Careers in Public Affairs and Public Policy

Description of the Field

Public affairs and public policy focus on the complex process of transforming theory into application with the involvement, collaboration, and influence of numerous individuals, interest groups, government agencies, international bodies, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs). The goal of public policy makers and public affairs workers is to create and implement the most efficient and effective solutions for issues within the public sphere regarding areas such as healthcare, education, energy, the environment, defense and security, transportation, and resource management. Issues in the public sphere require extensive economic analysis, research, legislation, and monitoring to ensure that new policies will have their intended effects or that the negative impacts of enacted policies are minimized.

Economics, which aims to understand the world through a scientific lens, plays a critical role in public affairs and public policy. In fact, undergraduate and graduate studies in public policy are a combination of politics and economics where economic models, theories, and econometric methods are used to analyze public policy issues, evaluate current policies, and attempt to create more effective policies.

Public affairs and public policy workers may serve as the designers or as the implementers of policies. As designers they may work as the analysts, researchers, theorists and consultants for governments. As implementers they may fill roles as legislators, moderators, and enforcers of enacted policies. Whether closer to one side of the process or the other, all workers in public affairs and public policy make important contributions that affect the laws and regulations which govern and impact every individual in a society.

On the Job

Even entry level positions within the field of public policy often require rather extensive background knowledge and education within the field of public administration[1] or public policy, especially for work in research or analysis. However, government departments do hire undergraduates for work in public policy and sometimes even offer programs to develop recent graduates, such as the Secretary’s Honor Program (SHP) and the Acquisition Professional Career Program[2] offered by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Consulting firms that work in areas of public policy (health, education, welfare policies) may also hire recent graduates to be associate analysts or to fill other positions in management.

Some of the career programs are intended to develop recent graduates’ technical and leadership skills within specific sectors of the department while others are opportunities for recent graduates to learn about the department and receive placement into an appropriate permanent position. Both internships and entry-level positions are available at the federal or state level. For work in intergovernmental organizations, such as the United Nations, more work experience, and likely graduate education, is required even when going into a development program.

As a recent hire at a public policy consulting firm, you will most likely be an associate analyst within a specific policy area. For example, with an interest and background in health economics, you may have the position of a health policy associate and work with a team of other analysts on specific health policy related projects. Many of the clients for public policy consulting firms are government agencies that seek analyses, statistical methods, resources, and evaluative work from experts in the private sector. Public sector institutions often look to the resources and methods of private firms in order to assess the effectiveness of recently implemented programs or to streamline and reduce waste on previous policy measures.

Finally, many non-governmental organizations and non-profits that engage in public policy research, produce publications, or promote discussion on public policy issues hire recent graduates for a variety of positions. Entry-level work often involves researching policy impacts, analyzing key policy issues and writing reports or articles, producing web content, or organizing events for policy forums and contacting speakers in the field. Think tank, non-partisan, and non-profit organization The Century Foundation (TCF)[3] offers analyses in public policy and convenes the best thinkers to study a range of public policy questions. TFC hires interns and undergraduates to fill roles as researchers in specific policy areas, such as domestic policy, international policy, and education policy. The Aspen Institute[4] is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington D.C. Its mission is to foster leadership and provide a non-partisan forum for dealing with critical issues. Institutes and foundations like these will often provide internship and fellowship programs as well as entry-level positions for those with public policy interests. Those who wish to be in the forefront of academically focused policy thinking and work with experts in public policy can benefit greatly from interning or working for an NGO, non-profit, or non-partisan policy organization.

Career Paths

The field of public affairs and public policy involves many actors and careers extending from the public sector to private and non-profit sectors. In the public sphere, federal, state, and local government agencies hire public policy specialists, policy analysts, and researchers to fill many positions. Federal, state, and local government careers in public affairs also include politicians, city managers and administrators, city budget directors, economic development coordinators, and more. In the private sphere, consulting firms, research groups, policy think tanks, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and non-profits also look to hire individuals with public administration and public policy backgrounds.

Federal Government

Public affairs and public policy related work in the federal government incorporate a wide range of positions and executive departments. You may work in the U.S. Department of Energy, U.S. Department of the Treasury, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, be a presidential economic advisor, or act as a politician involved in policy legislation.

The federal executive departments hire policy directors, researchers, analysts, advisors, and specialists to fill many roles within the various branches under their jurisdiction. For example, a policy analyst working for the Department of the Interior’s National Park Service (NPS) may be located in the Water Rights Branch and be responsible for “formulating policy recommendations and providing technical assistance to quantify, secure, and protect water rights and surface-water and ground-water nationwide.”[5] More specific activities would include documenting and maintaining water rights records; negotiating and implementing agreements that protect NPS water resources; monitoring and enforcing NPS-held water rights.5

An Accounting Policy Advisor in the Department of the Treasury’s Office of the Comptroller of the Currency would have very different job responsibilities. The Accounting Policy Advisor would be responsible for monitoring and interpreting the effects of industry developments and how accounting issues will impact the supervision of national banks and federal savings associations.[6] The Accounting Policy Advisor would also counsel senior management and staff members of national banks on accounting practices and issues, design and implement programs to ensure that relevant management is educated on new policies and standards in accounting, and research and present on accounting issues at district offices.6

A Director of Financial Policy and Operations at the Department of General Services Administration’s Office of the Chief Financial Officer would “serve as the principal advisor to the Chief Financial Officer on financial and accounting policy.”[7] The Director would formulate policy, conduct financial analysis, provide financial reporting, and oversee financial internal control.7

State or Local Government

County or City Managers/Administrators will use public administration skills to manage various aspects of municipal operations. They may work on budgeting with the finance officer or director, managing resources, facilitating transportation and construction operations, coordinating projects and conducting research with police forces, and implementing reforms in education or employment policies. There are a variety of tasks and individuals a County or City Manager/Administrator administers and directs.

A State or County Management Analyst’s role is to analyze, research, and evaluate budgets, operations, policies, and other elements of state or city government. An understanding of public policy, as well as quantitative analysis skills, is necessary for this position.

An Economic Development Director is responsible for developing initiatives and programs in order to help the economic development of a specific community. A director may be tasked with evaluating various economic programs and policies and deciding which model to implement within a specific community. The director completes all associated tasks with the program, from hiring new employees to analyzing the end results and impacts of the initiative. Individuals with education and background in economics, development policies, and management will have important skills required for this career.

Public Works Directors oversee the operation, administration, and maintenance of city services and utilities such as street maintenance, the delivery of clean drinking water, and the treatment of wastewater. He or she may work with city or county board members to discuss and plan new utilities or facilities. This job may also require budget planning for new programs. Individuals with public administration knowledge, understanding of public utilities, and financial and economic skills will be well suited for this role.

Private Firms, Institutions, & Think Tanks

Private policy firms and institutions may also be referred to as research institutions, think tanks, or consulting firms. Research institutions and think tanks usually only hire very experienced individuals with advanced degrees in public policy and areas of expertise, such as education, health economics, development economics, or environmental economics. Consulting firms that specialize in public policy or have areas dedicated to it are more likely to hire undergraduates with some background in public policy in addition to their economics degree.

Policy Consultants play an interesting role in the public affairs and public policy field. Often, consultants advise government agencies and evaluate government programs in order to devise better solutions. As a policy consultant, you will likely be focused in a specific area of policy (education, healthcare, welfare, etc.) but every project will be different and present new challenges. Though a large number of your clients will be government agencies, a consultant will still have the benefit of working with other types of institutions. Policy consultants have the opportunity to exert great influence over the development of government programs and policies due to the research, expertise, and resources they bring in.

Public Policy Researchers/Analysts are generally hired at policy research institutions, but may also work for the government, NGOs, and non-profits. Public policy research may include working with a broad range of individuals (other research institutions, NGOs, policy experts, scholars) so that the most current policy literature may be analyzed and new suggestions and theories may be made. Those interested in pursuing policy research and analysis should consider obtaining a Ph.D. in public policy.


Non-governmental organizations and non-profits may also hire policy researchers/analysts to objectively debate policy issues and make recommendations, or hire lobbyists to make their interest group’s demands heard by the government. Policy related careers are also available in international organizations such as the United Nations, International Monetary Fund, the World Bank Group, and Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).


Since public affairs and public policy related work is found in virtually every career field, the growth and outlook for public affairs and public policy jobs are dependent on the growth and outlook of their associated industries. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, some of the fastest growing jobs are in the healthcare industry implying that careers in healthcare policy are growing as well.[8] Growth for public affairs and public policy careers also depends on when key issues arise in society. Recently, the public eye has been focused on ObamaCare and the future of healthcare. As a result, there may be a larger drive to employ individuals with an understanding of healthcare policy. The impact of the 2008 recession has also created much debate on macroeconomic policies and continues to be a hot policy area, while concerns over environmental protection and the possible effects of global warming have drawn many scientists and economists to reevaluate current environmental policies. In this sense, public affairs and public policy is a dynamic field that changes with how society reacts to various political or economic occurrences, global events, and scientific discoveries.

Qualifications Necessary to Enter the Field

While being an economics major will equip you with many of the skills necessary for careers in public affairs and public policy, employers will also wish to see public administration or public policy coursework. An education in public administration and public policy may be pursued in a variety of ways at U.Va. Firstly, the Economics Department offers a public policy concentration that requires some additional coursework to supplement your economics degree with public policy knowledge. While this concentration may help you obtain your first public affairs or public policy career, it is the Master of Public Administration/Public Policy (MPA/MPP) that is considered the terminal degree for public service careers—meaning that those who earn the Master’s will not usually need additional education for their careers (similar to an MBA for business)[9]. Having the MPA/MPP will open significantly more competitive career opportunities. You may also consider a Master’s degree in Public Health for health-related public affairs careers.

A few universities, including U.Va, now offer a joint Bachelor of Arts/Master of Public Policy

(BA/MPP). At U.Va, you may apply to enter the BA/MPP program at the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy during your third year and earn both degrees in five years. If you do not wish to complete a joint degree, after graduation you may also apply for the Master of Public Policy at the Batten School, which is completed in two years. [See the section titled ‘Internet Resources’ under ‘Additional Resources’ for links to these study programs at U.Va.]

Pursuing a Ph.D. in Public Policy will put you on a different career track than those with a Master of Public Administration/Public Policy. Ph.D. programs in public administration/public policy focus on training candidates to conduct sophisticated research. Ph.Ds. may seek employment at universities, consulting firms, research institutions, and think tanks. Since the Ph.D. track is much different than the Master’s, most Ph.D. programs in public administration/public policy do not require prospective students to first earn a MPA/MPP.9

Sample Group of Employers

Public Sector



Intergovernmental Organization (IGO)

Non-profit/Non-governmental Organizations (NGO/Policy Centers)

Private Sector

Selected U.Va. Organizations/CIOS

For a full list of organizations at UVA, please see:

                Alexander Hamilton Society

                Blueprint Leadership Program

                Circle K International

                College Council

`               College Republicans

                Economics Club

                Student Council

                Student Entrepreneurs for Economic Development (SEED)

                Students for Individual Liberty (SIL)

                Virginia Policy Review

                Women’s Business Forum at McIntire

                Women in Policy

Sample UVA Career Programs

Public Policy and Non-Profit Career Talk sponsored by ECO

Resources for Additional Information

Internet Resources

Public Policy Job Boards

LinkedIn Groups

Cited Sources

[1] Public administration refers to the academic study of the implementation of public policy

[2] Secretary’s Honor Program (SHP) and the Acquisition Professional Career Program -

[3] The Century Foundation –

[4] The Aspen Institute –

[5] Policy Analyst Job Posting -

[6] Accounting Policy Advisor Job Posting -

[7] Director of Financial Policy and Operations Job Posting -

[8] Bureau of Labor Statistics, Fastest Growing Occupations (2010-20) -

[9] Public Service Careers: Education for Public Service Careers -