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At EAGs I often find myself having roughly the same 30 minute conversation with university students who are interested in policy careers and want to test their fit.

This post will go over two cheap tests, each possible to do over a weekend, that you can do to test your fit for policy work.

I am by no means the best person to be giving this advice but I received feedback that my advice was helpful, and I'm not going to let go of an opportunity to act old and wise. A lot of it is based off what worked for me, when I wanted to break into the field a few years ago. Get other perspectives too! Contradictory input in the comments from people with more seniority is most welcome.

A map of typical policy roles

'Policy' is a wide field with room for many skillsets. The skillsets needed these roles vary significantly. It's worth exploring the different types of roles to find your fit. I like to visualize the different roles as lying on a spectrum, with abstract academic research in one end and lobbyism at the other:

The type of work will vary significantly at each end of this spectrum. Common for them all is a genuine interest in the policy-making process.

Test your fit in a week

Commonly recommended paths are various fellowships and internships. They are a great way to test ones fit, but they are also a large commitment.

For the complete beginner, we can do much cheaper!

Test 1: Read policy texts and write up your thoughts

Most fields of policy will have a few legislative texts or government white papers that are central to all work currently being done on the topic.

A few examples of relevant texts for a few cause areas and contexts:

Let's go with the example of EU AI Policy. The AI Act is available online in every European language. While the full document is >100 pages, the meat of the act is only about 20-30 pages or so (going off memory).

Read the document and try forming your own opinion of the act! What are its strengths and weaknesses? What would you change to improve it?

For now, don't worry too much about the quality of the output. A well informed inside view takes more than a weekend to develop!

Instead reflect over which parts of the exercise you found yourself the most engaged. If you found the exercise generally enjoyable once you got started, that's a sign you might be a good fit for policy work!

Additionally, digging into the source material is necessary to forming original views and will make you stand out to future employers. The object level of policy is underrated!

My hope is that the exercise will leave you with a bunch of open questions you would like to further explore. How exactly did EU's delegated acts work again? What was the Parliament's response to the Commission's leaked working document?

If you keep pursuing the questions you're interested in, you'll soon find yourself nearing the frontier of knowledge for your area of policy interest. Once you find yourself with a question you can't find a good answer to, you might have stumbled good project to further explore your fit :)

Test 2: Follow a committee hearing

Parliaments typically have topic-based committees where members of the parliament debate current issues and legislation relevant to the committee. These debates are often publicly available on the parliament's website.

Try listening to a debate on the topic of your interest. What are the contentions? What arguments are used by each side? If you were to give the next speech, how would you argue for your own views?

If you find listening to the debate and crafting arguments engaging, that's a sign that you might be a good fit for especially the left side of the spectrum!

Neither this map nor the tests are comprehensive!

These exercises by no means make up a comprehensive test. The spectrum is meant to be a intuition-pump, nothing more!

The goal of this post is to help get you started and get chance to experience what some of the day-to-day work is like for different policy roles.

If you do either of these exercises, don't hesitate to ask for feedback from someone working in the field. You can always share it with me, if you don't know who else to ask or showing your work to someone you wish to impress is too daunting.

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Sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 8:12 AM

One thing I appreciate about both of these tests is that they seem to (at least partially) tap into something like "can you think for yourself & reason about problems in a critical way?" I think this is one of the most important skills to train, particularly in policy, where it's very easy to get carried away with narratives that seem popular or trendy or high-status.

I think the current zeitgeist has gotten a lot of folks interested in AI policy. My sense is that there's a lot of potential for good here, but there are also some pretty easy ways for things to go wrong.

Examples of some questions that I hear folks often ask/say:

  • What do the experts think about X?
  • How do I get a job at X org?
  • "I think the work of X is great"--> "What about their work do you like?" --> "Oh, idk, just like in general they seem to be doing great things and lots of others seem to support X."
  • What would ARC evals think about this plan?

Examples of some questions that I often encourage people to ask/say:

  • What do you think about X?
  • What do you think X is getting wrong?
  • If the community is wrong about X, what do you think it's getting wrong? Do you think we could be doing better than X?
  • What do I think about this plan?

So far, my experience engaging with AI governance/policy folks is that these questions are not being asked very often. It feels more like a field where people are respected for "looking legitimate" as opposed to "having takes". Obviously, there are exceptions, and there are a few people whose work I admire & appreciate.

But I think a lot of junior people (and some senior people) are pretty comfortable with taking positions like "I'm just going to defer to people who other people think are smart/legitimate, without really asking myself or others to explain why they think those people are smart/legitimate", and this is very concerning.

As a caveat, it is of course important to have people who can play support roles and move things forward, and there's a failure mode of spending too much time in "inside view" mode. My thesis here is simply that, on the current margin, I think the world would be better off if more people shifted toward "my job is to understand what is right and evaluate plans/people for myself" and fewer people adopted the "my job is to find a credible EA leader and row in the direction that they're currently rowing." 

And as a final point, I think this is especially important in a context where there is a major resource/power/status imbalance between various perspectives. In the absence of critical thinking & strong epistemics, we should not be surprised if the people with the most money & influence end up shaping the narrative. (This model necessarily mean that they're wrong, but it does tell us something like "you might expect to see a lot of EAs rally around narratives that are sympathetic toward major AGI labs, even if these narratives are wrong. And it would take a particularly strong epistemic environment to converge to the truth when one "side" has billions of dollars and is offering a bunch of the jobs and is generally considered cooler/higher-status."

I'm curating this post — I really like how it was short and focused on very concrete actions that could be done in one weekend.

Thank you. This is very helpful. Do you have any advice for getting into policy from a mathematical background? I have just completed my uderraduate degree in mathematics but think I am a good fit for policy work and research. any advice?

I did my bsc. in computer science so it's possible! 

I joined a political party in my country, and started applying for jobs and internships. What got me my first was cold emailing the members of the European Parliament in my party, they put a good word in among the dozens of other people who applied through the official forms.

Thanks! 

Are there any skills that you gained from your CS degree that you think have put you at an advantage in the policy sphere?

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As someone who falls into the category of the student who would receive the same template talk I really appreciate you writing this up!

I worry people will wrongly think they are not a good fit after these exercises. Regulatory texts such as the AI act are written in complicated language and their logic is hard to understand. It takes time. For everyone. Even hearing refer to a lot of context that needs time to get used to. So please don't think "oh I'm too stupid for this."

That's right, I imagine that for those with a technical background, reading legislation may not be intuitive. However, one can consider looking for simplified explanations or supplementary materials. These can provide a foundation for understanding the key principles, which are enough to understand their underlying assumptions and, consequently, allow for their evaluation.

Is it just me or is the map image link broken?

bugged out for me too, showed up when I tried editing the post, so just republished without any changes. seems to have fixed it