This is a response to Aaron Gertler's You should write about your job.
While working in policy isn’t particularly unusual in the EA community, I work in a pretty interesting area and didn’t come to the job with either a background in public policy or science. In this post I’ll try to give a bit of a background on my path to my role, the job application process, day-to-day aspects, and pros and cons.
I can’t give too many details about the particulars of my job, apart from on a general level, since the area I work in (genetic modification) is still a bit of a controversial area. Nor do I know whether it’d be useful anyway. But if people have particular questions I can answer them in the comments (noting that they’d only be my personal views).
This post might be particularly informative for people in the EA community who:
- Come from a humanities background and could potentially be quite well-suited to policy, or
- Are considering government policy as a career (this post may be slightly more relevant to people from Commonwealth countries than the U.S.).
And of course, as with any cautious bureaucrat: Nothing in this post represents the views of my employer m’kay ;)
I’ve been a policy analyst for the Ministry for the Environment in New Zealand since the start of 2020 and a senior policy analyst for the last nine or so months of that. I mainly work in the area of genetic modification and I’m the policy lead for that area at my Ministry. I feel pretty lucky to have that role. It's interesting, I feel valued for my work and it’s an area where I genuinely feel like I can make a positive difference.
My last job was also in government, though not in any way policy related. Having experience in government probably somewhat helped me get my current role. Having previous government experience probably means there’s just a lot less your new employers need to teach you to get you up to speed, but any ‘grown-up’ job probably gets you most of the benefit.
I didn’t study public policy but got my degree in philosophy from a middling university in New Zealand. Nor do I have a background in either science or genetics. I did, however, do one year of an undergraduate science degree, which probably gave me a pretty decent foundation of knowledge in genetics.
Getting the job, or: How I learned to stop worrying and love the briefcase
I applied for nine policy roles before I got my current role and got four interviews, had coffee with hiring managers twice and chatted with hiring managers over the phone three times. I didn’t talk to the manager that hired me over the phone or over coffee but I do think coffee chats and phone calls probably help, even if in my case it just helped to get interviews.
When I started applying for policy jobs I was really lucky to get amazing help from someone that I know. That meant I was able to significantly improve my CV, cover letters and preparation for interviews which are the foundation for any solid job application.
When I found out the team that I was interviewing for I knew I wanted the role far more than any of the others I’d previously applied for. I also realised that after the previous nine rejections what I was doing probably wasn’t gonna be enough and I’d need to do more to get the role. I’d heard about Ramit Sethi’s briefcase technique and thought “fuck it, at this stage, what have I got to lose” so decided to do something similar. For the interview I wrote a short hypothetical briefing to a Minister providing advice on a legislative issue in that subject area which I presented at the end. If you’re probably a top candidate for a role this would probably be overkill, in fact for most people it’d probably be overkill, but I really wanted the job.
The three prior interviews probably also helped quite a bit. By the time I interviewed for my current job I had a bunch of STAR examples ready to pull out and knew what to expect. That meant I could relax in the interview and by the end it was more conversational in tone. I never practised interviews with a friend but I reckon that’d be valuable if you’re going for a specific role and can’t practise interviewing by applying for other roles.
Day in the life
I suspect the New Zealand public service is quite different to other non-Commonwealth countries and perhaps even other Commonwealth countries as well, especially those Commonwealth countries with federal systems. In terms of the day-to-day, my policy role in a New Zealand government department might be somewhat like a mix between a federal government department role and a Congressional Research Service role (as described in this EA Forum post).
My day-to-day will generally involve (in rough order of average time commitment): writing, reviewing documents, reading/research, project planning, meetings, email:
Writing: There can be quite a bit of writing. This can range from writing briefings on a topic/issue/project, press releases, talking points for Ministers, public consultation documents, and more official documents (like Cabinet papers) that go to the executive branch.
Review/reading/research: Pretty self explanatory. You’ll probably get sent a fair few documents from other agencies to read and review, as well as just helping out colleagues by proof-reading and peer-reviewing their work. If you find your subject area fascinating you’re in luck because you’ll have an excuse to stay up to date with the latest developments in that area. You’ll also need to do specific research on issues related to specific projects or advice that you’re preparing.
Meetings: I suspect that a typical policy analyst would be in one hour of meetings on a typical day. Somehow I’ve largely been able to avoid having to go to a ton of meetings and I think a typical week would see me in one to two hours of meetings. I think I may be the exception to the rule though and also make an effort to minimise the amount of meetings I attend (read: I avoid them like the plague). Apart from that, at times projects that I’m working on will necessitate more meetings than usual, whether that’s internal meetings, meetings with other government agencies or meetings with stakeholders.
Project planning: This can range from plans that set out deliverables/milestones and timelines to engagement plans that set out who you’re going to talk and consult. This work shouldn’t be overlooked. Not only does it give you a good birds-eye view of what’s needed and when, it's also reassuring to your manager and other higher-ups.
Communications (email, instant messaging etc.): I think I get less emails than other people in my organisation doing the same role as me, and your mileage may vary, but I also tend to spend less time writing emails/messages hence why I haven’t put it as a big time commitment. 
Writing: I think being able to write well is a really key skill for a policy analyst and might be one of the reasons I think I’ve been able to progress quickly in my role. From what I’ve seen and heard from others, it's not a given that having an undergraduate degree will mean you can write well. Those from a humanities background tend to fare better in this regard, especially those that studied English Lit or History, but as with any skill it can be improved with conscious effort. If you want to improve your writing I’ve heard really good things about On Writing Well by William Zinsser.
Apart from writing clearly and in plain English, I think it's important to know your audience and what the purpose of your policy advice is. Your mileage may vary, but most of the time your audience will be a non-technical Minister that has very little time, energy nor interest in reading something dense and verbose. The feedback you’ll get from managers etc will let you know whether the style of your writing is suitable, but it's probably still best to keep in mind who you’re writing for. You need to consider the advice or information that you’re giving from the point of view of the person receiving it. Being able to anticipate and understand what your Minister probably wants or needs is what separates technically correct advice that just makes you look impressive from advice that is actually of use.
Learning quickly: As I mentioned above, I don’t have a background in science, but I think that being able to get up to speed on a topic quickly is a key skill for policy analysts and in fact might sometimes be preferable to having an extensive background in something. The people you advise will usually not have a background in that area, so in some ways you act as a conduit, turning technical details into easier to understand advice.
Personality: I think I’m a pretty likeable fellow and have a pretty calm demeanour, and I think these traits have served me really well in my role. In regards to being likeable it's pretty simple: a) people don’t want to work with assholes, but more importantly b) people want to work with people who are down-to-earth, considerate and light-hearted. It might be great that you’re really good at getting stuff done to a high standard, but people still have to work with you. You don’t need to go overboard and be the life of the party, just make sure you’re not neglecting the personal aspects of the job.
In regards to being calm it's also pretty simple: a) it shows that you’re probably a safe pair of hands when it comes to handling a piece of work/project (if you’re stressed out over a minor hitch to a minor project they’re not gonna trust you with a big project are they?) and b) stress is contagious, be a calming presence in your team, it helps. It also shows maturity and that you have a good perspective on what’s important and what’s less important.
Pros and Cons
Pro: Learning about policy-politics: I think working in the public service and being curious about the politics side of policy-making can gain you a lot of really valuable knowledge. It's one thing to study politics or public policy in university and another thing entirely to go through the policy process yourself and to discuss it with people who have been doing it for many years. While it's entirely possible for your more experienced peers to be wrong, I’ve found it really valuable and interesting to hear why my colleagues think certain decisions are made by decision-makers and how policy-politics and party-politics actually plays out in the real world. This’ll probably come in handy when you’re higher up on the food-chain and in the room with those decision-makers, or if you’ve switched to a career in party politics. They also sometimes have great stories to share.
Pro: Autonomy/responsibility: If you’re lucky, or smart about what roles you apply for, you can get a significant amount of responsibility in particular policy areas. Responsibility which you can use to influence policy in an even more positive direction. An easy way to get a significant amount of responsibility is to try to get hired to a small team in a neglected or up-and-coming area, kinda like being an early hire at a startup. I’m pretty lucky in that I was hired into a small team that looks after a (neglected) subset of an ever increasingly important area (biotechnology). Another great example is the regulation of space activities in New Zealand. From what I’ve heard the team looking after that area currently numbers less than 10 people despite the incredible natural advantage New Zealand has. If someone got in early there they'd have a pretty good chance of having an out-sized influence compared to the typical public servant.
Pro: Pay and lifestyle: At least in the New Zealand public service, the pay’s pretty decent, it's a good work environment and you get four weeks annual leave (that you can take all at once if you want).
Con: Bureaucracy: If you’re not lucky enough to find a role with significant autonomy or you're in a big organisation you might have to put up with a lot of bureaucracy which you may or may not find infuriating. Just keep that in mind when applying for roles and different agencies. People who have either worked at that particular agency or who have worked in the public service for a while are probably your best source of information to get a sense of what it’d be like in that regard. However! I believe where there’s a will there’s a way, and if you’re smart about how you work, i.e. finding shortcuts, sidestepping bureaucratic bullshit and being ruthless about only concentrating on the most important things, you’ll stand out.
Anyway, I hope this post has or will be useful for people that might be considering working in policy. I also personally found Tom Kalil's 80,000 Hours podcast episode really good and would agree with a lot (if not all) of the advice he gives, check it out. If you do have any questions feel free to comment below or send me a private message.
Having read quite a bit of Cal Newport’s work I’m very convinced of the downsides of haphazard communication. I avoid using instant messaging for more than is necessary and also try to keep my emails short and to the point.
On a related note to learning quickly: Avoid corporate workshops (unless of course there’s reputational risks, i.e. it reflects badly on you that you haven’t attended a specific one). They are, in my opinion, a colossal waste of time and energy. Instead, find a good how-to on the interwebz and apply it to a project.
I can’t tell you how I’ve used my responsibility to make a positive influence but be reassured that I’m using it for good.
You can read this recent 80k article for more details on why space governance could be an important area to work in.
There’s essentially nothing to the east of New Zealand for ~8,000km. You can fire rockets into space to your heart’s desire. h/t Kyle.
I recently heard that taking all your (two weeks) leave at once is frowned upon in places like the States. That honestly just seems insane to me.