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Graduate’s Guide to Careers in Public Service How to Earn a Living while Helping Your Community

The public service profession is often misunderstood as a career path. While most people know a job in a public sector is about making a difference, whether at the local, country or international level, few have a full understanding of what kinds of jobs are available. While public service isn’t just about volunteer work or advocating for a charitable cause, it isn’t all about government work either. The goal of this guide is to explain what a career in public service is about, demonstrate how to get a career serving a higher cause and dispel any myths and misunderstandings about public service.

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The Money Myths of Public Service

One of the biggest misconceptions about public service has to do with money. There are many people who believe a public sector job amounts to a vow of poverty, with the primary reward coming from personal job satisfaction. While it’s true that many choose a career in the public sector for the gratification of knowing they’re working for the greater good, many still make a comfortable living. Let’s take a look at this and a few other myths.

When you choose to do work in the public sector it is because you want to make an impact. Some changes take longer than others, however it is not because we do not work any harder or move any faster than the private sector. There are times that making a public change takes more time because it may involve a state law or regulation, city council, legislative decision, by-law, or city ordinance, or a vote. Knowing that you had a role in the change is all so worthwhile.

Milagros S. Johnson

Myth: You can’t make good money AND fulfill your passion in public service.

Reality. Many public service employees earn a salary on a par with their private sector counterparts. In addition, many public sector jobs, such as those in government, have relatively rigid work schedules such that the employees only work up to 40 hours per week. So, while they may sometimes earn a smaller salary, they’re not working exhaustive hours like many at a private company.

Myth: There’s no job security.

Reality. This is far from true, especially for government employees. In fact, because of the administrative employee protection systems in place, public sector employees can only get fired for a good reason. Most positions with private companies are “at will” which means employees can be fired for any or no reason at all (subject to a few exceptions). Therefore, working in the public sector might actually provide more job security than the private sector.

Myth: Public service employees have no accountability.

Reality. Because the compensation of public service employees ultimately comes from either donations or taxes, there is a tremendous amount of accountability for public servants. Many results are subject to federal oversight, which makes it harder for abuse of resources to take place. Compare this with a private company where the owners are beholden to no one, except perhaps the shareholders.

Myth: Anyone can get that public service job.

Reality. Many public service jobs are difficult to obtain and highly prestigious. For example, getting a job at a world-renowned charitable organization can be much more difficult than landing a parallel position at a private company. Once in the public service position, employees enjoy a high level of respect from their private sector counterparts. One good example of this is an Assistant United States Attorney with the Department of Justice. Only the best graduates from law school and elite attorneys from law firms can hope to get this job.

Myth: Public service jobs consist mostly of working at a desk or an office.

Reality. Just like many other jobs in private industry, some public service jobs can be considered desk jobs. But there are numerous “hands on” options in the public sector, such as being a park ranger, fire fighter, fighter pilot, judge, politician, construction worker and teacher. In these jobs employees spend little time sitting at a desk or processing paperwork.

No two days are alike when working for the public, and there is continuous work to be done. Trust me, the work you do, or fail to do, is noticeable by those you serve.

Milagros S. Johnson

Top Salaries in the Field

While some public service employees won’t make a salary that matches those in similar positions at a private company, many still make a great salary. The following chart demonstrates some of the higher-paying jobs in the public sector that make a big difference in the world and local community.

Budget analyst 58,400 $73,840 Bachelor’s degree
Fire inspector 14,100 $56,130 Postsecondary non-degree award
High school teacher 439,300 $58,030 Bachelor’s degree
Judge and hearing officer 43,800 $109,940 Professional degree
Lawyer 792,500 $118,160 Professional degree

*Degree requirements may vary by state

(Bureau of Labor Statistics)

If you’re interested in seeing salary calculations for public service careers in your area, use the button below to search for wages in your area.

SALARY SEARCH TOOL

Other Perks to Pull You In

Besides making a good salary, there are a number of other benefits to working in public service. Some of these benefits can actually be worth far more than a bump in pay.

Insurance benefits

With the current uncertainty in the health insurance industry, this benefit can be worth thousands of dollars each month to an employee. Most government jobs provide health insurance benefits that cannot be found in the private sector. Or perhaps the benefits are comparable, but at a far cheaper cost to government workers.

Getting a student loan is common for many college students. In order to entice some of them to work in public service, the federal government is willing to forgive a portion of the students’ loans under the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program. This can save thousands of dollars. But only individuals working for the government, nonprofit or charitable organizations are eligible for this benefit.

If an individual seeks a job with the federal government, there is tremendous potential for working in a geographic area of preference. While not every federal government job allows employees to choose exactly where they want to work, the government tries to accommodate requests as much as possible. Examples of federal jobs where employees are located all around the country include federal law enforcement positions, such as the FBI and United States Marshals Service. This is also true for the United States armed forces, where soldiers can request transfers to certain bases all over the country.

Because public service positions exist to make a difference and not put money in owner’s pockets, the constant drive to push employees to produce bigger and better results doesn’t typically exist. As a result, many public service positions expect only 40 hours per week or have flexible work arrangements. Of course, those who want to make the biggest difference possible can find positions where they can push themselves further and harder to work more, but those positions do not permeate the public service industry as a whole.

Compared to private industry, government jobs do better during an economic downturn. According to Government Magazine, during the Great Recession, the rate of job loss (or gain) in many states was better for state and local government positions compared to jobs in the private sector. For example, from 2008 to 2012, Arkansas lost 4.69 percent of private sector jobs while government jobs increased by 5.17 percent. During that same time period, California’s private employers shed 6.22 percent of its workers while the state and local government only lost 5.93 percent of jobs. In less than 10 states did employees in the private sector fare better than the state or local government between 2008 and 2012.

Discounts on personal purchases are possible for those who work in the public sector. From cellphone plans to computers to office supplies, public service employees have a variety of benefits available to them. Those in the armed forces will note this as a particularly enticing perk. Military discounts are extremely common in such places as hardware stores and restaurants.

Pension plans used to be common, but today are very rare outside of government employment, due in part because they’re so expensive to offer. They’re expensive because the benefits are so good. Most pension plans allow a person to retire after a set number of years and then receive a percentage (50 percent or more) of their working income for the rest of their life. This benefit is paid out in addition to anything else the employee is eligible for, such as Social Security or retirement investments. Pension plans are available to government employees at all levels.

Working for the public sector means that you provide a service to the public and act in the public’s best interest. Typically, one of the goals is to help improve their quality of life, livelihood, and/or the betterment of the community. Like me, those who choose this line of work are not always in it for the money. Although the benefits are great, i.e. weekends and national holidays off, generous leave time accruals, pension/retirement plan, wide-selection of health benefits, job stability, and less-demanding work culture, the biggest reward is making a difference in the lives of others.

Milagros S. Johnson

Loan Forgiveness & Public Service

A major misconception of public service is that many of the available jobs have low pay. While this belief is often wrong, it still doesn’t change the fact that some public service positions don’t have the highest pay. One way to get more people to start working in the public service field is to provide financial incentives, such as loan forgiveness. One such program is the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program, or PSLFP.

What is the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program?

The PSLFP is a federal program that forgives a portion of a student loan balance for those who work full-time in a public service profession. The PSLFP only allows part of the student’s loan to be forgiven because a student cannot qualify until they make 10 years’ worth of monthly student loan payments.

Who qualifies for public service loan forgiveness?

To qualify for acceptance into the PSLFP, an individual must:

  • Have worked full-time for a qualifying public service employer for the past 10 years,

  • Have a federal Direct Loan,

  • Make 120 qualifying payments without default,

  • Each year (or whenever switching jobs), complete the Employment Certification for Public Service Loan Forgiveness form, and

  • Continue to work at a qualifying employer until the loan is forgiven.

There can be a lot of uncertainty regarding the PSLFP. The White House’s proposed United States 2018 budget outlined plans to eliminate the PSLFP starting in July 2018. Several bills have been introduced in Congress that would eliminate the PSLFP. Although none of these proposals have been implemented, the future is not clear.

Are all loans eligible for forgiveness?

No, only loans from the William D. Ford Federal Direct Loan Program are eligible.

How do I apply for public service loan forgiveness?

The first step is to enroll in a qualifying payment plan, such as an income-driven repayment plan. Then, the individual will need to make 120 qualifying monthly payments.

While those 120 payments take place, individuals are strongly encouraged to complete and send in the Employment Certification for Public Service Loan Forgiveness Form each year or whenever there is a change of employment. After submission, graduates will receive confirmation if they are on track for having their loans forgiven. This confirmation is important because it helps avoid a nasty surprise after 10 years when applicants find out they are not eligible for the PSLFP. This form should also be completed after the 120th payment has been made.

If the form has not been completed annually or with each change in employment, then at the time of applying for the PSLFP, the applicant must complete one of those forms for each employer they worked for while making the 120 monthly payments.

Is public service loan forgiveness right for me?

The PSLFP is a wonderful benefit, but it might not be best for everyone. Before choosing a school or career based on the PSLF Program, consider the following pros and cons.

PROS

  • Part of the student loan goes away and never has to be repaid.

  • An individual who works for a qualifying employer is eligible, even if they don’t work in a conventional public service job.

  • The amount of forgiven student debt is not considered taxable income by the IRS.

  • After the remaining balance on the student loan is forgiven, the individual may change careers to a non-public service job if he or she wishes.

CONS

  • Individuals must make 120 monthly student loan payments over 10 years, with no incidence of default, to qualify.

  • There must be a commitment to work for a qualifying employer for 10 years to qualify for the program.

  • The PSLFP is subject to political whims. If those in power want to change the parameters of the PSLFP, they can certainly do so.

  • There is a significant paperwork requirement that can be cumbersome to meet.

Are there other loan forgiveness options?

Besides the PSLFP, there are other ways public service professionals may have part of their federal student loans forgiven. For example, there are several income-drive loan repayment plans (such as the REPAYE, PAYE, IBR and ICR) that reduce monthly student loan payments and forgive any remaining balance after 20 or 25 years.

Teachers have their own special forgiveness opportunity in the Teacher Loan Forgiveness Program. There is also the Federal Perkins Loan cancellation for individuals working in certain public service areas, such as teaching, the military, and nursing.

Quiz: Find Your Passion in Public Service

Public service offers an abundance of career options. No single career or job can even remotely encompass what kind of work the “typical” public service job entails. The next section sheds some light on public service and includes a quiz to help you decide which area of public service is right for you.

What is public service?

Public service refers to services provided to the general population by a government entity. And for most public service workers, government work for the general population (providing a direct or indirect benefit) plays a significant part of their job description. However, many public service careers involve working for a private organization that engages in charitable or service-oriented work. Therefore, it’s safe to say public service work has the primary goal of serving others or advancing the greater good of society.

What careers qualify as public service?

Public service consists of individuals working in two primary areas. The largest is government work, at all levels, from small towns to the federal government. This might include politicians, such as a governor, city council member or U.S. senator. It also includes members of the armed forces, ranging from enlisted all the way up to five star general. Then are more desk-oriented jobs, such as mail clerks, state judges and economists. This just touches on the thousands of jobs that qualify as public service under the governmental umbrella.

The other major public service career area is charitable and nonprofit organizations. These are legal entities with a mission other than earning a profit. More well-known examples would include the Salvation Army, Red Cross and Doctors Without Borders. Those who work or volunteer for these organizations are in public service, even if they aren’t directly working toward the organization’s mission. For example, an in-house accountant who helps manage money from fundraising efforts of a humanitarian organization works in public service, even if the accountant isn’t in overseas distributing relief aid to the needy.

What is the “new public sector” and how does it differ from traditional public service?

Traditional public service was based on a government bureaucracy. There was an established hierarchy (including a division of labor) and rules that everyone followed, where the primary mission was to serve the public. Unfortunately, this is not the most efficient method of running an organization, so strategies and techniques from the private sector have been brought over to create a “new public sector.”

The new public sector applies management operations from the private sector in an effort to cut costs. These new methods include the implementation of entrepreneurial management techniques, greater emphasis on results and the use of competitive measures to motivate employees to work more efficiently. Basically, the new public sector refers to running a government more like a business.

Who is a good fit for public service professions?

There is a misconception that public service professions require toiling away for long hours and being driven by passion more than by the everyday realities of money. The truth is that the public sector includes some of the most elite, well-respected and exclusive careers. Examples include judges, politicians, federal law enforcement, chief executives of charitable organizations and medical researchers.

But not everyone is cut out for every type of public service profession. Those who enjoy being “in the field” probably won’t like a desk job and vice versa. Those who like to hob-nob with their constituents and those who prefer to go to far-flung countries to help after a disaster both fit under the public service umbrella.

The following quiz will provide a glimpse into which public service profession would be a good fit for you. For each quiz question, choose one letter that most fits your preference. When you’re done answering all the questions, count how many times you chose each letter.

Helping and empowering others brings me satisfaction and fulfillment and, as long as I feel this passion, I will continue to do what I love, and what I do best.

Milagros S. Johnson

Quick Look: Public Service Careers in the U.S.

Based on cost of living differences and market forces, the availability and compensation of public service jobs will vary. That’s where the following search tool comes in handy. Use the tool below to explore public service careers in the country and see their employment numbers and average pay rates.

Give Back to Get Started: Volunteering & Internships

One of the best ways to ensure a public service career is the right move is by getting a little taste of the day-to-day work. That can be done through volunteer and internship opportunities.

If your heart and passion is in your community and people, take the plunge. Know that public sector jobs, such as those in government is what keeps our communities thriving and society great! And yes, there are opportunities for personal and career growth as well.

Milagros S. Johnson

Top 5 Reasons to Volunteer or Intern in Public Service

Maybe having a career in public service isn’t for you. Or maybe it is, but you’re not completely sure. There are a number of volunteer and internship opportunities that provide valuable experience in a public service job and organization without fully committing to it.

Gain experience

Schooling can only teach so much. The most valuable lessons are learned in the real world. Volunteering and interning provide this opportunity without long-term commitment.

Test out a job

Volunteering and interning will provide a taste of what a job is like. From how an office operates to what the typical job duties might entail, much can be learned by “test driving” a job before actually applying for it.

Network

Many public service positions are competitive or unknown to many prospective public servants. By volunteering or interning, an individual can meet new people who might prove useful in the future when looking for a job.

Discover new things

Working with an organization helps people choose what they really want to do. For instance, people who think they want to work in fundraising, might realize they prefer more hands-on work.

Learn more about an organization

The only way to really learn about an organization is to spend time there. Volunteering or interning offers a view of the big picture, such as how an organization fulfills its mission. It also provides a look into day-to-day operations.

Volunteering

Anyone can make a difference without having to commit to a career in public service. There are a number of online resources to help individuals find volunteer opportunities, as well as organizations that are constantly looking for people to volunteer.

General

  • idealist. An online facilitator for individuals who want to make a difference and organizations with noble missions that need help.

  • DoSomething.org. Works to encourage America’s youth to take action to improve their community.

  • Reward Volunteers. This organization not only provides a large list of volunteering opportunities but operates a special system that keeps track of volunteer hours that individuals can use for a chance to win prizes.

  • VolunteerMatch. Provides a wide variety of opportunities for individuals looking for volunteer opportunities; can be searched by location or subject matter.

  • Experience Corps. Sponsored by the AARP, Experience Corps provides opportunities for specially trained volunteers to provide extra help to inner-city children with their academic studies.

  • Scholarship America. Provides financial support to college students in need.

  • SCORE. Provides special training, education and mentoring to small business owners so they may thrive in their local community.

  • WorldTeach. Allows teachers to volunteer their time by going overseas and teaching children from other countries and cultures.

  • Corporation for National Community Service. This federal agency oversees several major volunteer programs in the United States, including Senior Corps, AmeriCorps and the Social Innovation Fund.

  • Financial Services Volunteer Corps (FSVC). Financial Services Volunteer Corps (FSVC). Through volunteer finance experts, the FSVC helps the economies of developing nations by providing expert advice to build a strong economic system and support economic growth.

  • IESC. A nonprofit organization that helps build strong economies by promoting private industry through volunteer work.

  • UN Volunteers (UNV). Facilitates volunteers from around the world to promote the dual goals of development and peace with the help of the United Nations.

  • American Bar Association (ABA). The leading international professional organization for legal professionals, with a special resources section to help attorneys find pro bono volunteer opportunities.

  • American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Through its local affiliates, the ACLU allows attorneys to volunteer their time to preserve the freedoms guaranteed by the United States Constitution.

  • Pro Bono Partnership. Helps nonprofit organizations in the Northeast United States by allowing individuals to volunteer their business and legal skills.

  • Wills for Heroes Foundation. This charitable organization invites lawyers to volunteer their time to prepare legal wills and other documents for first responders. Attorneys can sign up to volunteer through their local bar associations.

  • American Red Cross. At the forefront of disaster relief, as well as blood donation and health and safety training.

  • Big Brothers Big Sisters of America. This nonprofit helps children grow with special volunteer mentors.

  • United Way. One of the largest charitable organizations in the world, with the broad goal of improving lives by focusing on education, health and income.

  • The YMCA. Works in local communities to help individuals grow and thrive, with a special emphasis on physical well-being.

  • American Cancer Society. Their sole mission is to eradicate cancer. It offers numerous volunteer opportunities for those who want to help.

  • CARE. Works primarily overseas, using community resources to improve the health, education and economic standing of others.

  • St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. A premier medical research and treatment provider for children facing life-threatening diseases.

  • Volunteers in Medicine Clinic. The Medicine Clinic’s mission is to provide free health care to Hilton Head Island.

Internships

For those looking for a more in-depth working opportunity in public service, or something that may also provide monetary compensation, internships are the way to go.

General

  • Indeed.com. Traditionally known as a job listing site, Indeed has thousands of internship listings too, including those in public service.

  • Internships.com. Specializes in listing thousands of internship opportunities in a variety of fields, including education, government, healthcare and medical research.

  • LinkedIn. Known as the “Facebook” for professionals, this site provides a well-established job listing section, including internships.

  • WayUp. Allows individuals to find internships in a number of categories and by geographic preference.

  • Aim High. A summer enrichment program in Northern California for middle school students, but they have high school and college internship opportunities for individuals looking to gain education experience.

  • Teach for America. Works to bring new teachers to economically challenged parts of the country; it offers many internship opportunities.

  • Teach.org. A comprehensive resource for prospective teachers. It provides information about internship opportunities for individuals to gain valuable experience.

  • United States Department of Education. Offers a special internship program for students interested in learning more about a career in education policy.

  • Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The United States Senate has a number of internship opportunities available, including a few on the Foreign Relations Committee, which deals with foreign policy.

  • Department of Defense. Oversees all aspects of the national defense of the United States via the armed forces, but has many civilian career options, including internships.

  • Pathways. Pathways for Students and Recent Graduates to Federal Careers is a government program that provides internship and job opportunities in federal agencies to individuals still in school or who have recently graduated.

  • United States House of Representatives. Serving as the lower house of Congress, the House has a robust internship program for college students interested in learning more about government.

  • Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). The federal government agency that oversees civil aviation in the United States. It also has a special Law Honors Intern Program for law students.

  • Lawyers Without Borders. A nonprofit organization which promotes the protection of human rights and helping the needy oversees by enforcing the rule of law. It has a number of unpaid internships for undergraduate students and new attorneys.

  • Mazzoni Center. Aims to improve LGBT-focused health and wellness services, with much of their work taking the form of legal action.

  • United States Department of Justice. The DOJ serves as the United States’ legal arm, enforcing the law and protecting its legal interests.

Expert Advice: Checklist for Success in the Public Sector

Looking for success in the public sector? Maura Devlin, Deputy Chief Learning Officer at The American Women’s College (TAWC), Bay Path University, weighs in.

  • Make sure you have the proper skills. “Because of the mission-driven nature of public service work, those who work in the public sector should have significant skills in collaborating, problem-solving, a strong customer service orientation, leadership, good oral and written communication abilities, critical thinking abilities, and data analysis skills, in addition to role-specific knowledge (such as knowing the rules of accounting or methods of teaching phonics). They should be able to articulate their organization’s mission in a way that resonates with those whom they serve, the general public, and those who fund their work. They should also be able to identify, develop, and document evidence that supports their work.”

  • Be willing to embrace change. “As public sector employees climb the ladders of their organizations into management roles, they should become familiar with leading and managing change. Public sector employees’ requirements to fulfill their organizations’ missions mean that they need to stay current in their respective area of expertise, be flexible, and continuously look for improvements.”

  • Have patience. “Those who work in the public sector are generally trying to find solutions to problems that are larger in scope than many in the private sector, problems that aren’t as easily solved, that sometimes take significant resources and multi-pronged approaches, and take time to see results.”

  • Focus on the mission. “In the private sector, an institution may have a lofty set of goals that relate to the public good, but the goal of increasing profits is also always at the forefront of any institutional decision-making. In the public sector, the sense of mission is not diluted in this way. While any organization needs to think about ways to fund its programs in an uninterrupted way, our mission is what generally guides decision-making.”

  • Be ready to collaborate. “Public health issues such as obesity and opioid addiction, or the rehabilitation of juvenile offenders, require various types of organizations to collaborate. These issues are best solved when representatives from various sectors collaborate on problem-solving and implementing cross-sector best practices for long-lasting, effective results.”

Additional Resources

This guide can only provide so much information for a career path as broad as public service. Here’s a list of additional resources for further information on a career in public service.

  • Association for Public Policy Analysis & Management (APPM). A professional organization that promotes research and education to improve the public policy and management career field. Its website has a number of resources including a job listings section.

  • Go Government. A website dedicated to recruit a new generation of workers in government. Provides a diverse amount of information including application tips and other advice on finding and getting a government job of choice.

  • GovernmentJobs. A website devoted to matching government employers with job seekers who desire a career in government.

  • PoliceOne. A central location for all things related to police, this is part of a network of sites that cater to first responders and public servants, such as firefighters, paramedics and corrections officers.

  • PublicServiceCareers.org. Serves as a central location for employers to post jobs in public service as well as prospective public servants to find one. Includes information about public service degrees.

  • USAJOBS. The official job listing website for the federal government.