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Summary / Key Takeaways

Over the summer, about a dozen very cool policy professionals shared their takes on impactful US policy careers. The sessions were not recorded, so—in hopes that others find the content as useful as I did—here’s Part 2 of what I learned (companion post here). My main personal takeaways are in this section: suggestions for people at various stages in their careers, corrections of a few misconceptions, and a list of resources/compilations in this post.

Moves to seriously consider at various career stages: Here are some options that are often among the best things to do at various stages of your career, if you’re optimizing for US policy jobs and don’t need to worry about US work authorization (although there are plenty of exceptions, and you can very much be fine if you skip some steps or do them differently):

  • 1) If you’re an undergrad, DC-based internships are very useful, and Semester in Washington programs are often very useful for getting these internships (and for additional benefits).
    • Your undergraduate degree matters little for most policy jobs; internships, connections, learning, etc. matter more.
  • 2) If you just finished your undergrad, spend about 1-2 years interning/working in Congress or DC think tanks.
    • This can both set you up well for a policy-relevant graduate degree and inform you about your fit for it.
    • On breaking into policy work:
      • The hardest part of getting into policy work is getting a foot in the door; then, you can use your network from your first job to get the next job. So if you want to go into policy, just get started somehow—even if your first job isn’t very high-impact.
      • If you’re sympathetic to this community and looking to break into policy work (or connect with likeminded policy professionals), get in touch with the DC EA community.
      • Get your application materials thoroughly reviewed by people who know what application reviewers are looking for. Call in favors / draw on connections to get this very useful help.
  • 3) If you’ve worked in US policy for ~1-2 years—or without doing that, if you have trouble getting those jobs)—a great next move is often going to graduate school to get a policy master’s degree (in a DC-based program) or a law degree (in DC or a top program). If you can, intern / work (part-time / in summers) in Congress or think tanks as you do your degree.
    • Broadly, high-impact jobs in government disproportionately require some sort of graduate study.

    • Top options for policy-oriented master’s degrees include:

    • Law degrees are often very useful, although you typically shouldn’t start a law program if you’re set on doing think tank research (they’re not as useful for that).

      • (Some people may have the impression that they need to go to e.g. Harvard Law School to do the most impactful US policy work. Anecdotally, this seems to be incorrect.[2])
    • While relevant PhDs can be useful, the time/opportunity cost is huge, so starting a (US-based) PhD is often not as good for a career in US policy as doing a shorter graduate degree followed by several years of policy work.

      • Getting a PhD might be a great move if you’ve already started a PhD program, if you do it in the UK (much lower time costs), if you’re targeting jobs in US executive agencies for which PhDs are very helpful, or if you’re very interested in certain jobs outside of US policy.[3]
    • It’s very valuable if the graduate program you do is located in DC, for work and networking opportunities.

    • You can often get funding to use a top degree to tackle existential risks.

    • When it comes to school, consider “Half-assing it with Everything You've Got.”

  • 4) If you (will soon) have a grad degree (especially in STEM) or years of STEM work experience, use a full-time policy fellowship program (or connections from earlier work) to get a job in Congress, think tanks, or the executive branch.
    • See this section for a non-comprehensive list and comparison of these fellowship programs.
  • 5) If you’re already working in the policy world, use connections from your job to advance in your career. Meanwhile, carve out and be deeply protective of time for thinking strategically about how you can be most impactful.
  • As soon as you can in your career: If EA resonates strongly with you, find collaborators in EA.

Contrary to some misconceptions:

  • You don’t need a strong technical background to get many high-impact jobs in US technology policy.
  • If you’re legally a US permanent resident but not yet a US citizen, you can still get impactful policy jobs outside government (e.g. at think tanks) and some jobs in Congress.
  • Anecdotally, DC policy folks tend to be very friendly (in ways that, at least so far, have felt authentic).

Resources in this post: This post contains several (hopefully) useful compilations—check out whichever seem useful for you.

Additional Takeaways

  • On career paths/mindsets:
    • Many impact-driven people, e.g. impact-driven people working in US policy, should not be confident about any detailed long-term career plan, or even spend much time making detailed long-term plans. In many US policy careers, the best choices are very hard to plan far in advance.
    • It’s very common for policy professionals to move between policy jobs in different parts of the policy ecosystem.
    • You’ll likely be changing jobs a lot—aim for growing/learning/self-investment more than immediate impact in your first job.
  • Advice applicable outside of work hours:
    • Build and really value relationships.
    • Being a pleasant person is very valuable—people want pleasant/good-humored/happy colleagues.
    • Value contributors to good long-term physical and emotional health (long-term relationships, exercise, sleep, etc.). These are very useful for life-long productivity and for having a low risk of burnout. If you are experiencing mental health difficulties, consider getting therapy.
    • Be very aware of and careful with what might cause irreversible reputational harms or slow down a security clearance. Keeping a low profile online seems usually worthwhile for keeping options open.
    • If you prioritize problems that are mostly not funding-constrained, consider time your most valuable resource—be willing to spend money to save time.
  • On fitting in culturally:
    • DC is relatively hierarchical in terms of age and job responsibilities. Being seen as someone who’s respectful and trying to learn will come across as way better than trying to be the Silicon Valley-style kid genius who doesn’t need to listen and has figured it out.
    • Learning to speak the “policy language” is useful for getting policy jobs—listening to this language a lot (e.g. through the reading and podcast recommendations) is very useful for learning it.
  • There is much (at least superficial) interest from this community in high-impact US policy careers; the speaker series got over 500 signups.


This is Part 2 of a 2-part series; see the companion post here.

  • Part 1 mostly gives descriptive context about US policy careers (as well as some advice that is difficult to separate from these descriptions).
  • Part 2 (this part) is fully focused on sharing advice.

Most of the information here is my understanding of what was shared in this summer’s US policy careers speaker series. To respect speakers’ privacy, the sources of information here have all been anonymized, and mixed with a few other readings and conversations.

Discussion focuses on US policy careers, but I’d guess there are significant similarities to policy careers in other countries.


  • Panelists in the speaker series are not necessarily affiliated with this forum or related organizations, communities, and ideas.
  • This is extremely far from being comprehensive.
  • It’s very possible that I misheard/misunderstood some things.
    • If something here is critical for a career or advocacy decision, please get it at least double-checked before you use the information.

I’m thankful to the speakers and my co-organizer for sharing their time and experience, as well as to Fiona Pollack, Felipe Calero, and especially Kuhan Jeyapragasan for note-taking and comments.

General advice on US policy career planning

If you’re here, you might be planning on reading this from top to bottom. I suggest instead skipping around to sections you find especially relevant/interesting.

We’ll start with more widely relevant advice and insights for career planning.

Advice on whether to go into US policy

An impact-driven policy professional advices:

  • Many more EAs could and should go into policy because:
    • The potential for impact is large scale; the US federal government...
      • Directs a huge budget: ~$4 trillion per year
        • Caveat: only ~$1.5 trillion per year of that is discretionary / able to be moved
      • Has unique authority to regulate
      • Is the world’s largest intelligence enterprise
    • Much of the impact is counterfactual—the large majority of policy professionals (including the person you’d likely be replacing) aren't focused on the issues of greatest concern to this community.
    • Policy can absorb many people.
    • Policy work offers good (transferable) career capital
      • E.g. you can fairly easily pivot between AI & biosecurity; you can even work on multiple cause areas at the same time.
    • Many EAs are plausibly good personal fits for policy.
      • There are many kinds of jobs (EAs often focus on just a few and then mistakenly self-select out).
      • E.g. there are lots of non-extroverted people at some think tanks doing good work.
      • People who really don’t want to self-censor can be advocates, journalists, etc (although they’d still need to keep audiences in mind).

Advice on career mindsets

A few speakers suggested that many impact-driven people, e.g. impact-driven people working in US policy, should not be confident about any detailed long-term career plan, or even spend much time making detailed long-term plans. As discussed below, in many careers, including many in US policy, the best choices are very hard to plan far in advance. That’s because future opportunities are very hard to predict—they involve collaborators / employers you might not have met yet, or organizations that might not yet exist.

More broadly, the possibility of finding / creating new opportunities is a reason for many people to not be totally committed to a very specific long-term career plan.

(This is presumably less true for some other careers that require people to take pre-established long-term paths, e.g. some careers in academia.)

Some other impact-motivated policy professionals also shared the following advice:

  • Before starting a graduate degree, it’s often useful to spend ~1-2 years working in DC if you can find decent options—these can help you test fit and prepare you for graduate degrees.

    • Working in Congress or think tanks can be especially great during this time (since it’s also recommended to max out your credentials before coming into the executive branch.)
  • If there’s something that seems valuable to you, but you have e.g. a slightly different slant on it from others in EA, at least nurture that and take it seriously.[4]

  • Everyone interested in policy should consider spending time in government, but not everyone should spend all their time in government—it’s valuable for your career and society to transfer lessons/knowledge between parts of society.

    • So consider a stint of a few years in government, then try something else, and then maybe come back.
  • Two speakers spent much of their college years working low-wage jobs, and they have still gotten to high-impact career paths; strategically pursuing impact early on helps, but if you haven’t done so yet, you still have a shot.

What do US policy career paths often look like?

It’s very common for policy professionals to move between policy jobs in different parts of the policy ecosystem.

To illustrate this, here are examples of some people’s US policy career paths (just in their first several years, for some of them):

  • Think tank → executive branch → executive branch (a different part)
  • Congress → nonprofit (lobbying)
  • Think tank → executive branch
  • Academia → executive branch → executive branch (a different part)
  • Congress → executive branch → Congress (a different part)
  • Think tank → journalism
  • Nonprofit (research) → Congress → nonprofit (organizing) → nonprofit (lobbying)

Congress is one good way to get a good job in an agency. Many of the influential jobs in agencies are political appointments; the White House often pulls from Congressional staff of their party to make these appointments.

An exception: it’s hard to transition from journalism to policy; employers may be suspicious of you.[5]

Advice on your first job in policy

One policy professional advises: the hardest part of getting into policy work is getting a foot in the door; then, you can use your network from your job to get the next job. Things build on themselves after your first job.

For example, think tank researchers can interact with and impress people in Congress and the executive branch, and this gives them job opportunities.

This means getting your first job in policy is especially important. Here’s some advice for doing that:

  • Use fellowships to enter policy work during / right after a graduate program (see below for a list of these fellowships).
  • If you plan to get a graduate degree, get it before going into the executive branch so that you’re not coming in too junior—max out your credentials before you enter the executive branch.
  • Where to get your first job?
    • The large career capital that your first DC policy job will offer you means that, if you want to go into policy, just get started somehow—even if your first job isn’t very high-impact.
    • One Congressional staffer thinks Congress is a good place to begin. They explain: you’ll make lots of connections, likely go on to other government positions, get a sense of how Congress works, and learn about a relatively wide range of policy issues.
  • How to get your first job?
    • Doing a part-time masters program in DC (see the section on graduate school for more details) can be a good way to get the connections and opportunity to get your first policy job.
    • Consider volunteering for projects and doing pro-bono policy work if you are transitioning into a new area.
      • (I’m guessing that this advice is geared toward people who have undergraduate degrees or are more senior, and that non-governmental organizations such as think tanks and advocacy nonprofits will be more receptive to volunteers.)
      • One policy professional spent their early career doing many part-time-consultancies/volunteer projects (in parallel), for their resume and mostly because they were very unsure what they wanted to do.
        • They would just go to an organization they were interested in, tell them what they were interested in, and offer to volunteer for a few months if they were interested.
          • A handful of those turned into paid jobs.
          • They found this structure more interesting than that of a formal internship.
          • Use other money (e.g. from paid time or grants) to fund this time.
          • To get started, cold-emailing people is a decent option.
        • (This might often be a better approach than the above, since such funding is often available in the community.)
    • How to get a new job if that requires pivoting jobs?
      • It’s not that hard, one professional advises—be guileless enough to reach out to someone and ask for help.
      • For figuring out whether/how to pivot, think more deeply earlier about what the most important problems in the world are—one professional wishes they had done more of that thinking earlier.
  • What to focus on in your first job?
    • You’ll likely be changing jobs a lot—aim for growing/learning/self-investment more than immediate impact in your first job.

Advice on picking which problems and projects to work on

A few impact-driven policy professionals recommend:

  • Work on neglected problems—see footnote for why.[6]

  • Try to focus on projects that are interesting and let you work with people you really admire (e.g. think are ethical and can learn a lot from).

  • Aim for being more of a generalist.[7]

  • For jobs and career paths whose paths to impact are less well-established / explored, talk with lots of people and identify gaps (things others aren’t trying to do which you can do).

On career paths involving specific parts of the policy ecosystem


  • Work in Congress offers good exit options—many employers like legislative experience.
  • Ways for mid-career people with advanced degrees to break into Congressional staffing:
    • There are good fellowship opportunities (see the section that lists fellowship opportunities):
      • There’s room for mid-career people to get into mid-level roles in Congress, or even into committees if they have lots of expertise.
    • Congressional support agencies also offer options for people with more expertise.

Think tank work

  • People sometimes treat think tank work as an alternative to working in government, but the revolving door dynamic is really important—individuals usually switch between time thinking and time implementing policy (i.e. they switch between working in think tanks and working in government).
    • So one speaker doesn’t think of think tank work as a career on its own—the career path is more typically working in policy / in some policy area.
    • People often switch out of government because they burn out or get replaced by new administrations.
    • Although it’s less common, some people who are less good fits for government work stay in think tanks.

Career options for people with various backgrounds

This section discusses career options in US policy for non-US-citizens, for people who don’t have strong STEM backgrounds, and for people who do have strong STEM backgrounds.

Advice for non-US-citizens

Comparing job options in US policy for non-US-citizens:

  • These US policy jobs are often open to non-US-citizens who are legally US permanent residents:
    • Working at a think tank
    • Policy journalism
    • Congressional staffing
    • Advocacy
    • Political data analytics
    • Supporting others’ careers (e.g. advising, operations)
  • US policy jobs that are significantly more difficult for non-US-citizens (although often feasible):
    • Working in executive branch jobs (especially tough in the national security space—getting a security clearance will be hard)
  • US policy jobs that are off the table for non-US-citizens:
    • Running for federal office (constitutionally limited to US citizens[8])

Non-citizens can get permanent residency (and thus get on a path to citizenship) via employer sponsorship or through marriage / family ties.

Career options in US technology policy for people without strong technical backgrounds

Even in technology policy, people can make decent policy without extensive technical backgrounds; a very wide range of backgrounds can work. (See footnote for why.[9])

Anecdotally, one professional with a policy job that is very focused on technology only did a STEM minor.

Career options in US policy for people with strong technical backgrounds

  • Personal fit considerations for people with strong STEM backgrounds:
    • Even people who are world experts at something are unlikely to actually use that expertise in government (except e.g. if they’re in a lab or working on some subject that is more often used in policymaking, like cryptography).
  • What should people with strong STEM backgrounds do?.
    • Use that background as a springboard to get in (even if that’s to a job that doesn’t have much direct impact right away.)
      • Fellowship programs for STEM folks are especially promising ways to break in—see the section listing and comparing fellowship opportunities to see which are most interested in STEM folks.
    • A broad background/advanced degree in STEM is definitely enough to work at the intersection of technology and national security, and in the executive branch more broadly (although it’s not necessary for any of that).
    • STEM PhD backgrounds are very useful for becoming a program manager at IARPA or DARPA, where you may be able to create and fund impactful research programs with budgets in the tens of millions (?) of dollars.
    • Another potential option can be the Office of Science and Technology Policy, which has many STEM PhDs.
  • See footnote for advice on getting into policy journalism.[10]

General advice for being very positively impactful

On prioritizing and planning well

Everyone should “waste an hour per week so they don’t waste 1,000 hours per year.” Reserving time for thinking strategically about how you can be most impactful often has very high returns.

Carve out and be deeply protective of time for strategic thinking; one policy professional ensures they have time blocked to think about whether they’re losing sight of the most important problems they’re working on.

On networking often and well

Some policy professionals advise:

  • Build and really value relationships.
    • This includes relationships with people who think differently from you/have different priorities from you.
    • Try to build a positive relationship with everyone you encounter, even if that’s over a bagel at a conference.
  • If EA resonates strongly with you, find collaborators in EA early.
    • One policy professional would have told their past self to reach out to this EA community, even though they seem busy. They suggest that this would have helped them start highly promising work much earlier, and feel much less alone.
    • Ways you can start getting connected include 80,000 Hours career advising and the EA DC community.
  • Consider keeping a list of people whose work you really admire and cold-calling / cold-emailing them; people often reply.
    • If you can’t find someone’s email, you can guess.
  • Being a pleasant person is very valuable—people want pleasant/good-humored/happy colleagues.
    • This is especially true in DC.[11]

    • Conversely, especially abrasive people tend to do worse.

    • The direct critical feedback of the rationality community won’t fly—people who are used to those norms should temper them to succeed in DC (i.e. more often be diplomatic than critical).

  • Leaning on curiosity and empathy is very valuable.
    • They will help you be willing to spend the time doing the following, which can be very useful:
      • When talking to someone, think about: What are they thinking? What are they stressed about? What have they spent their day doing? What does their boss want?
        • Putting yourself in people’s shoes is valuable for connecting and being better at emphasizing how things you ask for connect with what others care about.

On personal health and well-being

Value long-term relationships, exercise, sleep, and other contributors to good long-term physical and emotional health. These are very useful for life-long productivity and for having a low risk of burnout. If you are experiencing mental health difficulties, consider getting therapy.

On saving valuable time

If you prioritize problems that are mostly not funding-constrained, consider time your most valuable resource—be willing to spend lots of money to save time (e.g. getting a short commute, reducing cooking time).

Relatedly, don’t over-optimize for things other than your top priority—just use satisficing heuristics.

  • Don’t spend much time thinking about something unless it’s highly consequential/irreversible.
    • (Things can be highly consequential even if you don’t yet know exactly how—please don’t ignore things that seem highly important on the basis of this advice.)
  • Manage your “anxiety budget.”

Advice on grad degree choice and what to do in grad school

Caveat: I’m personally still very unsure about what grad degrees would make sense for people in various situations (or what the crucial considerations even are), so the advice here is especially far from being comprehensive. Still, I think there’s useful stuff here.

General advice

  • If you want to work in DC but are struggling to get a job, you should first consider getting a professional policy-focused master’s degree. They also make recommendations about specific programs that are especially good.
  • Value of grad education:
    • High-impact jobs in policy disproportionately require some sort of graduate study.
      • As supporting evidence, well over half of senior positions in Congress, the executive branch, and think tanks seem to be held by people with graduate degrees.
    • At least in the context of executive branch work, graduate degrees can be useful because they (or at least certain ones) will:
      • Make you be listened to more often
      • Help you discern if some info is relevant to you (which is very useful, since you’ll be a “fact taker, not fact maker”)
      • Help you set up processes to test views you hear
      • Help you learn new things more quickly (e.g. through quantitative fluency)
      • Help you with knowing who knows relevant facts and be able to draw from them, which is useful in (technology) policy
  • It’s very valuable if the graduate program you do is located in DC, for work and networking opportunities.
  • It’s typically better to get a graduate degree when you’re young (although not necessarily straight out of undergrads) because the payoffs can accumulate each year that you have the degree.
  • Fellowships are great for people who have graduate degrees to start their policy careers—see the section below on fellowships.
  • Consider “Half-assing it with Everything You've Got”

Advice on what degrees to get for specific parts of the policy world

  • What graduate degree to get for (senior) executive branch jobs? We can get imperfect[12] information about that by looking at what degrees people in these jobs tend to hold—it varies a lot by agency:

    • Some places have lots of law degrees:

      • Among a few top national security roles (Secretary of State, Secretary of Homeland Security, and Director of National Intelligence), as well as for the Secretary of Commerce and Secretary of Agriculture, law degrees are very common—they’re the most advanced degrees held by 60%-80% of the last 5 people[13] to hold each of these positions. (Most of the rest had master’s degrees.)

      • The National Security Council is around half people with law degrees (and around half policy master’s).[14]

    • Some places have lots of technical advanced degrees:

      • The last 5 (non-acting) directors of a few science/technology agencies (OSTP, DARPA, and IARPA) virtually all have STEM PhDs,[15] as do many OSTP staff[16] and majorities of DARPA and IARPA program managers.[17]

      • The last 5 directors of the CDC all have MDs; 3 also have master’s degrees in public health.

    • The most advanced degrees of the last 5 US Secretaries of Defense are a mix of non-law degrees.

    • See footnote for a more detailed count of the above.[18]

    • (I haven’t looked into other roles.)

  • What graduate degree (if any) to get for Congressional staffing?

    • A professional with experience in Congress guesses that:
      • About 60% of senior staff in Congress members’ personal offices have advanced (JDs/master’s) degrees
      • About 80% of senior staff in Congressional committees have advanced (JDs/master’s) degrees
      • Almost all senior staff in Congressional support agencies have advanced (JDs/master’s) degrees
    • Additional advice from that professional:
      • Graduate degrees are very useful for one’s reputation/credibility.
      • The practicality of education partly determines how useful it is.
        • E.g. Georgetown is very practical; others are more academic.
        • This affects, for example, how much time / opportunities for policy-focused networking you will have.
      • MPPs (Master of Public Policy degrees) are useful, law degrees are super useful, and PhDs are often not useful (maybe for some specialized positions)
  • What graduate degree to get for think tank research? * A few graduate students with relevant interests seemed to agree that a masters degree (not a PhD, and not a law degree) is typically the best option for going into think tank research.

Law degrees

This section is mostly based on the advice of a single impact-motivated lawyer. For another lawyer’s perspective, see Cullen O'Keefe’s talk, “Doing the most good with a law degree.”

For transparency’s sake, one reviewer mentioned several things in this section are off, so take it with extra grains of salt. (The absence of a similar statement at the top of other sections doesn’t mean they were extensively reviewed.)

Paths to impact:

  • Broadly:
    • Law backgrounds can be useful for improving how policies are implemented (and good implementation is often critical for policies to go well).
    • Law degrees help for working in Congress, because lawyers are very particular about the words they choose—there's an art form of having a good sense of how word choice affects the eventual implementation of a law through the executive branch.
  • Paths in DC with a law background?
    • One recent law graduate sees these as some potentially promising places to work:
      • LPP, Office of Legal Counsel (Supreme Court position, very hard to get), NSC, DoD (e.g. Office of Net Assessment)
      • Any general counsel’s office might get you some good subject-specific expertise, e.g. the Department of State for expertise on unifying executive agreements.
      • Office of Management and Budget
        • Within that is OIRA, where they do cost-benefit analysis
      • DARPA, BARDA (?), OSTP
      • Anywhere in Congress
      • Skills from going into a firm
    • Law work for mitigating catastrophic risks is an extremely novel path. That said, there is a lot of opportunity to create your own path, and the Legal Priorities Project is working on some questions about how the law can help longtermist issues. The field of lawyers helping with longtermist issues is novel, and many in EA are realizing everything they want to do requires lawyers.

Some considerations relevant to personal fit:

  • Like PhD programs, law school can be a bad choice for people who’ve struggled with mental health.
  • The first year of classes was less relevant to the interests of one student (who wanted to use law skills to inform legislation), because those classes were litigation-focused.

Where to do law school:

  • Some options recommended by a law student interested in catastrophic risks:
    • “Top 14” (T14) law schools
      • Should you do a T14 law degree if you’re worried about debt? One law student interested in catastrophic risks advises: If you want to use a law degree to tackle existential risks, there’s lots of resources to cover that, so probably take the debt and aim for the best you can find.
        • Apply for EA/OpenPhil funding sources (listed in the section “Fundings, jobs, and other resources” below) if they’re relevant for you.
        • Also see resources on the bottom of 80,000 Hours’ AI policy page.
    • National security law schools:
      • In DC: Georgetown, George Washington, George Mason
      • Others: University of Maryland, University of Virginia
      • (Caveat: one commenter points out that top national security jobs, when they go to lawyers, have in the last few decades usually gone from lawyers from a top few law schools.)

What classes to take:

  • One law student interested in catastrophic risks recommends courses in these topics: national security law, administrative law, procurement law, foreign relations law, intellectual property law, international trade law, nuclear security law, tort law, liability for risky research
  • They also recommend doing paper courses in national security law or some administrative law


Most of the advice here comes from one PhD who has the most experience with poli sci PhDs—they recommend talking with someone in your field.

  • Advantages of doing a PhD:
    • Credentialing:
      • It’s necessary for being a tenured professor, e.g. for rotating between Georgetown University and government positions.
      • It can let you go into government starting higher (although perhaps not higher than where you would be if you had spent your PhD years climbing ladders in government).
        • A PhD can be very helpful for becoming a program manager at IARPA and DARPA.
      • It makes it easier to become a go-to expert.
    • Learning:
      • It’s great for learning about your subject and developing research skills, partly since it includes a guided multi-year expert survey of your field.
      • It gives you time to develop your own views.
    • It helps you build an academic network.
  • Disadvantages of doing a PhD:
    • It takes lots of time, e.g. 5.5 years average in one student’s program.
    • Depression is very common—in the ballpark of 40% [1] [2]—among a wide range of graduate degrees. Rates of stress/anxiety also seem very high.
      • (From a small amount of searching, I didn’t come across surveys suggesting that mental health is far worse for a given year in PhD programs than in other graduate degrees, but at minimum, they involve more years of often-poor mental health. On a more optimistic note, maybe the social support and career options/security that EA can offer help.)
      • One piece of advice for mitigating this is keeping your friends from outside the PhD program.
  • Advice and considerations for learning more about your personal fit:
    • Try working as an RA for a professor,
    • Read a bunch of articles in the top journal of your field of interest (e.g. International Security for security studies), see their opening remarks.
      • See if you are interested by them / could see yourself working on similar topics.
      • See if methodology is cool, see if you can see yourself generating similar things?
      • Good at producing original thought compared to networking/other useful skills
    • Good signs include:
      • If you have a high hedonic set point
      • If you have always done fairly well academically
    • One concern that’s (at least anecdotally) less well-founded is that PhD programs quickly pigeon-hole people into very narrow areas without leaving room for exploration. To the contrary, one PhD student hasn’t felt that at all, and notes that most people will give you very general credit for knowing your field, regardless of your specific focus.
    • Format varies between types of PhD programs, e.g. STEM PhDs are often centered on one big thesis project (for which there’s sometimes little/rare feedback), while political science PhD requirements are more often fulfilled by doing multiple papers.
    • A useful heuristic can be considering whether you have a comparative advantage in academics (relative to others working to address the problems you see as most pressing).
  • Where to do PhDs (in the context of political science PhDs):
    • Top programs for getting on tenure track in academic political science (professors are important):
      • Columbia, Stanford, Berkeley, UChicago, Yale
    • Top PhD programs for getting into policy:
      • Harvard Kennedy School, Princeton International Affairs, Security Studies at MIT
    • “UK PhDs”: DPhils (UK PhD equivalents) only take 3 years (!) because they don’t involve an initial barrage of classes
      • Downsides include that it makes it harder to be a US professor, and you don’t get a guided multi-year expert survey of the field.
      • Oxford is a common choice, since FHI is there (as is GPI).

Funding, jobs, and other resources

Fellowships - List and Comparison

For graduate students who will soon complete their degrees, people with advanced degrees, and in some cases people with only undergraduate degrees, full-time policy fellowships tend to be great opportunities to kickstart US policy careers, or to springboard to higher-leverage positions. (This is especially the case for people with advanced STEM degrees or professional experience with technology, partly because regular entry-level jobs in these areas are often incredibly competitive.)

Advice on US policy job applications (including things to do well in advance)

Context - This can be hard

Many entry-level roles in DC are very competitive. For example, it’s common for entry-level think tank roles to get hundreds of applicants (including many more qualified candidates than they have capacity to admit). \

(If you go / went to a top university for undergrad, that might help, but employers won’t be that impressed—you won’t be a shoo-in for a prominent DC think tank on the basis of where you did your undergrad.)

The competitiveness of these roles implies that being strategic in your approach, and persevering when necessary, are very useful.

Preparing for applications

Tips for transitioning into policy from another field (and more generally)

  • See this doc: Advice on preparing for Federal Jobs
  • Build relationships with professors, friends, colleagues—people will talk to you if you ask.
  • Draw on others for help—that’s very useful.
  • Apply to things as they come up if they seem relevant, because they’re competitive.
  • Advice for transitioning from another field into think tanks:
    • If you have a technical background, getting some piece published (in a college newspaper, some other place, or even a blog) is good for signaling your interest in policy and technical skills.
    • Often, there’s interest in people who aren’t political science majors from well-known colleges—having that typical background isn’t particularly helpful for many opportunities.
    • Have writing samples ready in advance.
      • Writing these can also be useful for assessing fit.
    • If you’re looking to transition into a think tank role, RA roles can be useful, since they’re very legibly adjacent.
      • There may be more RA opportunities now since many things are remote.
      • (As discussed above, DC-based, policy-focused master’s degrees might be even better for transitioning.)

Tips on cultural acclimation

Like many other groups of people, DC policy professionals tend to have particular styles of communicating (specific terms, metaphors, norms, shared context, etc). Communicating similarly is useful, both for getting jobs and for getting listened to. (This advice was given in the context of applying to think tank jobs, but I’m guessing that it generalizes.)

As with other languages, you learn to speak the “policy language” by hearing it a lot, and with time. For hearing it a lot, see the reading & podcast recommendations below.

(See some additional discussion of this in the section “How to apply.”)

Also, DC is relatively hierarchical in terms of age and job responsibilities. Being seen as someone who’s respectful and trying to learn will come across as way better than trying to be the Silicon Valley-style kid genius who doesn’t need to listen and has figured it out.

Tips for getting a security clearance

Getting a security clearance means getting permission to access certain classified information. While plenty of high-impact policy jobs don’t require a security clearance, some do, especially in the national security space.

Here are one professional’s tips for getting a security clearance (non-comprehensive):

  • Don’t be a spy
  • Don’t be blackmailable
  • Don’t have committed recent felonies
  • Don’t have smoked marijuana in the last year. Don't have done harder drugs in at least the last 5 years, maybe longer. In general, don't do drugs.
  • Be careful around foreign contacts
  • (See the section on reputation risks for more relevant advice.)
  • Check out SF-86 form for security clearances in advance of doing stuff—it’s a common entry requirement.
  • [Added] Don't lie in the process of applying for a security clearance!

Tips on reputation risks

Advice from an experienced policy professional:

Think a lot about what might cause irreversible reputational harms or slow down a security clearance. After all, those are really useful.

Risky activities include drugs and saying regretful stuff online. For people considering US policy careers, keeping a low profile online seems usually worthwhile for keeping options open (there’s always the possibility of anonymously / pseudonymously publishing your blog posts). Even if some particular content or affiliation doesn’t pose serious reputation risks now, that could change in the future.

Generally, be really cautious. Policy professionals are generally really cautious around their reputations, e.g. whom they’re seen in rooms with.

Where to apply

(This section is especially far from being comprehensive.)

  • You can work in and have lots of positive impact in lots of places.
    • The Legal Priorities Project is a global research project founded by researchers from Harvard. They conduct legal research that tackles highly pressing problems, with a long-term lens.
    • Lawyers also tend to do relatively well in running for office.
  • For political data analytics, one relevant professional considers these organizations especially impactful (there’s few of them):
    • OpenLabs for Democratic data analytics
      • There’s a number of other impact-focused people who joined the team to have impact through it.
      • Employees need really advanced statistical skills.
    • Data for Progress (mix of polling and advocacy)
  • A few places to find job postings:
    • Blindly applying to things on USAjobs won’t get you far, some professionals suggest.
    • Congress - there’s secret job postings you need to know about:
      • Bradtravers.com
      • There’s code words for jobs that are posted but are basically already settled
    • Ask relevant contacts.
  • (As mentioned earlier, this section is especially far from being comprehensive—it doesn’t even cover e.g. journalism or the executive branch, not to mention policy jobs that don’t involve applications.)

How to apply

  • Get more help than you probably think is necessary in your application materials.
    • Expect to get help with this! Get your application materials thoroughly reviewed by people who know what these people are looking for.
      • Even as a smart and well-qualified person, you likely won’t be fluent in the application language.
      • It’s like your first touch, and you’re trying to hang out to a very quickly-moving thing—getting that initial contact right is very difficult and very useful.
    • Call in favors—draw on connections to get this very useful help.
    • If you’re asked to talk about issues in your cover letter / interview, you can do some issue-specific cramming on how policy people think and talk about certain issues. Read mainstream publications / listen to mainstream podcasts relevant to policy, then mirror the language used in mainstream discourse about the topics you’re most interested in.
      • This is useful because people use imperfect heuristics to hire, including “are you using the right language?” as a proxy for implicit knowledge.
  • In one professional’s experience (as an applicant and later as an applicant reviewer), think tanks aren’t looking for extensive background when they hire for junior research roles; they’re looking for someone who’s smart and has demonstrated curiosity.
    • So showing you are curious and can learn fast / independently is a huge bonus.
      • Demonstrate (intellectual) passions in your job application/interview if the vibe seems right.
    • Still, be able to tell good story about fit/experiences
      • Help from others is very useful for this.
  • If you tend to do things last-minute, keep in mind that DC application deadlines are in Eastern Time by default.
    • (So if you submit an application shortly before midnight in Pacific Time, that’s too late. Not that I would know.)

Additional advice

Connect with the professional EA DC community

(The following are broader impressions from 15 or so hours of informal interactions with people in the professional DC EA community. Many of these hours were not through the speaker series—speakers had varied interests, and none of them are necessarily involved with or sympathetic to this community. Another caveat: I’ve mostly interacted with people who focus on emerging technology policy, so I’m not sure how well this generalizes to other parts of the DC EA community.)

Before meeting policy folks, part of me wondered if they’d live up to stereotypes of ruthless, sleazy professionals. Fortunately, I’ve only seen the opposite of that; the policy professionals I’ve met so far all seem friendly (in a way that feels, not snaky, but genuine / warm / pleasant to interact with). It’s like some other EA hubs, but with stronger social skills.

(I hear, from a relevant professional, that this is a broader trend—sleaziness is generally rare in the federal US policy space; people who are unpleasant to work with tend to get less far. This matches my anecdotal experience: I’ve met a few dozen policy folks so far, and my most common experience has been “this person is so friendly!”)

These professionals also seem to be very busy, very cautious about reputation risks, and—I hear—quite emotionally and professionally supportive of one another.

On a slightly more personal note, before interacting with this community, I had some hesitations about moving away from my existing connections to go work in DC. I feel much more excited about that possibility now, knowing there’s a very friendly, supportive, inspiring community there.

(I also already knew I tend to enjoy hanging out with impact-driven folks, and I was lucky to have mutual friends with some of these people, so it might have been easier for me to have this experience than it would be for some people in different situations.)

Long story short: definitely connect with the EA DC community if you’re working in DC and very EA-sympathetic. (Not doing so would probably be a big mistake.)

Advice for undergraduates

A few policy professionals advise:

  • Semester in DC programs / internships are great (especially for getting mentors/sponsors).
    • Or volunteer for a campaign if you’re interested in learning more about what it’s like to run for office.
  • For running for office, your degree (at least your undergraduate degree) roughly doesn’t matter at all.
  • For other policy jobs, your (undergraduate?) degree also matters little; STEM degrees are nice boosts to your credibility on STEM topics because they’re rare in the policy world. A policy (masters?) degree is more helpful for networking and the writing sample than for the resume line.
    • So take the time you would have spent stressing over a packed courseload in undergrad and spend it doing other useful things (which very much can and I’d guess should also include learning)!
  • One policy professional took all CS and math classes and realized they could have lived in a different city and worked full-time and would have just had 4 years to do valuable things like learning what kinds of things they would be good at.
    • Not everyone should do that, they suggest, but also not everyone should spend 4 years focused on getting good grades.
  • (My personal takeaway from this is that people interested in US policy careers should typically choose their undergraduate degrees on the basis of considerations other than what degree seems most useful for policy job applications. E.g. What degree will let you spend more time on useful things other than classes, such as getting more people to go into high-impact careers? Or what degree will best give you skills/credentials that prepare you well for career options you’re considering outside of public policy? Or what degree will best help you learn useful things? And, as suggested before, pay more attention to choices other than your degree, e.g. how you spend your time beyond the minimum time needed to get your degree.)

Advice for program/event organizers

Takeaways from my own experience helping organize the speaker series:

  • There is much interest from this community in high-impact US policy careers; the speaker series got over 500 signups.
  • If you’re looking for a speaker who can speak about some policy area, lean toward reaching out to people at government-adjacent organizations such as think tanks or academia, rather than people in government.
    • Getting speakers who work in government is pretty hard; people in government tend to be super busy, and people at some government organizations need to go through a bunch of approval processes to speak at events. On top of that, some government employees often have to keep interesting things confidential.
    • This consideration may be outweighed by e.g. an event being sufficiently large.
    • Relatedly, policy professionals seem to like short emails.
  • If you’re running a Zoom event, ask speakers to show up 5-10 minutes in advance (or more if there’s more things to go over / higher stakes). (A longer buffer might be useful for in-person events, to be safe even if e.g. there’s traffic.)
    • That extra time can be great for rehashing an event plan (which you hopefully already discussed with them earlier), connecting with them, and working out any technical issues in advance of your event.
  • Follow-up emails containing resources for event attendees can be useful, both for the resources’ direct usefulness and for encouraging people to act on suggestions made in the event.
  • Logistically, we used a Zoom webinar with the following settings, among others: there was a Q&A (with attendees typing and upvoting questions), only a few panelists with cameras turned on were visible to attendees, and attendees could join anonymously but couldn’t use the chat. These settings aren’t best for every event, but if they make sense for your event, this doc details the exact settings we used.

Various additional career tips

  • Don’t be shy about making an open-ended request for help if you have a connection and don’t know quite what you want.

    • If you’re working with deadlines, ask well in advance.
  • Consider crowd-sourcing your career decisions.

    • Poll people you trust/admire, ask for estimates of value, crucial considerations, and advice—that advice may be better than your own intuitions.
    • One policy professional has done this for most of their last several jobs, and it seems to have gone well for them.
  • To become better positioned to be a federal political candidate, in addition to reaching out, get involved with local (e.g. state) politics.

  • In Congress, some things you didn't think would work out end up informing legislation later (remembering this may help keep failures from being too discouraging).

  • Which semester to start graduate school in? One graduate student thinks it probably doesn’t make much difference.

  • When do dual degrees (e.g. masters + law) make sense? It could help with getting subject-matter expertise + law expertise.

  • Read biographies of people’s careers at places where you’ll be working, to learn more about the institutions and advancing within it.

    • E.g. reading Bill Burns’ autobiography on his time in the State Department can be helpful.
  • Advice relevant to journalism:

    • What makes great unsolicited articles for news outlets? See footnote.[19]
    • How can academics get their reports seen by influential people?
      • Getting covered by a news outlet is very helpful for both reaching and persuading people.
      • To get covered often, you’re going to have to turn everything into very concise/shareable/soundbite/single-line version.
        • I.e. you have to learn how to turn everything into a high level summary, something quotable, something understandable to people without any background knowledge.
    • How can academics get attention from journalists? See footnote.[20]
    • How much should journalists focus on making video vs text content? See footnote.[21]
  • If someone is interested in pursuing a graduate program in China, how do the benefits trade off against the potential increased difficulty of getting a security clearance? See footnote.[22]

  • What level of Chinese fluency is needed for "sufficient" understanding of AI work in China for different types of work? See footnote.[23]

  • Read! See the next section for specific reading/podcast recommendations and advice on ways to approach learning.

Reading & podcast recommendations

Addendum to Part 1

In writing this post, I realized some content I had aimed to include here would fit better in the previous post. It’s there now, in a new section (so you can find the new content without needing to search through the old content).

What’s Next?

That’s all for now! (If you have additional perspectives/advice/corrections you’d like to share in the comments, please do so!)

To recap some key points: there’s tons of room for people who are strong fits to have impact through US policy work, there are many different jobs in the US policy space, and (depending on your interests and career stage) there are many things you might find useful to do next—for example, consider whether it makes sense for you to:

  • Get in touch with the EA DC community
  • Network with a bunch of other DC folks
  • Prepare/apply for a policy masters (perhaps a DC-based one) or law degree
  • Apply for US policy internships (perhaps through a “Semester-in-DC” program), US policy fellowships, and/or US policy jobs
  • Dive into the further reading/podcast recommendations
  • Have lots of impact through a current US policy job

  1. I was initially confused about how Johns Hopkins could offer the benefits of a DC location if Google says they’re in Baltimore, Maryland. Turns out their School of Advanced International Studies is in DC. ↩︎

  2. Of the first handful of people I thought of who seem to be doing especially impactful work in, say, US AI policy, over half went to relatively accessible grad programs, and likewise for undergrad. ↩︎

  3. Of the several community members I’ve heard of who are pursuing PhDs for US AI policy work, at least one of these exceptions apply to all of them. ↩︎

  4. E.g. a speaker thinks they would have benefited from trusting their gut about their interest in / the importance of politics, and their fit for it; it took them too long to figure that out. ↩︎

  5. One journalist was told that they were turned down from a Congressional internship because they thought this journalist would leak to another journalist. The person who shared this anecdote thinks this transition is harder to pull off in the US than in some other countries. ↩︎

  6. Reasons for working on neglected problems:

    • The popularity of a problem is evidence that it’s hard to solve.
    • And it’s harder to make further contributions to popular problems—more people will have taken low-hanging fruit.
    • And there tends to be more competition to break into roles that focus on popular problems.
  7. One professional advises: Develop a toolkit for thinking about technology risk and policy (in the abstract). That’s just as—or more—marketable in places like the White House or Congressional offices, where people typically work on a broad variety of issues. (I suspect this piece of advice in particular is controversial, and plenty of thoughtful people will be more excited about specialists, especially given the current portfolio in this community. Maybe the best of both worlds is being a specialist with regard to your skills and a generalist with regard to the problems you know about?) ↩︎

  8. US House members must have been US citizens for 7 years, US senators must have been US citizens for 9 years, and the US President must be a natural-born US citizen and have been a US resident for 14 years. ↩︎

  9. Reasons why technical backgrounds are not that important for working in technology policy: Knowing who knows the right thing, and drawing from them, is good enough (and it allows you to access much more information than what any individual could know). Relatedly, unlike in academia, it’s encouraged to “lift from other people’s work”; some academic skills are not very useful for excelling in policy. Government does not care at all about whether you’ve made original intellectual contributions—“it is very much a team sport,” explains one professional. ↩︎

  10. Advice for going from technical backgrounds into policy journalism:

    • You can leverage that unique expertise to be a technology / AI journalist. Deep understanding there is rare in journalism, so lean into that. (This scarcity of tech-experienced tech journalists is because software engineering pays much better than journalism.)
    • You can also aim for journalism jobs that require some software skills.
    • Human management and synthesis skills from certain jobs in tech might transfer over well.
  11. Reputation in DC is highly based on networks of trust and likeability, since measuring technical merit in policy-making is much harder than in some other fields (presumably due to there being less clear links between individuals’ contributions and policy outcomes). ↩︎

  12. Imperfect because it’s hard to tell how much correlation between a degree and a job comes from causation, as opposed to, say, self-selection. ↩︎

  13. “Last 5,” here and later, is relative to Wikipedia’s lists on Sep. 17, 2021. ↩︎

  14. Source: a policy professional who is familiar with them ↩︎

  15. The only unclear case is one director’s applied economics PhD. ↩︎

  16. Source: a policy professional who is familiar with them ↩︎

  17. These OSTP directors all also served as university professors before becoming OSTP directors. ↩︎

  18. Degrees of various very senior US executive branch officials.

    • In some roles that (I think) deal extensively with national security:
    • Among the last 5 (non-acting) US Secretaries of Agriculture, the highest degrees were 3 JDs, 1 veterinarian degree, and 1 master’s.
      • (This is double-counting the one who served two non-continuous terms.)
    • Among the last 5 (non-acting) US Secretaries of Commerce, the highest degrees were 3 JDs, 2 master’s, and 1 doctorate.
      • (This adds to 6 because one Secretary has both a JD and a doctorate.)
  19. Advice from a few journalists (from one particular news outlet):

    • Probably don’t try to send a finished piece; when they do publish, it usually requires going back and forth editing, and it’s also often not a good fit.
    • A piece that the news outlet’s own journalists couldn’t write that you can, because of your unique experiences, can be especially interesting to them.
    • Then there’s the separate skill of being good at being edited.
    • Tailor your piece to the outlet you’re writing for; different outlets like different kinds of op-eds (and you can get a sense of their style by reading their op-eds).
  20. Advice from a few journalists:

    • Be callable: get back promptly on short turnarounds, and have solid and quotable things to say.
    • There’s reasonable reasons to be hesitant about this role, but there’s lots of room to get good at it.
    • Someone counted that 40% of references to political scientists were references to one guy who literally sat by the phone all day.
    • You might need to unlearn (or at least temporarily not use) academic writing articles.
      • How to do that: practice; imitating things you see in other good articles.
  21. Response from a few journalists:

    • More mediums would be good, but do the stuff you’re good at—match is very important.
    • It takes more time/money typically to make videos than text content.
    • You’re also able to fit less text / abstract ideas into e.g. a 5-min video (that’s about 200 words; you can do pictures/visuals but that’s harder for some things).
  22. One relevant professional suggests: it’s hard to give a blanket answer. A few points:

    • In general, they’d expect spending time in China not to prevent you from getting a clearance, but quite likely to slow down your clearance process. This could change though, e.g. if US-China relations deteriorate (if that happens, time in China could be looked on worse).
    • Different parts of government handle clearances differently. Spending significant time in China is more likely to be a problem for working in the intelligence community than the State department, for example.
    • If you do go, make sure to keep records of where you live and who you have close contact with.
    • How much this will impact your clearance will also depend on how long ago it was by the time you apply - if you apply right after getting back, that’s super different than if you apply, say, 4 years later. It will also matter how many “close, continuing conflicts” you have who are Chinese nationals when you apply.
  23. One relevant professional’s response: they think you can make basically any level of fluency work. If you don’t read Chinese, then you shouldn’t set yourself up to be doing work that would require that, but if you’re willing to be enterprising, use machine translation, and so on, you can do quite a bit. If you actively feel interested in learning Chinese then I think that’s a great idea, and they’ve really enjoyed investing time in that, but if that feels like pulling teeth then they don’t think it needs to prevent you from working in the area, as long as you’re aware of your limitations. ↩︎

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This is incredibly helpful. For those interested in a UK context, I've put together some shorter and less well evidenced pieces on similar themes:

Working in Parliament: How to get a job & have an impact

Becoming a Member of Parliament: potential routes & impact

Writing about my job: NGO Advocacy (UK context)

In general I think the core recommendations carry across to a UK/European context. A few of exceptions that come to mind:

  • I don't think law degrees are as helpful in the UK, there was a time when many or even most MPs had them, but now they are much rarer, and in a civil service context are no better than any other degree.
  • Same for PhDs - I don't think these add much unless you are in a very technical role.
  • There is generally less money in the UK policy world. Our think tanks are not as well funded, our parties rely less on big funders, and Parliamentary staff get paid a lot less than their counterparts in Congress. On the one hand this might mean you are more reliant on other funding, or take a bigger hit if you move away from other industries to work in politics. On the other hand, if you/other EAs do have money, my instinct is that there are a lot of low hanging funding opportunities in UK policy. E.g. funding an EA grad to work in Parliament for a year probably only costs about £30k ($40k).
  • The UK has fewer political appointments in the executive branch but instead a big and entirely politically neutral civil service, with its own recruitment system. This seems well suited to politically-neutral people, but it also means that within political parties there are fewer policy experts. 
  • Goes without saying, but the UK (and other European countries) are less important than the US, both in terms of the reach of domestic policy and the influence of international policy, which means the gains are much smaller. On the plus side, there is less money and competition, and the UK probably 'punches above its weight' in lots of policy areas. 

"National security law schools:

  • In DC: Georgetown, George Washington, George Mason
  • Others: University of Maryland, University of Virginia"

One law student's view FWIW: these choices may have some national security career benefit beyond other similarly ranked law schools, but in general, I strongly recommend going to a higher ranked school, and if that isn't possible, picking another option, such as a masters. 

Graduates of the top few law schools—Yale most of all, then Harvard, Columbia, UVA, and Georgetown—dominate the top federal government nat sec jobs held by lawyers. For example, of the last 12 national security advisers (since 1993), 3 Yale JDs, 1 Harvard JD, 1 UVA JD, 1 Berkeley JD. Of the last 15 Deputy NSAs (since 1993): 2 Yale JDs, 1 Georgetown JD, 1 Columbia JD, 1 UVA JD. Of the last 9 (since 1993) Secretaries of State: 1 Yale, 1 Harvard JD, 1 Columbia JD, 1 Boston College JD.*

*Not counting interim/actings.

Thanks! I've added a caveat to the post, linking to this comment.

"A few graduate students with relevant interests seemed to agree that a masters degree (not a PhD, and not a law degree) is typically the best option for going into think tank research."

Flagging that when I worked at Brookings ten years ago, a large majority of senior fellows in economic studies had PhDs. The exceptions I can think of had decades of impressive experience.

Things may have changed since then. Also, at the time this was more true at Brookings than other think tanks and more true in economics than other fields.

Thanks for putting this all together! FYI - something seems wrong with your third footnote and the ones after that seem misnumbered.

Thanks for catching that! I think it should be fixed now.

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