average Salary: $91,120
How Do You Find a Job in Public Policy?
Taking advantage of your university's resources is a smart first step for finding a job in public policy. Career centers can help you with resume writing, practicing for interviews, and provide one-on-one counseling.
You can expand your public policy career options by engaging with professional organizations. The American Society for Public Administration and the Alliance for Nonprofit Management operate job boards. The International City/County Management Association offers comprehensive career guidance and skill training opportunities.
Professional Resources for Public Policy Majors
Established in 1904, APSA supports more than 11,000 members who come from diverse fields of inquiry and occupations. The association provides fellowship programs, research grants, and professional development programs. APSA also delivers resources specifically for minority students. Members connect through teaching and learning conferences, summer institutes, and online working groups.
Chartered in 1937, APWA boasts 30,000 members and operates 63 chapters in North America. In addition to academic accreditation, the association facilitates e-learning, certification, and continuing education programs. Members also benefit from a leadership academy. Individuals who want to engage in the policymaking process can join one of APWA's working committees.
APPAM was founded in 1978 and has the mission of strengthening the public policy field through research and education. The association hosts regional student conferences, international meetings, and a public policy training camp. APPAM provides research funding and equity/inclusion fellowships. Members may also access career advising, job listings, and mentorship opportunities.
Established in 1971, ARNOVA strengthens research and practice for third-sector organizations and professionals. The association funds research initiatives and hosts global conferences. Members benefit from teaching resources, webinars, and a vast career center. They collaborate through online groups organized around areas like community and grassroots action; social entrepreneurship and enterprise; and public policy, politics, and law.
A nonprofit and nonpartisan organization, the National Academy of Public Administration supports government officials in developing and managing more effective, accountable, and transparent organizations. The academy engages public policy practitioners in diverse research projects. Members can collaborate through working groups centered on topics like intergovernmental systems, technology leadership, social equity in governance, and international affairs.