Launching a Career in Public Service

Speaker at Business Conference and Presentation.

This week’s post is for those of you looking to take the concept of helping others and having a positive social impact to the next level by making it the center of your career aspirations. Joining me on this topic is Professor David Campbell, Chair of the Department of Public Administration at Binghamton University. Not only could I not have written today’s blog without his help, but I also wouldn’t have been able to launch a career in public service myself!  Today, we’ve decided to tackle some of the big questions about entering a career in this field.

What kind of career opportunities are available in the public sector?

The public sector is extremely varied in the types of job opportunities that are available. While for-profit businesses primarily focus on just one thing – the bottom line – work in the public interest can focus on many different things: sustainability, art, transportation, fundraising, etc., in addition to the standard business topics such as accounting and marketing. If you’re looking for a job opportunity in the public sector, don’t forget to look at all levels of government – local, state, and federal, as well as nonprofit organizations. You could be an administrator, a direct service worker (working directly with people in need), or you could be a grassroots activist. You may even be able to use your public sector background and/or passion for working the public interest to create meaningful change in the private sector as a sustainability officer or community relations specialist.

What are some of the paths one could take to get involved?

Getting an internship is a great starting point. Binghamton University tries to connect students with opportunities that are the best fit for their interests. Professor Campbell has found that by the end of the internship period, some organizations will either hire their interns, or tell them that they would hire them if they had the funding to do so. If you are lucky enough to get an internship at a large or even mid-sized nonprofit, being able to demonstrate that you do good work is key. Even if the employer does not have the funds to immediately hire you, they may have a network they can refer you to or serve as a strong reference for potential employers.

Networking is also key – try to go to conferences, classes, and networking events in the field that most interests you, and don’t be shy about introducing yourself to professionals in the field. Sometimes it is best not to ask to be connected with a job opportunity right away – just try to get to know them and show that you are interested in their advice and mentorship, and perhaps they can introduce you to others who may be hiring.

Finally, don’t be discouraged if you don’t land your dream job right away. Professor Campbell points out that even some of his best students have often taken 3-9 months to get a job. You might have to work at a job that isn’t your ideal choice for a while until you land a steady job that you are really passionate about, and that’s OK. Try to use whatever experience you have as a chance to learn and get your feet wet.

Where does the education factor in?

Education gives you the knowledge you need to do your job well. Entering a field where you are serving the public interest without a strong knowledge base is risky – you may end up making preventable mistakes or doing unintended harm. Professor Campbell shares his story, “I actually didn’t initially study in Public Administration – my background was originally in philosophy and religion before I started working in the public sector. When I first began my career I didn’t have that experience and needed to learn a lot on my own. It wasn’t until I pursued my PhD that I felt I had the deep knowledge that I needed, and could spend my time building knowledge rather than acquiring the basics.”

In his recent TED Talk “The Way We Think About Charity Is Dead Wrong,” Dan Pallotta discussed that many professionals are more inclined to go into for-profit businesses than non-profit because the earning potential is so much higher, and you can have the same or possibly more social impact by giving a large percentage of those earnings to charity. How should this inform one’s path to creating social change?

This is a tough question, and in a lot of ways, it’s a conflict between your heart and your head. Although it’s not impossible to make a lot of money ethically in the private sector, the work environment in the corporate sector will be very different, and if your greatest passion in life is to help others then you might find that a typical corporate career isn’t the best fit. However, if you have a strong interest in financial analysis, you may feel very comfortable in the corporate world, and be able to perform ethically, responsibly, and have a significant positive social impact. Your skills set is also a big factor – while some for-profit jobs may have a position or two in sustainability or corporate social responsibility, there’s going to be a much bigger demand for this type of talent in the public or nonprofit sector. Finally, don’t let the earning potential fool you, there will always be a need for well-trained public servants.

How do you see the landscape of the public sector changing in the next 10-20 years?

The biggest change on the horizon is the blurring of the lines between public and private sectors. More business people are pursuing ways to make a profit and advance social causes at the same time (including a growing trend toward B Corporations). An increasing number of professionals are not distinguishing between for-profit and non-profit career paths, and just saying “I want to focus on sustainability,” “information,” social entrepreneurship,” etc. This is enabling more creative methods for addressing complex social problems.

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