So You Want to Be an Internet Policy Analyst?

by on December 3, 2012 · 24 comments

[Updated 4/28/13: Included links to several things + started list of additional resources at end.]

Each year I am contacted by dozens of people who are looking to break into the field of information technology policy as a think tank analyst, a research fellow at an academic institution, or even as an activist. Some of the people who contact me I already know; most of them I don’t. Some are free-marketeers, but a surprising number of them are independent analysts or even activist-minded Lefties. Some of them are students; others are current professionals looking to change fields (usually because they are stuck in boring job that doesn’t let them channel their intellectual energies in a positive way). Some are lawyers; others are economists, and a growing number are computer science or engineering grads. In sum, it’s a crazy assortment of inquiries I get from people, unified only by their shared desire to move into this exciting field of public policy.

I always do my best to answer their emails, calls, and requests for meetings. Unfortunately, there’s only so much time in the day and I am sometimes not able to get back to all of them. I always feel bad about that, so, this essay is an effort to gather my thoughts and advice and put it all one place so that I will at least have something to send these folks. Perhaps I’ll try to update it over time.

#1) Understand that Specialization Matters

I don’t want to bury the lede here, so let me start with the most important piece of advice I share with everyone who contacts me: specialization matters. When I got started in the sleepy field of information technology policy back in 1991, it was possible to be a jack-of-all-trades. There were only a few issues that really mattered, and most of them were tied up with traditional communications and media policy. If you knew a little something about telephony, universal service subsidies, spectrum policy, and broadcast regulation, then you could be an analyst in this field. There were only a handful of people in the think tank world back then who even cared about such issues.

But then came the Internet. It really did change everything, including this field of policy study. In the old days, people in this field were called telecom policy analysts or media policy analysts. We had titles like “Director of Telecommunications Studies” or “Fellow in Media Studies.” But when the Net came along, it almost instantly made such titles seem archaic. Today, this field is more appropriately labelled “information technology policy studies.” That term incorporates those old telecom and media policy issues, but it includes much more now.

That’s why specialization matters more than ever. In essence, over the past 15 years, the information technology policy world underwent a metamorphosis similar to the one that occurred in the field of environmental policy a decade or two before. In the early days of environmental policy, it was enough to say you were interested in environmental policy at all. That could probably win you a job (or at least an activist role) somewhere in that field. By the mid-1980s, however, the field of environmental policy had become remarkably specialized. Academic programs and public policy jobs started developing around very targeted issues: water, air, waste management, nuclear issues, endangered species, farming / sustainable development, climate change, etc, etc. Today, therefore, if you are looking for a career in the environmental policy arena, you are generally expected to first develop a more finely-honed specialization in one of its many sub-issue areas.

This is exactly what has been happening in the field of information technology policy since the mid-1990s. If you want a career in the field of information technology policy studies today, you need to be thinking about a very specific area of expertise. Do you already have that expertise? Great, then skip to step #5 below. If not, read on.

#2) The Major Areas of Specialization in the Modern Information Technology Policy Arena

OK, so you understand that specialization matters. What specific topic / field should you choose as your particular area of focus? Well, that’s up to you and your particular interests. Here’s the good news: There are more options than ever.

It’s useful to divide the information technology policy world into 3 big buckets (Note: This is a taxonomy that Jerry Brito, Eli Dourado, and I use to think about our priorities of the Mercatus Center’s Technology Policy Program each year):

  • Conduit / Infrastructure
  • Content / Speech
  • Other

Let’s break down each one of these to reveal just how specialized this field has become:

(A) Conduit: Generally refers to anything involving the physical infrastructure side of information technology policy, including:

  • Broadband policy (including traditional communications / common carrier regs)
  • Spectrum / Wireless
  • Universal service (and other tech subsidies)
  • Media marketplace regs (broadcasting, cable)
  • Antitrust & mergers

(B) Content: Generally refers to any (mostly intangible) information control or speech control issue

  • Public Morals / Free Speech (porn, gambling, spam, cyberbullying, political speech, etc)
  • Privacy (including reputation & defamation concerns)
  • Cybersecurity (online security, national security concerns, state secrets, encryption controls)
  • IP (copyright & patents)
(C) Other: The hodge-podge of issues that don’t quite fit into the other two buckets
  • Internet Governance (ICANN, domain names, international affairs & treaties)
  • Taxation of online goods or services
  • Trade policy involving tech

Here’s the key takeaway from this taxonomy: You can develop a specialized career around countless information policy issues today.  Do you want to be a privacy guru? Great, there are countless policy opportunities in that area alone. Do you love freedom of speech? Excellent, you can find plenty of cool gigs there, too. Cybersecurity strike your fancy? No problem. That field is growing like wildfire. And there are entire academic programs and activist institutions that long ago developed around digital copyright.

If you prefer to stick with the “conduit” bucket, have no fear, there exists many opportunities in those sub-areas. I know many professionals who describe themselves as a “cable lawyer” or a “media economist” or an “antitrust consultant.” Those fields are heavily saturated today, however, especially because they tended to pay quite well in the past. That could change as the “content” issues become more visible and important in coming years. Privacy policy is probably the biggest growth market in this regard. Huge opportunities await you there if you are so inclined.

I could go on, but you get the idea: You need to think about specialization because just randomly contacting someone and telling them you want to be an Internet policy analyst today is not enough. You need to be able to tell them, “I am interested in information technology policy and I possess a particular interest/expertise in X.” What “X” is is up to you, but you better have something to fill in that blank.

#3) What Specific Academic Experience Will Help?

Many people who contact me about how to advance their careers in the information technology policy arena are already far along in advanced degree programs or even finished those degrees long ago. But, for what it’s worth, here’s some general advice about which degrees will help you out the most in this arena. They are listed in order of importance:

  • Law: A law degree from a program with a specialized cyberlaw program will probably help you out most in this arena. It will open more doors for you than the other degrees mentioned below. I suppose that is true for most public policy fields and jobs, of course. Legal experience is also easier to “re-purpose” than other degrees; it offers excellent training for many different professions. The downside: The field of information technology policy is increasingly being flooded with lawyers. While a law degree still offers important advantages over other degrees, that may change if the legal market grows over-saturated. The way to counter that, of course, is to hyper-specialize! Start thinking about how to develop a very targeted legal expertise in privacy law, free speech policy, copyright law, cybersecurity, media/spectrum policy, antitrust law, etc.
  • Economics: An economics degree offers you the opportunity to analyze public policy using a very different toolbox than the lawyer will use. Economists are in increasing demand in the field of information technology policy because (a) there are just too many damn lawyers in the field already and (b) economists can actually offer some hard data to support their claims or make their case. PhD economists with a focused expertise in a particular tech area can also command a very impressive premium for their skills. (Note: MBAs are less in demand than economists and are generally a rare bird in the information technology policy arena. I am one of them, and I regret to say that it really hasn’t done much to help my career.)
  • Computer Science / Engineering: Increasingly, employers in this arena are interested in finding skilled CS grads and engineering experts (ex: spectrum engineers) who can tackle special jobs and projects. If you have such expertise, you will be able to cover certain technical policy issues in a far more authoritative fashion. That’s increasingly valuable to institutions as they look to broaden their stable of talent. For example, many policy institutions and even government agencies now hire a “Chief Technologist” to offer the rest of the staff their specialized advice on highly technical matters. In the future, I expect policy institutions will employ several technologists to fit the specialized needs they have.
  • Poly Sci / Public Policy / History: Degrees in political science, public policy, and even history probably won’t help you out as much as degrees from one of the three previous areas, but it depends on what you are looking to do. Again, the information technology policy arena is specialized enough today that certain jobs will require this skill set. For example, I have personally done a lot of work on cronyism and regulatory capture in this arena and my undergrad degree in poly sci has actually come in quite handy as I try to explain the political economy of high-tech rent-seeking. Similarly, many advanced degrees in public policy today offer very specialized areas of focus that could help. For example, the School of Public Policy here at George Mason University offers a couple of excellent M.A. and PhD. programs related to information technology policy. I’ve found many other Public Policy M.A. and PhD. programs that offer similar degree opportunities.

Needless to say, if you can combine two of these degrees, you’ll be golden. I’m finding a lot more analysts in this field have economics undergrad degrees and then a law degree to boot. Even better, however, would be combining a technical degree in CS or engineering with one of these other degrees. Then you are talking about truly valuable academic experience. And it had damn well better be valuable because you are going to be dead broke after you get done with all that education!

One other point: I don’t want to suggest that you can’t break into the info-tech policy world with other degrees under your belt. There’s a growing group of philosophers and sociologists, for example, who are doing important Internet policy work. Likewise, there have always been major media studies and journalism programs that offered a path toward being a tech policy wonk. (My other undergrad degree was in journalism). For now, however, that policy work is being doing almost exclusively within universities. If you are looking to come to Washington (or a state or international capital) and do public policy work, you would probably be better served having one of the degrees listed above.

#4) What Other Experience Will Help?

Regardless of what academic degree you are pursing or already possess, additional “real-world” experience will help you advance you career in the the information technology policy arena, much like every other policy field. Here’s what I think will be most useful to you:

  • Hill / govt work: If you can stomach spending a semester or even an entire year working on Capitol Hill or in a regulatory agency, it will do wonders to advance your career in the information technology policy world. It’s not just about the experience you gain from working inside the system; people care about the connections you make, too. When you work for the right sort of Hill office or committee (like Energy & Commerce), or for the right sort of agency (FCC, FTC, NTIA), you gain important connections in those institutions that can benefit you (or your future employer) for many years to come.
  • Legal associate / clerkship: For you lawyers out there, experience in a firm, or clerking for a judge, puts a big star on any resume and is increasingly important in this field. Again, if you can land a gig in the right firm or with the right judge (one that has a very specialized expertise), that’s even better.
  • Corporate internship / fellowship: Working for a major corporation or trade association offers very specialized experience that can help advance your career, but it comes with one potential downside: It could label you as being too close to that interest. For example, tech firms like Google and Microsoft offer some wonderful internships and research fellowships, but once you accept such positions it could be held against you by others who, for whatever reason, might have issues with those firms.
  • University programs/ projects: If you are still at university finishing up a higher degree, are their programs internally that can help advance your career in the information technology policy field? There are obvious things like serving on the law review, but how about more specialized programs that might allow you to work with other tech policy scholars on special reports and projects? Can you help a scholar in that program with research for a big paper? Can you help them build a website to highlight an important new project? Can you join together with other students in your program to develop new sites or tools that highlight a particular public policy issue that you care deeply about?  Stuff like this can help boost your visibility in an increasingly crowded field.
  • Think tank internship / fellowship: There are a lot of great opportunities available to you in the think tank world, so long as you don’t mind slave wages! Think tanks of all stripes offer aspiring tech policy analysts a wonderful opportunity to get their feet wet and experience the tech policy world first-hand.  Some think tanks will even let interns or junior analysts write for their blogs or at least work on major projects as a research assistant. Again, the pay absolutely blows and you will struggle to make ends meet, but the experience will be quite valuable. If you are already older and looking to shift from you current dead-end profession into the world of Internet policy, think tanks can offer you an excellent platform — perhaps the very best platform of all. Again, the downside is the pay. You won’t be able to command a premium for your talent in the think tank world. They just don’t have the budget to pay you handsomely and there will probably also be plenty of other competition for your position. But you’ll have the opportunity to write and speak and preach like no other job can provide.

Again, if you can combine a few of these things, it’ll be a hell of a resume-builder.

#5) Write (and then write some more!)

Whether you are a student looking to break into this field or an established professional looking to shift jobs, there is one piece of advice I have for all of you: If you really want to get involved in the information technology policy world, you need to start writing about the information technology policy world.

I suppose this general word of advice could apply to all public policy fields and professions, but the reason it is particularly important in this field is because, quite obviously, we are in the information business! We are using the same technologies we are writing about. And people in our arena generally use these technologies far more aggressively than people in other professions. So, it is generally expected that you should be using them, too.

There are two specific reasons why writing is vitally important. First, it shows others you have a deep interest (and potential expertise) in information technology policy. Second, it serves as a writing sample when others want to gauge your capabilities and grasp of the issues.

Here are a few ways you can start writing more and building your brand:

  • Start a blog or start blogging with others: If you’re already doing so, that’s great. But kick it up a notch. Just find anything that interests you — an academic paper, a news report, another blog post — and write about it. Even if you just summarize that other piece and add a line or two of commentary, that’s something. It’ll help get your name out there and help you develop your own brand. Better yet, when you write about others and their work or advocacy, they see it. Most academics and policy wonks have a big enough ego that they probably have a Google Alert set up for their own name. I certainly do because I want to know what others are saying about me and my work. So, if I see you writing about me, I’m going to be far more likely to add your blog to my RSS feed or even follow you on Twitter.
  • Try to publish something “professionally”: If you can, find a way to get some of your work published in a academic journal, a professional publication, or a leading media outlet in the field. I realize that this isn’t easy. Sometimes it will be impossible, especially at a young age when you are first breaking into the field. But the good news is that there are more outlets than ever and, if you work hard enough, you’ll eventually find one of them that will republish your work. Having a few independent publications under your belt and on your resume can really help jumpstart your career in the policy world. It goes without saying that getting published matters even more if you’re hoping to secure a position with a university-based research center. If your work is more academic in character, get it on SSRN immediately.
  • Use Twitter and other social media services (but be careful): Twitter can do wonders to help you build a following in the information technology policy arena by (1) letting you share your insights about tech policy with the world and, more importantly, (2) getting you connected with well-established figures in the field. Not every tech guru will follow you back once you start following them, but many will. And, with enough work (and a little brown-nosing), you will eventually get on their radar screen. For example, if you enjoy papers and essays by a particular cyberlaw guru or digital policy economist, retweet their work and add a thoughtful comment. Keep doing that for them and others. And do the same for journalists who post interesting tech policy stories. Put all these people on a curated Twitter list of your own and label it something flattering like “Tech Policy Gurus” or “Best Net Policy Wonks.” I can say from personal experience that when I find myself on such lists, I am more likely to follow the people who created them. One word of caution about Twitter and social media, however: Being provocative can get you noticed, but it can also piss people off and cost you followers / respect. Worse yet, it could come back to haunt you when you pursue future job opportunities. If you are at the stage in your career where you are fairly well-established and don’t necessary care as much about what the rest of the world thinks about you (hey, that’s me!), then it’s easier to get away with being provocative and even a bit snarky online. But when you are young and just getting started, be careful not to burn bridges before you’ve even built any. Be friendly, at least at first. There will be plenty of time in the future for you to tell me that you think I am full of sh*t!

#6) Network

Sure, you can get plenty of networking done using online tools and strategies, some of which I discussed above. But meeting people in person still matters. A little face time and a few handshakes can open up opportunities that you would otherwise not even known existed. Toward that end, if you are near a major university center or city that hosts occasional tech policy events, get to them. Or, if you can, plan occasional visits to major university events or other tech policy galas. When you visit these places, see if you can schedule a few minutes of private face time with leading analysts that you respect. Tell them how much you value their time but ask for just a few minutes with them to get some advice on how to be the next great tech policy analyst, just like them! (Again, flattery gets you everywhere in this world).

Finally, if you are lucky enough to live near Washington, DC, then you’ll have no problem finding an endless array of technology policy events to attend on a near-daily basis.  Get to as many as you can and introduce yourself to as many people as possible. Tell them all you are interested in pursuing a career in the information technology field and stress the particular area of policy that most interests you. I have probably found more jobs for people during cocktail hours than anything else. One person will come up to me and explain their interests and background and then I will point them to the 2 or 3 other people in the room who can help them advance their particular career objective.

#7) Read

Geez… do I really need to say this? Well, I do only because I wanted to offer a list of a few things I read regularly to keep my finger on the pulse of the info-tech policy world. Perhaps the easiest way to do so is to just list some of what’s in my daily RSS and/or Twitter feed. Here’s a sample:

This just scratches the surface.  Again, the more specialized your focus, the more likely it is you’ll follow very targeted blogs and media outlets. For example, there are dozens of targeted blogs on copyright and privacy policy. I follow many of them casually on Twitter but don’t keep them in my daily RSS feed.

More generally, you should be keeping up with major Internet policy books so that you are conversant in intellectual circles about the hottest publications du jour. That can be challenging — both because reading books takes time and the field is increasingly crowded with new titles. At the end of each year, I try to put together a list of important info-tech policy books. (Here are the lists for 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012). You should try to be familiar with some of the big titles on those lists. Also, here’s my compendium of all the major titles from the 2000s and here’s the running list of all my tech policy book reviews.

Conclusion

Well, that’s all I got for ya. I promise to try to offer my thoughts to you in person or via email if you call or write, but please understand that I’m just sometimes too busy to respond to everyone at length. But I hope what I’ve written here helps some of you out in your effort to break into the tech policy world.  Best of luck, and if you make it big, buy me a beer someday!

 

Additional Reading / Resources:

  • http://www.altondrew.com/ Alton Drew

    Informative and insightful. A very important piece. Thanks for writing it, Adam.

  • Rebecca MacKinnon

    Excellent! I will send this link to people who contact me asking for advice. You have done a big public service.

  • http://www.techliberation.com Adam Thierer

    Thanks, I appreciate it! — AT

  • http://www.techliberation.com Adam Thierer

    Thanks, Rebecca. Glad you found it useful. — AT

  • http://twitter.com/rafik Rafik Dammak

    interesting advices but little bit US-centered, if someone is interested by IG issues , he cannot only focus on national issues regardless what is happening outside :) what about attending confs like IGF, ICANN and RIRs meetings ?

  • Talisha Hill

    Great advice! I returned back to Mason in Fall ’12 to pursue a career in lobbying via the MPP program. I had an interest in IT policy but wasn’t sure what steps I needed to take to set myself up for success. This article was a great guide on what to do throughout my program, so thanks for writing.

  • JC

    Wonderful content. Thanks for sharing. I would love to hear more from you. Possibly something like the day-in-the-life of a policy analyst.

  • http://twitter.com/jacksphoenix Jack Phoenix

    I was just thinking “man, I gotta buy this guy a beer when I make it big!” and then boom: you totally read my mind… from the past! If posting this advice is just your way of inviting a tidal wave of free beers in your future, then I hope it works!

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