Public Service Careers

How can college students make a difference? 

Amherst College offers its students a wide variety of ways in which to touch the lives of others outside the campus community and, in doing so, enrich their own lives. One way is to get involved in the Community Outreach Program and get involved in making a difference right here in the community they are living.

Another way to make a difference is to explore a career path where you will have the opportunity to make the world a better place. This portion of the Career Center 's website is focused on helping you identify a career where you can do just that. Of course, we all want to feel we're making a difference in the world, but not everyone chooses to integrate that value into their work lives. Instead, some choose to do volunteer work, donate money, or serve on a Board, while simultaneously pursuing a different career path. However, if you would like to pursue a career that benefits society, we have many resources to help you get started.

What is a public service career?

Public service work:

  • is a broad term that includes any work where you are improving the lives of others, contributing to society or helping to protect the environment
  • is often used interchangeably with many other terms such as socially responsible work, civic engagement, public service work, jobs for the common good or the public good, community service, social change work
  • can be divided into three types of actions--social service (working directly with people to help them improve their lives), social action (organizing communities to effect societal change) and social policy (working for systemic change, often through legislative change)
  • may vary from person to person depending on their concept of justice, equity and how they define “the public good”
  • allows you to bring your values and interests into your work life and find work that is meaningful to you
  • is usually associated with the not-for-profit and public sectors, but also exists in the private sector as well
  • spans all political ideologies

Who are public service employers?

If we define public interest careers in the broadest of terms, we will find it cuts across all three sectors and may include work that has not traditionally been categorized as public service. You can bring your spirit of public interest into just about any organization and any work setting.

Not-For-Profit Sector

While companies in the private sector often make decisions based on profits, a not-for-profit organization makes decisions in accordance with its mission of service to society. It does not earn profits by the creation of its goods or services, although the organization still needs to have its income meet its expenses.

There are over one million not-for-profit organizations in this country that employ more than ten million people. Often, these organizations offer lower salaries than government or private sector jobs but offer other benefits including the ability to quickly move up and assume high levels of responsibility, as well as take on a variety of responsibilities. Not-for-profit organizations are the fasting growing sector in the nation.

Public Sector

There are many opportunities to make a difference in the public sector, either in local, state or federal government. Public sector opportunities will allow you to work for the improvement of society and the planet, while working in areas such as health, housing, education or the environment.

Work in the federal government may give you the opportunity to have a national or even global impact. Work in state, county, city or town government will give you the chance to see the effects of your work in more local ways. Public sector work includes everything from researching and creating policy to doing direct service.

Private Sector

Although the belief has been that you cannot do public service and work in the private sector, there are more companies than ever that are working to develop goods and services that benefit both their customers and the planet. The private sector is becoming more responsive to the needs of the community, including their interest in public service and social justice.

Some people may move in and out of the public, private and not-for-profit sectors. It is not uncommon for someone to spend several years developing skills in the private sector and then to decide to bring those skills to a not-for-profit employer whose mission they believe in. Or people may switch from the not-for-profit sector to the private sector and continue to do public service work by volunteering, serving on a board of directors, or getting involved in local politics.

How do I pursue a public service career?

The path to a career in a public service job is usually less clearly defined than most other career paths. For example, if you are planning on being a physician or attorney, there are specific steps that are recommended to bring you to your goal. It is not like that with many public interest jobs, especially those in the not-for-profit sector. Whereas in the private sector, such as investment banks and consulting firms, they recruit in regular cycles and may come to campuses to interview, the smaller employers and employers in the not-for-profit sector tend to hire for a single position as it becomes available due to new funding or an employee leaving. They often do not have the resources, i.e. money, personnel, to actively recruit. There is often no predictability to the hiring process in the not-for-profit sector.

It is for that reason that many people interested in public service careers have discovered that they must use their ingenuity, initiation and perseverance to create their own way. You must take time to assess your own strengths and interests, clarify your goals and do research on the options available to you. Strategies such as networking and informational interviewing will be particularly important in your public interest career search. It can also be very helpful to make an appointment to see a Career professional at the Career Center who can help you tailor your job and internship search to your specific interests.