7 Steps to a Career in Public Policy

  • Published on June 7, 2020

Erica Mattison, MPA, JD, CCSP

Erica Mattison, MPA, JD, CCSP

Mission-driven leader & strategist supporting sustainable, healthy, equitable communities | Career coach & presenter

Oftentimes I meet people who say, “I want to work in public policy, but I don’t know where to get started.” There are a variety of opportunities and career paths for people who are interested in public policy. To share advice about how to pursue a career in public policy, I recently hosted a free Virtual Career Chat for a gathering of people from around the U.S. and beyond.

"I now have a better understanding of the variety of opportunities that exist in public policy." - Natalie B., Virtual Career Chat participant

From my own experience as a volunteer and staff person as well as experience mentoring and coaching dozens of individuals, I have learned that it’s important to develop a vision for what you want to do, while being open to opportunities and persistent. I provide one-on-one coaching to support individuals in clarifying and pursuing their career goals (learn more).

My path demonstrates that there are a variety of ways for mission-driven individuals to gain experience in public service and policy making. This is possible even in a remote capacity. For those seeking to enter public policy or make a career pivot, volunteering is a great way to form relationships, learn about issues you care about, contribute to causes that are important to you, and build relevant skills. This will help you have an impact as well as open the door to various opportunities.

Overview of Erica's career path, including many volunteer experiences

Read on for 7 steps to pursue a public policy career…

#1: Understand the sectors

All three sectors present opportunities to work in the public policy space. Get to know more about the sectors:

  • Public
  • Private
  • Third sector: non-governmental, non-profit, values driven

For each sector there are specialized websites and job boards for researching opportunities and organizations.

Three sectors: public, private, nonprofit

Check out “10 Myths About Working in the Nonprofit Sector” (Idealist.org)

#2: Hone in on your top issues

What issues are you most passionate about? By determining the issues you care most about, it will help you narrow down your options. A few examples:

  • Agriculture
  • Climate change
  • Elections
  • Housing
  • Immigration
  • Land use
  • Public health
  • Social justice
  • Transportation

The National Conference of State Legislatures website is a great resource for 1) browsing topic areas and 2) conducting in-depth research to increase your awareness.

#3: Analyze your strengths, skills, and potential roles

By reflecting on your skills, strengths and the type of work you most enjoy, you can gain clarity about potential types of public policy roles to pursue. Just a few examples include:

  • Community Organizer
  • Data Analyst
  • Government & Public Affairs Coordinator
  • Lobbyist
  • Outreach & Communications Specialist
  • Policy Associate
  • Research Assistant

How do I gain an understanding of my skills and strengths? (50 ways to get a job)

Tip: Reading a wide variety of job descriptions on a site such as LinkedIn can help you narrow down the types of roles you might be interested in and identify potential roles of interest. (See also the Job Boards section on my website for more sources of job descriptions for a variety of topics.)

#4: Hone in on specific organizations of interest

Now that you have a good idea of the topics and types of roles you’re interested in, it’s time to do some research so you can create a list of your target organizations. Here’s what to do:

  1. Identify organizations in your target markets (e.g., Chicago)
  2. Research these organizations and key players (for instance, not just staff, but also board members, partner organizations, funders, etc.)
  3. Start to form connections by engaging online (subscribe to email lists, connect on social media, read content on their websites, etc.)

Tip: GuideStar is the world’s largest source of information on nonprofit organizations.

Guidestar - largest source on nonprofit organizations

#5: Educate yourself on public policy

Now it’s time to learn the policy making basics for your top areas of interest. Examples:

  • Relevant terminology (e.g., statutes vs. regulations)
  • Structure for the relevant topics and jurisdictions (e.g., separation of powers, relevant legislative committees and executive agencies)
  • Processes (policy making, budgeting, rule making)
  • Key governing laws (e.g., if an area of interest is clean water, familiarize yourself with clean water laws at the federal, state, regional, and local levels)
  • Proposed laws (openstates.org is a useful resource for searching and tracking legislation)

Tip: By becoming knowledgeable about these areas, you will increase your value to organizations and build your strength as a job candidate. Government websites, news articles, and nonprofit organization websites can all serve as valuable sources for your research. State library websites such as State Library of Massachusetts can be great resources for learning about laws and more.

#6: Gain experience

You don’t need to wait until you secure a job to gain experience. Volunteering provides many mutual benefits. A few options:


There are different types of campaigns such as issue (policy) campaigns and candidate campaigns. There are different scopes as well: local, state, national, international.


Research your local and state elected officials to find out if they’re working on something with which you might want to assist. If they are, reach out and volunteer to assist. You might be able to contribute by doing research, writing, outreach, or something else.

Nonprofit organizations:

Start by volunteering. Learn about an organization’s needs and explore how you might assist. Then consider taking your commitment to the next level by joining the board.

Small businesses:

What businesses in your community might be able to benefit from your assistance?

#7: Build relationships

Strong relationships are key to leading a fulfilling life.

“Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.” – Helen Keller

  • People are more likely to recommend and hire people they know, like, and trust.
  • You have a whole network you may not even realize. (LinkedIn + a spreadsheet can be a powerful combination for tracking, engaging with, and growing your network.)
  • What have you got to lose by reaching out?
  • Meet new people by participating in webinars and online events…then follow up.
  • Don’t only reach out to people when you have a request. Get in the habit of providing value. Get to know others’ needs and goals and explore how you might be able to lend support.
By Erica Mattison
Erica Mattison