Courtney Rubin<

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."

Or you can be like Christopher "Kiff" Gallagher and create your own opportunity. Gallagher helped found AmeriCorps before leaving to pursue a career as a singer-songwriter. In 2008 he combined two of his leading passions and founded MusicianCorps, whose fellows teach music in locations from public schools to veterans hospitals.

Of course, the federal government, which employs more than 2 million civilians, not including the Postal Service, offers future public servants a seemingly endless variety of options. And, unlike the private sector, the government is always hiring and will never go out of business. (It is projected to add 270,000 employees in 2010-12).

A lot of government jobs are filled by "the unsung heroes that keep society great," says Heather Krasna, author of Jobs That Matter (2010). She points to drinking a glass of water from a municipal tap. "Who made sure the arsenic wasn't in that?" she says. "That's somebody's job."

Keep in mind that working for the U.S. government does not automatically mean a move to Washington, D.C. Eighty-five percent of federal positions are outside the nation's capital, and some 50,000 are located abroad. Experts encourage job-seekers to be open-minded. One skill set or profession may apply to a whole range of agencies. Want to work in law enforcement? That could mean Customs and Border Protection, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Secret Service, or an agency you've never heard of.

Fred Garza, 54, whose dry, official title is "animal health technician," has worked for nearly 20 years as a government cowboy for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, keeping watch on horseback over a 700-mile buffer zone along the Rio Grande. His job? Tracking down and lassoing livestock that have wandered in from Mexico, possibly carrying diseases.

For help in choosing promising opportunities, you can check out, which is based on the Partnership for Public Service's analysis of federal employee surveys. "You may not have heard of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, for example, but it's an incredibly successful agency and its employees think it's fabulous," says Max Stier, president and CEO of the Partnership for Public Service, a nonprofit that promotes federal civil service work. "Wouldn't you want to work for a place where employees are happy and engaged?"

You can read postings and apply for multiple government jobs at USAjobs. Though the website has recently been overhauled to make it more user friendly, "it's probably best not to approach it out of the gate without doing some reading first," Stier says. A good starting place: the Partnership's Web site,, which lays out in plain English (as opposed to government-ese) how to explore federal job opportunities.

Wherever in the public sector you think you may be headed, the advice is the same: Network, network, and then network some more. Ask friends and relatives about people they know who volunteer, work for nonprofits, or serve on nonprofit boards. Connect with alumni from your school working in fields that interest you.

Kimberlee Mortimer, a 31-year-old environmental scientist, started her career in the public sector with a three-month temporary fieldwork assignment for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. "The first job was not my dream job by any stretch of the imagination," she says. But she was passionate about the environment, checked her ego at the door, and ended up landing the full-time job she'd hoped for.

If you want to work for the federal government, people inside the various agencies can tell you the key words you'll need to have in your résumé (some agencies use automated screening processes to identify candidates) and where in the process your application is. The Obama administration's goal is to trim waiting times to 80 days, but for some jobs the figure is still "many, many multiples of that," says Stier.

Krasna suggests using LinkedIn and Facebook to find people who do the jobs you find the most interesting. You can ask: "What do they do in their day? Will they have coffee with you? What skill do you need to build?" she says. For government jobs, her favorite new find is Govloop, a government networking site. And no, you don't have to be working in government to use it. You'll find contractors and people like you who want to get into federal work.

Another tip for getting a job in the sector is to volunteer and show your commitment to the issue or to the general idea of public service. Krasna recommends trying to do something substantial. "Everyone thinks about a soup kitchen and that's great. But you also want to build skills you'll need in your future career," she says.

When her aunt was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig's disease) in 2000, Amy Whipple, then a 24-year-old sales rep for a paper company, began volunteer fundraising for the ALS Therapy Development Institute, a nonprofit biotech focused on developing treatment. Over the next seven years, she helped raise nearly $2 million for the group, based in Cambridge, Mass. In 2007, just after her aunt died, Whipple was offered a full-time job as ALS TDI's director of programs and events. She's now the institute's Midwest regional director, fundraising and educating ALS patients and their families about the research being done.

Think you can write a grant proposal? "Small nonprofits always need help with that and it's a marketable skill if you write a successful one," Krasna says.

Internships can also help. Sarah Holewinski, 33, executive director of the nonprofit Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict (CIVIC), works to protect civilians caught in battle zones. She got her start in college by interning at the Clinton White House. "You have to work hard" and "give every task everything you've got, whether it's taking out the trash" or "strategizing an advocacy campaign," she says. For many people, these opportunities will lead to full-time jobs, as they did for Holewinski.

And don't be discouraged if you don't get your dream position the first time you apply. Kimberlee Mortimer advises "pleasant persistence." In her three years at the Florida fish and wildlife agency, she says, she has seen two people who applied at least four times for different positions finally land a job. Going the distance also wins you points. "If you travel for an interview as opposed to the phone option, or bring an extra presentation as an exhibit, that leaves a really great impression," Mortimer says.

If you're still not sure where you want to settle, or you've discovered you're missing a crucial skill for the job you want, consider national service options such as Teach for America or the Peace Corps, especially before you have a mortgage, says Amy Potthast, who did exactly that. "All of them have such a huge emphasis on training and professional development" and offer "a wide range of roles and issue areas you can work on," she says. "Plus there's a fantastic network not only during your service term but beyond."

Dorothea Hertzberg took this route when she joined the Peace Corps. From 1999 to 2001, she taught disease prevention, sanitation, and nutrition in the West African nation of Burkina Faso, then the world's fourth poorest country. The tour proved very rewarding and not just for the professional experience she gained. "The people there are the most generous, warmest population I've ever lived with," she says. "They have nothing, but did everything they could think of for their guests."

For people considering public service abroad, Ann Corwin, director of graduate career services at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, suggests applying for scholarships and fellowships offered by various groups. Among them: the David L. Boren National Security Education Program, the Fulbright Program, the Rotary Foundation, and the Thomas J. Watson Foundation. These programs are great ways, she says, to gain experience and language skills. For those who want to work in the United States, Corwin recommends the New York City Urban Fellows Program and the California Capital Fellows Programs as good starting points.

Finally, the key advice CIVIC's Holewinski offers public sector job-seekers is to make yourself "as informed, well-rounded, and observant of the world as possible." This is important "because what you're setting out to do is not about business or technology or money or fame; it's about taking stock of where we are as a society and making it better in some way."

And in doing so, chances are you won't just change other people's lives -- you'll change your own.


© U.S. News & World Report








How to Make a Career in the Public Service Sector