Demystifying Policy Brief

Excuse me for the delayed post this week — in fact, the very topic I’m going to talk about in this blog is exactly the reason behind the delay. (I know. Excuses, excuses…) This word has been triggering many of our cohort mates but let’s take a deep breath, and exhale, and take a stab at it: so what is Policy Brief?

Let’s start with what the official IEDP website has to say about it:

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Policy brief is pretty much the capstone project that IEDPers must submit in order to complete the program. Regardless of whether you complete the program in a year and a half or a year, you would be submitting your policy brief at the end of the second semester at IEDP, before most students leave for their summer internships. Though it might be obvious to some, this is a good thing to keep in mind. You won’t really be able to base your policy brief on what you’ve experienced and learned about in your summer internship but you could select a topic that could serve as a prep work for your summer internship. Absolutely fine as well if your policy brief topic does not perfectly align with your internship topic — in a way or the other, you are learning!

Proseminar this semester with Dr. Gershberg has pretty much all been about the policy brief. Yes, an entire single course is dedicated to prepare and guide you for this capstone project. It is not an extra project outside of your coursework, and Dr. Gershberg is there to help you in every step.

This is the first year that Dr. Gershberg is teaching the second semester of Proseminar so I’m not sure what has been the focus of the class when it was taught by Dr. Wagner. This year, there has been a lot of emphasis on identifying a problem that we would like to address in our policy brief. As the website explains, in policy brief, we are expected to define a problem and suggest possible policy options and recommendations to address that problem more effectively. The contents and scope of policy options and recommendations heavily rely on the problem you define. It’s easy for us to get hyped about things that we should do but at the end of the day, it’s important to think about what is the ultimate goal we are trying to achieve with all the things that we would like to implement. That is the point that repeatedly came up in Proseminar sessions with Dr. Gershberg.

Throughout the semester, the cohort has read numerous policy briefs, some written by professionals and others by previous cohorts. Reading these examples helped us grasp a sense of what our policy briefs should look like in terms of both the contents matter and the format. First couple assignments asked us to analyze professional policy briefs to help us better understand how we should structure it and what we should include in our own work. After coming back from the spring break, the cohort was asked to submit the first proposal in which we introduce our problem, the geographic area we would like to focus on and what are the sources that we will be consulting. With Dr. Gershberg’s feedback, there starts your journey of drafting your policy brief!

Many wonder how one decides on the problem that they would like to tackle in their policy briefs. You might not have a specific topic in mind in the beginning of the semester but the courseworks you complete in fall more or less guide you on what kind of issues you are passionate about. From there on, you look up some articles, talk to cohort mates, talk to your advisor and consult Dr. Gershberg to narrow it down more. Some do come in with a very specific topic and a very specific country in mind, and that works as well but don’t be intimidated by uncertainty. For some of my cohort mates (and including myself), the process of deciding a specific country began with our broad regional interest (Latin America, Middle East and North Africa, Sub-Saharan Africa, etc.), and we read about what’s going on in those regions in regard to our topics of interest. From there, we identified a specific country that drew our attention for various reasons — it might struggle the most in regard to that topic, it might have tried interesting approaches in the past, or at times, it might have the most relevant data about the topic!

Currently, our cohort is buried in hundreds of PDF files we have downloaded to research for our policy brief. You need to read up a lot to learn more about what exactly is going on in that country and also better understand the nature of the problem you are addressing. In three days, we are supposed to submit the second policy brief proposal which elaborates on the first proposal, this time including what kind of alternative policies and recommendations we plan to propose.

It does sound daunting and yes, hundreds of PDF files of academic articles and reports do feel a lot but the whole process is broken down into multiple steps, which allows us to take it at a piece meal. And because we get to choose the topic of policy brief and there really is no boundary, as long as it has to do with international educational development, all of us seem to be more motivated and invested in this project. Finally, you get to read and write about your very topic of interest and passion that might not have been addressed in any of the courses offered at Penn.

With that said, I shall return to working on my policy brief. I tried to make this post more succinct but it seems like I wasn’t so successful. I present to you this photo of beautiful trees on the way to GSE. When things get overwhelming, step outside, look around and appreciate the beauty of the nature!



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