Careers in Public Policy

Congress is a fast-paced world and offices have little time to invest in teaching new staff the legislative process. For that reason, legislative aide positions tend to be filled by people with prior experience in Congress. Many of these people started out as interns, staff assistants or legislative correspondents (the people who respond to mail). New members of Congress tend to "staff up" their offices with people who worked on their campaign. People who worked off the Hill, such as in conservation or industry groups, but on legislative issues are also competitive candidates for Hill jobs.

One of the best ways for scientists to get their foot into the halls of Congress is congressional fellowships. There are two well-known fellowship programs available to aquatic scientists: the NOAA Sea Grant Knauss policy fellowship (for those still in graduate school at time of application: and the AAAS congressional fellowship program (for those who have completed their Ph.D.: Through these fellowship programs, scientists are placed in a host office where they typically focus on a few issues (fewer than a career staffer would be responsible for). The fellow learns the legislative ropes and makes priceless contacts on the Hill, while the office benefits from having a specialist working on their staff, something they can rarely afford. Many fellows stay on the Hill or move to agency or non-governmental policy positions; in the aquatic policy world, a large percentage of the people in power are former Sea Grant fellows.

What skills are necessary for public policy jobs?

Communication Skills

Anyone working in public policy must have excellent communication skills, both written and verbal. Because of the fast-pace of the policy scene (a committee may call a hearing on a topic and ask for testimony to be delivered in the matter of a few days), policy professionals must be able to quickly synthesize information and prepare written reports on demand (sometimes within hours). Congressional staffers sometimes have less than an hour to prepare "talking points" for their boss to use in a phone call with an important constituent (CEO of a logging company, for example); as a congressional staffer, the author of this webpage once had less than 20 minutes to prepare talking points for such a conversation.

Interpersonal skills

Everyone working in policy has a constituency (i.e., a group of people they represent) and therefore must be able to work effectively with people. Policy professionals must build coalitions and work to resolve differences between members of their constituency. These tasks often require a great deal of diplomacy, as well as patience. In addition to being able to work effectively with people, someone interested in policy must truly enjoy working with people. Someone who prefers working independently with no interruptions all day would not do well in a policy position. Networking is a critical part of any policy professional's daily tasks, including after-hours receptions and "power lunches".

Ability to multitask and work under pressure

With few exceptions, policy professionals must work on a variety of issues that are dictated by the interests and actions of their constituency. While research scientists are accustomed to multi-tasking (teaching, experiments, writing, advising), schedules of a policy professional are largely out of their hands and are subject to change instantaneously. Things such as designated office hours for constituents and closed doors to prevent interruptions do not exist in most policy jobs. Likewise, weekly "to do" lists are difficult to create, let alone maintain, because world events often influence the legislative agenda. For example, following the anthrax attacks in the fall of 2001, several members of Congress introduced bills that would tighten regulations on universities active in research on bioweapons. Within a few days, policy representatives at several scientific societies were answering questions from congressional offices, reviewing draft legislation, responding to university concerns about proposed legislation, and having meetings with other interest groups on the issue. This sudden flurry of activity comes in addition to regular tasks such as tracking other legislation, writing board reports, lobbying for science funding, etc.

Likewise, congressional staffers must be able to advise their boss on votes, often with very little warning. Most scientists are trained to fully research and evaluate an issue before forming an opinion, so this can be a very difficult adjustment to make.

Where are policy jobs?

Geographically speaking, most policy-oriented jobs are located in Washington, D.C. While there are policy jobs at the state level (for example, natural resource policy advisor to the Governor of a state), the vast majority of jobs are at the federal level in Washington, D.C.

Legislative positions are available in Congress and the organizations that interact with Congress. Job responsibilities for most legislative positions are fairly similar; the main differences are the constituency and number of issues involved. Because of this similarity, we give a full job description in the section on "Congress" and note deviations from this description for the other jobs listed.


With few exceptions, this is the most fast-paced job in the policy world and is absolutely dependent on excellent interpersonal skills. Staff must constantly work to build consensus to accomplish their boss's policy goals. This involves meeting with constituents, federal agency staff, and other congressional staff. Congressional staffers spend 90% of their time communicating with other people and their ability to achieve results is highly dependent on their negotiation skills and political intuition.

Most importantly, to work in Congress you must be a generalist with excellent multi-tasking skills. Congressional staffers have a portfolio of issues. The number of issues handled by a staffer on the House side is typically much larger than on the Senate side (due to differences in office size). For example, a Senate staffer may handle environment, native american, and education issues. Also, committee staffers have fewer issues in their portfolio than personal staff; however, they are responsible for being experts on all of those issues and assist personal staff offices with their questions/concerns on the issues within the committee.

The hours are long and unforgiving - if Congress is in session until midnight debating a bill in your issue area, you must be there until midnight (and be back the next day at 9 a.m.). Time off is rare and limited to the congressional recess calendar - even then, many staff spend a good deal of recess back at the "home district" with their boss. The inflexibility of the congressional work schedule is a major adjustment for staff coming from academic backgrounds.

Conservation and industry organizations

Many scientists work as policy experts at conservation and industry organizations. People in these positions tend to track and comment on legislation related to their group's agenda. They spend time working with members of Congress and their staff trying to obtain their help in pushing (or fighting) a legislative proposal important to their group. Scientists working as policy experts at these institutions are often better able to focus their energy on specific issues than scientists working in Congress.

Scientific societies

While fairly rare, some scientific societies have an executive office with a public policy component. Unlike conservation or industry groups, scientific societies typically take a different approach to public policy by trying to provide objective, timely information into the hands of the right people, without arguing for a specific policy position. The types of issues a scientific society policy representative works on may include: funding for scientific research (e.g. NSF), scientific ethics and guidelines, evolution in the classroom, or working with federal agencies to improve the quality of their science.

Federal Agencies

Because of the strict guidelines for interactions between federal employees and Congress, federal agencies usually have an office of legislative affairs that is solely responsible for interactions with Congress. People working as legislative affairs specialists are responsible for preparing agency officials for congressional briefings and hearings, as well as answering inquiries from congressional offices. Unlike other policy positions outside of government, legislative affairs specialists for agencies typically spend their time answering requests and questions from members of Congress, rather than requesting support for initiatives.

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