The Everything Guide to a Career in Public Service was originally published on The Muse, a great place to research companies and careers. Click here to search for great jobs and companies near you.
When I was 13 years old, I went to science camp. One day, I sat and listened as a scientist described what global warming was going to do to the planet—rising ocean levels, mass extinctions, devastation of populations around the world. As he spoke, I felt shock and then horror, and then realized: Someone had to do something—even if it was a small thing— and I felt compelled to be one of those “someones.”
After that, I decided that whatever career I had, I wanted my work to make the world better somehow. For me, that’s meant writing grants for nonprofits, helping first-generation college students find good jobs after graduation, working as a recruiter for a civil rights nonprofit, and, for the last 13 years, providing career coaching to people seeking “jobs that matter.”
Are you a do-gooder, like me? Do you have a passion for making your community better? Do you want to help people experiencing poverty or discrimination, improve lives through education, work in international affairs, or protect people’s health and safety? If that’s the case, you may be interested in a public service career.
Here are a few big motivators:
- You want your daily work to feel meaningful and to contribute to something bigger than yourself.
- You have a passion for a particular mission or topic, possibly for personal reasons. (For example, some people work in public health after watching a family member or friend experience an illness or injury.)
- You’re motivated by the benefits or perks of certain work settings, like excellent retirement plans at government agencies or a vibrant culture in a particular nonprofit organization.
- You’re interested in Public Service Loan Forgiveness—a student debt–relief program for those with certain types of student loans who work for the U.S. federal, state, local, or tribal government or not-for-profit organizations for at least 10 years—or other loan repayment or forgiveness programs.
So you want to make a difference in the world with your work, but not quite sure where? Traditionally, public service has mostly referred to careers in government, but over the years the definition has expanded to include other sectors that work toward the betterment of society. Depending on what you want to do and what impact you want to make you might work for:
The government, or “the public sector”
Government agencies are funded by tax dollars and deliver services in the interest of all citizens, like public education (including K-12 public schools and state universities), environmental protection, public health and healthcare, infrastructure (like roads, bridges, and electricity), emergency services, public safety and the military, scientific research, and weather forecasts.
You might work for a federal entity like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), United States Agency for International Development (USAID), NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), or the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Or you might work for a state or local government in similar, smaller departments, or for elected officials or the courts. Civil servants—such as postal workers, public school teachers, police officers, and county social workers—are also government employees. Certain jobs exist only or mostly in government.
You can have a tremendous impact working in the public sector, since government policies and programs affect millions of people. And government job security and benefits, especially retirement benefits, are often much better than you can find in other sectors.
Nonprofits, or the “independent sector”
Nonprofit organizations pursue “charitable, religious, educational, or scientific” purposes, according to the IRS. They cannot make a profit, and must use any extra funding toward their mission or purpose. The nonprofit sector is incredibly diverse, comprising 1.3 million different organizations in the U.S. Some nonprofits you may have heard of include Habitat for Humanity, the Sierra Club, Save the Children, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the American Red Cross, and ASPCA. Many universities, hospitals, religious organizations, and arts organizations (like museums or symphonies) are also nonprofits.
Nonprofit organizations are often filled with people who are inspired, passionate, mission-driven idealists who share common values for the mission of the organization.
Corporations, or the “private sector”
While they may be less traditional, public service jobs also exist in for-profit companies. Some companies incorporate corporate social responsibility into their work, ensuring that their goods or services are beneficial for people and the planet while also earning a profit. Others take that idea further to become “B Corporations,” which are specific types of for-profit entities legally committed to balancing profit and purpose (e.g., the Body Shop, Allbirds, and Patagonia). And finally, some for-profit companies are government contractors, which implement some of the work of government agencies.
There are hundreds of different kinds of jobs in public service. As in any workplace, functions such as human resources, IT, accounting and finance, marketing, communications, community outreach, and public affairs are needed to keep an organization running smoothly. But there are a few other kinds of employees that are particularly in demand in the realm of public service, including:
Program managers focus on designing and delivering the core service of the organization. This can include conducting assessments of a community’s needs and strengths, planning and implementing a program, and conducting evaluations of a program’s effectiveness.
Program managers often need specialized training or knowledge of a particular program area. For example, someone designing a public health program like a diabetes education initiative would need a background in public health, nutrition, or other related fields.
While you won’t see “technical specialist” as a job title very often, many jobs in public service require specific training or credentials that align with the particular mission and work of the organization. For example, an educational organization will hire teachers, therapists, social workers, and librarians; an environmental organization may hire a fisheries biologist, an environmental educator, a sustainability specialist, an environmental scientist, and a park ranger; a city government might hire an urban planner, a civil engineer, an emergency-preparedness specialist, and a water treatment specialist. What you’d do in these positions of course varies widely, but they’re a vital part of the public service workforce.
Policy analysts and advocacy specialists
Some organizations hire policy analysts, advocacy specialists, and others whose roles include analyzing the possible impacts of proposed legislation in terms of effects on the community or the cost to taxpayers. These roles often require some extra training in policy analysis or public administration, as well as political savvy and strong analytical, writing, and persuasive communication skills. A policy analyst could work in government, nonprofits, or even for-profit companies, while an advocacy specialist (including a community organizer, advocacy director, policy advocacy specialist, or lobbyist) would be more likely to work for a nonprofit or advocacy organization.
Roles in fundraising and development exist primarily in nonprofit organizations. You might focus on institutional grant or donor report writing or on appeals to individual donors. Some roles are even more specialized, like jobs focused on asking people to include a nonprofit organization in their will (planned giving) or running large-scale fundraising events.
Have a strong feeling you want to make the world a better place, but aren’t sure how? One resource to help you find a public service job is my book, Jobs That Matter: Find a Stable, Fulfilling Career in Public Service, or, if you’re interested in public health specifically, you can turn to my other book, 101+ Careers in Public Health Third Edition. They both contain specialized career exploration exercises as well as extensive information about careers in public service.
Here are a few suggested steps to help you get started:
1. Decide what mission you care about.
Start by narrowing down the missions or issues you’re most passionate about. Think about what problems you want to solve or what topics excite you. Even a broad concept like environmental conservation, homelessness, or education will help. Then, identify organizations that focus on these problems.
2. Decide what job you want to do.
Think about what job function or occupation you’d like to have within public service. To start, consider your skills and interests. What are some tasks that you really enjoy (or think you would enjoy) doing? If you’re not sure, you can try a simple and free career assessment like MyNextMove.
Then, do some research to see if these occupations exist in the organizations that focus on your mission or topic area. Look on LinkedIn or the organization’s website to see what job titles people have.
3. Find out what qualifications you’ll need.
Once you know what job titles might make sense for you, find out whether you need to build your skills to obtain that job or get special training. You can read some job descriptions to look for key skills. You can also use LinkedIn to look up people who have the kinds of roles you’re interested in pursuing and see what they studied and what other training, skills, or experience they have.
4. Do some networking, informational interviews, and career exploration.
Networking is crucial. Looking for people in your chosen organization or field on LinkedIn and other social networking sites can help you explore a career field. Talking with those already in public service (for example, through informational interviews) will give you insight that’ll help you decide exactly what you want to do. Plus, especially in nonprofit organizations, corporate social responsibility, and work with elected officials, making connections is vital to finding and landing the positions you want.
5. Search for open positions.
Some of the best sites for finding jobs in government include USAjobs.gov and gogovernment.org. Plus, each state and local government agency has its own hiring website, and certain professions also have job boards specific to occupations in their field, like publichealthjobs.org for public health or careers.socialworkers.org for social workers. Nonprofit organization jobs can be found on sites like idealist.org. Jobs in corporate social responsibility can be found at netimpact.org and bsr.org. You can also search for open jobs right here on The Muse—for example, by using our “social good” industry filter.
You can also take advantage of free or low-cost resources to help you find (and land) a job, such as your college career center (which may offer services for alumni well after graduation) workforce development agencies, Career OneStop, or your public library. Some colleges and universities also have a separate public services career center.
Whether you’re switching into public service from another sector or just starting your career, you’ll need to show how you fit the job requirements, of course, but it’s just as important to let your commitment to the organization’s mission shine through.
Regardless of what type of public service job you’re applying to, it’s important to tailor your resume to match the language of public service—particularly if you’re entering the field for the first time. So carefully read the job description and make sure you’re using the keywords from the posting in your resume and emphasizing qualifications that are relevant to the position.
For public service specifically, ask yourself:
- If you’ve been working at a for-profit company, can you change the word “customer” or “client” to “stakeholder” without stretching the truth on your resume? Many public service organizations use the term “stakeholders” to refer to their clients, community partners, or other key people or organizations they partner with.
- Can you find a way to frame your achievements besides profit or dollars? For instance, can you reframe your achievements as improvements in efficiency, cost savings, or the impact on key partners?
For government jobs specifically, resumes might look very different than you’re used to. If you’re applying for government and civil service jobs, here are a few pointers:
- Follow all instructions. Sometimes, a resume is not part of government applications at all–instead, you might be required to fill out special questionnaires, answer essay questions, or even take a civil service exam.
- You may need a federal resume. The federal government has a specific resume format so you may need to restructure your resume significantly—especially for civil service or federal government positions.
- Exact qualifications matter. Many government job postings include a specific number of months and years of experience you need in a given role or with a certain skill. Civil service hiring processes are heavily regulated, and the HR professionals who screen your resume may not be allowed to interview someone who’s almost qualified for the job. For instance, a city research scientist job at the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene usually requires three years of full-time research experience. If you had a full-time research position for two years along with a part-time research job for one year beforehand, you’d only be given credit for six months of full-time equivalent experience for the latter (called “pro-rating” your experience) and would likely get automatically rejected.
- More is more, as opposed to a typical resume, where you’re trying to be concise. If the job requires specific skills, clearly describe how you used those skills in any past job that you did or you may not make it to the next round.
For some public service jobs—especially those in fundraising, policy analysis, communications, program management, or other functions where writing is a critical part of the role—a cover letter is an important part of your application. Consider it a writing sample that can prove you have the skills to do the work, or not.
Regardless of the role, your cover letter is the best place for you to show your commitment to the cause. When I was briefly a recruiter at a mission-driven nonprofit organization, every position at the organization, from administrative assistant to accountant to director, listed “commitment to the mission” as a job requirement, so someone who’d demonstrated interest in the mission was literally more qualified than someone who hadn’t. I read all the cover letters, and would often select candidates who had less experience, but who clearly communicated their passion for the mission, over those with more experience who showed no knowledge of, or interest in, the mission.
To write an effective cover letter, you can start by sharing your passion for the mission of the organization (perhaps highlighting a personal connection to the mission or your prior volunteer experience), then clearly describe how you match the job requirements, and then end by reiterating your passion for the organization.
After many years of helping people find “jobs that matter,” I’ve seen hundreds of people discover ways to make the world better while also making a living. The joy of knowing that the work you do every day is contributing to something you care about can be a huge source of motivation—transforming a job into a calling.