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Public Policy Overview

  Policy is an industry of ideas, and those who work in it are an influential force in American political thought.

  Policy analysts, also called researchers, scholars or fellows, work for private organizations or governments to generate policy ideas, solutions and evaluations. Nearly every law enacted today is influenced by the work of policy analysts, who research issues and design policies according to their findings.

  Healthcare, education, crime, environmental protection, energy and fiscal responsibility are a few of the major areas in which policy analysts work

Who They Serve:

  Policy analysts serve lawmakers, government and those whose interests are served by the policies they create.

  Private sector policy analysts are primarily employed by think tanks in order to research complex problems and recommend solutions. The issues explored by think tanks are guided in part by the motives and interests of the groups and individuals which provide funding, but many try to avoid a distinguishable ideological bias. Others, however, clearly promote specific social agendas or political philosophies. It is important to note that it is the effectiveness of the research performed and the analysis provided that determines a think tank's influence on policy makers, and those that become too slanted in their ideology often find their credibility compromised. Those that maintain their factual integrity are a valued resource for legislators looking for the critical information necessary to make legislative progress.

  Government policy analysts create policy and then evaluate program effectiveness. They provide decision makers with data and educated hypotheses about the effects of possible policies; after a policy is enacted, they measure and critique the results. Other government policy analysts determine which private organizations should receive public funding and then evaluate the effectiveness of its utilization.

What They Do:

  Whether in the private or public sector, policy analysts work to influence political and social decisions with information and analysis. Though their areas of expertise vary, policy analysts typically work in one of four areas: research, creating and analyzing potential policies and then making recommendations, evaluating the outcomes of existing policies, and sharing information with the public and government officials in order to influence action.

  After policy analysts select an issue or problem, they collect information to determine its causes. Research is conducted primarily through existing economic and political statistical data, or surveys designed to measure values and behavior influencers.

  Because many social and political problems often have interrelated causes that are hard to conclusively isolate, policy analysts also turn to cost-benefit analysis, focus groups and case studies when making recommendations. Some analysts simply evaluate policy philosophically, by critiquing the principles on which the policy is based and offering alternative values that should instead drive policy decisions.

  Once analysts have drawn a conclusion, they must ensure that their message reaches an audience that can act on it, including policymakers, the media, academia and the general public. To do so, policy analysts write books, papers, fact briefs, press releases and blogs. They might also write opinion commentaries for newspapers and magazines, and deliver speeches and briefings that summarize their findings. Through all these mediums, policy analysts are able to turn abstract ideas into drivers of political and social influence.

  Because most policy-oriented think tanks are non-profit organizations, private sector policy analysts must also write grant proposals and negotiate funding contracts with government agencies and private organizations. In order to effectively do this, analysts first identify potential donors with similar interests, write proposals and then pitch their ideas in order to generate funds. Because this requires significant amounts of energy, communication skills and salesmanship, some policy analysts prefer government work for this reason.

  Government policy analysts perform the same general tasks, but with more focus on policy recommendations and evaluations. They evaluate proposed policies to ensure they are consistent with the stated goals of the administration or agency, and that they are consistent with sound economic principles.

  They evaluate cost-benefit analysis on both a social and economic level, as well as risk assessment and policy effectiveness as administered within a measurable time period. Government policy analysts are also available as expert counselors to decision makers, and offer special analysis and expertise on specific issues to senior policy officials.

  While government analysts do not need to generate funding, they do need to justify what they want to research and why in written proposals. Some government analysts work as freelance consultants, rather than as long-term employees to a specific agency or bureau. These analysts are paid to evaluate performance, identify strengths and weaknesses, and recommend changes on a policy-by-policy basis.

Public Policy Specialties

Policy analysts work in either broad or specialized areas, on policy topics such as:

  • Economic growth
  • National Defense
  • Healthcare
  • Welfare
  • Housing
  • Criminal Justice
  • Information Technology
  • Immigration
  • Trade
  • Environment
  • Natural Resources
  • Agriculture
  • Rural Development
  • Education
  • Energy
  • Labor

  Within these topic areas, policy analysts can work in teams or individually, specializing in process areas like research, data analysis, policy recommendation and evaluation, and information presentation. Government agencies typically hire policy analysts with highly specialized areas of expertise, whereas think tanks operate according to their size and purpose. Larger think tanks can offer more variety to their fellows, whereas smaller "niche" think tanks offer greater focus and peer expertise.

Public Policy Breaking In

  Policy analysts require a unique set of skills. They must be academically oriented, able to do independent research and draw conclusions on highly complex and often controversial information. At the same time, they must also work well in groups, communicate effectively and convincingly both orally and in writing, and possess the networking skills to generate publicity and criticism for their work. In addition to possessing curious and dynamic minds, they must also have the patience to study one subject for a long period of time.

What Employers Want:

  Most policy analysts have graduate degrees, at minimum a master's and more typically a law degree or doctorate. Common areas of study are political science, international studies, economics and public policy; political analysts with a specialized interest might also pursue degrees on those fields, such as education, business administration, philosophy, psychology, or more technical fields like biotechnology, medicine, or environmental engineering.

  Experience is equally as important as education. First hand work in the field of study is vital. Recent graduates might work in political or government administration, work as a congressional aide or intern to observe the policy-making process, or work with a nonprofit organization that deals with or advocates for the issue or group at hand.

The government lists the requirements for policy analysis as:

  • knowledge of a pertinent professional subject-matter field, and knowledge of public policy issues related to that field
  • knowledge of economic theories including micro-economics and the effect of proposed policies on production costs and prices, wages, resource allocations or consumer behaviors; and macro-economics, including the effect of proposed policies on income and employment, investment, interest rates and price level
  • knowledge of the executive/legislative decision making process
  • knowledge of pertinent research and analytical methodology and the ability to apply both qualitative and quantitative techniques to policy issues
  • knowledge of the programs, organizations and activities to assess the political and institutional environment in which decisions are made
  • skill in dealing with decision makers and their immediate staff
  • ability to exercise judgment in all phases of analysis
  • skill in effectively communicating highly complex material both orally and in writing
  • ability to work effectively under pressure, under tight time frames and rigid deadlines

  The government, however, stresses that these skills and abilities are best evaluated through previous involvement in policy analysis organizations and published works. Increasingly, more and more policy analysts are breaking into the field by establishing themselves as freelance writers through opinion pieces in newspapers, magazines and blogs in addition to academic policy articles.

What They Hire Undergraduates to Do:

  At the undergraduate level, recent graduates can find positions as research assistants or assistant fellows, typically while attending graduate school part-time.16 Their work with more experienced policy analysis can result in research and writing credits in published works, which are valuable for gaining entrance to the PhD programs necessary to become a policy analyst.

Public Policy Alumni

Mitchell Ginsburg- Senior International Economist, Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, International Studies and Economics, Class of 1990

  1. How did you get interested in your field? Was it your original goal when you started at Hopkins? - My original goal when arriving at Hopkins was to be in the foreign service. After my internship at the United States Information Agency, I began to think twice about wanting to be in the foreign service and decided it might be worthwhile to have more economics to complement my international studies background. I found the international trade and other international economic courses interesting.
  2. What was your career path? How did you get to where you are today? - By the time I graduated from Hopkins, my main interest was development. I went to grad school in urban systems and policy planning with an emphasis on developing countries. I then came to Washington and got what was supposed to be a summer employment position with the U.S. government until I started a Ph.D. program in the fall but was extended for 4 years while I was in my Ph.D. program. I then switched government agencies, from the FDIC to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, working as an economist on the producer price index. I then switched to the United States International Trade Commission working on anti-dumping and countervailing duty investigations. After being at the USITC for a year, I was given the opportunity to do a detail assignment in the Economic Affairs Office at the Office of the United States Trade Representative. After the year, I returned back to the USITC for 5 months before getting a permanent position at the Trade representative.
  3. What was your first job after college? Was it in your current field? - My first job was with the Resolution Trust Corporation/FDIC. It was in the office of contracts and was not related to my current field though it was helpful in that it got me used to working with lawyers. In the contracts office, we went through the General Counsel's office to make modifications and write contracts. Once I got to the USITC and USTR, I again worked extensively with lawyers.
  4. What advice do you have for current students? - Begin getting internships as soon as you can to gain some practical experience. Also, get a good foundation in economic theory and take some advanced math courses (calculus, stats and differential equations), especially if you want to get an advanced degree in economics
  5. What is your typical day like? - Not sure there is a typical day here at USTR. However, types of activities I have participated in include, reviewing speeches, talking points and press releases for correct trade data and concepts, providing economic analysis to assist in negotiations, working with a lawyer when preparing briefs for trade disputes at the WTO, review of petitions under U.S. law that require the USTR to make determinations, review draft studies from the OECD for the US representative that attends the trade division meetings, participate in negotiations with the European Union over the compensation owed to the United States for the enlargement of the European Union; and other economic analysis to assist the trade negotiators.
  6. What’s most rewarding about your industry and/ or job? What's most challenging? - Rewarding: Since I work in the Office of the United States Trade Representative, I can see how our analysis has impact on policy decisions. Challenging: Probably dealing with the legal aspects that sometimes seem, at least to an economist, to turn things upside down.
  7. What are typical entry-level positions for this field? What tips do you have for students to be successful in these positions? - It depends from which angle one wants to participate in the trade area. As an economist entry level positions are available in various government agencies that have international sections or private sector economic consulting firms or trade associations which may have some economist positions. Another avenue in this field is from the legal side, requiring a law degree obviously. Again, there are legal positions in both the private sector and with government agencies.
  8. Where do you see the field going in the next 5-10 years? - I suspect that it will continue to grow in importance as globalization continues.
  9. What skills and out-of-class experiences (i.e. internships, co-curricular activities, volunteering, etc.) are ideal for entering your industry / career field? - For the economics side of the field, good communication skills and good math skills. An advanced degree in economics also helps.
  10. Where can someone in an entry-level position expect to be in two years? Five years? Ten years? - Since my experience has all been in the federal government, I can only talk about that. Depending on the government agency and the position acquired, promotions can occur once a year for the first few years. After that, it will depend on the agency on the speed of advancement.
  11. Which professional organizations and resources should students look into or get involved with? - The major professional organization is the American Economics Association (AEA) and the various subfield associations and regional economic associations. During the annual meeting of the AEA, job interviewing takes place. However, these jobs are typically for soon to be PhDs, PhDs looking to switch jobs or people with Masters degrees with many years experience.
  12. What related occupations and industries would you recommend students explore who are interested in your industry or career field? - Outside of a trade economist position, there are legal positions that deal with trade, some environmental organizations have people looking at the linkage between trade and the environment just as labor unions have people looking at the linkage between trade policy and labor.

Debra Lo- Foreign Service Officer, US Department of State, International Studies, Class of 1990

  1. Describe what you do and how you got started in your current career. - I am a diplomat when overseas, a civil servant when serving in Washington and elsewhere in the U.S. I joined the Foreign Service in 2003 during Sec Powell’s initiative to hire a whole new generation of officers. Before that, I was working in the financial industry for some nine years. It had always been my dream to join the Foreign Service although I never thought I would make it when I was a fresh grad. In addition, I am a naturalized citizen although I am a fourth generation on my mother’s side. There aren’t many of us in the Foreign Service still although we are now emphasizing language skills as a strong asset.
  2. What is most rewarding about your job and/ or industry? What is most challenging? - Most rewarding: Doing some good. Making a difference. Actually being a part of progress. Doing something actually for the betterment of the world (although not always but never intentionally.) The variety of jobs. Living overseas. Experiencing cultures all over the world. The fun of being a diplomat. Most challenging: bureaucracy, bureaucracy, and more bureaucracy. The rigidity of the system. Oh, and being uprooted at others’ calls, and being put in place to build roots by someone else.
  3. Is your career the same or different from what you had envisioned your career would be when you started at Hopkins as an undergraduate? How is it similar and/or different? - Very different. I never thought I would get into the Foreign Service. I thought I wanted the securities/finance industry then ended up going to grad school. I then wanted very much to do non-profit after grad school and they did not want me. So I ended up joining the very for-profit financial firm which very much wanted me. And for the longest time, I tried to do something nobler but it took me nine years to finally get there.
  4. What advice do you have for a Hopkins student entering your career field / industry? - Keep trying. Don’t give up. I know many people who took the FS test several times before getting in. It is being at the right time at the right place. This is bureaucracy. When they need to hire, they do not care whether the applicants are mediocre or brilliant apples, as long as they got on the list. When they do not need to hire, you can be the most brilliant of all and they still would not hire you because they do not need you.

Tain P. Tompkins- Deputy Chief of Mission, U.S. Department of State (Retired), English, 1964, Creative Writing, Class of 1970

  1. How did you get interested in your field? Was it your original goal when you started at Hopkins? - No. I redirected from writing to international relations, thence to SAIS and Bologna and into the Foreign Service.
  2. What was your career path? How did you get to where you are today? - I began as an economic officer and worked up through the ranks, mainly overseas, all within the State Dept. structure.
  3. What was your first job after college? Was it in your current field? - First job was writing/editing Army Area Handbooks for a contractor. Good, relevant training but not like the Foreign Service.
  4. What advice do you have for current students, especially freshmen and sophomores? - A broad, liberal arts education is a vital advantage in almost any field. Facts are not in short supply, they are in oversupply! In everything you read, search for the wisdom in it, the lesson for life. Wisdom about facts is the key to reaching correct judgments.
  5. What is your typical day like? - As a junior officer, your day is spent collecting facts and impressions from local and government contacts, compiling these into analytical commentaries which judge local trends and probabilities so that Washington accurately appreciates the foreign situation/society/government.
  6. What’s most rewarding about your industry and/ or job? What's most challenging? - Rewarding: In the Foreign Service, it is the ability in every country and situation to interact with the best & brightest people in a foreign society. In my day, an American embassy person could always get access to the culturally and intellectually richest strata available. Challenging: The analysis of foreign situations, societies and policies. The Iraq conflagration would never have occurred, for example, had the hundred most knowledgeable US observers of Arab society been consulted about tribal history and the probabilities of various outcomes.
  7. What are typical entry-level positions for this field? What tips do you have for students to be successful in these positions? - Consular duty for two years is the typical entry assignment, and it is excellent experience since the job is to discern truth from lies all day. Personal balance and the persistence of courtesy is tested.
  8. Where do you see the field going in the next 5-10 years? - Diplomacy cannot but remain forever, but it becomes more technical and less "human-interactive" as Americans are walled up in fortress-like embassies. Farther down this path, diplomacy eventually fails in its function, since a successful diplomacy allows Americans to walk unarmed and unprotected, and in general respected, when abroad.
  9. What skills and out-of-class experiences (i.e. internships, co-curricular activities, volunteering, etc.) are ideal for entering your industry / career field? - A broad liberal arts education emphasizing history, language and international economics. Excellent command of English is needed, and experience overseas is a great help. Sociability and tolerance are vital, as is public speaking ability and "salesmanship."
  10. Where can someone in an entry-level position expect to be in two years? Five years? Ten years? - Two years: junior officer consular work. Five years, mid-grade officer working in the chosen specialty. Ten years: experienced officer bucking for head-of-section work (running an embassy section overseas or a country desk in the Department).
  11. What related occupations and industries would you recommend students explore who are interested in your industry or career field? - The Peace Corps is perhaps the best experience possible for the Foreign Service. Second would be international banking.

Additional Alumni Profiles

    Networking with alumni and other professionals who work in these fields can help you learn very specific information about a career field. Use Johns Hopkins Connect to contact alumni to ask for their advice. You may also find professional contacts through professional associations, faculty, friends and family.

    If you would like to talk about how your search is going, we invite you to make an appointment with a Career Counselor by calling 410-516-8056.

    LinkedIn.com - a professional networking site where you can identify Hopkins alumni. Join the LinkedIn Johns Hopkins University Alumni Group to add over 4000+ alumni to your network.

  Hopkins Alumni in Public Policy on LinkedIn - LinkedIn is a professional networking site where you connect with and identify alumni and other professionals by industry, geographic location and organization.

Public Policy Resources



Industry /Professional Organizations and Industry Sites:

Interest Groups

Think Tanks

  • American Enterprise Institute - Research and educational organization
  • Brookings Institution - Public policy research organization that seeks to improve the performance of American institutions and effectiveness of government programs
  • Capital Research Center - Researches funding sources of public interest and advocacy groups
  • Cato Institute - Public policy organization that advocates liberty and limited government
  • Center for National Policy - Public policy research and educational organization that publishes analyses on economics, economic development, income and investment
  • Economic Policy Institute - Research and educational organization that publishes analyses on economics, economic development, income and investment
  • Urban Institute - Nonpartisan, public policy research and education organization
  • Worldwatch Institute - Research organization that studies the environmental origins of world population and health trends

International Agencies and Nonprofits

  • World Bank - The World Bank works in over 100 developing countries by providing over $19.5 billion dollars in loans in development assistance.
  • UN Internships

Government Jobs

Government Agencies

  • Congressional Budget Office - The Congressional Budget Office is a nonpartisan agency that produces policy analyses, cost estimates, and budget and economic projections that serve as a basis for Congress's decisions about spending and taxes.
  • General Accounting Office - The General Accounting Office is the investigative arm of Congress, which examines the use of public funds, evaluates federal programs and activities, and provides analyses, options, recommendations, and other assistance to help the Congress make effective oversight, policy, and funding decisions.
  • US House of Representatives - Vacancy announcements and opportunity to submit online resume to US House of Representatives
  • US Senate - Contact information for offices of all US Senators and US State Legislatures
  • Congressional Research Service - The Congressional Research Service is the public policy research arm of the United States Congress. As a legislative branch agency within the Library of Congress, CRS works exclusively and directly for Members of Congress, their Committees and staff on a confidential, nonpartisan basis.
  • National Association of Counties - Contact information for all county officials
  • National Governor’s Association - Contact information for all US state governors
  • US Geological Survey - USGS stands as the sole science agency for the Department of the Interior. The USGS serves the Nation as an independent fact-finding agency that collects, monitors, analyzes, and provides scientific understanding about natural resource conditions, issues, and problems.
  • US Department of Commerce - Online searchable job bank for all US Department of Commerce bureaus
  • Office of Justice Programs - Since 1984 the Office of Justice Programs has provided federal leadership in developing the nation's capacity to prevent and control crime, improve the criminal and juvenile justice systems, increase knowledge about crime and related issues, and assist crime victims.


  Networking with professionals who work in this field can help you learn very specific information about a career field. Professional contacts through professional associations, faculty, friends and family can be very helpful. You may also explore career opportunities by talking with employers at career fairs, and company presentations.

  Internships - research positions and summer employment are highly effective ways for you to try out a field, gain experience and skills and make professional contacts.

Public Policy Related

  If you would like to talk about how your search is going, we invite you to make an appointment with a Career Counselor by calling 410-516-8056.