How to Make a Career in Public Service

With the right experience and research, you can change your life--and help others.


As a college senior graduating 15 years ago, Amy Potthast wanted to find work she could love, but was clueless about public service jobs. "I didn't realize I could make a career out of being a good citizen," she says. "I didn't think my career services office would take me seriously if I went in there and said, 'I want to change the world with my job.' They were all about corporate interviewing." So she joined the Peace Corps and then worked for AmeriCorps and VISTA. Along the way, she figured out what a career in public service could look like.

Today she's the director of service and graduate education programs for Idealist, one of several nonprofits that have sprung up in the past decade to help demystify paths to public service, a sector broadly defined as government, nonprofits/NGOs, international development, and education, plus consulting in any of these categories. Why is entry into this world such a mystery in the first place? "There's not one single right path," says Potthast, 37. "It's not like if you want to become a Supreme Court justice, where first you go to law school and then you clerk and so on."

Marissa Deitch, assistant director for public service at Swarthmore College's Career Services center, says this sector isn't "as visible to students—these types of employers don't do a lot of campus recruiting unless they're big, like the Peace Corps." The average nonprofit has no more than five employees and may hire only once every few years.

David Schachter, assistant dean for student affairs at New York University's Graduate School of Public Service, has identified four "lenses" people use to find trailheads into the public sector: an issue they care about, a role they want to play, the kind of organization they want to work for (a large one with multiple chapters like Amnesty International, say, or a small state agency on the cutting edge of something experimental), or the system they want to work in (public schools or prisons, for example).

One approach is to start by looking at what most energizes you: an unsolved problem or an unmet need, for example. (If you're having trouble even getting that far, try, which has a $4.95, 30-minute self-assessment test.) Care about the environment? That would be the "issue" area. The next step could be to determine which organizations work on the issue, then what roles are involved. "You could approach it from a science background, or from a research, policy, or advocacy perspective," says Deitch. "Let's say you pick advocacy. Then you just drill it down further. What are some jobs underneath advocacy? Lobbyist. Community organizer. Public relations."

The environment has always been the passion of Dani Simons, 33. She studied remote sensing at Brown University, planning to make a career of designing nature preserves, then realized she "couldn't do it all from behind a computer screen." After graduation, she worked for AmeriCorps doing grass-roots organizing for an urban parks and greenway project in a rundown neighborhood of Providence, R.I. While there, she became interested in bicycles as an answer to environmental, health, and social equity issues. Today, Simons works for New York City's Department of Transportation, advocating for green transport.

Should you need further help brainstorming, try the Department of Labor's Occupational Outlook Handbook, which has information about virtually every career, its average salary, and whether the occupation is growing or shrinking. The department's O*NET lets you browse related careers or search by skill. (The information cuts across all sectors, public and private.) If you have a skill you really want to use—say, accounting—you'll need to figure out which types of organizations would employ a full-time accountant. Potthast explains: "Some really small grass-roots organization might need someone to wear a thousand different hats and can't pay one person for that job. Others will pay consultants. But there will be some that are so big that they'll have accountants on staff."