23 August 2021

Want a Public policy career? Here’s what to expect

🌍 Public policy has plenty of hidden careers to explore, we give you an overview of what to expect.
Oliver Cordingley

Oliver Cordingley

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1. What are the pathways into Public Policy?

Former United States Representative, Harold Ford Jr rightly described his experience as a congressman, “My appetite for public policy and changing it, and not only being a part of the conversation but affecting it in a positive way, never diminished after 10 years in Congress.” Public Policy is one of the most relevant and dynamic fields of today’s fast-paced world. It continues to be one of the lucrative jobs with a starting salary ranging from £32,000 and £40,000. However, historically this sector has been led by politicians, lawyers, and even journalists rather than the traditional public policy graduate. Through this article, we will endeavour to understand the reasons behind this as well as further our insight into this under-explored field.  

There are several types of degree combinations available ranging from Bachelor’s in Public Policy to Public Administration. But there seems to be an underlying issue with the program’s popularity and preferences. In fact, public policy was not one of the top preferred courses in the continental United States, ranking as the 116th most popular major in 2018-2019. While similar statistics could not be found for the United Kingdom, our research shows that similar trends persist in the UK as well. This can be attributed to the fact that in recent decades, the policy sciences have struggled to cope with the pace of modern economic and political landscapes. Policy experts have also been criticized for “inaction”. It usually refers to instances when policymakers ‘do nothing’ about societal issues.

2. What do professionals in Public Policy actually do?​

‘Why doesn’t the government do something about this?’ All of us have heard such complaints in legislatures, TV debates, opinion pieces, letters to the editor, and cyberspace. Indeed, often such sentiments are retrospective: ‘why didn’t the government or any of its agencies do something about this?’, whether it be recognising that a terrorist cell had been operating undetected until it struck, failing to halt the spread of a pandemic, systematically addressing creeping social crises such as domestic violence or acting on warnings about looming economic recession. In fact, some of the major criticism that policymakers have had to endure is the fact that neither they nor the financial analysts could predict the 2008 financial crisis. However, the need for policy discussions over the government’s financial and economic decisions is enormous. Sam Branson actually goes on to opine that his measure of success is judged upon a yardstick when he walks into a restaurant and hears a table debating drug policy. Once the public starts the conversation, the politicians will join – that is when we can create real change.  

Here’s a great read on what it feels like to be a policy expert by Apolitical, click here.

The real issue with public policy seems to be the fact that there is a stark difference in the teaching format of these courses and the real-life expectations of a policy graduate. While it might be easy to get a sense of what is to be expected of a doctor through a show like “Grey’s Anatomy” or what it means to be a lawyer through a show like “Suits”. Not many shows actually depict what it truly feels like to be a policy analyst. My personal favourite, “Madam Secretary” is one of the best representations of the world of policymaking. I would recommend the show to anyone who wants to have a real sense of what the job entails. 

3. Expectations of working in Public Policy that Universities don’t tell you.​

While a policy student is simply taught the contextually significant material as well as case studies that could partly stimulate the kind of situations they would possibly have to deal with as part of their responsibilities, the lack of real-life hands-on experience that lawyers or politicians gain over the years because their previous occupation enables them to gain a unique sense of perspective on global affairs. 


Lastly, I would like to raise another issue that policy analysts have consistently been accused of. In the past couple of years, policy experts have failed to come up with a comprehensive plan to deal with issues and rather have decided to put out one fire after another more like a firefighter rather than a policymaker. While an argument could be made about the fast-paced global practices making it almost impossible to make a long-term plan, one can’t help but imagine the possibilities.  


While there seem to be several issues with the public policy sector, the field in itself promises to be extremely engaging and meaningful working experiences. The potential to affect real change was certainly what inspired me to consider this field and I certainly hope that I make it big someday, but the limitless potential in this industry remains unexplored, waiting to be unearthed someday. 

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