Suzy Deuster wanted to be a public defender, a career path that could help hundreds receive fair legal representation. But she realised that by shifting her focus to government work, she could improve the justice system for thousands or even millions. Suzy ended up doing just that from her position in the US Executive Office of the President, working on criminal justice reform.

This logic doesn’t just apply to criminal justice. For almost any global issue you’re interested in, roles in powerful institutions like governments often offer unique and high-leverage ways to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time.

In a nutshell: Governments and other powerful institutions are often crucial forces in addressing pressing global problems, so learning to navigate, improve and assist these institutions is a route to having a big impact. Moreover, there are many positions that offer a good network and a high potential for impact relative to how competitive they are.

Key facts on fit

This skill set is fairly broad, which means it can potentially be a good fit for a wide variety of people. For many roles, indications of fit include being fairly social and comfortable in a political environment — but this isn’t true for all roles, and if you feel like that’s not you it could still be worth trying out something in the area.

Why are policy and political skills valuable?

We’ll argue that:

Together, this suggests that building the skills needed to get things done in large institutions could give you a lot of opportunities to have an impact.

Later, we’ll look at:

Governments (and other powerful institutions) have a huge impact in the world

National governments are hugely powerful.

For a start, they command the spending of huge sums of money. The US government’s federal budget is approximately $6.4 trillion/year — that’s approximately the annual revenue of the world’s 14 largest companies by revenue (although only around $1.7 trillion/year is discretionary spending). Many other Western countries spend hundreds of billions of dollars a year.

And it’s not just money. Governments produce laws governing the actions of millions — or billions — and have unique tools at their disposal, including taxation and tax breaks, regulation, antitrust actions, and, ultimately, the use of force.

The US spends nearly a trillion dollars a year on its military (although this is an outlier — in other Western countries it’s more like tens of billions).

Why does this scale matter?

Well, we’ll argue that your chances of reaching a government role in which you can have a large influence are probably high enough that in expectation you can have a significant impact, given the huge scale of government action.

And it’s not just governments. Most of the advice in this article can be applied to any powerful institution, such as an international body or organisation like the United Nations. Much of what we say even applies to jobs at large corporations.

Governments and other major institutions play a major role in addressing the world’s most pressing problems

National governments and international bodies — in particular the US, UK, and EU — are already working on some of the problems we have identified as most pressing. For example:

  • Biorisk: The UK government released the UK Biological Security Strategy aimed at preventing future pandemics in June 2023. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) works on public health in the US and is also one of the most important organisations working on global disease control. The US defence and intelligence community also works in this area. For instance, the Department of Defense does a lot of work on infectious diseases and assists other countries’ efforts to prevent the proliferation of biological weapons.
  • AI safety and public policy: In her annual State of the Union Address, the President of the European Commission told the European Parliament that the EU should be working to mitigate the risk of extinction from AI. The White House Office issued an executive order on AI, which — among other things — requires developers of the most powerful AI systems to develop safety standards and tests and share these results with the US government. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has a program on explainable AI, which is a component of AI safety research. The UK government has set up the AI Safety Institute. And as AI becomes more important, governments will likely become more involved.
  • Nuclear security: The US has the world’s most powerful military and the second biggest stockpile of nuclear weapons. Federal agencies such as the Department of Defense, the Department of Energy, and the State Department are important for preventing nuclear catastrophe.

Governments also play a major role in pretty much every other global issue you can think of (including basically every issue we have have profiles on, such as global health, climate change, and factory farming).

Throughout this article, we focus on the US because we think it has particular influence in areas related to the problems we think are most pressing, and because it’s where we have the most readers. However, we think these skills are also valuable to build if you’re based in many other countries (and we also have advice specifically about the UK).

Beyond governments, there are also international organisations and large companies that are important for solving certain problems. For example, the Biological Weapons Convention plays a unique role in preventing biological catastrophes, while leading AI labs and large tech companies have a crucial influence over the development of AI.

To see lists of particularly relevant institutions for various problems, see our problem profiles and job board.

You can create change

You might think that, even if you work at an important institution, you won’t have much impact because you won’t really be able to affect anything. You’ll have to carry out the will of elected officials, who are bound to the electorate, institutional constraints, and special interests. And while this is definitely true in many cases, we do think there are opportunities to have at least a small effect on the actions of these large and powerful institutions.

Frances Kelsey was an academic and a pharmacologist. But, in 1960, she took a major career step when she was hired by the FDA. Just one month into her new career in government, she was given her first assignment to review a drug: thalidomide. Despite considerable pressure from the drug’s manufacturer, Kelsey insisted that it be tested more rigorously.

And so, while more than 10,000 children across the world were born with birth defects as a result of thalidomide — living with life-long deformed limbs and defective organs — only 17 such children were born in the US. Kelsey was hailed by the American public as a hero and was awarded the President’s Award for Distinguished Federal Civilian Service in 1962.1

But why was a mid-level official — only one month into her new job — able to have such an impact?

First, there’s just a huge amount to do, and senior officials don’t have that much time.

For example, in the US, there are 535 members of Congress and around 4,000 presidential appointees in the executive branch. That might sound like a lot, but think about it this way: each of these people, on average, has oversight over about 0.02% of the US federal budget — over $1 billion. It would be literally impossible to micromanage that amount of activity.

This is only a very rough heuristic, but by dividing the $1.7 trillion discretionary federal budget by the number of people at different levels of seniority, we can estimate the average budget that different subsets of people in the government oversee.2

Subset of peopleApproximate numberBudget per person per year within this subset
All federal employees (except US Postal Service workers)2.3M$700,000
Federal employees working in Washington DC370,000$4.6M
Senior Executive Service and political appointees12,000$142M
Political appointees4,000$425M

Note that this method is just an estimate of the average and there are some reasons to think it’s probably too high.3

Nevertheless, these figures are so high that if you can help those budgets be used just a little more efficiently, it could be worth millions of dollars of additional spending in the area of focus.

And, in other ways, this is an underestimate of the responsibility of each individual because much of what the government does is not best thought of as setting budgets — rather it comes from regulation, foreign policy, changing social norms and so on. Budgets here are just being used as a proxy for one form of impact.

Second, the views and opinions of others in government aren’t completely fixed. Otherwise — whether you think it’s protected free speech or a distortion of democracy — it’s hard to explain why private companies spend around $4 billion a year on federal lobbying. For every dollar spent by a profit-oriented company on lobbying, it’s probably getting more than a dollar back on average by affecting government policy. This suggests that people interested in social change can have an impact, especially if they’re focused on global issues with little other lobbying, or they can find neglected ways to affect policy.

And so it’s not surprising that when we’ve spoken to people working in and around governments, we’ve found that — as in the case of Frances Kelsey — people have actually had the opportunity to influence things even in junior roles (if they had the skills).

In the US, we spoke to a number of mid-level and senior federal employees, and most were able to give us an example of how they had a large positive impact through their role. Some of their examples involved starting new impactful programs worth $10s of millions, saving Americans $100s of millions, or moving billions to something potentially more impactful. We haven’t vetted these stories, but at the very least they persuaded us that mid-level and senior federal employees feel as though they can sometimes have a large positive influence on the government.

In the UK, one junior civil servant we spoke to determined how £250 million was spent in her policy area through careful discussions with senior civil servants, while ministers were only scrutinising larger chunks of money.

And it’s not just in the executive. For example, in the US Congress, huge amounts of work are done by congressional staffers. “Ninety-five percent of the nitty-gritty work of drafting bills and negotiating their final form is now done by staff,” according to former Senator Ted Kennedy.4

Often this work is done by very junior people. One junior staff member in a Congressional office told us that more senior individuals (like Chiefs of Staff) are often tasked with substantial managerial responsibilities that crowd out their ability to focus on nitty-gritty policy research. Because of this, they have to defer to more junior staff (such as legislative assistants) who have the capacity and time to dig into a specific policy area and make concrete proposals.

This all suggests that you can effect change in large institutions (even when you’re just getting started), and in particular:

  • On issues where people care enough for changes to be made, but not enough to micromanage the changes
  • Where powerful figures like elected officials have vague goals, but no specific idea of what they want
  • When details have a large impact, e.g. the details of one piece of legislation can affect many other laws

All other things being equal, the more senior you are, the more influence you’ll have.

If you’re a motivated graduate from a top university, over the course of your career, the chance of reaching high levels in the government is significant.

Approximately 1 in 30 federal employees in DC are in the senior executive service. What’s more, we found that students with a strong academic background and great social skills (and an interest in politics) in the UK could have an around 1 in 3 chance of becoming an MP. Meanwhile, if you became a Congressional staffer in the US, you’d have something like a 1 in 40 chance of being elected to Congress.

Other factors will also affect your ability to create change, such as how politicised your area is (the more political, the more your moves will be countered by others).

All that said, many people we speak to in the civil service don’t feel that they have a lot of influence. That’s because many roles don’t have opportunities for a lot of impact. (We’ll discuss finding ones that do later, and it can be hard to see your impact even in those that do.)

But the potential for change is there. You can think of decision making in large institutions as a negotiation between different groups with power. Most of the time you won’t tip the balance, but occasionally you might be able to — and it could have a large impact.

But you’ll need to use your influence responsibly

Having influence is a double-edged sword.

If you use your position poorly, then you might make things worse than they would have been otherwise. This is especially easy in policy, because it’s hard to know what truly makes things better, and policy can have unintended consequences. This is especially disturbing if you end up working on critical problems, such as preventing pandemics or nuclear crises.

This doesn’t mean you should avoid these positions altogether. For a start, someone has to take these positions, and it’ll probably be better for the world if more altruistic people enter them. Hopefully, if you’re reading this article, you’re more likely than average to be one of these people.

However, it does mean that if you succeed in advancing you have a huge responsibility to use the position well — and the higher you advance, the more responsibility you have.

This means trying to do the best job you can to help the institution do more good for society, and being especially careful to avoid actions that could cause significant harm.

Unfortunately, the more you advance, the easier it is to lose touch with people who will give you frank feedback, and the more temptations you’ll face to do unethical or dishonest actions in order to preserve your influence or “for the greater good” — i.e. to get corrupted.

This means we’d especially encourage people considering this path to focus on building good character and making sure they have friends around them who can keep them honest at the early stages, so these are in place in case they gain a lot of influence.

It’s also important to make sure you have a clear ‘edge’ that will allow you to do more good than a typical employee. For instance, you might be able to give ministers more evidence-based advice, contribute specialist knowledge, or pay more attention to the effect of policies on the long-term future than typical.

That said, even talented and very well-meaning people can fail to do good in government and even do harm, so it is worth learning constantly and thinking carefully and critically about what will actually help. Read more advice on avoiding harm.

What does using a policy and political skill set involve?

Any career path that ends up in an influential institutional position could be a way of using these skills, though some options are more likely to be relevant to the problems we think are most pressing.

This typically involves the following steps:

  1. Identify some institutions that could play an important role tackling some of the problems you think are most pressing. See an introduction to comparing global problems in terms of impact and lists of institutions that are important to each area in our problem profiles and job board.

  2. Learn to make useful contributions to an institution (or group of institutions) by gaining experience, credibility, seniority, and authority.

  3. Often, it involves developing a speciality that’s especially relevant to the problems you want to focus on. For instance, if you want to work on tackling engineered pandemics, you might specialise in counter-terrorism, technology policy, or biomedical policy. This is both to help you advance into more relevant roles, but also to improve your understanding of which policies are actually helpful. That said, many policy makers remain generalists. In that case, you need to make sure you find trusted expert advisors to help you understand which policy changes would be most helpful.

  4. Move into roles that put you in a better position to help tackle these problems. Focusing on pandemics again, you might aim to work at the Center for Disease Control and Prevention and then advance to more senior positions.

  5. Have an impact by using your position and expertise to improve policies and practices relevant to pressing global problems or bringing attention to neglected but important priorities.

Within this skill set, it’s possible to focus more on policy research or policy implementation. The first is about developing ideas for new policies, and involves an element of applied research skills, while the second is a bit more like an organisation building skill set and has an impact via making an important institution more efficient.

There’s also a spectrum of roles from roles that are more like being a technical specialist to those — like roles in political parties or running for elected office — that are more political and closer to engagement with the general public and current affairs.

In addition to roles actually within the relevant institutions, there are also “influencer” roles which aim to shape these institutions from the outside.

This includes jobs in think tanks, advocacy non-profits, journalism, academia, and even corporations, rather than within government.

The skills needed for influencer roles are similar to those needed for policy and political roles in many ways, but they also overlap a lot with skills in research and communicating ideas. These roles can be a better fit for someone who wants to work in a smaller organisation, is less comfortable with political culture, or wants to focus more on ideas rather than application.

In practice, people often move between influencer and government positions across their careers.

Some people think that to work in policy you have to be brilliant at networking.

That’s not quite true — as we’ve seen, depending on your role, you might focus more on understanding and researching policies, communicating ideas to a specific audience, or just really understanding your particular institution very well.

But it’s nevertheless true that networking skills are more important in building a policy and political skill set than, for example, if you wanted to work in a purely research — and you can learn more about how to network in our article on how to be successful in any job. In particular, multiple people — both in the US and in the UK — have told us that it’s important to be friendly and nice to others.

Finally, we’d like to emphasise the potential value of doing policy-style work in industry, especially if you’re interested in AI policy. While government policy is likely to play a key role in coordinating various actors interested in reducing the risks from advanced AI, internal policy, compliance work, lobbying, and corporate governance within the largest AI labs are also powerful tools. Collaboration between labs and government also requires work that may use similar skills, like stakeholder management, policy design, and trust-building.

Example people

How to evaluate your fit

This skill set is fairly broad, which also means it can potentially be a good fit for a wide variety of people. Don’t rule it out based on a hazy sense that government work isn’t for you!

For example, entering policy through building specific expertise can be a good fit for people interested in research careers but who would like to do something more practical. Many roles are totally unlike the stereotype of a politician endlessly shaking hands or what ‘government bureaucrat’ brings to mind.

How to predict your fit in advance

Here are some traits that seem likely to point towards being a great fit:

  • You have the potential to succeed at relationship-building and fitting in. In many of these roles, you need to be able to develop good relationships with a wide range of people in a short amount of time, come across as competent and warm in your interactions, genuinely want to add value and help others achieve their goals, consistently follow up and stay in touch with people, and build a reputation and be remembered.

    It helps to have empathy and social intelligence so that you can model other people’s viewpoints and needs accurately. It also helps if you can remember small details about people! You don’t necessarily need all these skills when you start out, but you should be interested in improving them.

    These skills are most important in more public-facing party-political positions and are also needed to work in large institutions. However, there are also roles focused more on applying technical expertise to policy, which don’t require these skills as much (though they’re still probably more important than in e.g. academia).

  • You can think of a relevant institution at which you can imagine yourself being relatively happy, productive, and motivated for a long time — while playing by the institution’s rules. Try speaking with later-career people at the institution to get as detailed a sense as possible of how long it will take to reach the kind of position you’re hoping for, what your day-to-day life will be like in the meantime, and what you will need to do to succeed.

  • Having the right citizenship. There are lots of influential and important policy roles in every country, so you should consider them wherever you live. But some roles in the US seem especially impactful — as do certain roles at large institutions like the EU. In particular, any of the roles within the US most relevant to the problems we think are most pressing — particularly in the executive branch and Congress — are only open to, or at least will heavily favour, American citizens. All key national security roles that might be especially important will be restricted to those with US citizenship, which is required to obtain a security clearance.

    If you’re excited about US policy in particular and are curious about immigration pathways and types of policy work available to non-citizens, see this blog post. Consider also participating in the annual diversity visa lottery if you’re from an eligible country, as this is low-effort and allows you to win a US green card if you’re lucky (getting a green card is the only way to become a citizen).

  • Being comfortable with political culture. The culture in politics, especially US federal politics, can be difficult to navigate. Some people we know have entered promising policy positions, but later felt like the culture was a terrible fit for them. Experts we’ve spoken to say that, in Washington, DC, there’s a big cultural focus on networking and internal bureaucratic politics to navigate. We’ve also been told that while merit matters to a degree in US government work, it is not the primary determinant of who is most successful. We’d expect this to be similar in other countries. People who think they wouldn’t feel able or comfortable to be in this kind of environment for the long term should consider whether other skills or institutions would be a better fit.

    That said, this does vary substantially by area and by role. Some roles, like working in a parliament or somewhere like the White House, are much more exposed to politics than others. Also, if you work on a hot button, highly partisan issue, you’re much more likely to be exposed to intense political dynamics than if you work on more niche, technocratic, or cross-party issues.

It’s useful if you can find ways to do cheap tests first, like speaking to someone in the area (which could take a couple of hours), or doing an internship (which could take a couple of months). But often, you’ll need to take a job in the area to tell whether this is a good fit for you — and be willing to switch after a year or more if it’s not. For more, read our article on finding a job that fits you.

How to tell if you’re on track

First, ask yourself “How quickly and impressively is my career advancing, by the standards of the institution I’m currently focused on?” People with more experience (and advancement) at the institution will often be able to help you get a clear idea of how this is going. (It’s also just generally important to have good enough relationships with some experienced people to get honest input from them — this is an additional indicator of whether you’re “on track” in most situations.)

One caveat to this is that the rate of advancement could really vary depending on the exact role you have in that institution. For example, in Congress, speed of promotion often has to do less with your abilities and more with timing and the turnover of the office. As a result, the better the office, the fewer people leave and the slower the pace of promotion; the opposite is often true for bad offices. So you need to make sure you’re judging yourself by relevant standards — again, people with more experience at the institution should be able to help here.

Another relevant question to ask is “How sustainable does this feel?” This question is relevant for all skills, but especially here — for government and policy roles, one of the main things that affects how well you advance is simply how long you can stick with it and how consistently you meet the institution’s explicit and implicit expectations. So, if you find you can enjoy government and political work, that’s a big sign you’re on track. Just being able to thrive in government work can be an extremely valuable comparative advantage.

One other way to advance your career in government, especially as it relates to a specific area of policy, is what some call “getting visibility” — that is, using your position to learn about the landscape and connect with the actors and institutions that affect the policy area you care about. You’ll want to be invited to meetings with other officials and agencies, be asked for input on decisions, and engage socially with others who work in the policy area. If you can establish yourself as a well-regarded expert on an important but neglected aspect of the issue, you’ll have a better shot at being included in key discussions and events.

How to get started building policy and political skills

There are two main ways you might get started:

  1. Institution-first. You’d start your career by trying to find a set of institutions that are a good fit for you and that seems at least relevant to the problems you think are most pressing (e.g. the executive branch of the US government or tech companies). You’d then try to move up the ranks of those institutions.
  2. Expertise-first. In this route, you initially focus on building a relevant speciality or area of expertise (e.g. in academia or think tanks) and then use that to switch into institutional positions later. In addition, people with impressive credentials and accomplishments outside of government (e.g. in business, consulting, or law) can sometimes enter important departments and agencies at particularly senior and influential levels.

If you take the institution-first approach, you can try for essentially any job at this institution and focus on performing well by the institution’s standards. All else being equal, it’d be better to work on jobs relevant to a pressing problem, but just trying to advance should probably be your main goal early in your career.

The best way to learn how to perform and advance is to speak to people a couple of steps ahead of you in the path. Also look at cases of people who advanced unusually quickly and try to unpack what they did.

Sometimes the best way to advance will involve going somewhere other than the institution itself temporarily. For instance, going to law school, public policy school, or working at think tanks can give you credentials and connections that open up positions in government later.

If you’re focused on developing expertise in a particular area of policy, then it’s common to go to graduate school in a subject relevant to that area (e.g. economics, machine learning, biology).

As always, whether these paths are a good way of building your skills depends on the specific job or programme and people you’ll be working with:

  • Will you get good mentorship?
  • What’s their reputation in the field?
  • Do they have good character?
  • Does their policy agenda seem positive?
  • Will the culture be a good fit for you?

With all that in mind, here are a few next steps that are especially good for building these skills:

Fellowships and leadership schemes

Fellowships can be an effective way to gain experience inside government or think tanks and can help you advance quickly into more senior government positions.

Some fellowships are aimed at people who already have some professional experience outside of policy but want to pivot into government roles, while others are aimed at recent graduates.

In the US, consider the Presidential Management Fellows for recent graduates of advanced degrees, the Horizon Fellowship, the AAAS fellowship for people with science PhDs or engineering master’s, or the TechCongress fellowship for mid-career tech professionals. If you have completed a STEM graduate degree, also consider the Mirzayan Science and Technology Policy Graduate Fellowship Program.

In the UK, try the Civil Service Fast Stream. And if you’re interested in EU AI policy, you can apply for the EU Tech Policy Fellowship. We also curate a list of UK / EU policy master’s options through our job board.

Graduate school

In general, we’d most recommend grad school for economics or machine learning. (Read more about why these are the best subjects to study at grad school.)

Some other useful subjects to highlight, given our list of pressing problems, include:

  • Other applied quantitative subjects, like computer science, physics, and statistics
  • Security studies, international relations, public policy, or law school, particularly for entering government and policy careers
  • Subfields of biology relevant to pandemic prevention (like synthetic biology, mathematical biology, virology, immunology, pharmacology, or vaccinology)

Many master’s programmes offer specific coursework on public policy, science and society, security studies, international relations, and other topics. Having a graduate degree or law degree will give you a leg up for many positions.

In the US, a policy master’s, a law degree, or a PhD is particularly useful if you want to climb the federal bureaucracy. Choosing a graduate school near or close to DC is often a good idea, especially if you’re hoping to work part- or even full-time in public policy alongside graduate school.

While you’re studying (either at grad school or as an undergraduate), internships — for example in DC — are a promising route to evaluate your fit for policy work and to establish early career capital. Many academic institutions in the US offer a “Semester in DC” programme, which can let you explore placements of choice in Congress, federal agencies, or think tanks. The Virtual Student Federal Service (VSFS) also offers part-time, remote government internships.

Just bear in mind that graduate schools present the risk that you could spend a long time there without learning much about the actual career you’re pursuing itself or the problem you want to work on. It may sometimes make sense to try out a junior role or internship, see how it feels, and make sure you’re expecting a graduate degree to be worth it before going for it.

Read more about going to grad school.

Working for a politician or on a political campaign

Working for a politician as a researcher or staffer (e.g. as a parliamentary researcher in the UK, legislative staff for a Member of Congress, or as campaign staff for an electoral candidate) can be one useful step into political and policy positions. It’s also demanding, prestigious (especially in the US, less so in the UK), and gives you lots of connections. From this step, it’s also common to move into the executive branch or to later run for office. Read more in our career review on becoming a congressional staffer.

You don’t strictly need a master’s or other advanced degree to work in the US Congress. But many staffers still eventually pursue a graduate degree, in part because federal agencies and think tanks commonly care more about formal credentials, and many congressional staffers at some point switch to these institutions.

You can also work for a politician on a particular campaign — some of the top people who work on winning campaigns eventually get high-impact positions in the federal government. This is a high-risk strategy: it often only pays off if your candidate wins, and even then, not everybody on the campaign staff will get influential jobs or jobs in the areas they care about, especially if you’re a junior campaign staffer. (Running for office yourself involves a similar high-risk, high-reward dynamic.)

Roles in the executive branch

Look for entry-level roles in your national government, again focusing on positions at the executive-branch equivalent or those most relevant to policy-making.

In the US, you could take an entry-level role as a federal employee, ideally working on something relevant to a problem you want to help solve or will give you the flexibility to potentially work on multiple pressing problems. The most influential positions are usually in the executive branch.

That said, most people have told us that, in the US, it’s even better to get a graduate degree first because it will allow you to reach higher levels of career advancement and seniority more quickly. A graduate degree could also qualify you for fellowships.

In the UK, see our profile on civil service careers.

Think tank roles

Think tanks are organisations that aren’t part of government but still focus on informing and ultimately influencing policymaking.

Research roles at policy think tanks involve conducting in-depth research on specific policy areas and formulating relevant recommendations. These researchers also often collaborate with experts, host events, engage with policymakers, and liaise with the media to influence and inform public policy discourse. This often involves fundraising, grant writing, and staying updated on political trends — and it can teach you many of the skills that are useful in government.

These roles are relatively competitive and you may have your reputation tied to particular institutions you work for — which can have upsides and downsides.

Think tanks also employ non-research staff in communications, HR, finance, and other areas; these roles are less likely to meaningfully impact policy outcomes, though they could still be a reasonable way to build policy career capital.

Also, think tank staff are often fairly cleanly split between entry-level employees and senior employees with advanced degrees (often PhDs), with relatively few mid-level roles. For this reason, it’s fairly uncommon for people to stay and rise through the ranks at a think tank without leaving for graduate school or another role.

These roles let you learn about important policy issues and can open up many options in policy. One option is to continue working in think tanks or other influencer positions, perhaps specialising in an area of policy. Otherwise, it’s common to switch from think tanks to the executive branch, a campaign, or other policy positions.

(Read more in our career review on working in think tanks.)

Other options

It’s also common to enter policy and government jobs from consulting and law, as well as other professional services, public relations, and business in general.

More broadly, having organisation-building skills (e.g. public relations, organisational communications, finance, and accounting knowledge) or research skills can help you find policy and political roles.

Find jobs that use policy and political skills

If you think you might be a good fit for this skill set and you’re ready to start looking at job opportunities that are currently accepting applications, see our curated list of opportunities.

    View all opportunities

    Once you have these skills, how can you best apply them to have an impact?

    Let’s suppose you now have a position with some ability to get things done in an important institution, and, from building expertise or an advisory network in particular pressing problems, you also have some ideas about the most important things you’d like to see happen. Then what should you do?

    Depending on the issue and your position, you might then seek to have an impact via:

    1. Improving the implementation of policy relevant to a pressing problem. For example, you could work at an agency regulating synthetic biology.

    2. Gathering support for policy ideas. For example, you could highlight the top areas of consensus in the field about promising ways the government could reduce global poverty to a politician you work for.

    3. Coming up with ideas for new policies. For example, you might craft new proposals for implementing compute governance policies.

    Improving the implementation of policies

    When people think about political careers, they usually think of people in suits having long debates about what to do.

    But fundamentally, a policy is only an idea. For an idea to have an impact, someone actually has to carry it out.

    The difference between the same policy carried out badly vs. competently can be enormous. For instance, during COVID-19, some governments reacted much faster than others, saving the lives of thousands of citizens.

    What’s more, many policies are by necessity, only defined vaguely. For instance, a set of drug safety standards might need to show there is “reasonable evidence” a drug is safe, but — as shown by Frances Kelsey — how that is interpreted is left up to the relevant agency and may even change over time.

    Many details are often left undecided when the policy is created, and again, these get filled out by government employees.

    This option especially requires skills like people and project management, planning, coordination in and out of government, communication, resource allocation, training, and more.

    So, if you can become great at one or more of these things (and really know your way around the institution you work in), it’s worth trying to identify large projects that might help solve the problems you think are most pressing — and then helping them run better.

    These roles are most commonly found in the executive branch such as the Defense Department, the State Department, intelligence agencies, or the White House. (See also our profile on the UK civil service.)

    Bringing ideas for new policies to the attention of important decision makers

    One way to have an impact is to help get issues “on the agenda” by getting the attention and buy-in of important people.

    For example, when politicians take office, they often enter on a platform of promises made to their constituents and their supporters about which policy agendas they want to pursue. They can be, to varying degrees, problem-specific — for example, having a broad remit of “improving health care.” Or, it could be more solution-specific — for example, aiming to create a single-payer health system or remove red tape facing critical industries. These agendas are formed through public discussion, media narratives, internal party politics, deliberative debate, interest group advocacy, and other forms of input. Using any of these ways to get something on the agenda is a great way to help make sure it happens.

    You can contribute to this process in political advisory positions (e.g. being a staffer for a congressperson) or through influencer positions, such as think tanks.

    As a rule of thumb, if you’re working within an institution (such as a large corporation or a government department), you want to be as senior as possible while still being responsible for a specific set of issues. In such a position, you’ll be in contact with all the key stakeholders, from the most senior people to those more on your level.

    But it’s important to remember that, for many important issues, policymakers or officials at various levels of government can also prioritise solving certain problems or enacting specific proposals that aren’t the subject of national debate. In fact, sometimes making issues too salient, framing them in divisive ways, or allowing partisanship and political polarisation to shape the discussion, can make it harder to successfully get things done.

    Coming up with ideas for new policies

    In many areas relevant to particularly pressing problems, there’s a lack of concrete policies that are ready to implement.

    Policy creation is a long process, often starting from broad intellectual ideas, which are iteratively developed into more practical proposals by think tanks, civil servants, political parties, advocates, and others, and then adjusted in response to their reception by peers, the media and the electorate, as well as political reality at the time.

    Once concrete policy options are on the table, they must be put through the relevant decision-making process and negotiations. In countries with strong judicial review like the US, special attention often has to be paid to make sure laws and regulations will hold up under the scrutiny of the courts.

    All this means there are many ways to contribute to policy creation in roles ranging from academia to government employees.

    Many policy details are only hashed out at the later stages by civil servants and political advisors. This also means there isn’t a bright line between policy creation and policy implementation — more a spectrum that blurs from one into the other.

    In the corporate context, internal policy creation can serve similar functions. Though they may be less enforceable unless backed up with contracts, the norms policies create can shape behaviour considerably.

    While policy research is the bread and butter of think tank work, many staffers in Congress, agencies, and the White House also develop policy ideas or translate existing ideas into concrete policy proposals. For many areas of technical policy, especially AI policy, some of the best policy research is being done at industry labs, like OpenAI and DeepMind. (Read more about whether you should take a job at a top AI lab.)

    For more details on the complex work of policy creation, we recommend Thomas Kalil’s article Policy Entrepreneurship in the White House: Getting Things Done in Large Organisations.

    Career paths we’ve reviewed that use these skills

    Learn more about government and policy

    See all our materials on policy and political careers.

    Read next:  Explore other useful skills

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    Notes and references

    1. Bren, Linda. “Frances Oldham Kelsey: FDA Medical Reviewer Leaves Her Mark on History“, FDA Consumer Magazine, U.S. Food and Drug Administration, 2001.

    2. As of October 2023, there were around 2,951,000 federal employees, of whom around 635,000 work for the US Postal Service.

      The Washington-Arlington-Alexandria metropolitan statistical area has around 370,000 federal employees.

      There are around 8,000 people in the SES and approximately 4,000 political appointees.

    3. There is substantial double-counting going on: the political appointee, Senior Executive Service (SES) employee, and federal employee can’t all have complete control over their entire budgets. In practice each person will be heavily constrained by their superiors, and managers will often need to delegate control of parts of their budgets to their teams. We do not know how budgetary control is divided between the different levels of seniority within government, but we would guess that this method greatly overestimates the influence of junior people and underestimates it for senior people.

    4. Kennedy, Edward M. True compass: A memoir. Twelve, 2009. Quoted in Kaiser, Robert G. Act of Congress: How America’s Essential Institution Works, and How It Doesn’t. Vintage Books, 2014. p. 28