26 November 2012

In which I piggy back on another blogger's advice column

Asymmetric Info | Megan McArdle | Ask the Blogger

Dear Blogger:

Which leaves me with something of a middle choice: masters programs. I'm very interested in pursuing an MPP--it seems most of those policy-related jobs that used to be available to smart BAs now require a law degree or an MPP.
I've heard statements like "I'm really interested in public policy" way too often in the last year.  I'm trying my best to take off my libertarian hat here, and I still can't find any way of translating such statements into anything other than "I'm really interested in figuring out how to tell other people how to live their lives." Seriously, non-wookies, fill me in here. I'm sure most of the people who say "I want to do public policy" do have pure intentions, but how is this different from wanting to order other peoples' lives?
[From McArdle's response.] And second, to pay very close attention to the ranking of your school within your field of graduate study. Yale has the number one law school, and an MBA program with a so-so reputation. People often erroneously assume that a top-ranked school in a field they know well must mean that all the programs are good. But even a school like Yale has some notso-hotso graduate programs.
This is very, very important.

People have pretty good background knowledge of how undergrad programs stack up. Those rankings are only loosely correlated with grad schools rankings. In turn, those are only loosly corrleated with the rankings of departments in particular fields. And then those are only loosely aligned with sub-specialties within fields. Without even considering which lab you work in or who your advisor is, either of which have their own rankings and prestige, we're already pretty much entirely uncoupled from what you read in USN&WR or Princeton Review a few years ago.
Those of us who have been working for longer have noticed that shockingly few of our acquaintances are still doing data entry or driving a fork lift twenty years later. As long as you're actively looking for the next thing, and talking to employers about how you might become the worker they want, you will eventually figure out what you're good at, and find a better job.
I know too many people who are terrified of sitting down with their boss and asking what they need to do to take the next step up the ladder. They're scared enough of that confrontation (or scared that the boss will tell them to work harder/longer than they want to?) that they decide to take huge gambles on multi-year graduate programs or fliers on total career shifts instead.

"Making assistant manager is hard." Okay, sure. "So I'm quitting and going to law school." Right. Because that isn't hard. Or time consuming. Or expensive.

"I don't see there being much a career path for me at IniTech." Alright. "So I'm quitting to take an internship with an event planner in Denver." I think what you meant to say was "I like reading wedding magazines and it would give me an excuse to be on the bottom rung of the ladder for a few more years."


  1. I "am interested in public policy" as in, I currently work at a policy research institution and before that, I worked for the government (first at the state level and then at the federal level). Most of the people I have worked with have had MPPs or MPAs--a few have had law degrees (which was a horrible mistake). Most of us worked in communications, administration, or technical support--internal or external. That is to say, the degree was virtually required for advancement although none of us was in the business of "telling people how to live their lives." The laws were passed and how those laws would be executed was decided way above our pay grade. We were there to help, seriously...not in an ironic, alluding-to-Reagan way.

    My job now has a lot more to do with "telling people how to live their lives" in that I do research on various policy options and them make recommendations that I hope legislators will follow. However, now most of my coworkers are either ex-legislators (no degree required, but lots of JDs) or PhDs. But even now, I don't think of myself as "telling people how to live their lives." In many ways the reports I write recommend less government intervention--which I suppose is "telling people how to live their lives" through advancing liberty of choice--but I don't think that's what you meant. I guess the short way to say this second part is that I bet there's more than a handful of MPPs walking the halls at the Cato Institute. "Being interested in public policy" doesn't necessarily mean "I want to pass more regulation."

    Now if you are specifically asking about whether or not someone in the business of passing new regulations is interested in "telling people how to live their lives" then, yes...that's what that means. However, I still think there's room to be sympathetic. Someone who wants to get their hands dirty fixing public policy recognizes that there is already a reality where human lives are structured both socially and legal(-instititional)ly. In those situations where regulation is important, I want to make sure that we have good ones. Hopefully your friends are too, and that's why they're interested in joining the gray suits in the dim hallways. It's not like you go into that business for the dollar dollar bills.

  2. Thanks for the reply. This is what I needed to bring myself down to earth a little. I was being ungenerous when I wrote that. My own mother has an MPA. I'm sure Cato and IJ and other groups are staffed up by people who figure that if there's going to be policy, it might as well be good policy.

    I think part of why this grinds my gears might be my demographic. When I overhear some early-twenties kid on campus talking about "being super interested in pursuing public policy," I can't help but feel there's something a little arrogant about that. Dude, what have you done? Go do something before you try and set the rules about how other people do things.

  3. PS Compared to the other careers some of these people are qualified for, I think "public policy" is actually fairly remunerative. Yeah, they won't be raking it in, but it's not like most of them have the option of being a petrochem engineer or neurosurgeon instead.

  4. "Public policy" can be both fun and remunerative, if you get a good job in an interesting part of the government. If you use the revolving door principle, it can be VERY remunerative, as you take your govt expertise out into the private sector and sell your skills as a consultant. If you become a lifer, you can end up with quite a good pension, at a very reasonable age, after a career in govt.

    Some people in govt are activists who really do want to tell people how to live. Some don't want to tell people how to live, but want to have some input in how those regs are written so that they are better than what the activists would write. Some people stay just outside govt, but work as policy wonks in think tanks writing stuff that is used to influence the politicians and bureaucrats. I used to regulate nuclear power plants and the various jobs I held required interactions with industry, local, state, and federal govt, and even foreign govts and international organizations.

    The activists tend to be young, while the govt bureaucrats tend to be middle-aged/older, and have experience from outside the govt before they enter public service. These people are the most effective, because they have real-world experience to bring to the discussion. The young activists have a lot of passion and energy, but they don't have any experience, and therefore their wisdom is a bit lacking. We used to bring in people straight out of school and put them thru an intern- training program several years long. It was a good idea, but I personally think that the people who made careers in govt like this did not have any outside experience to temper their govt experience, and it showed in the way that they talked to the private sector. The ones that became inspectors were particularly difficult.

    On a separate topic, could you include either Discus or Yahoo on your approved commenter list? My wife (jlm) would prefer that the comments that I register here be mine alone, and not associated with her.

  5. (1) I've lived in and around DC long enough to have met all the types of people you mention. What you said makes a pretty good outline for a field guide.

    (2) I would totally count people doing policy analysis for think tanks, etc. as being attracted to telling other people how to live. That sounds more judgmental than I mean it to be. What I mean is that the same motivation exists (whether benevolent or malevolent) whether the form it takes is writing white papers or legislation itself.

    (3) I don't think you even need a revolving door to make policy positions that financially attractive, if you're looking at them relative to the jobs a lot of the people I meet might realistically expect to get otherwise. No, they're never going to get rich editing position papers. But most of the people I've met on that career path don't have other opportunities to get rich that they're turning down. They're doing about as well as they would do no matter what job they took. Some could have gone to law school, but even that is a negative NPV for a majority of people now. A subset of the less geeky, more personable ones might make good salesmen. Other than that, there's not many rich opportunities for someone with a PolySci/History/American Studies/Misc. Liberal Arts BA. The young policy worker is making a lot less than their classmate the CPA or the IT consultant, but they're doing pretty well compared to their classmate who's waiting tables and brewing coffee, which is a really big chunk of college graduates these days.

    (4) I'll look into other commenting systems today. I'm not particularly pleased with the default system, but I haven't looked into changing it in well over a year.