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Spring 2007 Vol. 51, Number 1

Policy analysts: Shaping society through research and problemsolving
Sadie Blanchard


Getting started and moving up


Policy analysts must be able to do independent research, which requires reading and digesting complex information. They communicate effectively through speaking and writing. They must work well in groups but also be self-starters able to work alone on a project. And they need patience to study one subject for a long time.

In addition to these skills and traits, policy analysts need specific types of education and experience to start their careers.

Education. Most, but not all, policy analysts have a graduate degree, such as a law (J.D.), doctorate (Ph.D.), or masterís degree. The required educational background depends on the employer, the subject being studied, and the analystís work experience.

Common fields of study include economics, public policy, and political science. But other policy analysts have a degree in education, business administration, philosophy, or psychology. And many analysts have a degree related to a specific area of expertise, such as when a healthcare analyst has a medical degree.

Analysts often choose to specialize in a field related to their degree and then later branch into other areas. Consider analystóand geologistóLaTourette. He began by using his geology education to evaluate programs in mineworker safety. Later, he built on his experience in safety to help establish terrorism preparedness guidelines.

Policy analysts who donít have an advanced degree can sometimes gain expertise in another way, and then establish themselves through writing and publishing. For example, one policy analyst at a large D.C. think tank started as a Web administrator. He earned a good reputation as an expert in civil liberties issues by writing freelance articles and maintaining a popular blog. Persuaded by his growing reputation, the think tank eventually hired him as an analyst.

Experience. Some people begin working as policy analysts immediately after graduate school. But because most employers seek analysts who are already experts on specific topics or in public policy in general, even entry-level analysts usually have some work experience.

Would-be analysts can start getting experience while still in school. Many college campuses have student organizations dedicated to particular public policy topics, and many offer open lectures and debates hosted by the public policy or political science department.

Some analysts get experience, and expertise, by working as college or university professors. In fact, many senior fellows at think tanks work as university professors at the same time, in part because much of the work at think tanks is similar to work in academia.

Other analysts gain expertise by starting in lower-level jobs related to policy. In some government agencies, for example, entry-level program analysts assist with policy work. Still other analysts have worked at nonprofit organizations, such as advocacy groups.

Advisory, policy, or executive experience at a government agency or on a Congressional staff is another common background for beginning analysts. Social scientists who do statistical or other kinds of analysis can also sometimes move into the policy arena. And working as a journalist or freelance writer covering current events has helped some analysts get their start.

Analysts interested in working for a policy organization that covers a particular sector often need more specific work experience. For example, the Urban Instituteís International Housing and Finance Team requires policy analysts to have 5 years of legal experience in mortgage finance, real estate, banking, or a related field.

Advancement. Like workers in most occupations, policy analysts who succeed in their work are often promoted. Advancement is usually based on how much work has been published, the extent of public speaking at conferences and public forums, the ability to attract clients or funding, or the influence of the analystís work.

Some policy analysts go on to a more politically focused career. After gaining experience, they might work for political campaigns, for political parties, or on Congressional staffs.

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Last Updated: February 15, 2007