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Many undergraduates consider pursuing a career in US policy but are uncertain about how to test their fit and get a foot in the door. This post provides advice and highlights opportunities for undergraduates interested in US public policy, complementing 80,000 Hours’ more general college advice. It is based on our experience working on policy in DC for several years, background reading, and aggregating anonymous advice from about 20 policy professionals.

How to read this advice: Goals and strategy for undergraduates

To prepare for an impactful policy career, undergraduates should prioritize (1) exploring career options in (and beyond) policy and (2) building policy-relevant career capital. Being mindful of these two goals can help you understand the motivation for and prioritize between the advice given in this post. Having a direct impact can be a secondary goal, but for early-career individuals it’s generally more important to explore and build career capital.

(1) Exploration: College is an unusually good time to explore whether you’d enjoy and be successful in policy work by experimenting with various classes, internships, extracurriculars, etc. This post assumes some interest in US policy and does not make the case for why readers should consider it as a career path. But even if you are confident that policy is a promising career path, policy is a vast field, so you should still explore which policy areas (e.g. AI versus biosecurity policy), activities (e.g. research, advocacy, or program management) and institutions (e.g. think tanksCongress, or the executive branch) you might want to focus on.

(2) Career capital: College also provides opportunities for gaining policy-relevant experiences, knowledge, skills, networks, and credentials. These help you get a foot in the door and make you more competitive for future policy opportunities, like jobs, fellowships, and graduate school.


The following are highly condensed summaries of the advice in the later sections (one bullet point per section). Since this article’s advice is very broad and each section stands on its own, the summary itself is rather long and jumps between different topics. 

I. Work experience, networking, and skill development:

  • Internships: Interning in DC is typically the best way to test your fit for policy work and to begin building policy-relevant career capital. Prioritize spending a summer or semester interning in DC, ideally in Congress, a federal agency, or a think tank.
  • On-campus work: Engage with and work for campus institutions related to public policy and international affairs, including university-affiliated research institutes. Research assistantships (RA) can help build connections with professors for recommendation letters and gain research and policy experience.
  • FellowshipsPolicy fellowships are among the best entryways into policy work, offering many benefits like first-hand policy experience, funding, training, mentoring, and networking. While many require an advanced degree, some are open to current undergraduates or recent graduates.
  • Networking and mentorship: Many people secure policy jobs in DC through personal networks rather than traditional job postings. To build a strong network, pursue entry-level DC opportunities like internships and build relationships with potential mentors, such as policy professionals, professors, students, and alumni (e.g. using cold emails or LinkedIn).
  • Skill development: College offers opportunities to develop many policy-relevant skills. Enhance your writing by practicing outside of college, getting feedback (ideally from non-academics), and creating a high-quality policy writing sample. Develop research skills through research assistant roles, internships, independent research, policy-relevant coursework, and research-oriented classes. Networking skills are also crucial and can be trained. Other potentially valuable assets include public speaking, foreign languages, and technical skills, such as understanding AI or biotechnology fundamentals.
  • Building general versus specialized career capital: Most undergraduates should aim to explore and build general career capital, such as by pursuing diverse policy experiences and prestigious, legible policy credentials. But specializing early, while riskier, can provide a competitive advantage in niche policy areas for those with strong research skills and sustained topic interest.

II. Academics:

  • What to study: When choosing classes, consider public policy, political science/government, international relations, economics, history, and—if you’re interested in technology-related policy—relevant technical classes. Consider also writing a thesis (and other academic assignments) about policy-relevant questions—for topic inspiration and thesis coaching, see Effective Thesis. But don't rely solely on your academic education; proactively learn about crucial policy issues through newsletters, books, podcasts, and other resources.
  • Grades: Good college grades can be important for early-career policy opportunities, like internships, entry-level jobs, and graduate school. So, aim for good grades (>3.5 GPA), while being mindful of the opportunity costs.
  • Graduate school: Most policy professionals eventually complete a graduate degree, but we generally recommend first working for 1-3 years after college. As an undergraduate, begin considering the type of graduate degree you'd like to pursue (policy master’slaw school, PhD), potential schools/programs, and speaking with current graduate students or alumni.

III. Other advice:

  • Campus student groupsConsider joining policy-relevant groups—like Model United Nations, debating, or student publications focusing on public policy or current affairs—while being aware of the time commitments involved.
  • Partisan affiliation: Be mindful of activities that can tag you as partisan, like working or interning for a partisan organization (e.g. Congress, certain think tanks), volunteering for a campaign, or donating to a political candidate. These activities—and the partisan affiliation they generate—can have career benefits, but they can also limit your future career options.
  • Scholarships and funding opportunities: Many universities offer financial support for undergraduates to gain (policy-relevant) professional experience, including via research projects and unpaid internships. Government scholarship-for-service programs (e.g. the Department of Defense’s SMART Scholarship, and the CyberCorps Scholarship for Service) cover tuition costs and offer government employment opportunities but require a service commitment. Some philanthropic organizations also provide professional development funding for undergraduates. 
  • Security clearances: Most federal roles relevant to national security require a security clearance. As a college student, you can sometimes get a clearance through an internship, and improve your chances and speed up the future clearance process by avoiding the use of illegal drugs (including drugs that are legal locally but illegal federally, such as marijuana in many US states), gathering relevant information early, and considering other clearance-relevant factors that could impact you.
  • Advice for students from underrepresented backgrounds: Seek out successful policy practitioners with similar backgrounds for mentorship and advice (e.g. via Magnify Mentoring). Apply ambitiously and widely to opportunities, even if you don't meet all eligibility criteria. Research and apply for internship and fellowship programs designed for your background.

I. Work experience, networking, and skill development


Policy internships are among the best ways to test your fit for policy careers and gain career capital. Interning lets you gain relevant knowledge and skills, get a valuable credential, and build your policy network (including colleagues and supervisors who can recommend you for later opportunities).

Ideally, you’ll intern in Washington, DC, if you are interested in federal government policy. DC is where most federal policy jobs are, which are especially influential in shaping national-level policy. Since networking benefits are significantly tied to a geographic location, building a network in DC is most helpful for future federal-level US policy careers.

Given these benefits, if you’re considering a career in US policy, prioritize completing at least one (DC-based) policy internship while in college. If you’re highly confident in policy over other career paths, seek to complete multiple policy internships in different policy institutions.

Internships can help you get a full-time job. Many organizations offer internships as a pathway to junior positions if you perform well and get lucky. Networking in DC during your internship also increases your chances of being hired by another office/organization. If you’re interning in DC the summer after your junior year, aim to keep up with your network (e.g. through emailing/reaching out occasionally) in case you plan to apply for a full-time position after graduation.

Where to apply

Among the most common DC policy institutions people consider for internships are the following:

  1. Congress: Virtually all committees and personal offices in the Senate and House take interns, with each of the 535 personal offices running its own internship program. Committee internships are generally more prestigious and competitive than personal office internships. The three Congressional support agencies—CRSCBO, and GAO—also offer internships. Interns typically perform a wide range of tasks, including serving at the front desk of the office and giving tours, answering constituent calls and letters, conducting legislative research, attending hearings and briefings, drafting memos, and assisting with administrative tasks. Congressional internships are particularly well-suited for policy generalists rather than specialists and are often a broadly useful step toward many types of policy work. For more details, see our Congressional internship guide
  2. Executive branch: The White House and federal agencies offer internships. Although some are advertised via the centralized job portal USAJobs (see USAJobs guide), you should not rely on that alone to find relevant opportunities but also on specific agency sites and other sources.[1] Among the most prestigious (and competitive) executive branch internships are the White House[2], the State Department[3], and the Department of Defense[4], but there are many smaller and lesser-known internships across federal agencies. Internships as part of the Pathways Programs are especially well-suited for exploring policy work and acquiring a full-time federal position following graduation. Internships in national security-relevant agencies may allow you to get a security clearance, which can be a strong asset for future internships and jobs. 
  3. Think tanks: Many DC think tanks offer internships, but the more established, well-known ones can be highly competitive and often favor graduate students. Think tank internships are well-suited for those interested in policy research and advocacy on a particular topic. Research interns will generally be tasked with a combination of research, communications, and operations-type work; alternatively, you can also intern on external or internal affairs teams. For examples of relevant technology policy think tanks in DC, see this appendix (not all of these organizations offer formal internships). Think tanks that work to influence Congress will often give a preference to applicants who previously completed a congressional internship.

Beyond the above, consider also applying for internships with:

  1. Government contractors or consultancies (i.e. private companies consulting the government or implementing government programs) – potentially less competitive than government internships by virtue of having a lower profile. Like executive branch internships, if you intern in a national security-related position, you may be able to get a security clearance.
  2. Lobbying and advocacy organizations (i.e. interest groups, which can be either for-profit or non-profit) – some internships at well-known, mission-driven interest groups may attract lots of qualified applicants
  3. Policy-relevant media institutions, like the Washington Post or Politico (very competitive), or more niche policy outlets that cover particular areas such as Defense News or FedScoop
  4. Volunteering for a political campaign (e.g. in a Congressional race) – this may be a lower-commitment, more accessible way to start working toward a policy career, and is a common stepping-stone toward work/internships in Congress

If you are looking for policy internships outside of DC, consider remote opportunities or those in state capitals (e.g. in your home state, your college’s state, or generally influential states like California) or other important geographic areas:

If you are an international student in the US, read our guide on Working in US policy as a foreign national. In brief, foreign nationals generally cannot intern/work in the US executive branch and are much less likely to be hired by Congress (though there are exceptions), so they should prioritize the non-governmental institutions mentioned above. 

How to apply

To get a policy internship, apply ambitiously but also widely, and ideally target multiple opportunities at different levels of competitiveness (e.g. an internship at the White House, with your member of Congress, with your state senator, and with the VSFS program).

Undergraduates without prior experience often have a hard time—though there are exceptions[6]—getting internships with prestigious institutions, such as top think tanks, the White House, or influential federal agencies (like the Departments of Defense or State). Your first policy internship or position doesn’t need to be the perfect one—what’s most important is to get your foot in the door. It is common to start with less competitive policy internships and positions, which help build your policy career capital to strengthen your future applications for more competitive roles while still offering good chances to test your fit. Less competitive internships include those at less prestigious think tanks, state-level or city-level legislative offices, and lesser-known government agencies.

Additionally, many colleges offer “Semester in DC” programs, which allow you to get internships during the fall or spring semesters when opportunities are less competitive, receive support in your internship search, and potentially get academic credit for completing the internship. We highly recommend applying for these programs if your university has one.

When applying for policy internships, leverage your network as much as possible, such as professors with policy contacts, relevant professional communities[7], or alumni from your school. Your network can help you both in identifying and successfully applying for internships by sharing relevant opportunities (especially opportunities that aren’t widely publicized or even publicly advertised at all, which makes them much less competitive), providing application advice, and making warm introductions or providing recommendations. Whenever possible, politely ask someone from your network to flag your application, which can significantly improve your chances.

To optimize your application, get help with your resume and cover letters, such as from your school’s career service—helping students find internships is their job—or a private company like NSCLI. Ask mentors or people with hiring experience to give feedback on your application materials.

On-campus work: Research and teaching assistantships (RA/TA)

Working part-time during the semester as an RA can be a great way to gain research experience, get to know a professor who may provide you with a recommendation letter, and also signal research/policy experience (if the work is policy-relevant). The most relevant and helpful professors for RA work are ones with first-hand experience and connections in DC policymaking institutions, which many political science and international relations professors do not have.

RAing in a relevant technical lab (e.g. on AI or bio) can also be a strong option: it provides option value if you might want to pursue technical work in the future and it demonstrates technical skills/knowledge, which—while typically not required for policy positions—can differentiate you from other candidates without this experience. 

RA work during the semester typically has a lower opportunity cost compared to summer opportunities since a lot of students will have limited policy-relevant opportunities during the school year but can use their summers to get more direct experience (e.g. via internships).

If working as a TA trades off against other opportunities (e.g. internships, being an RA, independent research/learning) then it is probably not the best use of time. The most common exceptions to this are (a) if your professor is well-connected in DC and it would be valuable to develop a relationship with them or (b) it’s a relevant technical class (e.g. deep learning) where being a TA would substantially improve your understanding of the material.

Get involved with (and try to work for) relevant institutions on your campus, such as your college’s international affairs/public policy school (if it exists) or a university-affiliated policy research instituteFor example, Stanford’s Center for International Security and Cooperation offers courses, research opportunities, seminars, and events to undergraduate students, and many of its professors have strong connections in DC (see other examples of relevant institutions in the footnote[8]).

Policy fellowships

There are many different policy fellowships aiming to help people with different backgrounds and career stages gain first-hand policy experience. These programs can provide opportunities to work for US executive agencies, Congress, or think tanks. Other common fellowship benefits include funding, training, mentoring, and networking.

Policy fellowships are among the best entryways into policy work. As such, consider which fellowships you’re eligible for and that suit your career interests, and apply to those. Consider also if there are things you can do now to become a more competitive applicant (e.g. getting relevant credentials, developing a clearer picture of your target policy career).

Many policy fellowships require having an advanced degree (i.e. master’s or doctorate), but there are some opportunities open to current undergraduates (like the Boren Awards[9]) or recent graduates. In particular, consider the following fellowships for upcoming or recent college graduates, taken from this database:


Short description

Horizon Fellowship

The junior track involves a 6-12 month position at think tanks to work on AI or biosecurity policy.

STPI Science Policy Fellowship

A 2-year full-time science and technology policy fellowship with US executive branch offices.

Scoville Peace Fellowship

A 6-9 month full-time security policy fellowship with DC-based NGOs for early-career college or master’s graduates.

TechCongress Innovation Scholars Program

A 10-month full-time Congressional fellowship focused on technology policy for early-career individuals. Junior TechCongress fellows typically have several years of work experience but they occasionally accept recent college graduates and those with only 1-2 years of experience.

Carnegie Gaither Junior Fellows Program

One-year nomination-based fellowship for graduating seniors and recent graduates to work as research assistants to Carnegie’s senior scholars.

Princeton CITP Emerging Scholars in Tech Policy

2-year tech policy research position with coursework and mentoring at Princeton’s Center for Information Technology Policy.

Networking and mentorship 

Policy, like many other sectors, is highly network-driven. Many policy job opportunities, both inside and outside of government, are never advertised publicly but are filled with trusted contacts from the organization’s network. As such, there are two main avenues to securing a job in DC: (1) the traditional, formal approach of responding to job postings and submitting applications online, and (2) the more personal, informal approach of leveraging your network to uncover hidden opportunities.

The Washington Post states that over 70% of jobs are landed through networking, and DC is no exception. The more someone knows, trusts, and respects you and your work, the more likely they will recommend you for a job. In DC, individuals often get jobs or recommendations even when the contact with the hiring manager or recommender in question is relatively light touch.

Developing a strong network enables you to use the informal approach and makes it more likely you will get valuable advice, hear of relevant job openings, be successful when you apply, and have an impact on the job. Fortunately, networking is a trainable skill that you can improve with practice—two great resources on networking are the books Never Eat Alone and How to Win Friends and Influence People.

To start building a professional network, pursue entry-level opportunities—like policy internships—that are accessible even to people who don’t already have an existing network. For instance, when applying for Congressional internships, you may be able to leverage your individual background by applying to offices from your state or district.

Build relationships with professors, mentors, and alumni in relevant fields, especially ones that have worked in DC or have connections in DC. Undergraduates can sometimes get internships via their connections with professors or other mentors, especially if they are willing to advocate for you and write you a letter of recommendation. Look up relevant faculty members at your school and take their classes (if relevant), attend their office hours, ask to meet with them, and/or work for them as a research assistant (RA). If you have connections with alumni from your school, you can also reach out to them, describe your interests, and ask if they’re available to chat.

Effectively leverage LinkedIn. LinkedIn can be really helpful in finding and connecting with alumni or individuals in your network who work in policy. You can see if you have mutual connections with a person and then cold message/email them. Browsing the LinkedIn profiles of professionals in your field of interest is also a great way to learn about particular policy opportunities (e.g. internship or fellowship programs) and about common career paths, which you can then try to emulate. LinkedIn is particularly helpful for searching for individuals with relevant experience who currently or previously attended your school, allowing you to send a DM requesting to chat.

Consider spending time in DC to meet people in person. If you already know some people in DC, they may be able to connect you with relevant policy professionals to meet. The EA DC community is really friendly and could potentially facilitate introductions. Even weekend trips can be really valuable if you plan them well and manage to meet multiple people in person.

Make use of your school’s alumni network and career services. Your school may be able to connect you with alumni working in policy jobs, and your school’s career services may help you with preparing your application materials such as resumes[10] and cover letters[11].

Skill development

College is a great opportunity to develop and demonstrate policy-relevant skills that will help you secure internships or job opportunities and make you more effective as a policy professional. 

  • Writing. Clear and succinct writing is essential for most policy jobs. Academic writing typically differs substantially from policy writing, such as writing policy memos. So, it’s important to practice writing outside of the classroom and get feedback from people with non-academic backgrounds, ideally from those with policy experience. You’ll likely also need a high-quality policy writing sample for internship, job, and graduate school applications in DC; to get a writing sample, you can take a policy-relevant class where you write policy memos for assignments, or you write your own following advice online. Options to practice and improve your writing include writing for a personal blog, campus publications, or independent research. Many schools also offer writing classes and resources (other writing resources in footnote[12]).
  • Research skills. Many (but far from all) policy jobs involve a research component, particularly in think tanks.[13] You can develop research skills (1) through working as a research assistant, (2) completing a research internship (ideally a DC-based research internship or relevant non-DC summer fellowships like GovAISERICHERIERA, or XLab), (3) conducting independent research under a good mentor, (4) choosing policy-relevant topics for your college assignments and thesis, and (5) choosing research-oriented classes allowing you to explore policy topics.
  • Networking. See Networking and mentorship.
  • Public speaking. Consider taking a class on public speaking/persuasive communication if your school offers it, or participating in clubs like debating, Model United Nations, mock trial, etc.
  • Language skills. If you want to work in foreign policy (e.g. the foreign service or a relevant think tank position), language skills—particularly in high-priority languages like Chinese, Russian, and Hindi—can be essential. There are several foreign language education programs for college students, including the Boren Awards and the Critical Language Scholarship (CLS) Program.
  • Technical skills and knowledge
    • Fundamentals of AI or biotechnology. If you want to work in technology-related policy, it helps to have a basic understanding of the technologies you’re interested in. For example, it is valuable to understand the basics of modern machine learning for AI policy and microbiology for biosecurity policy. But you don’t need to be able to train your own ML model or have worked in a laboratory (though if you have, you can still use that as a selling point). 
    • Data analysis and coding. Technical skills like data analysis and coding are typically unnecessary for most policy work, but they can make you more competitive for certain roles. These skills are sometimes essential for research-based roles, such as at think tanks. For instance, the preeminent AI policy think tank in Washington, DC—Georgetown University’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology (CSET)—is very data-driven and often requires its hires to bring some technical skills or at least literacy.
  • Learn how to learn. Becoming more efficient at retaining information and learning new skills will compound over time and offer significant benefits in your personal development and career. See this section with advice from 80,000 Hours on how to learn more effectively.

Building general versus specialized career capital

We generally recommend undergraduates focus on gaining fairly general policy-relevant career capital and explore different types of policy work, institutions, or policy areas. This can mean (1) prioritizing prestigious, legible policy credentials that are broadly valuable for policy work even though they generally don’t allow you to specialize (e.g. Congressional internships) and (2) pursuing diverse policy experiences for exploration (e.g. interning in a federal agency and a think tank).

Specializing too early poses a real risk, particularly if you choose the wrong topic or career path due to a lack of context. This could lead to a loss in option value and neglect of opportunities for exploration that could aid in making more informed decisions later, such as those regarding graduate school or full-time jobs.

But we have seen some college students succeed in policy through specializing early, building particular knowledge in a neglected policy area (e.g. regulation of benchtop synthesis, standards for cybersecurity at AI labs). We recommend this high-risk, high-reward path only for those who possess a strong aptitude for research, robust self-motivation, and a sustained interest in focusing deeply on a specific topic for extended periods. For those people, it can be valuable to try to develop specialized expertise that few other people in the policy world have. This can give them a competitive advantage in roles where their particular expertise is needed and it can allow them to make useful contributions immediately after (or even during) college. 

To identify relevant topics to specialize in, you should speak to field experts and ask what topics they see as particularly neglected and also as important and tractable. It is easy to waste time barking up the wrong tree, and conversations with experts are often the fastest and most reliable way to get feedback and guidance. As a heuristic, you can look for potentially important novel topics (e.g. a new technology) and for underexplored intersections of important topics (e.g. the intersections between AI and bio, cyber, or nuclear security).

II. Academics

In college, you can gain knowledge about specific policy topics, or the policy process and institutions generally. But your college education alone likely won’t prepare you sufficiently well for your field(s) of interest, especially if you seek to help solve important, neglected issues—like AI, biosecurity, nuclear risks, animal welfare, global development, etc. Take the initiative and time to learn about these issues on your own, such as via books, podcasts, papers, conversations.

To improve your understanding of policy topics, seek out experts (e.g. relevant professors, policy professionals)Talking to people is often more important—and easier to neglect—than just reading articles, and conversations with experts are particularly effective to determine what to read, who else to talk to, and what opportunities to pursue.

What to study

A key factor in choosing what to study is how much (policy-relevant) career capital (skills, knowledge, credentials, etc.) this will allow you to build. This applies to choosing schools[14], classes, completing internships, and attending workshops or conferences. 

Follow your intellectual interests when making these choices since you’ll be more motivated to learn and policy jobs do not typically require candidates to have completed specific majors/minors.

To build your policy career capital, your classes should generally do the following:

  • Allow you to demonstrate your interest in policy. This can help when applying for jobs, for example, by highlighting these experiences in your cover letters and job interviews. 
  • Help you develop policy-relevant skills, such as writing, public speaking, etc.
  • Allow you to work on policy-relevant projects or writing/work samples you can include in your resume.
  • Teach you basic domain knowledge to help you think and speak in broadly sensible ways about policy, history, and government.

Some majors/minors/classes to consider (80,000 Hours provides more general advice on how to choose your major)

  • If you want to work on technology policy and are in 
  1. a STEM undergrad, pick some policy classes if possible (e.g. technology policy, technology and society, introduction to international relations)
  2. a social science undergrad, pick some technology classes if possible (e.g. computer science, biology). 
  • Potentially relevant subjects (not comprehensive): 
    • Qualitative: Public policy, international relations, government, law, economics, history
    • Quantitative: Economics, statistics (especially for data analysis at think tanks)
    • For AI policy: Technology policy, computer science, machine learning, etc.
    • For biosecurity policy: Public health, epidemiology, microbiology, etc.

Don't consider school your only means of learning. Take time to read what interests you outside of class and go deep on that. For instance, go through relevant reading lists or participate in online courses via platforms like BlueDot ImpactCourseraLinkedIn Learning, or Udemy (e.g. these courses on AI governancebiosecurity, and arms control). 

Be deliberate about the classes you take, what you want to get out of themand how much time you put into classes. Decide which classes you need to understand the material in, and which ones are just boxes to check. In many cases, only a fraction of the material in any given class will be relevant.

Consider writing a thesis (and other academic assignments) about policy-relevant questions. For topic inspiration and thesis coaching, see Effective Thesis. If your school makes the thesis optional, consider carefully the typically significant opportunity cost: a thesis is less important if you don’t aim to work in academia, but it is an opportunity to learn and write about a critical topic of your choice.


College grades matter relatively little in policy job applicationsBut good grades are somewhat more important for early-career policy opportunities—internships, entry-level jobs, graduate school—since they are a clear signal that can distinguish you from other candidates. So, grades matter (much) more in applications for recent college graduates than for those with multiple years of work experience.

A reasonable heuristic for college students interested in policy work is to “aim for good grades while being mindful of the opportunity cost”. You don’t need a 4.0 GPA to succeed in policy but try not to fall below a 3.5. Generally, it’s likely not worth the effort to spend dozens of hours on a class when the difference to your class GPA is marginal, especially if this time could have gone to more applied work instead (internships, etc.). While exceeding some grade threshold is often necessary, good grades are rarely sufficient for career advancement. 

One possible concrete target is to aim for college grades that make you a competitive applicant for the top policy master’s programs. Undergraduate GPA plays an important role in admissions decisions but you don’t need to have been a “straight-A student” to get into the top programs. Many top policy schools report an average GPA of around 3.6-3.7 with pretty wide margins—meaning many applicants get accepted with a GPA below 3.5—but this includes many applicants with several years of work experience. Recent college graduates will often need somewhat higher grades to gain admission. For the less selective policy schools, a GPA above 3.0 can be sufficient. In comparison, the top law schools are more competitive, so if you’re aiming for a law degree, you’ll want to aim for a >3.8 GPA.[15] Since most financial aid is offered to the strongest applicants, having good college grades helps not only with admissions but also with receiving generous financial aid for graduate school. 

To optimize for better grades while also having time for other opportunities, consider taking fewer classes and “half-assing it with all you’ve got”. Many of your college classes won’t be directly applicable or useful for your career and you may benefit more from spending the time taking advantage of other opportunities. So, think carefully about how you prioritize your time in college, including how much time you want to spend improving your grades relative to doing other valuable activities like extracurriculars. 

Consider also taking easier, higher-GPA classes, subject to the caveats discussed here. Note that certain graduate programs intentionally look for high grades in specific hard classes (e.g. real analysis for economics PhD programs), which is useful to look into to preserve option value. 

Graduate School

Most policy professionals complete a graduate degree at some point. From a policy perspective, our general advice is for most college graduates to work for 1-3 years for career exploration and career capital building before starting a graduate degree (as discussed here). Still, if you are already very interested in policy as an undergraduate, you may already begin reflecting on what type of graduate degree you’re most interested in, which schools you may want to apply to, and begin talking with current graduate students or alumni of your top-ranked schools.

  • Policy master’s programs: Read these posts (part 1part 2) for more information on why, when, where, and how to get a policy master’s degree (e.g. in public policy or international relations). Getting a policy master’s degree should be the default if you’re interested in policy work since they tend to provide the best balance of benefits over costs for those wishing to advance their policy careers.
  • Law school: Read these posts on law school (part 1part 2) for advice on why and how to apply for law school, and how to secure funding. Law school can be a reasonable alternative to a policy master’s degree for a policy career (see footnote for details[16]). 
  • PhDsGetting a PhD is often very costly and typically unnecessary for the great majority of policy jobs. As such, we generally recommend against doing a PhD with the intent of working in policy (see footnote for details when doing a PhD can make sense for policy work[17]). And see this article for tips on applying to PhD programs. 

III. Other advice

Campus student groups

Most colleges have active campus groups focused on public policy or international affairs. They allow students to engage with policy topics, network with other policy-interested students, and build relevant skills, such as writing and public speaking.

But these on-campus engagements are generally less useful than getting professional experience through internships, relevant RA positions, etc. It’s easy for policy-interested students to over-invest in campus student groups, so don’t feel like you need to spend tons of time on clubs, especially if you wouldn't enjoy this.

Consider joining policy-relevant clubs (while being mindful of the time commitment) such as: 

  • Model United Nations (MUN)
  • Debating
  • Student publications oriented towards public policy, politics, or current affairs. 
  • Campus groups or national groups working on applied “policy cases”, like crafting policy for a specific stakeholder, similar to a student consulting group.
  • ​​EA groups—while they’re not often explicitly policy-oriented, participating can be great for motivation, networking with like-minded students, and gaining knowledge about topics like global catastrophic risks (GCRs).

Campus political groups are another option, but consider carefully whether to affiliate yourself with partisan groups as an undergraduate (see section below).

Partisan affiliation

Certain activities can tag you as partisan, including (1) working or interning for a partisan organization (e.g. Congressional offices, political campaigns, partisan think tanks, political appointee roles), (2) engaging with political groups on campus, especially if there are internet-searchable records of this, (3) selecting a party affiliation when registering to vote, which is made public by all states, (4) donating to a political candidate, even just a few dollars, (5) completing a partisan-coded degree program like majoring in Race, Ethnic and Gender Studies for your bachelor’s degree (left-coded).

Signaling a clear political affiliation can have both upsides and downsides. On the positive side, partisan signals can help you get (but are usually not necessary for) certain opportunities affiliated with your party by demonstrating your engagement and alignment. For example, leading a party’s college chapter or volunteering for a political campaign might increase your chances of getting a Congressional internship with that party.

On the negative side, a partisan affiliation can limit your future options in the policy/political worlds by making it harder to work across the aisle in the future. If you’re affiliated with one party, it can be difficult to (ever) pursue career opportunities (e.g. internships, jobs, political appointments, running for office) associated with the other party.

Whether you should avoid a partisan affiliation depends on your personal beliefs and professional goals. For example, if you have strong partisan convictions, it is less important to bother avoiding the above signals since you’re less likely to enjoy working across the aisle and to pursue future opportunities with the opposing party. Carefully consider the list of partisan signals, but don’t be alarmed by them—they will fade in importance over time, and many policy employers don’t care much or at all about them.

Scholarships and funding opportunities

Many universities financially support undergraduates to gain relevant professional experience, such as via funding for research projects, travel grants, covering salary for unpaid internships, etc. Check to see if your university offers such funding opportunities for policy-relevant opportunities—for example, Brown University’s public policy school offers financial support for undergraduate policy research and internships.

Some government scholarship-for-service programs offered by US federal agencies are open to undergraduates (while more are aimed at graduate students). These typically cover most or all of college tuition, are a prestigious credential, and also offer employment opportunities, such as internships and jobs. However, there is a big catch: these programs often involve a multiple-year service requirement, during which you have to continue working at the agency; if you leave early, you will have to pay back some or all of the scholarship money you have received. Before accepting such a scholarship, consider carefully the commitment this entails. The scholarship-for-service programs for undergraduates we’re aware of include (program details in footnotes):

There are also some philanthropic organizations that occasionally provide funding for undergraduate study, independent work, and professional development projects, including (but not limited to):[20] 

Security clearances

While all federal government roles require at least a background check, positions relevant to national security (e.g. DOD, State Department, FBI) also require a security clearance. There are different security clearance levels, depending on the position’s requirements. Getting cleared involves an extensive background investigation which can take months up to more than one year.

Internships in national security-relevant government agencies can be a great way to get a security clearance already during college. The clearance process is typically expedited for summer internships, saving you valuable time in the future when you apply for full-time jobs and also making you more competitive (as you’ll have a leg up over candidates without a clearance).

As a college student, there are several other things you can do to improve your chances and speed up the process of getting a security clearance in the future: 

  1. Avoid the use of illegal drugs, including drugs that are legal locally but illegal federally, such as marijuana in many US states. Whether drug use affects clearance eligibility depends on factors like the types of drugs, the frequency, recency, and circumstances of use. While experimentation during college with marijuana generally does not prevent you from getting a security clearance several years in the future, we recommend avoiding any illegal drugs if you are interested in working for the government later.
  2. Start early to gather relevant information (e.g. where you lived and traveled to, employers, your schools, foreign contacts) by looking at the questions you’ll be asked when you apply. Consider particularly the forms for background checks and security clearances (i.e. the SF-86 and SF-85). If you are particularly uncertain, consider talking to a security clearance lawyer.
  3. Consider other clearance-relevant factors that could impact you, including criminal conduct, severe financial trouble, lying during the security clearance process, and living in or maintaining close personal contacts in foreign countries (particularly sensitive countries like China, Russia, Iran, etc.).
  4. Register for the Selective Service by age 25 if you’re male (it’s required by law and employers check for this)

Advice for students from underrepresented backgrounds

Entering a policy career can be particularly challenging for individuals from underrepresented groups, due to factors such as unequal access to resources, mentorship, and networking opportunities. In addition to this post’s general advice, this section highlights some steps you might consider depending on your personal circumstances.

Identify and reach out to successful policy practitioners from similar backgrounds, learn from their experiences, and ask them for advice. In particular, seek to find good mentors who can help champion you, point you to opportunities, provide application advice, etc. Go out of your comfort zone asking people for calls, advice, introductions, and help in general, including by cold emailing people. Many policy practitioners, including those not from similar backgrounds, recognize the problems with representation in their field and want to help address it. It can be hard to get started on cold emails and similar strategies, but given how central networks are for policy jobs, there is really no substitute to asking people for help.

One great resource for social impact motivated college students is Magnify Mentoring, which runs a mentorship program and builds a diverse professional community. People interested in security can also consider engaging with the Center for a New American Security’s (CNAS) Make Room initiative, an “inclusive professional development network…aim[ing] to train, empower, and amplify the voices of underrepresented communities in the national security and foreign policy spheres…There are no costs nor prerequisites to join.”

Apply ambitiously and widely. Students from underrepresented backgrounds often self-select out of applying for prestigious and competitive opportunities, or they only apply if they fulfill all the eligibility criteria. Instead, we recommend erring on the side of applying, even if you don't fulfill all the criteria—keep in mind that many institutions are looking to bring in non-traditional perspectives. 

Research and apply for internship and fellowship programs designed for people with your background, such as:

  1. ^

    Some internships are only posted on an agency's website, not on USAJobs. Also, when there's information on an internship available both from an agency website and from USAJobs, the agency site will often be more informative. Finally, USAJobs can be a pain to deal with and has a high noise-to-signal ratio (in terms of sorting through lots of irrelevant postings and legalese to get to useful information on relevant opportunities).

  2. ^

    Most White House internships fall under the “White House Internship Program” (WHIP), but several White House offices have their own internship programs with separate applications. These are all listed under the link above.

  3. ^

    In addition to its regular student internships, the State Department also runs the Rangel Summer Enrichment Program.

  4. ^

    In addition to its regular internships, the DOD also runs the X-Force Fellowship and the SMART Scholarship (which includes an internship component).

  5. ^

    These typically focus more on strategic questions rather than applied policy questions. But they can still be a good way to hone your research skills and gain knowledge about AI governance, biosecurity, nuclear risks, etc.

  6. ^

    We know several undergraduates without prior policy experience who were accepted for White House internships and other competitive DC policy internships. 

  7. ^

    For example, the EA DC community might be able to provide some support and make relevant connections.

  8. ^

    Some other examples (not comprehensive): Georgetown University has the Center for Security and Emerging Technology (CSET) and the Center for Global Health Science and Security (GHSS); Johns Hopkins University has the Center for Health Security (CHS); Harvard has the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society; and Brown University has the Pandemic Center.

  9. ^

    A prestigious language program for US undergraduates (“Boren Scholarship”) and graduate students (“Boren Fellowship”) lasting 2 to 12 months.

  10. ^

    General resources on how to write a good resume:
    1. Resume Worded
    2. 16 Resume Resources To Help You Write, Edit or Submit One

  11. ^

     Cover letter resources specific to jobs in government:
    1. Writing Cover Letters for Government (Georgetown)
    2. How To Write a Cover Letter for a congressional internship (Indeed)
    3. Example Cover Letter (Medium)
    4. Example Cover Letter 2

    General resources on how to write a good cover letter:
    1. How and Why to Write a Great Cover Letter (Columbia)
    2. Cover Letter Writing Guide (UPenn)
    3. Cover Letter Resources (Michigan)

  12. ^

     1. JSPG writing & training opportunities
    2. PRB’s Writing for Policy Audiences (and corresponding presentation)
    3. Resources on how to write policy briefs: #1#2#3#4#5#6
    4. Textbooks on policy writing (for example, this one)

  13. ^

    Both the process and products of research conducted in policy contexts typically differs substantially from academic research. Policy research is generally less theoretical, more applied, and aims to come up with concrete, practical policy proposals aimed to inform or convince policy practitioners.

  14. ^

    An unpublished report from a DC-based national security professional notes: “The academic pipeline into national security policy is surprisingly broad in some respects. The top-tier of American universities is certainly well-represented at the undergraduate level, and some universities with specialized undergraduate programs such as Harvard, Georgetown, Yale, and Princeton are disproportionately represented relative to other high-ranking schools such as Stanford, MIT, Cornell, or the University of Pennsylvania. Nonetheless, there is not as clear a pipeline into national security policy as there is in fields like management consulting, finance, and (to a lesser degree) the top-tier of the tech industry.”

  15. ^

    Our law school guide notes “If you think [in college] law school is a likely path, consider optimizing for grades (e.g. consider taking a smaller number of classes so that you have more time to dedicate to each), but don’t let a focus on grades interfere with exploring your interests and testing your fit for other paths.”

  16. ^

    From the policy master’s guide: “Law school [to prepare for a policy career] may make sense if you (1) want to work as a government lawyer or shape policy through legal advocacy outside of government (or at least want to keep this option open), (2) can get into a top law school, (3) enjoy learning about law and the legal system, and (4) want a high-earning, high-prestige non-policy back-up option."

  17. ^

    From the policy master’s guide: “A PhD [to prepare for a policy career] can make sense if you (1) want to keep open the option of an academic career, (2) aim for policy positions that require a PhD (e.g. senior science policy and funding roles), and (3) can use the PhD to research relevant policy topics.” Many PhD programs grant a master’s degree, if you drop out out two years. But there are several downsides to this path, explained here.

  18. ^

    A scholarship for STEM undergraduates and graduate students providing full tuition and education related expenses, a stipend of between $25,000 to $38,000 per year depending on degree level, an annual health insurance allowance of up to $1,200, and more (eligibility requirements here). Involves a service requirement as a DOD summer intern and post-graduation service equal to your program’s duration. In 2022, DOD accepted 482 SMART scholars—with a 19% acceptance rate and average GPA of 3.75—of which 47% are undergraduates.

  19. ^

    A scholarship for up to 3 years for cybersecurity undergraduate and graduate (MS or PhD) education, providing tuition and education related fees, an annual stipend of $25,000 for undergraduate students, and a professional allowance of $6,000 for SFS Job Fair and other travel, professional certification, etc. Involves a post-graduation service requirement equal to the scholarship’s duration in the US government, in a cybersecurity-related position.

  20. ^

    For additional scholarships, we recommend checking out databases like APSIA’s and IEFA’s.


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Sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 10:48 PM

Epistemic status: writing fast and loose, but based on thoughts I've mulled over for a while given personal experience/struggles and discussions with other people. Thus, easy to misinterpret what I'm saying. Take with salt.

On the topic of educational choice, I can't emphasize enough the importance of having legible hard skills such as language or, perhaps more importantly, quantitative skills. Perhaps the worst mistake I made in college was choosing to double major in both international studies and public policy, rather than adding a second major in econ or computer science. To my freshman self, this seemed to make sense: "I really want to do international security and like public policy, so this should demonstrate my enthusiasm and improve my policy-analysis skills."

I'm somewhat skeptical that the second belief panned out (relative to majoring in econ), but the first clearly seems to have been misguided. Understanding what I do now about the application process, including how shallow/ineffective the process is at discerning capabilities and interest, how people will just exaggerate/BS their way into positions (through claims in their interviews and cover letters), that some positions will not consider people without STEM backgrounds (even when the skills can sometimes be learned prior to the job), AND how much of the process in some places relies on connections or prestige, it's really clear that having legible hard skills is crucial. In contrast, you probably get rapidly-diminishing marginal returns with soft science degrees.