Public Policy

Generally, public policy is defined as what government (any public official who influences or determines public policy, including school officials, city council members, county supervisors, etc.) does or does not do about a problem that comes before them for consideration and possible action.  Public policy problems are those that must be addressed by laws and regulations adopted by government.

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Key attributes of the public policy field are:

  • Policy is made in response to some sort of issue or problem that requires attention. Policy is what the government chooses to do (actual) or not do (implied) about a particular issue or problem.

  • Policy might take the form of law, or regulation, or the set of all the laws and regulations that govern a particular issue or problem.

  • Policy is made on behalf of the "public."

  • Policy is oriented toward a goal or desired state, such as the solution of a problem.

  • Policy is ultimately made by governments, even if the ideas come from outside government or through the interaction of government and the public.

  • Policymaking is part of an ongoing process that does not always have a clear beginning or end, since decisions about who will benefit from policies and who will bear any burden resulting from the policy are continually reassessed, revisited and revised.

(modified from Center for Civic Education)

Careers in public policy tend to have an interdisciplinary approach combining economics, sociology, political economy, program evaluation, policy analysis and public management in relations to governmental administration, management and operations. While most people tend to work in the public sector, there are some career options in the private sector that deals with public policy issues and analysis from an industry perspective.  Key components include:

  • Work in the public, private, non-profit and non-governmental sectors
  • Committed to serving local, national, and global communities
  • Improving research, scholarship, and policy-making decisions
  • Emphasis on tackling “wicked problems”

Learn more about public policy careers through the following resources:

Get Experience

Confirm your interest, prepare academically and develop the necessary skills and experience:

Academic Preparation

There are no preferred majors and courses that guarantee admissions.  Many universities do not have a specific undergraduate program in Public Policy.  While some schools offer public policy minors and majors, it is more important to gain relevant skills and competencies that prepare you while pursuing a major you are interested in. Basic background in economics and statisitics is highly recommended as well as strong analytical, writing, and communication skills. A secondary language is also important if you are pursuing an international focus.

Core competencies that are relevant to any policy position include:

  • analytical thinking
  • building collaborative relationships
  • communication
  • creativity and innovation
  • diagnostic information gathering
  • functional expertise
  • results orientation
  • strategic focus

In addition, NIH provides a suggested competency model based on the Public Affairs Series set by the US Office of Personnel Management, which outlines the technical and non-technical competencies needed for individuals working in the Pubic Affairs job function. 

While there are no preferred majors, your academic majors and minors may be determined by what issues and subfields you are interested in working with.  Examples include energy, transportation, healthcare and access, education, poverty and income inequality, etc.  You also want to consider what approach you want to use to analyze those issues. Some examples are as follows:

  • Business or market systems approach
  • Social sciences research approach
  • Statistical and engineering approach
  • Feminist or gender studies approach
  • Disability public policy approach
  • Universal vs person-centred approaches
  • Family studies, theories and community development

Graduate School

Before applying to graduate school, you want to consider whether graduate school is right for you. You want to ask yourself if you actually need a graduate degree to do your ideal job.  To explore that, try looking at some job descriptions of the types of positions you want and see what they are asking for in an applicant.  Once you've determine if graduate school is necessary then you want to select and apply to the program that best fits your professional goals.  Upon completing a graduate program in public policy, you should aim to have the following basic skills: critical thinking, research, data analysis, qualitative, quantitative, spatial analysis, and communication skills. It also depends on the types of position you are interested in. Read the public policy guide pdf_icon for more information about the field.

  • Master of Public Administration (MPA)
  • Master of Public Policy (MPP)
  • Master in more specialized sub-field (social welfare, urban planning, international affairs)
  • PhD in Public Administration/Policy

Researching programs

Application Process 

Paying for graduate school


Examples of employment (not inclusive)

Public sector

  • Federal agencies (FEMA, USAID, NSF, EPA)
  • Federal departments (HHS, HUD, Commerce, Energy, Transportation, Education, Labor, State)
  • State government departments, commissions
  • County governments and districts
  • City and municipal governments
  • Local or regional agencies (SANDAG, Water)
  • Border agencies, sister city programs
  • Public and higher education institutions
Non-profit and non-governmental sector
  • Charitable foundations
  • International relief organizations
  • Think tanks and policy research
  • Special interest or lobbying groups
  • Educational agencies
  • Cultural exchange organizations
  • Human rights and civil rights groups
  • Economic development agencies
Private sector
  • Banking
  • Consulting firms
  • Manufacturing
  • Media
  • Investment Firms
  • Transnational Organizations

Examples of positions (not inclusive)

  • Local government analyst
  • Program coordinator
  • Lobbyist
  • Program assistant/manager
  • Policy analyst
  • Statistician
  • Research associate
  • Marketing specialist
  • City manager/chief administration officer
  • Consultant
  • Analyst
  • Director of External Relations
  • Operations manager
  • Foreign Service Officer
  • Foundation fellow
  • Project coordinator/manager

For additional help, come into the Career Services Center or schedule an appointment with a Career Advisor via Port Triton. Learn more about your Career Advisors and their specializations at the staff directory page.