Government is often the most important force in addressing pressing global problems, and there are many positions that seem to offer a good network and a great deal of influence relative to how competitive they are.
In this category, we usually recommend that people aim to develop expertise in an area relevant to one of our priority problems and then take any government or policy job where you can help to improve policy relevant to that problem. Another option is to first develop policy relevant career capital (perhaps by working in a generalist policy job) and then use the skills and experience you’ve developed to work on a high-priority problem later in your career.
If you’re a US citizen, working on US federal policy can be particularly valuable because the US federal government is so large and has so much influence over many of our priority problems. People whose career goal is to influence the US federal government often switch between many different types of roles as they advance. In the US, many types of roles that can lead to a big impact on our priority problems fit into one of the following four categories. (We focus on the US here because of its influence. We think working in policy can also be quite valuable in other countries, although the potential career paths look slightly different.)
Working in the executive branch such as the Defense Department, the State Department, intelligence agencies, or the White House. We don’t yet have a review of executive branch careers but our article on US AI policy careers also makes a more general case for the promise of working in the US federal government. (See also our profile on the UK civil service.) Note, though, that in the US top executive branch officials are often hired from outside the traditional career civil service. So even if your goal is to eventually be a top executive branch official, the best path might include spending much of your career in other types of roles, including those we describe next (but also including other roles such as some in the private sector.)
Working as a congressional staffer. Congressional staffers can have a lot of influence over legislation, especially if they work on a committee relevant to one of our priority problems. It’s possible to achieve seniority and influence as a Congressional staffer surprisingly quickly. Our impression, though, is that the very top staffers often have graduate degrees, sometimes including degrees from top law schools. From this path it’s also common to move into the executive branch, or to seek elected office.
Working for a political campaign. We doubt that political campaign work is the highest impact option in the long run but if the candidate you work for wins this can be a great way to get a high-impact staff position. For example, some of the top people who work on a winning presidential campaign eventually get high-impact positions in the White House or elsewhere in the executive branch. This is a high-risk strategy because it only pays off if your candidate wins and, even then, not everybody on the campaign staff will get influential jobs or jobs in the areas they care about. Running for office yourself involves a similar high-risk, righ-reward dynamic.
Influencer positions outside of government, covering policy research and advocacy. For example, you might work at a think tank or a company interested in a relevant policy area. In a job like this, you might be able to: develop original proposals for policy improvements, lobby for specific policies, generally influence the conversation about a policy area, bring an area to the attention of policymakers, etc. You can also often build expertise and connections to let you switch into the executive branch, a campaign, or other policy positions. For many areas of technical policy, especially AI policy, we’d particularly like to emphasise jobs in industry. Working at a top company in an industry can sometimes be the best career capital for policy positions relevant to that industry. In machine learning in particular, some of the best policy research is being done at industry labs, like OpenAI’s and DeepMind’s. Journalists can also be very influential but our impression is that there is not as clear of a path from working as a journalist to getting other policy jobs.
In the UK, the options are similar. One difference is that there is more separation between political careers and careers in the civil service (which is the equivalent of the executive branch). A second difference is that the UK Ministry of Defence has less power in government than the US Defense Department does. This means that roles outside of national security are comparatively more influential in the UK than in the US. Read more in our profiles on UK civil service careers and UK party political careers. (Both are unfortunately somewhat out of date but still provide useful information.)
People also often start policy careers by doing graduate studies in an area that’s relevant to the type of policy you want to work on. In the US, it’s also common to enter from law school, a master of public policy, or a career in business.
Some especially relevant areas of policy expertise to gain and work within include: technology policy; security studies; international relations, especially China-West relations; and public health with a focus on pandemics and bioterrorism.
There are many government positions that require a wide range of skill types, so there should be some options in this category for nearly everyone. For instance, think tank roles involve more analytical skills (though more applied than the pure research pathway), while more political positions require relatively good social skills. Some positions are very intense and competitive, while many government positions offer reasonable work-life balance and some don’t have very tough entry conditions.