A career in public policy offers graduates the opportunity to craft and enact policies that promote public well-being. Many schools offer specialized programs in public policy that blend political science, sociology, and data analytics.
Read on to learn about potential careers with a public policy degree. You can explore career paths and educational opportunities for public policy majors, continuing education opportunities, and resources to assist you in your career. You can also gain insight into this exciting career by reading an interview with a public policy professional.
Why Pursue a Career in Public Policy?
Careers in public policy depend heavily on empirical research and data. As such, public policy programs build skills in data analysis, critical thinking, and decision-making. Assignments often revolve around studying specific problems or concerns and evaluating how local, state, and/or federal policies can help the situation.
This field suits individuals interested in government and politics who can build strong interpersonal relationships. Active listening and interviewing skills also help public policy professionals identify specific problems and needs of a constituency.
Public policy professionals should have strong problem-solving, presentation, and oral and written communication skills. They must be able to persuade audiences or propose compromises to get policy changes enacted.
Public Policy Career Outlook
The data analytics and research skills you gain in your public policy program help prepare you for career opportunities related to market research and policy analysis. Your understanding of government can also lead to job options in law or social service.
Many graduates find careers in public policy in government agencies and the offices of elected officials. Nonprofit organizations also need public policy graduates for lobbying and legislative advocacy.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), political scientists earn a median annual salary of $122,220. The BLS projects 6% job growth for political scientists between 2019 and 2029. Political scientists typically hold a master's degree or a doctorate.
The following table provides typical salaries for a few popular careers in public policy.
|Job Title||Entry-Level (0-12 months)||Early Career (1-4 Years)||Midcareer (5-9 Years)||Experienced (10-19 Years)|
|Market Research Analyst||$49,380||$53,490||$63,640||$75,050|
|Public Policy Director||N/A||$65,660||$80,740||$94,810|
|Public Relations Specialist||$40,280||$45,830||$58,440||$61,190|
Skills Gained With a Public Policy Degree
The following section details five core public policy skills and their application in work settings. Students can develop these skills while earning a bachelor's degree in the field. Some learners also pursue specialized certification or a graduate degree to enhance their career prospects.
- Public Administration
Public policy students learn to plan, implement, and assess programs. They gain the skills needed 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 legislative 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.
Communication skills enable 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 must 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. Learners also develop a personal model of ethical leadership with regards to social responsibility and stakeholder engagement.
- Strategic Decision-Making
Public policy professionals may be responsible for making decisions that have widespread and long-lasting effects. Students must learn to identify the most important features of a decision based on setting and context. They must also evaluate the psychological factors that impact a decision's quality.
Public Policy Career Paths
Public policy careers often require a thorough understanding of a specialized topic, like healthcare or energy. You can prepare for these specialized roles by choosing a concentration, where available, or by supplementing your degree with electives or a minor. Below are several popular career paths — and associated concentrations — for public policy students.
- Public Administration
This concentration 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. Graduates can pursue careers as social services coordinators and community development directors.
- 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
Students who pursue this concentration are prepared for careers as health services administrators, community health advocates, and public health specialists. Learners delve into the organization and financing of healthcare delivery systems. They also examine the connections between the labor market, political actions, and health insurance.
- Energy and Environmental Policy
In this concentration, students analyze the environmental effects of human economic activity. They explore the public measures that the government and companies enact to better use resources and reduce waste. This concentration also covers alternative energy sources, preparing graduates 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 policies on trade, foreign affairs, and economic development. They learn about U.S. relations with foreign nations and collaborative efforts like humanitarian action. Coursework also covers global justice, terrorism and its countermeasures, and the role of intelligence in U.S. policy.
How to Start Your Career in Public Policy
The best online bachelor's programs in public administration prepare graduates for government positions like legislative aide and policy communication associate. Concentrations in environmental policy and sustainability can also provide graduates with the skills needed for careers as urban planners.
Public policy graduates can also pursue roles in the private sector, like program analyst, public policy consultant, and public relations specialist. By studying core business skills, public policy graduates also prepare to work in fields like marketing, financial management, and human resources management.
In the nonprofit sector, career options include healthcare advocate, community outreach manager, and government relations specialist.
Bachelor's Degree in Public Policy
Bachelor's programs in public administration and policy typically take four years, requiring students to earn at least 120 credits. Online accelerated tracks and degree completion plans enable distance learners to graduate in less time.
Bachelor's programs teach foundational skills like administrative leadership, policy development and implementation, and research methods. Many programs include an internship in public policy.
What Can You Do With a Bachelor's in Public Policy?
- Public Relations Specialist
Public relations specialists work in many fields and industries. They help companies cultivate and maintain a positive public image. This may involve developing social media and traditional marketing campaigns to raise awareness of an organization's goals and projects. These workers also help organizational leaders communicate with the media by drafting speeches and reviewing official correspondence.
- Market Research Analyst
Market research analysts work for manufacturers and 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.
Master's Degree in Public Policy
Master's programs in public policy typically require students to complete 30-40 credits, which generally takes about two years. However, some schools offer flexible online options that may allow students to earn their degree within one year. Master's students can align their coursework with career objectives by pursuing concentrations.
Master's curricula typically includes classes like public budgeting, ethics and law, and advanced policy analysis and program evaluation. Students also cultivate creative leadership skills, preparing to work as managers and directors. These programs often culminate in an applied project that combines service learning with research.
What Can You Do With a Master's in Public Policy?
- 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.
- Survey Researcher
Survey researchers design sampling tools and collect data for private companies, nonprofits, government bodies, and polling organizations. They specialize in diverse fields, including social sciences, political science, and consumer research. They also coordinate with interviewers and data collectors. Working with their teams, survey researchers evaluate findings and account for problems caused by sampling issues.
Doctoral Degree in Public Policy
Professionals who earn a doctoral degree in public policy can compete for executive positions within nonprofit organizations, private companies, and government agencies. Many graduates also pursue teaching jobs at colleges and universities. These doctoral programs typically require 50-70 credits and take students 5-7 years to complete.
What Can You Do With a Doctorate in Public Policy?
- Postsecondary Teacher
In addition to providing classroom instruction, postsecondary teachers help students pursue internships, complete research projects, and plan for careers or graduate school. They conduct their own research for publication and presentation. These teachers also fill administrative roles in their departments, assisting with curriculum development and student enrollment.
Sociologists study people, communities, social institutions, and personal interactions. They often can work in dedicated research roles 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. Many of these positions require a doctorate.
How to Advance Your Career in Public Policy
Continuing your education after graduation can help advance your career and prepare you for new challenges. Additionally, potential employers often prefer to hire candidates who have published research and given policy talks at forums, round tables, or conferences. Demonstrated leadership experience in work and volunteer settings is also appreciated.
The following section explains how you can add to your resume by engaging in new educational experiences and earning professional credentials. You can also find action steps to take right away to advance your career in public policy.
Certifications and/or Licensure
Public policy careers do not typically require licensure. However, some public policy organizations offer professional development programs and certifications that build leadership skills and improve knowledge in specific areas.
Some states offer credentials through their municipal and county advisory services related to local government administration. The County Technical Assistance Service in Tennessee, for example, provides a certified county finance officer program and a county administrative professional certificate.
Federal employees can participate in specific training programs that can help them advance through the general schedule employment grades. For employees within the Department of Agriculture, the Aspiring Leader Program offers professional mentoring, coaching, and individual development.
Additionally, lobbyists can pursue public policy certification from the National Institute for Lobbying and Ethics. Monthly seminars ensure participants understand the legislative process, laws affecting lobbying, and lobbying ethics.
You can find continuing education opportunities through professional organizations, employers, and colleges and universities.
Many schools offer certificate programs in specific areas of public policy. Certificate programs provide an efficient route to gaining new skills. Most programs require only 3-4 courses. Schools offer these programs at the undergraduate and graduate levels.
Certificates also help accelerate your education. Some schools offer bridge pathways to their graduate-level public policy programs, meaning that certificate credits can be applied toward a master's degree. A master's degree or doctorate in public policy and research can lead to promotions and higher wages.
Fellowships can also enhance your resume and provide unique work experience in public policy. These programs typically include a stipend and target early-career professionals or graduate students in public policy. Examples include the Fulbright-Anne Wexler Master's Award in Public Policy, the Congressional Hispanic Leadership Institute's Global Leaders Internship and Fellowship Program, and the National Urban Fellows Master of Public Administration Fellowship.
A public policy degree helps start your career, but you need to continue learning and developing your skills to advance professionally. Consider applying for fellowships and internships while still in school. These programs offer practical experience in public policy and can help connect you to scholars and professionals. Fellowships and internships can also provide mentorship opportunities as you begin your public policy career.
Consider joining a professional organization or taking part in employee-sponsored leadership development programs. You can grow your professional network while gaining new skills. Professional organizations also offer volunteer and leadership opportunities.
Crafting public policy requires current knowledge of the issues and problems within specific industries. Continuing your education, reading industry publications, and networking with industry leaders helps you better understand areas in need of policy adjustments.
How to Switch Your Career to Public Policy
To succeed in public policy careers, individuals must have subject matter expertise and work experience. If you understand the regulations, policies, and procedures of a specific industry, such as healthcare or government finance, your insight can help craft new policy proposals.
Government agencies hire professionals from diverse academic specialties and disciplines to work as civil engineers and financial advisors. A certificate or master's degree in public policy can help these government workers transition into policy positions within their agency or with a related nonprofit organization.
Because policy analysts study and analyze data, individuals with a background in data analytics or statistical analysis can also transition into a public policy career.
Where Can You Work as a Public Policy Professional?
Earning a public policy degree can open the door to career paths in the public and private sectors. For example, graduates can use their expertise to serve low-income clients at a legal aid clinic or public defender's office. They can also work at a law firm or in the legal department of a large corporation.
Some public policy graduates also choose careers in law enforcement or corrections.
- Federal Executive Branch
The federal government employs public policy analysts in civil service, military, and political appointments. Professionals who work for the government usually specialize in an area of public policy like housing, agriculture, economic development, or foreign affairs.
Average Salary: $127,500
- 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 their findings to facilitate policy development and program implementation.
Average Salary: $128,720
- Social Advocacy Organizations
Public policy analysts help these nonprofit organizations create effective community awareness campaigns. They also lobby lawmakers and government agencies for policy changes.
Average Salary: $90,280
- Colleges, Universities, and Professional Schools
Public policy professionals can work as professors at colleges and universities. They can also pursue administrative positions, using their analytical skills to bolster university operations and improve student retention.
Average Salary: $89,230
- Local Government, Excluding Schools and Hospitals
In this industry, public policy 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: $98,500
Public policy graduates can pursue careers in rural and urban areas. Rural development and economic policy is an expanding subfield with lucrative opportunities, especially in government-sponsored occupations.
Location impacts a worker's job prospects and salary potential. Washington, D.C. offers the highest employment level for political scientists, followed by Virginia, Texas, California, and Pennsylvania. Political scientists earn the highest median salaries when working in Virginia, New York, and Washington, D.C.
Interview With a Professional in Public Policy
Na'ilah Amaru is an advocacy and policy strategist with more than 15 years of experience. Na'ilah served as policy advisor to former Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed; legislative aide to Representative John Lewis; and executive director of the New York City Council's Black, Latino, and Asian caucus. She consults with community-based organizations on issue-based and legislative campaigns. She also consults with nonprofits to maximize their social impact. Na'ilah earned a master of public policy 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 the 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 it 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 to explore different opportunities.
Skills developed in a policy program include research, writing, analysis, problem-solving, and communication. While all these skills are crucial in the policy 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, including leading nonprofit organizations, researching data for think tanks, working within government institutions, and 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 your worldview, enjoying diverse work environments, and making a difference. Constantly being challenged to expand your 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 you 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. You 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.
Resources for Public Policy Majors
Many resources can help you stay up to date in your public policy career. Professional organizations often host conferences and workshops that focus on new developments in research, methodology, and legal requirements. They also provide access to career resources and job listings.
Additionally, open courseware offers free or inexpensive online learning opportunities that can help you develop new skills, and industry publications bring the latest news to your mailbox or inbox regularly.
- Professional Organizations
American Society for Public Administration: ASPA is the largest professional public administration organization in the world. Members enjoy subscriptions to the society's publications, including the Public Administration Review and PA Times. Educational opportunities include webinars and training seminars at local chapters. Members can network at chapter socials and the annual conference. They also gain access to an online job board.
Association for Public Policy Analysis & Management: APPAM offers networking opportunities, sponsors a peer-reviewed journal, and promotes research. Student members can network at APPAM-sponsored events and through a members-only colleague database. The association also co-sponsors a job board.
Network of Schools of Public Policy, Affairs, and Administration: NASPAA offers internship and fellowship opportunities and an online job board. The network also maintains a searchable online database of schools that offer graduate degrees, courses, and certificates in public policy, administration, and service.
Pi Alpha Alpha: PAA is the "global honor society for public affairs and administration." Members benefit from networking opportunities, job search resources, and awards. Membership is limited and requires a minimum GPA.
- Open Courseware
Civic Engagement in American Democracy - Duke University: This course examines key concepts and actors in the American political system. Lectures and reading assignments help students understand how citizens can influence politics and policy.
Securing Digital Democracy - University of Michigan: Students in this class examine the intersection of democracy and cybersecurity. Learners study election technology and the future of electronic and internet voting. Covered topics include computer security, public policy, and human factors.
Public Policy Challenges of the 21st Century - University of Virginia: Lectures and assigned readings help students understand the challenges and societal consequences facing legislators in the U.S. and around the world. Students learn to analyze proposed policies and effectively advocate for their preferred options. The course also evaluates how private sector interests and nongovernmental organizations advance policies and issues with government agencies.
Public Finance and Public Policy - Massachusetts Institute of Technology:This 2010 course uses microeconomics to evaluate policy proposals related to issues like setting tax rates and responding to global warming. Students must possess an understanding of basic microeconomic principles and theories.
Making Public Policy - Massachusetts Institute of Technology: Students examine public policy in healthcare, immigration reform, gun control, and climate change. Institutions and cultural ideas provide context and a framework for advocates to advance their policy positions.
Journal of Public Policy: Cambridge University publishes this international academic journal. Researchers use social science concepts and theories to examine social, political, and economic issues. While many articles focus on the European Union, the journal also examines international relations and global public policy issues.
Public Policy and Administration: The United Kingdom's Joint University Council Public Administration Committee publishes this academic journal. Editors foster discussion of public policy and administration among a global readership. Covered topics include administrative theory, public management, and public policy.
Public Policy Institute of California: A nonprofit think tank based in San Francisco, PPIC supports evidence-based research into California-focused public policy. The institute's online blog publishes commentary and analysis on educational issues, water policy, and statewide surveys.
American Journal of Political Science: This journal, published since 1957, is the Midwest Political Science Association's official publication. The highly respected academic journal publishes research papers exploring American politics, international relations, comparative politics, and political methodology.
Armed Forces and Society: The Inter-University Seminar on Armed Forces and Society publishes this quarterly journal, which focuses on the connection between the military and society.
Contemporary Political Theory: Palgrave Macmillan in the United Kingdom launched this peer-reviewed journal in 2002. The publication explores contemporary global political theory. Covered topics include women's and gender studies, literary theory, and cultural studies.
Government and Opposition: Cambridge University publishes this academic journal each quarter. The international journal accepts papers dealing with comparative politics anywhere in the world. Recent issues have explored presidential instability in Latin America, assisted repatriation, and technocratic populism.
Frequently Asked Questions
- Is a degree in public policy worth it?
Many graduates find that a public policy degree allows them to develop and implement policy changes that help people live better lives. Careers for public policy majors include research-focused jobs, roles within government agencies, and lobbyist positions.
- What kind of jobs can you get with a public policy degree?
Graduates can work as policy analysts with state or federal agencies. They can also work as administrators for local governments. Graduates can also begin careers in academia, business, and public relations.
- How much do public policy majors make?
Salary expectations vary by field, experience, education, and location. However, according to the BLS, political scientists earn a median annual salary of $122,220. This career typically requires at least a master's degree. Additionally, according to PayScale, policy analysts earn an average annual salary of around $60,000.