How to Become a Public Policy Professional

Carol Becker is a professor of public policy at Hamline University, where she teaches courses in public fiscal management. She has been a public policy professor for the past four years. Carol earned an undergraduate degree in geography and a Master of Public Policy, both at the University of Minnesota. She then went on to pursue her PhD in public administration at Hamline University. Prior to entering academia, Carol spent 25 years working in the public sector. Her extensive background includes everything from working as a “lowly intern” to running her own department. However, her government involvement does not stop there. When she is not teaching courses, Carol also serves as an elected official in Minneapolis.

What is the study of public policy?

The study of public policy is the study of how government makes decisions and what those decisions should be. Another way of thinking about it is the study of collective action — of how we as a society organize ourselves and make decisions about what we should do together.

What do you find most interesting about public policy?

There are a lot of people who want to make a real, positive impact on people’s lives. There is no greater tool, no greater way of doing this than being involved in public policy.

What is your least favorite aspect of public policy?

Public policy is about who wins and who loses in our society. The stakes are as high as they can be. Sometimes this fight can become very ugly. And politics itself has aspects that some people find distasteful.

Are there subfields of public policy that students might not be aware of?

Because public policy touches so many parts of people’s lives, people can specialize in almost anything. For planners, I tell them to specialize in gravel pit location. No city wants a giant gravel pit in the middle of it but no gravel = no concrete. No concrete = no city. So you need gravel pits, but no one wants one in their city.

What careers do students commonly pursue with a degree in public policy?

There are a wide variety of positions within government, within non-profits and also increasingly within private corporations. Everybody needs to know how to work with government.

Is a graduate degree preferable for a career in public policy, or can someone enter the field with a bachelor’s degree?

A master’s is preferable.

What personality traits do you think a student should have in order to be successful in a public policy program?

You have to be a big-picture thinker. You have to be intuitive about how people think and what they want. You need to understand complex mechanisms, group dynamics, how to work with an influence people. A lot of different skills.

What electives would you recommend that a student in a public policy program take?

If you are going to focus in an area, then obviously you want to take electives that are in that area. Like transportation or healthcare or engineering.

What study tips would you give to a student to help him or her succeed in a public policy program?

Be sure to take advantage of all of the extracurricular things that programs offer. Like lectures, social organizations, professional organizations, networking, etc.

Do you think public policy is a subject that can be studied online, or is a traditional class environment ideal?

I would recommend traditional over online because of the importance of connections.

What subjects should a prospective student of public policy study before entering a formal college program?

Someone can be a student of government in many ways. The best thing is to educate yourself on what government is doing. Be involved. Show up at public meetings. Get involved with a candidate or political party. Watch CNN. Read the newspaper. Get involved with a policy think tank. Get your hands dirty in what is going on in your community. Organize.

What pieces of advice, or caution, would you offer to a prospective student of public policy?

Nothing is more fascinating than the study of government. But the stakes are high for people who really get involved. Someone once said that we have democracy instead of armed conflict. Public policy touches everyone in the most profound way possible. It is the most interesting and exhilarating thing you will ever be involved in … but also frustrating and scary and hard.