So, you want a job in policy?

Sep 11, 2013

I haven’t worked a “real job” since being an undergrad. However, I often get asked by undergrads for advice about preparations for real world policy jobs.  I recently asked my former PhD student, Kate Kidder, a research associate at the Center for a New American Security, to provide some advice for an undergrad wanting to get into the policy world.   Kate’s response was awesome.  So awesome, in fact, that I asked her to share it with the Duck community:

My question to Kate:

I’m advising a really wonderful undergrad who would like a career like you have.  Could you give her some advice as to how to break in to the security policy community?  I think she is really interested in trade-offs between law school, PhD programs, and MA programs.

Kate’s response: 

1. I would say that the number one thing that ensures a “way in” to this town/field is an internship- which are typically unpaid and last about 6 months. Of course, that was my experience, so I also admit that my sample size is skewed :). I can add a few things about my experience, both as a former intern and now as the manager of an intern:

A) you don’t just interview for an internship; your whole internship is an interview (a lot of people make the mistake of becoming poor team players as soon as they’ve “secured” an internship, which is a bad move. While internships aren’t exactly paid in cash, they are paid in networks, and those networks are worth more than money.).

B) Recognize that the foreign policy and Defense communities are really tiny, and then refer back to point #1. Recognize the confluence of three things: tiny community+tinier points of entry+bad economy= the majority of interns are essentially overqualified. The key is not to act like it (I know, it seems fairly intuitive, but you would be surprised). Also, don’t let it get you down. It’s worth it. (There should be an “it gets better” campaign for interns).

C) All interns in this city are smart. Really. All of them. So there is a lot of competition about “who’s smarter than who” or “who produces more.” A little secret: one of the ways to get ahead is to take some of that energy and just be kind and helpful. Cleaning coffee mugs with a good attitude gets you noticed. Then people realize you are smart and read your stuff.

D) Building off of that: recognize that your 40-hours-a-week is simply the cost of entry. If you really want to leverage your internship, expect to work a lot more (though no one will tell you that, because I’m pretty sure that legally they can’t). So your 40 hours of stuffing envelopes, answering phones, cleaning coffee mugs, setting up for events, etc. buys you the credibility to then turn in a piece–op-ed, blog post, what-have-you– that you stayed up all night writing before heading back into the office to stuff folders all over again. I was fortunate enough that I could incur the cost of not earning an income for 6 months; some of my fellow interns ended up doing all of that and then waiting tables until 2am…crazy, I know! Just think of it as if you’re Andrea Sachs in The Devil Wears Prada, except hopefully your boss is much nicer (mine certainly was!) and your shoes probably shouldn’t cost as much (though if you are in the market, here’s some worth investing in if you are going to be running around this city and want to look uber professional:

As far as educational paths, some thoughts:

1) First things first: Go with your passion. It will all work itself out in the end. If you are more passionate about the law, go that way. If that is your path, recognize that a law degree opens a lot of doors- and a lot of lawyers in this town don’t actually practice law (and prefer it that way!). Just think, Samantha Power never took the bar.  If grad school in a specific program is more up your alley, go that route.

2) In all reality, you don’t need a Ph.D at this town at first- though an M.A. is a near-must. I’m fortunate to work in a think tank that runs like a start-up and thus is willing to be flexible- I kind of threw a wrench in the existing system by being a doctoral candidate at 29. The people who need Ph.Ds are at the fellow level- and these are people who also have about a decade of government experience. Coming in with a Ph.D and no government experience means you price yourself out of the Research Associate market without the value added of experience. But I’ve also seen that internships-turned-jobs tend to go to the interns who started with a masters. If you start the job with a masters and really want a Ph.D., work there for a few years and then pursue the Ph.D portion- and there’s a likely chance that your employer will pitch in. Alternatively, with a few years of work experience, even if you opt completely out of the workforce to pursue your Ph.D, you still have something on your resume.

Some last pieces of advice:

  • Whichever way you go with grad school/law school/experience, start to carve out your own voice. Have a “thing” that you want to claim as your little slice of expertise. The strange thing about this town is that what you claim to be an expert on, your are perceived to be an expert on until proven otherwise (which can be a really good thing or a dangerously bad thing!) Read up on it- academically, in the news, on blogs, in its industry. Sign up for Google news alerts on it. Figure out who the players are, what the arguments are, etc. (For me, it’s defense personnel policy). The policy world needs people who are simultaneously flexible enough and educated enough on research methods that they can research any topic thrown their way, while also offering their unique perspective on a very specific topic.
  • Just as in Academia, publications carry a lot of weight. But the difference in Washington is that volume kind of counts for more than quality (I know…it makes me shudder). So start getting your name out there with smaller pieces- op-eds, pieces in smaller publications, etc. Of course, it never hurts to have a piece placed in or Foreign Affairs- but when in doubt, get something out there. And this is a great way to get an edge on your “expertise.”
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Amanda Murdie is Professor & Dean Rusk Scholar of International Relations in the Department of International Affairs in the School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Georgia. She is the author of Help or Harm: The Human Security Effects of International NGOs (Stanford, 2014). Her main research interests include non-state actors, and human rights and human security.

When not blogging, Amanda enjoys hanging out with her two pre-teen daughters (as long as she can keep them away from their cell phones) and her fabulous significant other.