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Working in policy is among the most effective ways to have a positive impact in areas like AI, biosecurity, animal welfare, or global health. Getting a policy master’s degree (e.g. in security studies or public policy) can help you pivot into or accelerate your policy career.

This two-part overview explains why, when, where, and how to get a policy master’s degree. Part 1 (this post) focuses on the “why” and the “when” and alternatives to policy master’s. Part 2 considers criteria for choosing where to apply, specific degrees we recommend, how to apply, and how to secure funding. We also have a US policy master's database if you want to compare program options (see also this list of European programs).

Part 1   

US Policy Master's Degrees: Why and When?

  1. What are policy master’s degrees?
  2. Why do a master’s if you want to work in policy?
  3. Why not do a master’s for policy work?
  4. When should you go to grad school—right after college or after working for a few years?
  5. What are the alternatives to policy master’s?
Part 2

US Policy Master's Degrees: Top Programs, Applications, and Funding

  1. Where to apply: Process and criteria for choosing a degree
  2. Which policy master’s programs should you consider?
  3. How to apply: Getting into policy master’s programs
  4. How to fund graduate school?

If you are interested in applying for a policy master’s program—including if you are still unsure or plan to apply in future years—we encourage you to fill in this form so that we can potentially support your application and connect you with others who have gone through the program.

These posts are based on our personal experience working on policy in DC for several years, background reading, and conversations with more than two dozen policy professionals. See the footnote for more details on the posts' scope and who they're relevant for.[2]


  • What are policy master’s degrees? They are typically two-year programs in subjects like public policy/administration (MPP/MPA), international relations/security studies, or more technical programs like public health (MPH). Policy master’s fall on a continuum from highly academic to highly practitioner-oriented, with the latter typically being better preparation for a policy career. [read more]
  • Do I need a master’s to work in policy? Doing a master’s (or other graduate degree) is generally valuable for policy work and often necessary, depending on the institution and role (especially in executive agencies and think tanks). As a policy professional, you’ll most likely want to do a master’s eventually, with limited exceptions such as some career tracks in Congress. [read more]
  • What’s the value of a master’s for policy work? A master’s builds your career capital for specific paths like policy. The credential is useful and often necessary to get a policy job. Master’s degrees also provide value through learning, skill-building, networking, exploration, and more. The relative importance of these factors depends on your background and goals, and may influence what degree to get (e.g. subject, location, type of graduate degree). [read more]
  • If I want to do a master’s, when should I do it? We recommend most people to work for 1-3 years before going to graduate school for career exploration and career capital building. A graduate degree can be expensive (in terms of both time and money), so you’ll want to make sure going to graduate school makes sense and that you’re getting the right degree. It’s a common pitfall for people to take the path of least resistance and go to graduate school right after college having little idea what they want to work on longer-term. Graduate school can be a useful “career reset” after which employers care less about whether you worked on unrelated things previously. Also, working before graduate school makes you more competitive for top policy degrees. [read more]
  • What are the best graduate degrees for policy work? The three most common types of graduate degrees among policy professionals are (1) policy master’s degrees, (2) law degrees, and (3) PhDs. Among the different graduate degree options, a policy master’s degree (e.g. in public policy or international relations) often provides the best balance of benefits over costs for those wishing to advance their policy careers. While policy master’s are the default for policy work, many people reasonably choose law school or a PhD given their specific circumstances. There are also great opportunities for working in policy with a STEM graduate degree, but we don’t generally recommend doing a STEM PhD for the sake of getting into policy. [read more]
  • Where should I do a master’s? Our policy master’s database includes ~20 degrees that will set you up well for a policy career. We recommend attending a Washington, DC-based university (especially Georgetown University or Johns Hopkins SAIS). Ideally, you'll work or intern in policy alongside your master’s, and DC is where most federal policy jobs are. Many master’s programs at DC universities are designed to allow students to intern and work while completing their degree (lower workloads, evening classes, etc.). This significantly reduces the opportunity cost of studying. The policy schools of DC universities also have career programming to help you get policy jobs as well as professors, alumni, and classmates with deep government connections. Programs outside of DC score less well on these dimensions, though there are exceptions (e.g. Harvard Kennedy School). Part 2 discusses in detail how to choose where to apply.
  • Why not do a master’s for policy work? First, if you’re highly uncertain about working in policy, you should likely explore more first before doing a policy master’s. While a master’s is often seen as broadly favorable even in non-policy jobs, the case for getting a policy master’s is much stronger if you’re confident you want to work in policy. Second, depending on your circumstances you may want to get a law degree or PhD instead of a policy master’s. [read more]

I. What are policy master’s degrees?

The two main types of policy master’s degrees are the “Master of Public Policy/Administration” (MPP/MPA) and the “Master of International Affairs/Relations/Security Studies” (MIA).[3] These degrees are often (but not always) offered by different university departments. For instance, Georgetown University has the School of Foreign Service offering MIA degrees in “Security Studies” and “Foreign Service” while the McCourt School of Public Policy offers MPP degrees.[4]

Universities do not always use terms like MPP and MIA consistently, making it difficult to infer much about the degree’s content from its title alone. This makes it important to dig deeper when comparing degrees, such as by talking to current or former students and looking at mandatory and elective coursework and the job paths of alumni and faculty (e.g. how many come from policy versus academia?). Similarly, Chris Blattman, a professor at a policy school, comments: “I honestly don’t know the difference between an MPA, MPP and MIA. I don’t think there is a systematic [difference]. Rather it varies by school.”[5] Some even mix titles, such as Yale’s “Master in Public Policy in Global Affairs.”

Insofar as generalizations are possible, MPPs usually focus more on the US domestically while MIA degrees—as the name suggests—take an international angle. Moreover, MPPs typically include more mandatory economics, statistics, and management classes, while MIA degrees are more likely to include international relations, history, and military affairs.[6] Within MIAs, degrees in “international relations” are usually more academic and broader than those in “security studies”. There is no general rule about whether MPP or MIA degrees are “better” (or rather, more appropriate); it depends on the degree specifics and your career goals. For example, an MIA-type degree is especially attractive if you want to work in foreign policy or security (e.g. at the Department of Defense). 

In contrast to MPPs and MIAs, master’s of public health (MPH) are often more STEM-oriented and technical. They typically combine (i) medical and technical classes preparing you to be a public health worker and (ii) policy classes setting you up for future policy work—the emphasis on (i) versus (ii) varies a lot by program. Anecdotally, path (i) seems more common, and a lot of MPH professors, current students, and alumni are (aspiring) public health workers at the national, state, and local levels. We don’t generally recommend MPHs as highly as other policy degrees, but they might be a good option for some people interested in biosecurity and pandemic preparedness (this document offers additional opinions). However, if your professional goal is to prevent future pandemics, there are some more specialized DC-based biosecurity policy programs that we recommend more highly than MPHs (see footnote).[7] 

Course structure

Most full-time policy master’s degrees require two academic years to complete and a summer internship between the first and second year. Often the first year is devoted to completing required core courses. The second year may include concentration courses, electives, and/or a “capstone” project. Such capstones are usually student-directed group efforts to respond to the problems an outside client presents. 

There are also dedicated mid-career policy master’s programs that are more likely to allow students to study part-time and have less stringent coursework requirements.[8] Mid-career programs may omit the internship and/or the “capstone” requirement, recognizing the students’ prior work experience and accomplishments.

Academic versus practitioner-oriented degrees

Policy master’s fall on a continuum from highly academic to highly practitioner-oriented, the latter preparing you better for a policy career. Academic degrees emphasize theory and research methods, preparing students for future academic research. In contrast, practitioner-oriented policy degrees are typically very practical, more optimized for networking with policy professionals, have a lower academic course load, and offer more opportunities for students to work. To find practitioner-oriented policy master's degrees, check out our database or the APSIA member list

For example, Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government is practitioner-oriented, while Harvard’s separate Department of Government is very academic, focusing on training in formal theory and quantitative methods. Like Harvard, many universities offer academic master’s and PhD programs in subjects like international relations, but these don’t usually feed directly into the DC policy world.

II. Why do a master’s if you want to work in policy?

There are several reasons why you might want to do a master’s if your goal is to work in policy. First, completing a master’s is often (but not always) necessary for advancing in a policy career, depending on the specific institution and role. Second, a master’s helps you build your career capital, including the policy-relevant credential, network, knowledge, and skills you gain. Third, a policy master’s can help you explore different policy fields, and they are often relatively time-efficient, especially when designed to let you work full-time or part-time while studying.

Do you need a master’s to work in policy?

Whether you need a master’s or other graduate degree for policy work depends on where you work and on your role. Regardless, getting a graduate degree likely is very beneficial if you aim for senior policy positions long-term.

First, some policy institutions care more about formal credentials like graduate degrees than others. In particular, think tanks[9] and the executive branch[10][11] are generally more credentialist than Congressional staffing roles[12] (see the footnotes for context and data on degree requirements in these institutions). But many policy professionals switch between the executive branch, think tanks, Congress, and lobbying throughout their careers. Holding only an undergraduate degree therefore limits your options outside of Congress/advocacy-type roles if you might want to switch tracks later. Here is a highly simplified breakdown of the typical education level in different policy institutions:

Typical education level by institution and seniority (highly simplified)


Junior roles

Mid-career/senior career

Executive branch

BA / MA 
(don’t need JD / PhD)

(don’t need PhD[13])

Think tanks

BA / MA 
(don’t need JD / PhD)

MA / JD / PhD


(don’t need MA / JD / PhD)

BA / MA / JD
(don’t need PhD)

Second, not having a graduate degree may limit your ability to advance to senior positions—especially in the executive branch and think tanks—where you’re more likely to make an outsized impact. The paths to impact from working in policy often depend on rising to senior policy positions over time. One easy heuristic is to look at senior policymakers you admire and google their educational background; they likely have a graduate degree.[14]

Third, while entry-level positions are less likely to require a graduate degree, many policy positions are very competitive—especially at prestigious institutions—and graduate degrees can help you stand out. If you only hold an undergraduate degree, you may face difficulties getting exciting positions since you’re competing with graduate degree holders. This is especially true if you don’t have prior policy experience, such as relevant internships, to compensate for lacking formal education. (This is an unfortunate effect of degree inflation, and probably socially suboptimal, but it’s important to be aware of.) 

While the case for getting a policy master’s is strongest if you want to work in policy, the career capital from your policy degree may still benefit you in a variety of non-policy sectors and roles (though it depends on the specifics). For example, many companies and nonprofits may value your policy experience and networks.

Career capital from a policy master’s degree

A policy master’s is one great way to build policy-relevant career capitalMaster’s degrees provide value primarily through credentialingnetworkinglearningskill-buildingwork experience, and exploration. The importance of these factors depends on your background and goals and may impact what degree to get (e.g. subject, location, type of graduate degree). We briefly discuss each of these factors below.

Alternative ways to get some of the benefits of a master’s degree include internships, fellowships, and junior positions. However, these options are better seen as complements to a policy master’s rather than substitutes—for example, doing a policy internship in undergrad may help you get into a top policy master’s, which together may help you get a prestigious policy opportunity like the Presidential Management Fellowship.


A policy master’s (or other graduate degree) is a valuable credential making it more likely you get hired and for people to listen to you. As discussed above, the credential from a master’s or other graduate degree is generally useful and often necessary to get policy jobs. This is especially true for mid-career and senior positions, which come with more responsibility and opportunities for impact. 

A master’s credentialing value depends on many factors, including the school’s prestige; the subject, academic concentration, and specific classes; your performance; and the preferences of the hiring manager evaluating your application. The value of the credential is relative to the position you’re applying for: whether you’re applying for a role to work on AI governance, biosecurity policy, or global development, it helps if you’ve taken (and done well in) relevant classes to signal your interest and knowledge.


Policy, like many other sectors, is highly network-driven. Many policy job opportunities are never advertised publicly but are filled with trusted contacts from the organization’s network—both inside and outside government. Having a strong network 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. This post includes some tips on networking in DC. 

Consequently, networking is among the most valuable benefits of a master's degree. The connections you make in graduate school among your professors, classmates, and your school’s alumni are highly valuable for your career in the long-term. Moreover, you may get to see and interact with senior policy professionals and other high-profile speakers at the university or even as guest lecturers in your classes. As a graduate student, you may also find outside policy professionals more willing to connect with and support you. 

The networking benefits for DC policy work are likely highest among the major DC policy schools.[15] In these schools, your professors are mostly adjunct faculty with policy jobs and decades of experience[16]; your classmates often work in policy alongside graduate school; your school’s alumni network consists of thousands of graduates across all DC policy institutions and levels of seniority; and your school’s career services are experienced with supporting policy-interested students. The major DC policy schools—the primary four are Georgetown University, Johns Hopkins SAIS, George Washington University, and American University—have many alumni in DC policy institutions who may support or favor you when you apply to their institution.[17] 


Policy master’s programs equip students with valuable knowledge for various policy-related careers. There are three main types of relevant knowledge that you may build during a policy master’s degree, including (1) acculturation, (2) structural policy knowledge, and (3) domain-specific policy knowledge

(1) Acculturation: The DC policy world has its own culture and language. A policy master’s makes you learn “policy speak”, including many words, phrases, and acronyms common in DC but uncommon elsewhere.[18] You also learn to understand the intellectual frameworks, reference points, and historical examples that provide shared context in the policy community. Acculturation makes it easier for you to communicate with policy professionals and for them to take you seriously. 

(2) Structural policy knowledge: Building your knowledge of relevant policy structures and processes is essential for becoming an effective and impactful policy professional. A policy master’s is one great way to learn about these, especially in classes relevant to your policy areas of interest. This may include knowledge of: 

  • the US federal government: what are its different parts? How do they work and intersect? How are different agencies structured?
  • relevant policy institutions: what are the most important executive agencies, think tanks, and Congressional offices/committees in your policy areas? What are their mandates and areas of competence?
  • relevant processes: what are Congressional appropriations? What needs to happen to pass legislation in the House or Senate and what majorities are needed? How do you get a security clearance? What are the main barriers to progress? 
  • leverage points: which parts of the policy-making process seem most/least promising to intervene to improve policy outcomes? How can think tanks or Congressional staffers have an impact?

(3) Domain-specific policy knowledge: Policymakers often lack time to engage deeply with policy issues, such as by reading reports or books and having extended discussions. Graduate school thus offers a valuable opportunity to develop expertise before becoming a busy policy professional, especially if your degree offers relevant classes. 

Being knowledgeable about your policy areas helps in many ways: you become better at coming up with effective policy proposals, distinguishing between good and bad policy ideas, and appearing (and being!) more competent, all of which help you make better impressions on domain experts and get hired. Consequently, domain-specific knowledge can help you advance your career, make you more impactful, and make you less likely to cause accidental harm. 80,000 Hours writes about PhDs (but the same applies to master’s): 

“We are concerned about untrained amateurs going directly into trying to solve very difficult and pressing global problems. They can then cause harm overall by lowering the average quality of analysis or launching ill-considered projects due to a lack of experience or understanding. A PhD reduces the risk you’ll accidentally do this.”

Here are some examples of domain-specific knowledge you may develop through relevant master’s classes or that you could research during graduate school:

  • How do export controls work and how effective are they?
  • What tools does the US government have to accelerate scientific innovation?
  • How do international treaties work and how can they be reformed?
    • Application: What are the most promising ways to strengthen the Biological Weapons Convention in light of failed previous reform efforts, or to prevent the militarization of space?
  • How much influence does the government have over what gets published in scientific journals?
  • Who or what determines the US development budget’s size and how it is spent?
  • What is the relative influence of the US federal government versus state governments over US agricultural policy? 
    • Application: How highly should animal advocates prioritize lobbying the federal government for animal welfare improvements compared to state or local governments?

While you can build some of this knowledge through self-study, it is hard to know from the outside which information is relevant. You also often don’t know what you don’t know (“unknown unknowns”), and lots of policy analysis benefits greatly from understanding social context, informal coalitions, and personalities, which are hard to learn about through desk research. In a policy master’s program, the structured curricula and guidance from professors help you gain relevant knowledge, get accountability for learning, and establish shared context with other policy professionals.

Professional skills

Graduate school lets you develop and hone valuable skills for your future policy career, often through dedicated professional skills classes. Most importantly, you get to practice and improve your writing, an essential skill in most policy roles and institutions. Learning to write policy memos is particularly helpful for policy work, as their format differs significantly from academic writing. You also have opportunities to improve your public speaking and presentation skills in policy contexts as well as research and information synthesizing skills through writing (short) research papers. 

Finally, you can often take classes on technical skills, including research methods, data analysis, and coding. While these skills aren’t necessary for most policy roles, they can be very helpful, especially for academic-style or quantitative think tank research. They also improve your ability to read technical reports and talk to researchers. 

Work experience

Graduate school offers early-career opportunities only available to graduate students, including research or teaching assistantships (“RA” or “TA”) with professors working in relevant areas—one great way to cultivate strong mentor-mentee relationships. 

Also, many policy institutions in DC either only accept graduate students as interns or have a strong preference for them, including federal agencies and contractors, think tanks, advocacy groups, and Congressional offices.[19] The same is true for some policy fellowships like the Virtual Student Federal Service, the Boren Awards, and the State Department’s Rangel Graduate Fellowship. Many graduate students conduct part-time work or internships alongside their studies. This gives them valuable experiences with relatively minor time investment, which is often essential for subsequent policy work. 

Other reasons for doing a master’s

  • Exploration: Policy master’s allow you to quickly explore different policy areas by choosing classes from a wide range of topics. While we recommend only doing a policy master’s if you’re reasonably confident you want to work in policy, within policy you don’t need to have fixed priorities when you start graduate school.
  • Relatively short duration and high flexibility: Most policy master’s cost relatively little time compared to the alternatives (like STEM degrees, law school, or PhDs). They often involve a comparably low workload, can take as little as 9 months to complete (though most top programs take 2 years), offer part-time options, and allow students to hold a part-time or even full-time job. In contrast, STEM master’s typically take 2 years and have a high course load, law school takes 3 full-time years, and US PhDs often take 5-6 years.
  • Ease of admission: Many of the top policy master’s are relatively easy to get into—compared to academically-oriented or STEM degrees—with acceptance rates typically between 15-50% for the top schools and up to around 80% for the less competitive schools.[20] Moreover, you can typically make up for worse grades through professional experience. Part 2 includes admissions information and application information for policy degrees. 

III. Why not do a master’s for policy work?

There are several arguments against doing a policy master’s and circumstances where it makes less sense.

You’re unsure if policy is right for you: If you’re highly uncertain about working in policy, you’ll likely want to explore the space and seriously consider your personal fit for policy roles. While a master’s degree is often a positive even in non-policy jobs, the case for getting a policy master’s is much stronger if you’re confident you want to work in policy. Many non-policy organizations (including most EA organizations) care less about traditional credentials like graduate degrees relative to just working in the field itself (especially if you can credibly demonstrate your ability to do excellent work). 

That said, “policy” is a vast and diverse field with opportunities for people with very different skills and personalities, including government work in agencies, Congress, or the White House, and work outside of government in think tanks, advocacy organizations, and in the private sector for government contractors or other companies (e.g. as a policy expert or lobbyist for a technology company).

Time cost: As mentioned above, policy master’s are often relatively time-efficient, but they still require 1-2 years of part- or full-time work, depending on the program. For someone doing impactful work, the opportunity cost of their time is substantial. But the time cost is lessened by a few factors: 

  • Some policy master’s take (much) less time to complete than others.
  • You might be able to learn about and research relevant topics during the degree.
  • Some degrees are designed to allow you to work part- or even full-time.

Monetary cost: The price of a graduate degree includes both the direct costs (tuition, living costs, books, etc.) and the foregone income from (partially) leaving the workforce.[21] The sticker price for the top policy master’s degrees ranges from about $31,000-66,000 per year in tuition fees.[22] However, a few factors make the monetary cost less significant: 

  • Most graduate schools offer substantial merit-based or need-based financial aid, so many students pay (much) less[23] than the sticker price (though schools vary drastically in whether they offer aid and how much; at the extreme end, Princeton SPIA fully funds tuition for all admitted graduate students). 
  • There are options to get external scholarships, including from philanthropic funders and from government agencies (via 'scholarship-for-service programs').
  • Some employers agree to cover (parts of) the graduate school cost.[24]
  • Graduate degree holders usually receive a higher income afterward.[25]

Urgency: Related to the time cost point above, if you believe working on some altruistic cause is urgent, this pushes against completing any graduate degree. This applies, say, if you hold particularly pessimistic views about the timeline and consequences of advanced AI development. Holding such beliefs pushes most strongly against doing a ~6-year US PhD, especially if your PhD research isn’t directly relevant to solving the urgent problem. But we believe it’s rare for this argument to be a decisive reason for someone not to get a policy master’s who otherwise would like to work in AI policy. 

Aiming for a US PhD: If you want to do a US PhD, it usually doesn’t make sense to get a master’s degree first. In contrast to Europe, in the US master’s degrees and PhDs are usually substitutes—you do one or the other but usually not both (since the 5-6-year US PhDs usually include an initial mandatory 1-2 year course phase equivalent to a master’s program). Master’s curricula focus on applied topics relevant to professional careers rather than a PhD’s more theoretical and technical emphasis. 

For a critical perspective on policy master’s degrees, see this article (though it is mainly concerned with salary and employability rather than impact potential, and focuses on the average program rather than the top programs we recommend). 

IV. When should you do a master’s—right after college or after working for a few years? 

This section is most relevant for current undergraduates or recent graduates. If you’re more advanced in your career, a policy master’s can be a useful (and perhaps the only) way to immediately pivot into policy jobs.

The case for working before graduate school

Our general advice is for most undergraduates to work for 1-3 years for career exploration and career capital building before starting a policy graduate degree.[26] This is for a few reasons. 

Most importantly, it’s preferable to explore career options before graduate school rather than after. A graduate degree can be expensive (both time- and money-wise), so you’ll want to make sure going to graduate school is the right choice and that you’re getting the right degree. As 80,000 Hours notes, “We see lots of people rushing into graduate school or other conventional options right after they graduate, missing one of their best opportunities to explore.” Graduate school can be a useful “career reset” after which employers care less about whether you worked on unrelated things previously. This makes exploration before graduate school preferable to after since it is less likely to harm your future job prospects.

Having some prior real-world experience likely also makes the graduate degree itself more valuable since you'll better understand how what you learn in classes relates to the topics and work you are interested in.

Finally, gaining career experience can make you a more competitive graduate school applicant. While policy schools generally aren’t extremely competitive and accept some high-achieving students straight out of undergrad[27], the average policy master’s student is around 26 years old and has ~3 years of work experience.[28] Having (relevant) career experience can compensate to some extent for worse undergraduate grades, worse admissions test results, and a lack of relevant extracurriculars. More competitive applicants also have a higher chance of getting (more generous) financial aid. Having more work experience before your master’s degree can also open up more valuable opportunities in or alongside graduate school, such as RA positions or better internships. 

To explore the policy domain and build relevant career capital, many college graduates should (try to) do a few relevant internships, fellowships, or early-career jobs before going to graduate school. For example, you might try to get work experience in Congress (see here and here for tips), think tanks, in the executive branch, or in policy-related private sector roles.[29] You should also consider policy fellowships (see database) that are open to or specifically targeted at recent college graduates, such as the Open Philanthropy Technology Policy Fellowship (junior think tank track), the STPI Science Policy Fellowship, the TechCongress Congressional Innovation Scholars Program, the Scoville Peace Fellowship, or the Endless Frontier Fellowship.

Exceptions: Who should do graduate school immediately?

Despite the general advice above, starting a graduate degree right after college may make sense, depending on your circumstances. This case is stronger the more of the following conditions apply: 

  1. You’ve worked in another field for several years and need a way to pivot into the policy world. Some people are too senior professionally for junior policy jobs to make sense, while being too inexperienced to qualify for mid-level policy roles. For example, if you’ve been a software engineer for several years and have led teams, starting in policy with an entry-level internship wouldn't make sense. Pivoting through a master’s program may be the only option for someone in this situation. 
  2. You’re confident you want to work in policy, so further exploration is less valuable. This is more likely if you have (1) explored policy work during or before undergrad, such as through relevant internships or extracurriculars, (2) completed (and thrived in) a policy-relevant undergraduate degree, (3) seriously considered and (tentatively) rejected your top alternatives to policy work, and (4) connected with policy professionals and understand (and would enjoy) their work. 
  3. You immediately get an offer from your top graduate school option, so you don’t need to get more experience to become a competitive applicant. This is not a decisive reason to do a graduate degree immediately, but if you don’t get accepted for your top option and think you might get it in 1-2 years with some additional experience, this can be a strong reason for delaying.
  4. You can’t get relevant policy work experience without a graduate degree. Many DC policy jobs and even internships are quite competitive, especially at prestigious institutions such as Congress, top think tanks (like Brookings), or influential federal agencies (like the Departments of Defense or State).[30] This is especially true if you don’t have prior policy experience (such as relevant undergraduate classes, internships, or extracurriculars). If you struggle to get valuable policy opportunities but could get into a good (or ideally top) policy master’s, it can make sense to start the master’s soon after undergrad.[31]
  5. You can do a relevant 5-year accelerated degree, reducing the cost of graduate school. Some policy schools like Georgetown University offer combined bachelor’s plus master’s degrees taking only 5 years to complete (instead of the usual 6 years for a 4-year bachelor’s and 2-year master’s degree). If you have this opportunity at your college, it may make sense to do it. But beware of the potential downsides: First, it is usually better to do a top 2-year policy master’s (especially in DC) than to do a mediocre accelerated degree, even if you save some time and money. A 5-year accelerated course may lock you into a worse university or degree than your alternatives. Second, graduate school is a great opportunity for career capital building, which you may get to do less of in a 1-year master’s than a 2-year one. Third, an accelerated degree makes you more likely to remain in the social scene of undergraduate life and get fewer of the networking benefits from a 2-year master’s.

Applying early

Even if you plan to work for 1-3 years before graduate school, it can make sense to apply early to a few top options (e.g. during your last year in undergrad or one year out of college), unless you’re highly confident you won’t accept any offers.

Repeat applications generally don’t seem to hurt your chances and applying early to a few top options has several advantages, including the possibility of deferral, getting information about your competitiveness, frontloading application work, additional chances in semi-random admissions processes, and greater ease of getting references from college professors (since professors remember you better shortly after college). 

But you should balance the above arguments with the costs of applying. 80,000 Hours explains (regarding PhDs, which involve more effortful applications than master’s) that “applying for grad school involves substantial costs – the time taken to compile writing samples, take standardised tests, contact references, and of course the application fee itself. If your chances of accepting an offer for the coming year are low enough, then it wouldn’t be worth this up-front cost.” An additional downside of applying early is that it may encourage taking the path of least resistance if you get accepted—accepting the offer and beginning graduate school earlier than is ideal—instead of taking the more uncertain but higher-impact path of exploring work options first.

V. What are the alternatives to policy master’s?

The three most common types of graduate degrees among policy professionals are (1) policy master’s degrees, (2) law degrees, and (3) PhDs. Among these options, a policy master’s degree often provides the best balance of benefits over costs for those wishing to advance their policy careers. Policy master’s are generally shorter, cheaper, and better optimized to prepare students for future policy work compared to the alternatives. But while policy master’s are the default for policy work, many people reasonably choose law school or a PhD given their specific circumstances.

Law school 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. 

A PhD 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), (3) can use the PhD to research relevant policy topics, and (4) require PhD funding to attend graduate school. If you want to get a US PhD, we strongly recommend not first getting a master’s degree due to the time costs.[32]

You can also work in policy with STEM graduate degrees, but this is less common. STEM degrees may provide valuable technical knowledge and boost your credibility for science and technology policy work. Yet, while STEM graduates can do high-impact policy work, their degrees are time-intensive and not designed to prepare them for a policy career (in terms of the career capital they build). Thus, we do not generally recommend pursuing a STEM degree for the purpose of working in policy long-term (though policy can be a good option if you want to get, or already got, a STEM degree for other reasons).[33]

In an upcoming post, we will provide a more in-depth comparison of these degree options.

VI. Next steps

Suppose you decide to apply for a policy master’s degree. Now, you have to choose from among 100+ different options. How can you narrow down this list and decide where to apply? Part 2 provides heuristics and lists of specific schools and programs we recommend, in addition to application advice and funding options.

Additionally, check out our policy master's database, which lists our top recommended policy degree options.

  1. ^

    Here is a similar list of master's programs in Europe.

  2. ^

    This two-part series focuses on: 
    (1) Master’s degrees for those aiming to work in policy. Thus, it will be much less relevant for people pursuing technical or other non-policy careers. 
    (2) Master’s degrees rather than other graduate degrees, like law degrees or PhDs. A later section briefly compares policy master’s programs with these alternatives. 
    (3) Master’s programs for policy careers in the US, especially in/with federal government. Some of the advice may apply to policy at the US state-level or other countries, but much of it will not since DC policy institutions and paths may differ substantially from those not in DC or the US. 

  3. ^

    Security studies is usually treated as a subfield of international relations, which itself is part of political science.

  4. ^

    Similarly, George Washington University has both the Elliott School of International Affairs and the Trachtenberg School of Public Policy & Public Administration; and American University has both the School of Public Affairs and the School of International Service. In contrast, Columbia University offers both MIA and MPP degrees in its School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA). 

  5. ^

    Similarly, this MPP guide states: “Today the general differences between the MPA and the MPP often are few. Over the past twenty years, their respective curricula substantially have converged and now it is important for students to look past the degree titles”

  6. ^

    One MPP student explained to us that “a lot of MPP core classes are basically aimed at teaching basic econ and stats to people with policy work experience but who didn't major in something quantitative. It's been pretty redundant for me, having majored in applied math.” This MPP guide explains: “In general, an MPA/MPP program will offer all students advanced instruction in public policy analysis, public management, leadership, economics, and quantitative methods, along with courses on specific policy and administration topics.”

  7. ^

    Here are several great DC-based biosecurity and health security-oriented master’s that combine policy with technical classes: 
    1. Georgetown University, MS Biohazardous Threat Agents & Emerging Infectious Diseases
    2. Georgetown University, MS in Global Infectious Disease
    3. George Mason University, Master’s in Biodefense (also available as PhD) 

  8. ^

    Examples include Harvard Kennedy School’s Mid-Career Master in Public Administration and Georgetown University’s Master of Policy Management.

  9. ^

    Think tanks tend to be fairly credentialist, though the required education level depends on the seniority of the role and the type of think tank. Many think tanks offer internships and junior positions for bachelor graduates, but more senior positions usually require at least a master’s degree and often a PhD. Our guide notes that PhDs are common among mid-level or senior research roles (e.g. senior fellows, program directors). They are sometimes required for those roles (especially at older think tanks) but a master’s degree plus several years of policy/government experience is often treated as a roughly equivalent qualification.”

    Generally, graduate degrees are more important for older, traditional think tanks often described as “universities without students.” In contrast, education matters less for younger think tanks focused on pushing a specific agenda rather than conducting open-ended research (“advocacy tanks”). These differences can be large:

    “differences among think tanks are evident, for instance, in the proportion of scholars at different institutions who hold PhD degrees. A review of publicly available data...suggests that those think tanks that were founded earlier [and thus more likely to be “universities without students”] tend to have significantly more scholars with PhDs today than do younger institutions. Among a representative group of think tanks founded before 1960, for instance, 53% of scholars hold PhDs. Among a similarly representative group of think tanks founded between 1960 and 1980, 23% of scholars have such advanced degrees. And among those founded after 1980, only 13% of scholars are as highly educated.” (Drezner (2017), The Ideas Industry.)

  10. ^

    Federal agencies generally care a lot about educational credentials. Many agency employees do a master's degree eventually (often funded by their agency) for professional development and career advancement. Also, this report on the federal government workforce shows that in many agencies more than half of all employees have a graduate degree, up to almost 90% for the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), a powerful office in the White House. Note that these figures underestimate the importance of graduate degrees: many agencies have less highly educated employees doing a lot of administrative work, but the positions with policy influence are more likely to require graduate education.

  11. ^

    It is also instructive to consider the General Schedule (GS), which most agencies use to rank positions on a scale from GS-1 (lowest) to GS-15 (highest). Higher-ranked positions have higher salaries and come with more managerial responsibility, a crude indicator for the amount of influence (and thus impact potential) you have in the position. The GS levels have education and experience requirements: bachelor’s degree (GS-5), master’s degree or JD (GS-9), and PhD (GS-11) (or equivalent work experience). This site explains that often “you can substitute specialized experience, or experience related to the work to be performed in the job, for education or to qualify for a higher grade.”

    Based on an analysis of FedScope data, we can determine the proportion of federal government employees by degree status for each GS level. The results are as follows for the percentage of employees with (1) undergraduate degrees only, (2) master's degrees (or equivalent), and (3) PhD (or equivalent):

    G9: (1) 30.2%, (2) 13.3%, (3) 0.5%
    G10: (1) 33.2%, (2) 9.7%, (3) 0.2%
    G11: (1) 34.3%, (2) 19.9%, (3) 1.4%
    G12: (1) 35.8%, (2) 22.6%, (3) 3.7%
    G13: (1) 39.5%, (2) 26.9%, (3) 7.8%
    G14: (1) 40.4%, (2) 31.1%, (3) 9.7%
    G15: (1) 42.5%, (2) 31.7%, (3) 14.2%

  12. ^

    Congressional positions are the least credentialist among the major policy institutions, but there is much variation between different parts of Congress (committees being credentialist than personal offices). Despite the more flexible educational requirements, competition for Congressional staffer roles can be fierce.

    This book (Ch. 5) surveys DC-based staffers in the US House and Senate, finding that 39% only have a bachelor’s degree while 38% have a graduate degree (23% master’s, 13% JD, and 2% PhD). (The remainder don’t report their education.) This article also considers Congressional staffers’ education, finding that in the most educated House and Senate offices about one-third to half of staffers have a graduate degree. Relatedly, our Congress guide explains:

    “If you have several years of experience and/or a terminal degree, you can be a mid-level staffer…there are two paths into roles at this level: Internal…you’ve proven yourself through performance in past jobs, and you come in with a good understanding of Congressional process. Therefore, your formal credentials (degrees, etc.) matter less…External: They will typically have worked in such jobs for at least several years, and many have a relevant graduate degree.”

  13. ^

    There are exceptions to this. Many senior officials in science and technology agencies have PhDs, such as DARPA/IARPA program managers and the leadership in the NSFNIH, etc. Most staffers at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) also have a STEM PhD or similar terminal degree (e.g. MD), though this is not a hard requirement.

  14. ^

    But remember that correlation doesn’t equal causation: the educational backgrounds of successful policymakers are partly explained by selection effects—their education may not have caused them to be successful, but they were also more likely to get a good education due to having success characteristics (e.g. intelligence, funding, parental support).

  15. ^

    One reviewer notes: “One of the most powerful benefits of networking through [my DC-based graduate school] has been learning which institutions are even relevant to me because they are working in biosecurity policy + are well-regarded + have opportunities for someone at my career level. I just can access that info much more easily through my network than public info sources.”

  16. ^

    In contrast, outside DC, more professors will be academic political scientists, economists or similar without much direct policy reach. Faculty background—e.g. have they ever worked in government or spent significant time in DC—is often a good proxy for program focus and network strength.

  17. ^

    Each of these schools has hundreds of policy graduates every year, many of whom stay in DC for policy work (see here for some incomplete data).

  18. ^

    Whether in conversations or in writing, policy folks will often throw around acronyms like OSTPCISAASPRDTRAIARPA, and NDAA; or terms like appropriations, interagency, and filibuster. 

  19. ^

    One DC-based policy master’s student writes: “Of the two internships I've landed while in my master's, for both, the hiring managers conveyed enthusiasm that I was a grad student specifically, and when I asked about referring more students their way for future internships, they showed particular interest in referrals of grad students.”

  20. ^

    This is also a way to get access to courses in programs you might not be competitive enough to get into outright, e.g. law school or economics classes.

  21. ^

    Many policy master’s programs allow students to work part- or even full-time, significantly reducing the “foregone income” cost. 

  22. ^

    Georgetown University’s MA Security Studies is relatively cheap at ~$44,000/year while Columbia University’s policy master’s are particularly expensive at ~$63,000/year. 

  23. ^

    Note the linked article focuses on undergraduate degrees. While graduate schools usually offer need-based and merit-based aid, they are typically less generous than for undergraduate degrees. For many schools, graduate degrees are cash cows that charge as much as they can.

  24. ^

    For instance, some government agencies and ~90% of universities will cover (parts of) their employee’s graduate degree tuition, which can be promising if you already work for the government or in higher education.

  25. ^

    For instance, staffers in Congress with a master’s degree earn on average about $15,000 more per year than their colleagues with undergraduate degrees (source, Figure 12, page 41). Similarly, the Office of Personnel Management reported in 2014 that “median salary for employees with a post-bachelor’s degree ($106,846) is 19% higher than those with a bachelor’s.”

  26. ^

    This is consistent with the advice from other DC policy professionals, summarized here: “If you just finished your undergrad, spend about 1-2 years interning/working in Congress or DC think tanks. This can both set you up well for a policy-relevant graduate degree and inform you about your fit for it.”

  27. ^

    Our upcoming part 2 post has more information on admissions. In general, you’re more likely to get accepted to a policy master’s degree straight out of undergrad if you (1) have very good grades, (2) score highly on admissions tests like the GRE or GMAT, (3) have done relevant internships, research, and extracurriculars, and (4) have strong letters of recommendation.

  28. ^

    Average age and years of experience in a few top programs: 
    1. MA Security Studies, Georgetown University: 26 years old; 4 years of experience
    2. MA International Relations, Johns Hopkins SAIS: 25 years old; 2 years of experience
    3. MPP, Harvard Kennedy School: 27 years old; 3 years of experience
    4. MPP in Global Affairs, Yale University: 26 years old; 4 years of experience

  29. ^

    For early-career opportunities, we recommend checking out the EA Opportunity Board and setting up customized alerts on the 80,000 Hours Job Board for relevant job categories, such as “Problem areas: [your preferred cause]”, “Experience: Entry-level”, “Role type: policy” and “Country: USA”. Note that these boards are not comprehensive, especially for junior roles and roles in Congress. You should also search for opportunities yourself in places like USAjobs.gov.

  30. ^

    It’s often easier to get internships and junior positions at either less prestigious (and thus less sought after) policy organizations or at state-level institutions (such as state governments or state-level parliaments). While these opportunities typically offer lower career capital, they can serve as a good launching pad for more ambitious policy roles in the future.

  31. ^

    It’s common for people to apply to several dozen policy positions before getting one, so don’t be discouraged if you apply to just a few and don’t get any offers. But if you apply to a few dozen positions and don’t get any traction (e.g. you don’t hear back, or don’t advance in the application process), this signals that you’re not (yet) competitive enough and should consider graduate school.

  32. ^

    This is different in the American versus European educational systems. In Europe and the UK, master’s degrees and PhDs are complements that you do sequentially (i.e. you first do a 1-2 year master’s degree and then do a 3-4 year PhD). In the US, in contrast, master’s and PhDs are usually substitutes, such that you do one or the other but not usually both (US PhD’s often take 5-6 years since they include an initial 1-2 year course phase equivalent to a master’s program, which you almost certainly can’t skip even if you previously got a master’s elsewhere).

  33. ^

    There are many fellowships to support STEM graduates pivoting into policy work, including the Open Philanthropy Technology Policy Fellowship, the AAAS FellowshipTechCongress, and the Mirzayan Fellowship.


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