A Freshman’s Guide to Writing a Research Policy Memo

The freshman seminars are one of the unique experiences at Princeton. While they may seem intimidating at first, they made me think of the process of research in my very first year in college. Not everyone might become a full-time researcher – I, for example, want to become a policy analyst – but many of our jobs will involve research, and the structure of the freshman seminar is very conducive to the research process. In the Economics of Immigration seminar that I took with Professor Leah Boustan during Fall 2019, we discussed aspects of the economic effects of immigration both on the receiving country and on the migrants themselves. Our final deliverable was a research policy memo – a document that describes a policy intervention by the government, by first arguing the need for it, then describing its advantages, and finally proposing a way by which it might be implemented. In order to write an effective memo, I had to research an issue that necessitated looking at it from diverse points of view. The process made me appreciate several principles of writing a policy memo.

First and foremost, define the problem precisely and clearly. It sounds almost common-sense, but it turned out to be a complicated exercise. For example, for my memo, I proposed a way by which the US government could arrest the economic deterioration in struggling regions like the Midwest incentivizing the labor workforce that had migrated to other areas to return. It is easy to choose a broad, pervasive issue – regional inequality in my case – but, when writing a paper, it is important to focus on a particular aspect of that issue. The idea came to me – quite serendipitously – in the seminar when we were discussing studies that showed that low-skilled immigrants tend to benefit more when they are part of enclaves that have more high-skilled workers. I was also aware that the decline of manufacturing in the Midwest precipitated an exodus of the younger or the wealthier members of the region (who tend to be more productive) in search of better opportunities.

I later realized that such moments of serendipity are often inspired by discussions that take place around us, whether inside the classroom or outside it. During the seminar, I discussed the idea with Professor Boustan, who helped me refine my thoughts and focus on the specific issue of knowledge transfer between the natives and the returning population. Focusing on a particular issue enables you to comprehensively examine the issue at hand, rather than skim over several partially-developed ideas.

Ideas might often come during discussions in a seminar

Sometimes the discussions spilled outside the classroom, and at such times, I realized that I was sometimes making arguments that did not help with my overall narrative. That leads to the second guiding principle: in order to make a persuasive argument, make sure that your narrative never strays from the stated problem. I often found myself exploring all the different ripples of an idea, which seemed very enticing at first, but soon after they led me down the proverbial rabbit hole. At such times, I found it useful to discuss the issues with friends. As outsiders or as students who were not in this class, they would ask some – in retrospect – simple but powerful questions (“the decline of manufacturing in the Rust Belt is interesting, but how is that important for the proposal?”) that made me realize that I was wandering away from my stated problem. That is not to say that these other arguments were not important – it is just that I would not do any justice to them in my proposal.

The third principle that I realized is to think through the larger strands of your argument and how they relate to each other. While my policy prescription was mainly economic, Prof. Boustan had sensitized us to the fact that migration is also a deeply personal and social issue. Thus, while describing the severity of the problem, I often found that it made sense to emphasize the human cost of economic despair – and then emphasize the economic aspects of the problem. Economics is a social discipline, looking at societal issues, and therefore, it often makes eminent sense to explore the problem from multiple disciplines that inform the human condition.

Finally, give a great deal of thought to the implementation of your idea, in other words, if your ideas are going to help solve some problem, try to explain how those ideas can be turned into actionable advice. For example, while the main component of my policy prescription took the form of economic incentives for the returning population, I also had to emphasize the psychological reasons as to why they might return. In this, I was inspired by the examples of several countries like India, China, South Korea, and others, that have used a combination of economic incentives along with sentimental reasons to attract their famous native-born, who had emigrated to other countries, back to their homeland. Thus, even though my memo was about economic policy, I took time to emphasize family considerations and nostalgia for the place of one’s childhood.

Proper implementation is vitally important to the success of any project, and I found that thinking of the mechanism of implementation influenced every aspect of my research – right from how I thought about the research question. In my experience, one should consider implementation from the very beginning, even when the idea is a work-in-process, and continue to revise these ideas iteratively as they continue along the research process.
While these guidelines are specifically for writing a policy memo, many of them are applicable to writing research papers more generally. Of course, not every research paper will need to consider all these principles. The issue of implementation would possibly not be a consideration for researchers in mathematics writing a paper that proves a theorem but would be for any research that has a component of practice. In general, however, I believe that these principles would be useful in a wide variety of contexts and many disciplines. Keeping these principles in mind should be very helpful in creating a coherent, persuasive, and well-structured paper – whether it’s a policy memo or otherwise.

– Abhimanyu Banerjee, Social Sciences Correspondent