From Skills to Careers
The study of public policy and international affairs helps students develop deep analytical skills on a range of policy issues.
In today’s world of rapid urbanization, we are facing significant social and environmental challenges. Thus, a new generation of “practical visionaries” is needed to help develop more inclusive and sustainable communities. Public policy is at the intersection of these global issues. It is also one of the most interdisciplinary fields, which includes economics, history, law, philosophy, psychology and sociology. Prospective students have a wide variety of choices regarding which degree programs, specializations and universities would best help them meet their career goals. What are the major themes and emerging opportunities in public policy and international affairs? What are the related professional and academic career tracks?
The study of public policy develops both general and technical skills applicable to a wide range of careers. For example, the ability to define a problem and conduct research may be equally useful whether working as a project manager, a corporate recruiter or a freelance journalist. Students may take courses in economics, statistics and political science in order to strengthen their analytical skills and substantive knowledge. In the process, students learn to think critically, collaborate in diverse teams and express themselves clearly and concisely.
The underlying goal is to develop a deep appreciation for social and environmental justice across all aspects of public policy and planning. This includes developing an understanding of the dynamics of cities and regions, integrating theories and practices of planning and policymaking, exploring creative ways to bridge social and sustainable development, and engaging in community-based projects and research.
Economic development: The development of economic wealth of countries or regions for the well-being of their inhabitants.
Environmental policy and management: The study of laws, regulations and other policy issues related to the environment and sustainability. These issues include air and water pollution, natural resource protection, and energy and toxic regulation.
Health policy and social welfare: A systematic evaluation of alternative means of achieving social goals. A focus on the guidelines for changing, maintaining or creating living conditions conducive to human welfare.
International development: A multidisciplinary study that aims to impart a broader understanding of economic, political and social changes in the developing world, with the goal of alleviating poverty and reducing inequality.
Public finance: Relates to economics, with a focus on budgeting the revenues and expenditures of public sector entities.
Public and nonprofit management: Explores the role of government and nonprofit organizations in developing, implementing and evaluating policy.
Criminal justice policy and management: An interdisciplinary study where students are introduced to the academic disciplines needed to understand crime and the administration of criminal justice.
Urban planning and management: A multidisciplinary study that looks at how neighborhoods, cities and regions develop. Planners hope to use their skills to respond to changing social, economic and cultural conditions.
—W.T. and D.M.
Sources: Institute of International Education and EducationUSA Connections (January, 2009)
When deciding what degree to pursue, prospective students should consider what motivates them and their long-term career interests. Do you want to work at a university or at a think tank? Do you want to work as a diplomat or as a civil servant? Would you prefer to work as an analyst for a political party or for the private sector? While it helps to remain open-minded, the answers to these questions can help guide you toward the right degree program and career track.
Careers in research and academia
If prospective students want to pursue a career in research and teaching, they should look for Ph.D. programs in public policy or political science departments, which emphasize theory and research methods. Doctoral students are trained to conduct research and, increasingly, to be effective teachers in the classroom. On an average, it takes more than six years for students to complete their doctoral degrees in the United States.
Additionally, opportunities for dual degrees are widespread. For example, specializations may include nutrition and food policy, international affairs, environmental engineering, law, and business management. Across the subfields, students explore policy implications related to economics and finance, gender, health, human rights and national security, among others. The end result is that graduates are trained to analyze a range of policy issues from diverse perspectives.
Professional career tracks
For specialized professional training—as opposed to an academic research focus—students are advised to look at master’s programs on international affairs or public policy and public administration. These interdisciplinary programs train students for careers in international politics and national or local government. Schools of international affairs prepare students for careers in diplomacy and related areas of foreign affairs, though many graduates also pursue work in the private and nonprofit sectors. The curricula of these schools focus on international relations theory and practice, economics, diplomacy, security studies, political economy and foreign languages.
Applicants should have a strong undergraduate academic background; excellent scores in tests like GRE, TOEFL iBT or IELTS; insightful letters of recommendation; and a clear statement of purpose that outlines the applicants’ motivations, interests and goals. Admissions committees also value relevant internship or volunteer experience; travel, study or employment at an international organization; and undergraduate research on an international theme. The result of this pursuit being, in the words of President John F. Kennedy, “…the unequaled satisfaction of knowing that your character and talent are contributing to the direction and success of this free society.”
Wesley Teter is a graduate of Tufts University, Department of Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning, and former regional director of EducationUSA in India and Central Asia, supported by the U.S. Department of State.
Don Martin is a former admissions dean at Columbia, University of Chicago, and Northwestern, and author of “Road Map for Graduate Study.”