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Identity

How to Have a Career in Policy—Without Being a Politician

Regardless of your interests, background, or schooling, there are plenty of ways to make improving life in the U.S. your job.
January 21, 2021, 12:30pm
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Because We Can is an ongoing series about making politics a practice, even when there isn’t a national election looming.

From climate change and reproductive rights to police reform and cannabis legalization, there are a plethora of public policies that may have caught your attention recently—and made you realize that these policies are written and implemented by real people (real people who sometimes make you want to scream in frustration). If you feel passionately about these issues and feel a drive to make a direct impact, there are education and career paths that will help get you a seat at the table. This doesn’t always have to mean running for office or having a degree in political science, either. Regardless of your interests, background, talents, or schooling, there are plenty of ways to make a career out of changing policy in the U.S. for the better.

People who affect policy as part of their job

While they may not be the most visible players, there are a lot of people on the ground getting stuff done. Their work constitutes some of the building blocks of how policy gets decided, implemented, and perfected. They work on a plethora of policies that affect our day to day lives—from implementing renewable energy sources to ensuring cyclists in a city have protected bike lanes.

Some career paths to consider:

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Legislative aide: As a legislative aide to an elected official on a state or federal level, you’ll be a part of a team that supports a state or federal representative. You could be assigned to a specific policy or issue, like education or taxes, and will become an expert in this subject matter. You’ll do a ton of research to help support the bills your boss is proposing and may write drafts of this legislation. You'll also talk with constituents, write speeches, and draft reports on news and constituent issues. If the elected official you work for remains in office for multiple terms, you could move up the ranks within their team, into roles like legislative director or chief of staff.

Lobbyist: The term “lobbyist” has garnered a reputation for being morally objectionable, but it can be far less skeevy than you think. “The truth is that all kinds of organizations—including citizens groups, professional associations, non-profit organizations, charities, grassroots political causes, and many more—have folks at the federal, state, and even local levels that talk to policymakers about needs and wants in their communities and how they can help,” Tommy Goodwin, the volunteer president of the National Institute for Lobbying & Ethics told VICE. Basically, lobbyists or advocates have an area of expertise, whether it be public health or cyclist safety, and use that expertise to inform elected officials at all levels so they can knowledgeably set their legislative agendas with issues people care about.

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App or web developer: Every government agency, nonprofit, and activist group likely has a website, app, or some other online presence, and they need people to code and design these tools. (Or fix them when they fail, like in the case of the disastrous launch of Healthcare.gov.) Beth Simone Noveck, who heads the state of New Jersey’s innovation team and directs New York University’s Governance Lab focused on the impact of technology on government, told VICE she is always looking for candidates with tech skills to build the state’s Covid-19 website, symptom tracker, and more. Although these roles aren’t directly related to policy change, the pandemic has highlighted how tech and policy go hand-in-hand in our digital-dominated world, as states create pre-registration websites and attempt to utilize ticketing platforms like Eventbrite for vaccine distribution. Private sector jobs in this industry can boast temptingly high salaries, leaving a dearth of roles available for folks who want to work directly toward the public good.

Communications: Policymakers would be nothing without their message. From publicist to social media coordinator, different roles shape  the voice of their employer and engage with the press and audiences at large. Any organization, including nonprofits and lawmakers, need professionals who can draft press releases, succinctly and clearly communicate a group’s mission, and write speeches. Many government agencies are also looking for folks well-versed in platforms like TikTok, Noveck said, a skill that makes you “extraordinarily valuable to an organization that might be full of lawyers or policymakers.”

Community organizer: The best way to enact change is to get involved with a community group doing great work. Start locally, with a workers’ rights advocacy group for example, and most importantly, listen to the people in your community who are already doing this work. The entrepreneurial spirit is widespread these days, but chances are great there already exists a group or organization that tackles the issues you’re passionate about—so bring that energy to a group with boots on the ground already. If you don’t see a specific role listed that fits your goals, there’s nothing wrong with reaching out to the organization and letting them know what you might be able to bring to the table as a volunteer or intern. “So long that you can articulate what you can do for them, how you want to help, in my experience people are more often to say yes when there's a demonstrated desire to make a difference,” Noveck said.

By no means are these the only career paths that lead to meaningful change, but hopefully it’s a place to start. Although you may have aspirations of making sweeping changes on a national level, you’re more likely to create tangible, lasting improvements on a smaller local scale. From graphic design work for a local mutual aid organization to social media for an area nonprofit, there are likely positions at established organizations that are in line with your interests and missions. By interning at city council, for example, you’re able to hear your neighbors’ most pressing concerns firsthand and be on the frontlines of how to fix them. 

Don’t feel confined by traditional college majors.

While majoring in political science or history if you have a desire to work in government is a perfectly fine choice, there are plenty of other majors that will provide a basis for a career in public policy. Here are just a few, ranging from the traditional to the fairly unconventional. 

International relations: Beyond just the political movements of the U.S., you’ll learn how global economics and politics impact the world at large.

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Economics: If you’re good with business and analytics, a major in economics will arm you with knowledge regarding micro- and macro- economics, economic modeling, and the ability to analyze current economic issues.

Communications, journalism or public relations: An understanding in how the media operates, how to run an effective PR campaign, and how to otherwise communicate with constituents, lawmakers, and the public at large is an essential skill. 

Public health: Combining politics and healthcare, a public health degree is great for people who want to learn how policy can impact access to healthcare. “My choice of public health as a second major has helped prepare me for the current COVID-19 pandemic by providing health care perspectives and resources to better serve my community,” Latchmi Gopal, a district 15 candidate for New York City Council, told VICE.

Social work: If you’d like to help make life better for children and families, this major will teach you social welfare policy, and give you an understanding of issues like homelessness, alcoholism, and family abuse. Not only can you serve the community directly as a social worker or counselor, but you could parlay this degree into a role in corporate social responsibility where you can help a corporate entity do some social good, or as a researcher who studies social education programs to better understand how they work and how to improve them.

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Accounting: Math whizzes with a desire to learn the finance side of how businesses function should consider a major in accounting. You’ll learn about taxation, economics, and business operations, and you could use your degree to pursue anything from a role as an environmental accountant (an accountant who analyzes a company’s environmental impact) to highway safety.

Sociology: Study how humans behave and interact on both large and small scales. You can choose to focus on how elements like race, class, and gender impact communities in research settings, helping to illuminate the effects of inequality on society. After graduation, you could work as a public health educator or by researching the education system and making suggestions on how to improve schooling, among many other possible roles.

Software development, computer science, mobile app development: For those with a desire to code, develop apps, or other techy pursuits, these majors are great for those who want to work on the technology side of government, whether through app development or creating better online unemployment portals.

Theater: The art of performance and the ability to embody a character has its place in many fields. “I studied political science and theater,” Audrey Henson, the founder and CEO of College To Congress, a financial support and leadership program for congressional interns, told VICE. “To this day, I tell everyone my theater degree was more helpful. I had to read a play, put myself in a character's shoes, and empathize. Empathy is the top leadership quality everyone should strive for.”

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Zoology: Simply put, zoologists study animals, from invertebrates like insects to mammals and birds. This major fuses biology and chemistry, and can lead to work for federal agencies like the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service or Department of the Interior.

Don’t be afraid to take classes far outside the scope of your major, Gopal said. These experiences will expand your horizons and might open you up to another potential area of interest.

Where to start if you’re not sure where to start

Volunteering: Volunteering is a great way for students to get a foot in the door and gain experience, and to learn what kind of work is and isn’t a good fit for them. Whether there’s a county-level candidate whose campaign you’d like to work on or a local chapter of Planned Parenthood where you’d like to get involved, you’ll learn about the workings of public service or the nonprofit world. These volunteer roles can also sometimes turn into paying positions. “We just saw a new wave of elected officials elected two months ago and now I’m seeing their campaign staff turn into their official staff,” Henson said.

State government websites: Your state’s website will have government job listings—anything from chemists to legislative aides. “Because of the nature of state legislatures, some are highly professionalized and have a lot of staff, and some are not,” Kelly Baden, the senior vice president of strategic initiatives and services at State Innovation Exchange, which provides resources and tools to state legislators, told VICE. “It means they're highly reliant on staff and on interns and certainly on their local community groups and lobbyists.” By keeping an eye on the types of positions that are available, you can start to envision the different options that exist and better determine if you’re on the right path.

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Body person: If you have federal government aspirations, Henson recommended seeking out a job as a body person. “So many chiefs of staff today started as body people,” Henson said. This position is basically that of an assistant, and requires you to staff a chairman or elected member of Congress throughout their day—escorting them to meetings, photo ops, etc.—learning the intimate details of life as an elected official in the process. 

Rely on your lived experiences and passions.

Basically any major can be parlayed into a career in public service. What’s essential is that you have a passion for the work that you’re doing. No internship in the world will be compelling enough if you don’t have a genuine interest in the organization’s mission. If you’re a person who thrives on interaction with others, a position requiring solitary number crunching and spreadsheets probably won’t light your fire. “Doing social change work is not for the faint of heart,” Noveck said. Especially when you may be volunteering or working for credit, “passion is the thing that needs to drive people,” she said.

Still, don’t let that discourage you. Congress has what Henson called a knowledge deficit: Far too many employees with the same background (white, middle and upper class) and upbringing. For policy makers to create any meaningful change, there must be staffers on Capitol Hill and working in the federal government with diverse experiences. Use your unique history to your advantage when considering what missions you support and in your job searches. “Your lived experiences and the things you encounter in your day-to-day can help you become a really good strategist in a politically oriented way,” Gopal said. “The way in which we apply things and analyze things are going to come from our personal experience.”

For more ideas on how your interests and expertise relate to government or policy jobs, check out USA Jobs, which lists various and unexpected positions based on prior experience.

But, be curious about things you don’t know.

Some of the most impactful channels for policy change don’t come from the most conventional sources, Gopal said. Many widespread movements, like Black Lives Matter and #MeToo arose from grassroots activism. “It is important to be tuned in to your surroundings and be aware of the changes happening around you at all times [and] that can help influence you,” Gopal said. This can be as easy as being curious and empathetic toward the lives and experiences of your classmates, or keeping an eye on what issues folks in your community are rallying toward. These are all learning opportunities that will only make you more well-rounded.

Follow Allie Volpe on Twitter.