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 in the US.
This two-part overview explains why, when, where, and how to get a policy master’s degree, with a focus on people who want to work in the US federal government. The first half focuses on the “why” and the “when” and alternatives to policy master’s. The second half considers criteria for choosing where to apply, specific degrees we recommend, how to apply, and how to secure funding. We also recommend this US policy master’s database if you want to compare program options (see also this list of European programs).
This information is based on the personal experience of people working on policy in DC for several years, background reading, and conversations with more than two dozen policy professionals.
Summary of Part 1
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).
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.
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.
Where should I do a master’s?
This 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 two discusses in detail how to choose where to apply.
Part 1: 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 and the executive branch, are generally more credentialist than congressional staffing roles (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:
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.
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.
What are policy master’s degrees like?
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. Mid-career programs may omit the internship and/or the “capstone” requirement, recognizing the students’ prior work experience and accomplishments.
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). These degrees are often. but not always, offered by different university departments.
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.
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.”
Some even mix titles, such as Yale’s “Master in Public Policy in Global Affairs.”
MPPs generally focus more on the US domestically while MIA degrees — as the name suggests — take an international angle. And MPPs typically include more mandatory economics, statistics, and management classes, while MIA degrees are more likely to include international relations, history, and military affairs. 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).
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 specialised DC-based biosecurity policy programs that we recommend more highly than MPHs (see footnote).
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 emphasise theory and research methods, preparing students for future academic research. In contrast, practitioner-oriented policy degrees are typically very practical, more optimised 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 this 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.
Career capital from a policy master’s degree
Master’s degrees provide value primarily through credentialing, networking, learning, skill-building, work 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 organisation’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. In these schools, your professors are mostly adjunct faculty with policy jobs and decades of experience; 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 favour you when you apply to their institution.
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. 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. As we’ve written 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?
- 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 militarisation 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 prioritise 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.
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 synthesising 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.
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. 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 nine months to complete (though most top programs take two 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 two years and have a high course load, law school takes three 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. Moreover, you can typically make up for worse grades through professional experience. Part 2 includes admissions information and application information for policy degrees.
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 organisations 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 organisations, 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. The sticker price for the top policy master’s degrees ranges from about $31,000-66,000 per year in tuition fees. 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 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.
- Graduate degree holders usually receive a higher income afterward.
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 ~six- 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).
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. 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 we note in our career guide, “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, the average policy master’s student is around 26 years old and has ~3 years of work experience. 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.
You should also consider policy fellowships (see database) that are open to or specifically targeted at recent college graduates, such as the Horizon Fellowship, the STPI Science Policy Fellowship, the TechCongress Congressional Innovation Fellowship, 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:
- You’ve worked in another field for several years and need a way to pivot into the policy world.
- You’re confident you want to work in policy, so further exploration is less valuable.
- 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.
- You can’t get relevant policy work experience without a graduate degree. 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.
- You can do a relevant five-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 five years to complete (instead of the usual six years for a four-year bachelor’s and two-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 two-year policy master’s (especially in DC) than to do a mediocre accelerated degree, even if you save some time and money. A five- 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 two-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 two-year master’s.
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. We explain in an article on PhDs 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.
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 optimised 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.
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).
In what follows, we provide a more in-depth comparison of these degree options.
Part 2: Choosing where to go, how to apply, and how to get funding
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? This section provides some guidance.
Additionally, check out this policy master’s database, which lists some top recommended policy degree options.
This advice focuses on building career capital for US federal-level technology and security policy work, particularly in AI policy and pandemic preparedness policy. But much of the advice is also relevant to people seeking to work in other US policy areas.
Summary of Part 2
How should I choose where to apply?
Many considerations influence which degree you should apply for. These include both degree-specific criteria like the subject, curriculum, opportunity cost (i.e. workload, flexibility, compatibility with work), network (i.e. alumni, faculty, and cohort), ease of admission, tuition cost, and availability of financial aid; and also school-specific criteria like the location, reputation, and on-campus work opportunities. The importance of these factors depends on your professional goals and personal preferences. In our view, job compatibility (i.e. evening classes, part-time options, low workload) is an especially important and underappreciated criterion since working in policy alongside graduate school can advance your career and help pay for your education.
Which schools and programs would you recommend?
Our policy master’s database includes ~20 degrees that will set you up well for a policy career. The database allows you to filter by subject, location, and more. Which choice is best will depend on your individual circumstances. We often recommend high-ranked DC-based schools and programs, especially the MA Security Studies at Georgetown University, followed by the MA International Relations at Johns Hopkins University. Less competitive DC-based policy schools can be great options too, including George Washington University, American University, George Mason University, and the University of Maryland. Outside of DC, we most recommend policy master’s programs at Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Stanford, Columbia, and Tufts.
How selective are policy schools?
Policy master’s degrees (even the top ones) are relatively easy to get into, especially compared to top undergraduate degrees, law school, or many STEM degrees. We estimate that the acceptance rates typically range between 15-50% for the top schools, and they can be as high as around 80% for less competitive schools. Many top policy schools report an average GPA of around 3.6-3.7 with pretty wide margins, meaning that many people with GPAs below 3.5 still get admitted (especially if they have significant professional experience to compensate for low GPA and GRE scores). For the less selective schools, a GPA above 3.0 is often sufficient.
When are applications due?
Fall cohort applications are usually due sometime between December and February, and spring cohort applications around October of the previous year. Funding deadlines can be even earlier.
What do policy master’s degrees cost?
The price of a graduate degree includes both the direct costs (tuition, living costs, health insurance, etc.) and the foregone income from (partially) leaving the workforce. The sticker price for the top policy master’s degrees ranges from about $31,000-66,000 per year in tuition fees, but there are many opportunities for funding.
Where to apply: Process and criteria for choosing a degree
Which criteria are most important to choosing your degree depends on your individual circumstances, goals, and interests.
We highly recommend speaking with current and former students in the programs you are considering. This is a good way to gather information — that you’re unlikely to find online — about a program, identify alternatives, and create a stronger application.
Your best preparation for a policy career is likely a practitioner-oriented policy master’s degree in a subject like “Public Policy/Administration” (MPP/MPA) or “International Affairs/Relations/Security Studies” (MA/MIA). The first part of this article describes the (small) differences between MPP and MIA degrees, the distinction between practitioner-oriented and highly academic degrees, and alternatives to policy master’s degrees (like STEM degrees, law school, and PhDs).
MPA and MIA degrees are typically fairly broad and general, while offering some specialisations. There are also more specialised policy degrees on topics like biodefense. We usually recommend more general degrees over highly specialised ones due to their greater option value. While specialised degrees provide more relevant career capital for one specific policy area, they can make switching later more costly. Given that there are many ways to specialise in the course of a more general degree (e.g. through internships, course selection, and research work), we only recommend such specialised degrees if you’re very confident in your policy area/cause of focus.
More important than the degree title is the curriculum. When spending time on your degree, you want to learn about or research important topics and develop crucial professional skills like writing. What topics are “important” is person-specific, depending on your interests and professional goals.
The ideal policy master’s program has few mandatory classes or the mandatory classes mainly cover topics relevant to your future work, and many relevant elective classes. If you’re interested in AI policy, your degree should offer many classes on topics like AI, cybersecurity, technology policy, export controls, industry regulation, US-China relations, etc. Ideally, you also avoid unnecessary or unappealing academic requirements, like (potentially) foreign language or introductory economics requirements. Many policy master’s have a thesis requirement, while others make the thesis optional. A thesis can be a good opportunity to dive deeply into one relevant policy area but often involves substantial work (the effort required to complete a thesis varies widely between schools and programs).
Policy master’s programs differ greatly in their number and relevance of mandatory and elective classes. As such, it is important to gather information about the curriculum before choosing a degree. While some of this information is available online, it’s helpful to also speak with current students — ideally, those interested in your policy area — about which classes they have taken and how useful they were.
The major policy schools are typically quite large, with hundreds of students graduating every year. As such, their course offering is often diverse, addressing even relatively niche topics — such as AI or biosecurity (see footnote for a particularly relevant class offering).
To prepare for a policy career in/around the US federal government, we recommend attending a Washington, DC-based policy school, all else being equal. Policy master’s at DC schools are best optimised to help you build policy-relevant career capital, including through opportunities to learn about, network, and work in policy during your degree.
The most prestigious DC policy schools are Georgetown University and Johns Hopkins SAIS. Other DC-area schools offer similar benefits, and while they are somewhat less prestigious, they’re also typically cheaper and less competitive. These include George Washington University, American University, George Mason University, and the University of Maryland. We provide more details below on the master’s degrees offered at these schools.
Ideally, you’ll work or intern in policy alongside your master’s, and DC is where most federal policy jobs are. Master’s programs at DC universities are frequently designed to allow students to intern and work part- or even full-time while completing their degree (thanks to lower workloads, evening classes, etc.). This significantly reduces the opportunity cost of studying (though international students face some work restrictions). Even in non-DC degrees, you can typically do a DC-based summer internship between your first and second year (often fully-funded by the school).
Attending a DC policy school also likely provides you with the best networking opportunities for policy work. In these schools, your professors are mostly adjunct faculty with policy jobs and decades of experience; 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; you’re more likely to interact with high-level guests/officials; and your school’s career services are experienced supporting policy-interested students.
DC schools also have the best track record — with minor exceptions like the Harvard Kennedy School — of their graduates successfully entering policy roles. For example, four of the top five schools attended by White House staffers in 2011 were in DC. Presidential Management Fellows also disproportionately tend to come from DC schools. Similarly, among Congressional staffers with a graduate degree, four of the top five schools were DC-based in 2019, with one article concluding that “if you want to work in Congress, being educated next door helps.”
While DC location benefits are one important consideration, DC policy master’s aren’t strictly preferable to non-DC degrees. Outside of DC, the schools with top policy programs — likeHarvard, Princeton, Yale, Stanford, Columbia, and Tufts — typically provide many but not all of the same benefits as DC programs. For example, these schools generally also offer strong policy networking opportunities but they score worse on job compatibility (being able to have a policy job during the degree) than many DC programs. Of course, the above non-DC schools have some other compensating benefits, including their prestige and the generous funding at Princeton and Yale.
Attending a prestigious, high-ranked university strengthens the credential of your graduate degree, partly by signalling that you were smart and accomplished enough to gain admission. Prestige typically comes much more from the school’s name than that of the degree: MA, MPP, MPA, MIA — that’s an alphabet soup to employers.
School reputation also correlates with factors making your education more valuable, like having especially bright, ambitious classmates; field-leading professors; elite visitors; relationships with major (policy) institutions; access to influential alumni; and special career support programs and resources.
Completing a master’s degree at a top-ranked school increases your chances of getting competitive job opportunities during the degree or after graduation. Chris Blattman, Professor of Global Conflict Studies at the University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy, notes that “careers are path dependent, and…a better first job could lead you on a different, higher, faster-paced trajectory.” He also describes who may benefit most from attending a prestigious university:
”Eliteness is more valuable for ambitious people who have [relatively little] work experience, are newly entering the non-profit or public sectors, or are looking for a change in career or country. If you have a long CV in these sectors, plan to hold onto an established job, or want a life rather than a career in the fast lane, then the eliteness of the institution matters much less.”
Reputations of international relations (IR) programs: According to the 2018 TRIP survey of US IR faculty (underlying the ranking in Foreign Policy), the most prestigious IR master’s degrees are offered by these schools (% of professors who put a school in the top five):
- Georgetown University (61%)
- Harvard University (49%)
- Johns Hopkins University (48%)
- Princeton University (38%)
- Columbia University (37%)
- Tufts University (31%)
- George Washington University (29%)
- American University (21%)
- London School of Economics (18%)
- University of Chicago (14%)
From a policy career perspective, we are much more interested in which programs US policy professionals believe are best rather than academics — who are likely to overweight academic factors relative to policy pipelines, favouring schools like Harvard, Princeton, and Columbia — but the TRIP survey is the best source we found. And the TRIP results are noteworthy in several ways (see footnote).
Reputations of public policy programs: The US News & World Report Best Public Affairs Programs ranks MPA/MPP programs by asking academic “deans, directors and department chairs” to assess the “academic quality” of different programs. This suffers from the same weakness as the TRIPS survey above since we’re much more interested in the assessments of US policy practitioners and also not just assessments of programs’ “academic quality” but of all their important features. So we don’t recommend many of the US News & World Report high-ranked MPA/MPP degrees, but favour DC-based or otherwise outstanding schools. Of the MPA/MPP degrees recommended in this database, the school rankings are as follows:
- Harvard Kennedy School (#3)
- UC Berkeley, Goldman School (#3)
- American University, School of Public Affairs (#10)
- Georgetown University, McCourt School (#12)
- George Washington University, Trachtenberg School (#12)
- Princeton University, School of Public and International Affairs (#12)
- Carnegie Mellon University, Heinz College (#12)
Graduate degrees have a high opportunity cost, which can differ drastically between programs. Policy master’s are often designed to be relatively time-efficient — compared to STEM degrees, law school, etc. — but even they still vary significantly. A graduate degree’s opportunity cost depends mainly on its (1) job compatibility (e.g. evening classes, part-time options), (2) duration, and (3) workload. This policy master’s database includes information on these factors.
Job compatibility: Some policy master’s are designed to be compatible with a part-time or even full-time job, substantially reducing their opportunity cost. These master’s typically involve (1) a lower workload, (2) evening classes, and (3) flexibility to switch between “part-time” and “full-time” study. For example, Georgetown’s MA Security Studies only has evening classes, and an estimated >80% of students work or intern alongside their degree (often full-time). In contrast, the MPP at Harvard Kennedy School offers few evening classes and while most students work part-time, very few work full-time (Johns Hopkins SAIS and Yale’s MPP are similar).
Duration: US policy master’s programs generally last two years (i.e. typically 21 months, including a three month summer break) as a “full-time” student, though there are some 1-year (i.e. 9-12 month) programs. Many programs allow for “part-time” study, which may extend the program to three years (or you may still finish in two years but have to take summer classes). 1-year master’s degrees are much more common in the UK, though we don’t generally recommend international programs to work in US policy.
Shorter degrees aren’t necessarily preferable. Graduate school gives you time to learn, network, develop professional skills, intern, etc., which you may get much less of in a one-year rather than a two-year degree. Often, one-year programs also involve a higher workload — cramming more courses into that year — making it harder to hold a full-time or part-time job alongside your studies. This can make the opportunity cost higher than for a two-year program that allows you to work on the side.
Workload: Master’s degrees vary a lot in how many hours they require you to spend per week on coursework — including time spent in classes and outside on reading and assignments. It can be difficult to assess a degree’s workload from the outside since most schools don’t provide (reliable) information on workload requirements outside of class. We recommend asking current students or alumni about their degree’s workload.
Also, while “credits” or “credit hours” are rarely directly comparable across schools, they can be helpful to compare the workload (and tuition cost) of different degrees offered by the same school. For example, consider the following Georgetown degrees:
- Georgetown’s two-year MA Security Studies involves completing 36 credits (i.e. nine per semester)
- Georgetown’s two-year MPP involves 48 credits (i.e. 12 per semester)
- Georgetown’s 1-year MS in Biohazardous Threat Agents & Emerging Infectious Diseases involves 30 credits (i.e. 15 per semester).
One potential downside of completing a lower-workload degree is that you’ll take fewer classes and build less knowledge and skills in the program (see caveats in footnote), but for most applicants we expect this to matter much less than other factors, including degree duration.
Some policy degrees require completing a degree-relevant summer internship between your first and second year, which is more common in programs with an optional thesis. This is usually not a demanding requirement since you’ll likely want to do a policy-related summer internship anyway to prepare optimally for a policy career.
For foreign nationals seeking to work in US policy, a graduate degree is typically the most feasible (or the only) option to come to the US for several years and get work authorisation.
International students most commonly come to the US on an “F-1 student visa”, which allows working in the US during the degree (with some restrictions) and for up to one year after completion of the degree under a program called Optional Practical Training (OPT). If the degree is classified as “STEM” (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics), the period of post-completion work increases from one year to three years. For international students, this is a substantial benefit of STEM degrees.
What counts as a “STEM” degree isn’t always obvious and is rarely mentioned on university websites; to find out, you may need to contact the university’s admission office. Universities are incentivized to get degrees categorised as STEM if possible for immigration reasons, and so most “surprises” are degrees that unexpectedly receive this classification—the percentage of STEM content required for a degree to be classified as such is pretty low. So if you’re an international student, look out for and consider doing a “STEM”-classified policy degree with some minimal data science or technology content, such as the Master of Public Policy at Georgetown University’s McCourt School.
Some policy master’s programs have special characteristics that might make them more attractive. For example, it is common (but not universal) for degrees to offer part-time options, which makes it easier to combine graduate school with holding a job (see above). One option to reduce the time-cost of graduate school is to do a five-year accelerated BA-MA degree, but this comes with significant downsides (as discussed in part 1).
Some schools offer dual degrees (also called joint degrees), combining a policy master’s degree with another graduate degree, such as law, business, or public health. An example is Georgetown University’s joint JD-MA Security Studies degree. Some dual degrees allow students to study abroad for a part of their degree, such as the Johns Hopkins SAIS-Tsinghua University dual degree in International Relations/Law. Typically, students must be separately admitted to both degree programs. The main advantage of dual-degrees is that they often double-count some courses, so that completing both degrees takes less time and money than if the degrees had been pursued independently — for example, Georgetown’s joint JD-MA Security Studies degree takes four years instead of the five year required to get the JD (three years) and the MA Security Studies (two years) separately.
However, while dual degrees can be strong options for some people, we advise most people against pursuing one. Generally, it is unnecessary to have two graduate degrees to get a policy job. And while dual degrees can save some time relative to completing two degrees separately, they usually still cost significantly more time (and money) than doing a single degree. Dual degrees can nevertheless make sense if you seek to specifically become an expert at the intersection of two professional fields — such as law and national security in the case of Georgetown’s joint JD-MA Security Studies degree; or if you would like to study abroad for parts of your graduate degree — which is beneficial if you seek to build regional expertise, such as on China through the Johns Hopkins SAIS-Tsinghua dual degree.
Which policy master’s should you consider?
Which master’s programs are “best” ultimately depends on your preferences and professional goals. The following recommendations—both the database and subsequent sections — focus on top-ranked policy programs and less competitive DC policy programs.
Many (but far from all) of the programs included have an international relations and security focus and may be most relevant to people seeking to work in US federal-level technology or security policy, such as AI policy or biosecurity policy. This is informed by the authors’ backgrounds and focus on these policy areas. If you are interested in other policy areas (e.g. global development) but still want to do a policy master’s, much of the tactical advice in this post still applies, but make sure to talk to people in your area about which programs they would recommend.
This database of the most relevant US policy master’s programs currently lists around 20 degrees in the US. See the user guide here.
The database is a work in progress, and any feedback is appreciated (e.g. promising master’s degrees we missed, factual errors, better ways to structure the table). The database does not aim to be comprehensive but reflects a best guess at the programs that readers who fall in the category described above should consider.
In addition to the database, APSIA (the Association of Professional Schools of International Affairs) has a useful list of practitioner-oriented policy master’s programs—both in the US and abroad — for people interested in international relations/security/foreign policy.
This section highlights some of the policy master’s from the database, separately considering programs in and outside of DC. To decide between these programs, you’ll need to research the program specifics and factor in your background and preferences (see the questions below).
While no single option is best for everyone, we want to highlight the MA Security Studies at Georgetown University as a likely top choice for many readers of this post. In brief, this degree scores especially highly on location (being based in DC); reputation (#1 on surveys discussed above); focus (i.e. policy practitioners over academics); job compatibility (i.e. only evening classes, part-time options, low workload); relevant classes (e.g. on AI, biosecurity, nuclear security); few mandatory courses; relevant faculty and on-campus work opportunities(e.g. at CSET and GHSS); flexibility (e.g. summer classes); and relatively low cost and generous financial aid.
DC schools and programs: The most prestigious policy schools in DC are Georgetown University and Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). Other DC-based policy schools, while somewhat less prestigious, are typically cheaper and less competitive while still having high-quality programs. These include George Washington University, American University, George Mason University, and the University of Maryland. Some policy master’s programs at these schools worth considering include (see caveat in footnote):
- Georgetown University:
- Johns Hopkins SAIS:
- George Washington University, Elliott School of International Affairs:
- American University:
- George Mason University, Schar School of Policy and Government:
- University of Maryland (UMD), School of Public Policy:
Non-DC schools and programs: Outside of DC, the schools with top policy programs include Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Stanford, Columbia, and Tufts. The elite status of these schools is a significant advantage over lower-ranked DC programs like George Mason or UMD. At the same time, they might lack some of the benefits of the DC-based schools (such as compatibility with holding a part-time or full-time job). Some of the best policy master’s degrees at these schools include:
- Harvard Kennedy School:
- Princeton University, School of Public and International Affairs (SPIA):
- Yale University, Jackson School of Global Affairs:
- Stanford University, Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies:
- Columbia University, School of International and Public Affairs (SPIA):
- Tufts University, Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy:
It’s not easy to assess and decide between these program options, especially between the more prestigious non-DC schools and the less prestigious DC schools. We recommend that you adjust the general recommendations based on your individual considerations, such as:
- Option value: Do you want your graduate degree to build non-policy career capital, such as for pursuing an academic or technical career? If so, this pushes in favour of more prestigious schools and more academically oriented degrees.
- Prior DC experience: Did you live in DC previously and have already tested your fit for and built DC policy experience, a network, and knowledge? If so, it seems less important to also do a DC-based graduate degree relative to getting a more prestigious non-DC degree.
- Prior work experience: Do you already have several years of work experience? If so, it’s likely less important for you to build additional career capital by working part-time alongside a master’s program (and thus to choose a DC program with high job compatibility).
- Location constraint: Do you have family obligations or a strong preference to live in/near somewhere specific? If so, this should influence your graduate school choice.
- Budget constraint: What are your options to fund graduate school? The more prestigious universities are often (but not always) more expensive, especially when considering part-time degrees (which are mostly in DC) that allow you to work while in school.
We caution against focusing on the programs in the database at the exclusion of all other options. Generally, the details of your (graduate) education seem to matter less and less the further you advance in your career. And it’s definitely possible to come from a school not in the database and still end up in a high-level policy role.
Policy master’s degrees (even the top ones) are relatively easy to get into, especially compared to top undergraduate degrees, law school, or many STEM degrees.
Most policy graduate schools do not publish (reliable) information on acceptance rates for their programs. We estimate that the acceptance rates typically range between 15-50% for the top schools, and they can be as high as around 80% for the less competitive schools. The most competitive schools are the Ivy Leagues like Harvard, Princeton, and Yale, as well as other prestigious schools like Stanford and MIT.
But the more competitive schools and master’s programs aren’t always preferable. For example, while the top-ranked DC schools (Georgetown University and Johns Hopkins SAIS) have higher admissions rates than the Ivy League schools above, they are typically the better choice for aspiring policy professionals. Even the other DC-based policy schools like George Washington University and American University — which are less competitive still — can be preferable to higher-ranked non-DC schools.
The average policy master’s student is around 26 years old and has 2-3 years of work experience, though policy schools accept some high-achieving students straight out of undergrad. Having (relevant) career experience can compensate to some extent for worse undergraduate grades, worse results on standardised tests, and a lack of relevant extracurriculars.
As this table shows, the cohort size and the share of international students in many recommended policy master’s programs vary widely:
There are also dedicated mid-career programs for people further advanced in their careers — usually requiring at least 5-7 years of full-time work experience — such as Harvard’s Mid-Career MPA and Georgetown’s Master of Policy Management. Mid-career programs tend to allow students to study part-time and have less stringent coursework requirements. These programs typically omit internship and “capstone” requirements, recognizing the students’ prior work experience and accomplishments.
How to apply: Getting into policy master’s programs
Most policy schools have one annual application cycle for a master’s cohort beginning their studies in the fall semester. But some schools/programs — like Georgetown’s MA Security Studies — have a second annual application cycle for a spring semester cohort.
Applications for the fall cohort are usually due sometime between December and February (i.e. master’s applications for the 2024 fall cohort will be due between December of 2023 and February of 2024). Applications for the spring cohort (if applicable) are usually due around October of the previous year.
Some schools also have an early-decision deadline, which provides clarity/options sooner. These deadlines usually precede the typical December-February timeline.
As you plan out your personal application timeline, focus first on the two components of the application that require the most advanced planning: letters of recommendation and standardised admissions tests like the GRE (see details in sections below).
Most schools will give all fall cohort applicants a decision of some kind — acceptance, rejection, or a waitlist position — by mid-March.
Degree programs vary in their prerequisites for admission. Many MPP programs involve some quantitative classes and thus require or prefer a demonstrated background (e.g. college classes) in economics, statistics, and calculus. In contrast, most international affairs programs do not have such requirements, but there are exceptions like the MA International Relations at Johns Hopkins SAIS that requires candidates to “have earned…a B- or higher in separate college-level courses in introductory microeconomics and in introductory macroeconomics.” Check the formal application prerequisites before you apply.
If you’re currently in college and may want to pursue a policy degree in the future, review the requirements at your favoured graduate schools and, if necessary, consider taking a few classes in statistics and economics. If you have already finished college, you can take relevant courses online or at your local community college before applying (again, check whether this is actually necessary); many programs also offer options to “catch up” on unmet prerequisite requirements after receiving admission.
Qualitative application components
Application processes generally include both qualitative components (e.g. a resume/CV, personal statement, writing sample, other essays, recommendation letters) and quantitative components (e.g. GPA, GRE/GMAT). They typically do not include interviews with limited exceptions like Johns Hopkins SAIS’ optional interview. This policy master’s database includes information about these application requirements.
Master’s applications generally require submitting a one or two-page resume. While most general-purpose advice about resume writing still applies, you should also read some specific graduate school resume advice.
Since policy master’s admissions highly value professional experience, highlight your experiences throughout your application. Consider also how to showcase your personal and professional leadership experiences.
To get feedback and revise your resume, run it by one or more people who are professionally successful, good at writing, and ideally have firsthand experience hiring and resume screening. Attention to detail matters a lot in admissions contexts, so typos can be costly, and it is usually much easier for someone else to spot errors in your writing.
Virtually all schools require you to write a statement of purpose (aka “personal statement”), and many also ask for additional essays (e.g. a diversity statement, short essay questions, an analytic essay). Very few policy master’s programs also ask for a pre-written writing sample, such as a polished college essay or published article.
There are many examples and helpful articles on writing a convincing statement of purpose for graduate school applications. While schools use subtly different prompts, they’re all asking for the same information: What do you want to study at graduate school, and why do you think this area is important to the US government, national security, etc.? Why are you interested in this program in particular? What experience do you have in your field? And what do you plan to do with your degree after graduating?
Given the similarity in prompts, you can usually submit similar statements of purpose to each school, but you should tweak each statement to each specific program (e.g. highlighting particular program features, courses, faculty, and other strengths). To learn more about the unique strengths of particular programs, speak with current students and carefully browse the school/program websites.
Many schools require one or more additional (short) application essays beyond the statement of purpose, but the details vary greatly by school and program. Most commonly, schools ask for a “diversity statement” asking candidates to describe how their demographics and other factors shaped them (see diversity essay advice articles). Schools sometimes also ask for short essays about the candidate’s interest in public service, their graduate school expectations, or a substantive analytic question.
We generally recommend writing an essay even if the school says it’s optional. These essays allow you to say something about yourself the panel cannot immediately glean from your resume. Through your essays, you can demonstrate your skills and interests as well as your professional and academic experiences and thus stand out compared to other candidates who didn’t write an essay (see footnote for essay requirements of several example schools).
Draft your statement of purpose and all your application essays early, and then revise them multiple times based on extensive feedback, ideally from knowledgeable professionals. And make sure to exactly follow each school’s formatting guidance for the essay, such as the page number, font, spacing, whether to include your name, etc.
Virtually all policy schools require two or three letters of recommendation, but they vary in their specific prompts and who they accept as recommenders (see footnote for requirements of several example schools). Many schools specify that they expect at least one recommendation letter from an academic — most commonly, a college professor — and one from a professional contact, such as an employer.
As a courtesy to your recommenders, and to ensure they have time to write you the strongest letter possible, you should ask for the letter at least six to eight weeks before the application deadline (and earlier is generally better).
If you’re still in college and want to prepare for future graduate school applications, prioritise developing relationships with professors now. Be specific with yourself about who these professors will be since you won’t have time to develop these relationships with every professor. Prioritise relationships with professors who you think will take the time to get to know you well and invest in your development (over “big name” professors with more stature or public acclaim); these relationships will typically pay dividends and are more likely to result in recommendation letters you will not have to write yourself. Strong grades and participation in a professor’s class, attending office hours, asking for career advice, or working as a research or teaching assistant can all be good ways to nurture these relationships.
Even if you don’t intend to apply right away, you can ask college professors or colleagues to write a letter while their impressions of you are fresh in their memory, then they can keep the letter on file (and share it with you, if they’re willing to). Since most applications require the recommender to submit their letter directly to the university, they’ll have to eventually email/upload the letter themselves when you apply (most applicants thus never get to see their recommendations). Ideally, you’ll want the professor to customise the letter to the particular program you’re applying to. Your exact interests may also change between college and graduate school, so you don’t want them writing a law school-specific recommendation if you actually end up applying for an MPP (or vice-versa).
Some recommenders may ask you to draft the recommendation letter yourself or to share points you would like to be highlighted. While this can be awkward, it is relatively common. If this happens to you, take the opportunity to ensure that your draft letters highlight different strengths than your personal statement and focus on specific details of your work that your recommenders have observed (see also the many articles with helpful advice).
Quantitative application components
In addition to your undergraduate GPA, many policy schools ask you to submit the results from a standardised admissions test like the GRE or GMAT. The policy master’s database includes information on which policy degrees require the GRE/GMAT and, when available, the average GPA and GRE/GMAT scores of successful applicants.
The 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. As the below numbers suggest, you may be able to get into a top program with a GPA of 3.5 or below.
The GPAs for admitted students in several example policy degrees — most schools don’t report this information — are as follows: Georgetown’s MA Security Studies (3.65 GPA mean), Yale’s MPP (3.7 GPA median), Johns Hopkins SAIS’ MAIR (3.45-3.81 GPA middle 50% range), and George Washington University’s Elliott School (3.58 GPA mean). Even in Princeton’s highly competitive, fully funded MPA, 20% of successful applicants have a GPA between 3.4–3.6 and 6% have a GPA below 3.4.
The GradCafe Stats Generator aggregates and plots 1,000+ self-reported GPA and GRE scores of successful policy master’s applicants. This tool confirms that among each policy school’s admitted students, there is a wide spread of GPAs, typically ranging from 3.4–4.0 for the top schools, and down to 3.0 for the less selective schools.
If you’re applying straight out of college, you might need a somewhat higher GPA, but if you already have several years of professional experience, you might be admitted with a lower GPA.
If you are in college, you may want to optimise to some extent for a higher GPA, such as by taking fewer classes so that you have more time to invest in each class (and in valuable extracurriculars). Another strategy is to choose classes in which high grades are more likely.
But it is usually not worth avoiding entire subjects that would otherwise help you achieve a positive impact in your career simply to try to maximise your GPA. While, say, STEM classes often have less generous curves, you may gain valuable knowledge by taking those classes that would be difficult to gather outside the college context. STEM knowledge might be particularly helpful if you’re pursuing a technology policy career, such as one aimed at AI governance or biosecurity. As a simple heuristic: If you were excited to take a class before you started thinking about graduate school admissions, and you think the class will help you have a positive impact later in your career, take the class.
Undergraduate GPAs generally matter a lot less for mid-career programs. For example, Princeton’s mid-career MPP accepts 39% of applicants with a GPA below 3.4 and another 32% with a GPA between 3.4-3.6.
Many (but far from all) policy schools require, or at least prefer, a standardised admissions test, most commonly the GRE and sometimes the GMAT (see here for their key differences). The GRE can also be used to apply to increasingly many law schools instead of the LSAT (see footnote for further considerations).
This table shows the standardised testing requirements in several example policy degrees (average scores are footnoted where available):
* Either the GRE or the GMAT is required. No school requires both tests.
Should you take the GRE or GMAT even if it’s optional? It depends on your overall profile. An otherwise excellent applicant gains nothing from submitting mediocre GRE scores, but a less competitive applicant might boost their chances if they voluntarily submit high GRE scores. Still, we generally recommend taking the test since this can meaningfully strengthen your application, making it more likely that you gain admission and receive generous financial aid (see also this nuanced take). Of course, you should weigh these benefits against the substantial effort involved in preparing for and (re-)taking the test.
Very few schools publish information on the GRE scores of their admitted applicants. Fortunately, the GradCafe Stats Generator can partly fill the gap. The tool doesn’t include sufficient data points for a robust analysis of most of the recommended schools (n<10), but it does for the more popular DC schools (median scores reported below; analysis details in footnote):
- Georgetown University (n=23):
- GRE quant: 160 (158-166 middle 50%)
- GRE verbal: 162 (158-167 middle 50%)
- Johns Hopkins University (n=27):
- GRE quant: 158 (152-164 middle 50%)
- GRE verbal: 161 (160-168 middle 50%)
- George Washington University (n=55):
- GRE quant: 157 (154-161 middle 50%)
- GRE verbal: 162 (158-166 middle 50%)
- American University (n=42):
- GRE quant: 155 (151-158 middle 50%)
- GRE verbal: 160 (156-163 middle 50%)
GRE preparation and timing: See this guide to preparing for the GRE and links to additional resources. GRE scores are valid for five years. So, if you aren’t sure whether to apply to graduate school right away or work for a few years first, it could still be worth taking the GRE in your junior/senior year of college (when the opportunity cost of your time is lower).
Retaking the GRE: You can retake the GRE once every 21 days and up to five times in a 12-month period. On retaking the test, the above guide recommends “in general, the more attempts the better…Those who can afford to take the test multiple times perform better due to variance and experience…If you feel like you overperformed relative to practice tests, or you met your score goal and a higher score wouldn’t get you enough additional scholarship dollars to merit the effort, that’s a great place to stop.” Schools vary in how they assess test scores if you’ve taken the test multiple times; while many schools say they only consider your top score — though you may have to mention how often you took the test — Harvard Kennedy School’s admissions committee will “look at all your scores.”
GRE timeline: Because it takes about two weeks from the date of the test to receive a GRE score, plan to take the test at least one month before you intend to apply. If you plan to retake the test (or want to keep the option open if you are not happy with your score), plan to take the test at least two months before you intend to apply. Be sure to check the GRE website to confirm test registration deadlines, which are often six weeks in advance of the test date.
Most policy graduate schools require international students who aren’t native English speakers to demonstrate proficiency by taking the IELTS or TOEFL tests, unless they’ve completed an undergraduate degree in English.
How to fund graduate school
US policy master’s programs are often expensive and serve as cash cows for many schools. Still, there are often ways through careful planning and research to make the costs more manageable. This section first describes how much it costs to attend a policy master’s program before discussing options to fund graduate school.
As noted in Part 1, the price of a graduate degree includes both the direct costs (tuition, living costs, health care, books, etc.) and the foregone income from (partially) leaving the workforce. This section focuses primarily on defraying tuition costs. But, as noted above, some policy degrees make it possible to work and earn an income alongside graduate school, which substantially reduces the foregone income cost and helps cover your expenses.
Tuition and fees for master’s programs vary widely. The sticker price for the highly-ranked policy master’s degrees ranges from about $31,000-66,000 per year in tuition fees (see table below). Most graduate schools offer substantial merit-based or need-based financial aid, so many students pay less than the sticker price (though schools vary drastically in whether they offer aid and how much).
A cheaper — though generally less attractive — option is state universities, many of which offer reduced in-state tuition. But some state universities are promising options: George Mason University’s Schar School charges only ~$16,500 for in-state students (from Virginia) in 2022-2023 (while out-of-state students pay ~$31,000).
Since many universities charge tuition per credit, master’s programs that involve more credits for program completion are correspondingly more expensive at these schools. For instance, compare the following policy master’s degrees at Georgetown University: the two-year MA Security Studies involves 36 credits, costing a total of ~$88,300; the two-year Master of Public Policy involves 48 credits, costing ~$113,000; and the 1-year MS Biohazardous Threat Agents involves 30 credit hours, costing ~$71,000.
This table includes tuition information on some example policy master’s degrees for the academic year 2023-2024 (see the policy master’s database for more details):
Graduate schools often also charge other fees in addition to tuition. While less significant than tuition, these fees add to the cost. For example, many graduate schools require students to buy health insurance which typically costs around $3,000-$4,000/year. Finally, consider also the living cost (e.g. housing, transportation, groceries) in the school’s city.
It is very reasonable for the cost of attendance to influence your graduate school choice, especially if you cannot secure a scholarship or are uncomfortable taking out a large loan. But the differences in the value of attending different schools can be substantial, so we recommend not just looking at the price but also seriously weighing the other factors discussed above.
Most policy schools offer merit- and need-based financial aid that can significantly reduce the cost of attendance below the “sticker price.” But some schools and programs are much more generous with financial aid than others. We recommend speaking with current students or alumni, and carefully reviewing the “financial aid” webpages of the schools and programs you’re considering.
When deciding where to apply, the variability and partial randomness in the allocation of financial aid is one reason to apply to multiple schools, even if you’re confident you’d be accepted by your top program. Having multiple offers can also help you negotiate (additional) financial aid (see section below). Merit-based financial aid often goes to the strongest candidates, including those with particularly high GPAs, GRE scores, professional experience, and other quality markers — another key reason to invest in your application (e.g. by preparing well for the GRE).
A few select schools offer all policy master’s students generous 100% tuition support, including Princeton and Yale. While a great perk, these programs are correspondingly small and highly competitive.
Some schools offer additional standalone scholarships — separate from merit-based aid that can be offered to any applicant — that you have to apply for separately. These can be extremely valuable (often covering the full costs of tuition) but are consequently often highly competitive (examples in the footnote).
Sometimes financial aid takes the form of a research or teaching assistantship, so you’d have to work with a professor for a certain number of hours per week to qualify for the aid package. Before accepting such an offer, consider your opportunity cost and whether the assistantship would be beneficial work experience compared to your alternatives.
Many schools also offer some additional scholarships or merit aid for current students. For instance, Georgetown’s MA Security Studies offers many graduate students a stipend for unpaid internships, and each semester it also grants a merit aid award (of ~$3,000) to the top ~10 students with the best GPA.
Financial aid bargaining
Most schools have some flexibility in how much financial aid they offer to candidates. As such, we recommend bargaining for additional aid from your top program(s) once admitted. You have nothing to lose doing this; the school won’t rescind your offer just because you politely asked for increased aid.
If you get several competitive offers from graduate programs, you can potentially leverage one offer against another. Programs like to keep the rate of offer acceptance high, so they are incentivized to get you to enrol, even at a lower price, once they’ve made an offer of admission.
For tactical advice on financial aid bargaining, see this footnote. For several anonymized examples of students successfully negotiating for higher merit aid in Georgetown’s MA Security Studies, see this footnote.
Most graduate students take out loans to finance the cost of tuition. For example, “master’s degree graduates leave school owing $64,800 on average” (not specific to policy).
Before looking into private loan options, consider the Federal Direct and Grad PLUS loan options available from the US Department of Education. These are the first stop for many graduate school borrowers, and even if you end up choosing another option, it can help to understand the terms of the federal loans as a baseline.
Because the amount being financed is so large, small differences in loan interest rates can make a substantial difference in the total cost of graduate school for someone taking out loans. If you are considering private loan options, be sure to compare interest rates available from different lenders. (However, note that some private loan options with attractive interest rates may not be eligible for Public Service Loan Forgiveness, as discussed below.)
Candidates interested in government or nonprofit work should study the requirements for Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF), a program through which the federal government will pay off any remaining loan balances after the borrower has made 10 years of payments (details in footnote).
There are several competitive graduate scholarships offered by US federal agencies. These typically cover most or all of the graduate school tuition costs, 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 we’re aware of include (program details in footnotes):
Some employers agree to cover (parts of) the cost of attending graduate school for their employees or to assist with loan repayment.
Government loan repayment programs: By working for Congress or certain federal agencies, you can have up to $10,000 per year (less after taxes) of your loans paid off. Since the requirements are complex, it is important to understand each program’s details as fully as possible before enrolling in graduate school. For Congress, if you take on federal loans for graduate school and work for Congress after you have graduated, your office can pay off up to $6,000 (Senate) or $10,000 (House) per year of your loans, although it’s often less in practice (see this and this for details). Federal agencies are also permitted to repay federally-insured student loans as a recruitment or retention incentive for candidates or current employees.
Universities: About 90% of universities will cover (parts of) their employee’s graduate degree tuition. This option is most attractive if you work for a university (1) where you can study part-time and in the evening (like Georgetown’s MA Security Studies), so that it’s actually sustainable to work and study at the same time; and (2) with relevant academic centres, such as Georgetown’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology, where you can be an employee working on relevant topics while receiving your tuition benefit. You should look into your preferred university’s tuition assistance policy and available work opportunities.
Private companies: Some firms also offer their employees tuition assistance. To gain policy-relevant experience, consider working for a defence contractor like Booz Allen Hamilton and Lockheed Martin or the public sector arm of a consulting firm. While amounts depend on the company, location, and job, regular figures are around $5,000-$10,000 per year, sometimes with a cap of around $40,000 to $50,000 total. They can also offer industry-level salaries (which are typically higher than for federal government employees), making them a good option if you think the career capital is relevant and want to make enough to pay off your loans quickly. One downside is that these programs — especially the most generous ones — often come with strings attached, usually a multiple-year work requirement.
US military: Current or former military service members (and their children or spouse) also might be eligible for graduate school funding via the Post-9/11 GI Bill or the DOD’s Tuition Assistance program.
Some private foundations also provide scholarships for people pursuing master’s degrees to work in policy.
If you are interested in a master’s degree to prepare for high-impact work, especially in skill-bottlenecked areas like AI and biosecurity policy, you can apply for a scholarship from Open Philanthropy. They fund some people seeking to build career capital for work on biosecurity or otherwise improving the long-term future. Similarly, the Long-Term Future Fund also occasionally provides funding for graduate degrees. While these scholarships have a high bar, many people underestimate their odds of success; if you are in doubt about applying, we encourage you to do so.
Other philanthropic scholarships we’re aware of — typically supporting specific demographic or affinity groups — include (program details in footnotes):
If you seek to pursue a career in US policy, we generally recommend completing a US-based (ideally, DC-based) graduate degree. But studying abroad might be significantly cheaper, and there are some great policy schools outside the US. Studying abroad may also be beneficial if you’re interested in becoming a regional policy specialist, like studying in Europe for transatlantic policy. This list highlights many of the top policy degrees internationally.
The UK has some highly prestigious universities offering policy degrees, including Oxford, Cambridge, the London School of Economics, and King’s College London (example degrees in footnote). Many of these universities offer 1-year (i.e. nine- month) policy master’s degrees, which can make them cheaper than the two-year US policy degrees both financially and in terms of time (though note that we don’t always recommend 1-year master’s over two-year master’s for the reasons explained above). For instance, the total tuition cost of KCL’s 1-year MA War Studies is ~$38,200; for Cambridge’s 1-year MPhil Technology Policy it’s ~$43,000; and for Oxford’s 1-year MPP it’s ~$60,300. This compares to total sticker prices of around $100,000 for many of the US-based programs listed above.
Continental Europe has much fewer prestigious universities than the US or UK (especially ones recognized in US policy) but there are some exceptions like Sciences Po (~$42,500 total tuition for a two-year degree) and ETH Zurich (~$3,200 total tuition for a two-year degree ETH Zurich offers the Zurich-based two-year MSc in Science, Technology and Policy and the MA in Comparative and International Studies, which are effectively free costing only ~$3,200 in total). As this demonstrates, depending on the country and university, policy master’s degrees in Europe can be much cheaper than in the US or even effectively free (as with public universities in Germany, even for non-EU citizens).
China offers a few fully-funded, internationally recognized policy master’s degrees in Beijing through the 1-year Schwarzman Scholars program at Tsinghua University and the two-year Yenching Academy at Peking University (see also these posts on Schwarzman and Yenching). We recommend most people against the programs: they aren’t great options to learn about US policy processes or network for US policy circles, and they could damage your ability (or cause significant delays) to receive a security clearance in the future. Consider these programs mainly if you aren’t interested in paths requiring a security clearance and are very interested in learning about China’s culture, political system, and language.
While we generally recommend policy master’s programs over PhDs, there are financial benefits to PhDs. Most US PhDs are fully funded, meaning that they not only pay for your tuition but also provide a fellowship (to cover living costs) and/or an assistantship (to pay you for working as a teaching assistant). The first two years of most US PhD programs focus on classes, the successful completion of which gives you a master’s degree as part of the PhD program.
In principle, you could get a fully-funded master’s degree by enrolling in a PhD program and dropping out after two years. But there are several downsides to this path. Pursuing this as a strategy may be unethical as it involves applying for PhDs under false pretences. You’re also much less likely to be admitted to the PhD program or find an academic advisor if they suspect you’re only interested in a master’s degree. Finally, while completing the initial two-year course phase of most PhD programs counts as equivalent to completing a master’s degree, the course structure and content can differ greatly. In particular, the PhD course phase typically focuses on teaching research methods, which could be much less relevant if you aim to become a policy practitioner.
We generally recommend this path only to people who are seriously considering actually completing a PhD, or who already enrolled but changed their minds about their preferred career path.
You can also review recent postings on our job board, which may give you a sense of potential high-impact career opportunities you’re interested in and what their requirements are.