Those interested in a career in public service are usually fueled by a strong desire to serve their communities, but what exactly does a career in public service consist of besides serving others? The public service field is broad and encompasses an array of different occupations, so having a full understanding of the options available is crucial before starting down the educational path to your chosen career. Like any field, getting started is often the hardest part, so we’ve created the following guide to help students, young professionals, people who want to change careers, and anyone else considering a public service career to enter the industry as prepared as possible. Discover the different career paths, learn about employment opportunities and volunteer work and get insight into the public service sector from seasoned professionals.
The desire to help others is a very good reason to consider a career in public, but it’s only a start. Public service is a surprisingly broad field, encompassing a wide variety of jobs in government, nonprofits, education, and non-government organizations referred to as NGOs. It’s necessary to look beyond your desire to help others to find the specific area of public service that best suits your unique needs, interests, and strengths. The questions below are designed to help you find where you best fit in the world of public service.
Where do your strengths lie?
Being a successful public service professional requires a range of important practical skills that are used on the job daily. Which skills are most important will depend on the specific area of public service you’re interested in. Here’s a list of some of the most common skills public servants need, along with the types of jobs they’re particularly useful in.
Communication skills, both verbal and written, are important in practically any job, but public servants must be able to communicate to a variety of people from superiors and coworkers to clients and patients from all walks of life. Strong communication skills build strong relationships, and strong relationships are fundamental to success in public service.
Who needs it: Nearly all public service professionals, but especially social workers, police officers, teachers, and those working in patient-facing public health roles.
Collaborative leadership refers to leadership of processes rather than leadership of people or groups. Collaborative leaders understand that in many environments, the best way to address challenges is not to start with a policy and direct others to follow it, but rather to include others in the policy-making process. This is particularly useful in public service settings where subordinates are often the best source of practical solutions to real-life problems.
Who needs it: Government administration positions such as city planners and managers, public education administrators and principals, community-focused positions such as social workers and employment counselors, and public health workers.
Empathy refers to the awareness of and sensitivity to the experiences, thoughts, and feelings of others. You simply need to be aware of and understand the feelings and experiences of others so you can better serve them. This is crucial to many public service jobs since the central purpose of those jobs is to help others.
Who needs it: Any public service professional who deals directly with the public. Examples include police officers, health care workers and EMTs, social workers, teachers, and counselors.
Success in any position requires the trust of others, whether it’s coworkers, your superiors, or patients and clients. Honesty is particularly important in positions that require in-home care where employees are given access to a patient’s personal space and belongings. Those who work within criminal justice should also be held to the highest standard when it comes to honesty.
Who needs it: Anyone in public service, but particularly those working in healthcare and criminal justice.
Public servants are often caught between two conflicting worlds. One of strict regulation and bureaucracy, and another of real-world problems and the constantly-changing needs of the public-at-large. Such an environment calls for thoughts and actions that can bridge both worlds through creativity and flexibility.
Who needs it: Administration, human relations, and office management personnel.
Public service professionals are often called upon to make difficult decisions and making the right decisions requires observation, experience, objectivity, reason, and the ability to think critically.
Who needs it: Those that must make quick and accurate decisions under pressure, including police officers, fire fighters, healthcare workers, EMTs, emergency managers, and crisis-line counselors.
Public service professionals are often exposed to difficult circumstances faced by clients in crisis. It’s easy to get frustrated and discouraged, especially when solutions to problems aren’t always simple or quick. Public servants must be able to overcome their frustrations to focus on the slow and steady work that needs to get done.
Who needs it: Public servants who deal directly with people in need, including social workers, substance abuse counselors, school guidance counselors, homeless shelter managers, and food bank workers.
As with many government organizations, public service agencies are often administered by political appointees, either directly or indirectly. That’s why it’s good to have a strong understanding of the hierarchy and political climate both within and immediately surrounding your agency. In short, you don’t have to be a politician, you just need to able to get along with them.
Who needs it: Everyone working for a public agency, but especially those with roles in administration and management.
What are public service jobs?
Those who are interested in a public service career should be familiar with the major areas that make up the public sector. Understating these areas can help you decide what work environment and path is right for you.
Probably the single broadest public service category, the public safety sector includes careers on all levels of government in areas such as criminal justice, emergency and non-emergency medical, homeland security, and emergency management for both natural and man-made disasters.
Jobs in public safety are often physically demanding, dangerous, and even life-threatening. Individuals who enjoy being “on the street” in direct contact with the public may find public safety work a good career choice.
This area includes public sector jobs with federal, state, and local forestry and conservation agencies as forest and park rangers, environmental scientists, and natural resource managers. Jobs in the natural resource field are great for those who enjoy working out-of-doors.
Public Administration and Social Welfare
Examples of public administration careers include positions in public works and government operations management (city planning and maintenance, employment services, and human relations) and non-safety related jobs (librarians, DMV officers, etc.) Social welfare positions include social workers, employment counselors, substance abuse and mental health workers, financial case workers, and others. Some positions require time spent “in the field”, but for the most part, professionals in this category spend their working hours indoors in office settings. A good choice for service-minded people not interested in the physical demands and dangers associated with public safety employment.
This area of the public service field includes teaching, counseling, and administrative positions at public elementary, middle, and high schools, as well as community colleges, vocational schools, and state colleges and universities. Some people include private education institutions in this category. A good choice for individuals interested in making a positive difference in the lives of children, young adults, and adult learners.
Non-Government Organizations (NGOs) and Non-Profit Organizations (NPOs)
An NPO is an organization working on one or more issues or goals without generating a financial profit. An NGO is a specific type of NPO that works outside and independently of government, but often in areas that are also the focus of government activities. Career seekers interested in research (like natural or social scientists) or issue advocacy (like policy creators or political consultants) but not interested in working in a government setting may find their professional home with a NGO or NPO.
Start by Volunteering
Volunteering in a field you think you’d like to make a career out of is one of the best ways to determine if it’s right for you. Volunteering can also help you get hired, as public service employers tend to prefer hiring individuals with volunteer experience in their specific agency or field. Here’s more of what you need to know about becoming a volunteer.
Is volunteering right for you?
matter what area of the public sector you’re interested in, chances
are there is a volunteer opportunity for it. With so many volunteer
openings, matching your needs to the right cause and organization is
crucial. Here are five questions to consider when starting to
research volunteer positions.
How much time can you commit?
What populations are you interested in working with?
Do want to work with a team or by yourself?
What causes are important to you?
How much responsibility do you want?
What are the benefits of volunteering?
Gain experience: Regardless of the specific job, practically all employers prefer applicants with previous experience. But how do you gain experience in a job without first getting hired? Volunteer.
Test out a job: No matter how much you’ve read, researched, or who you’ve talked to, there’s no better way of knowing if a job is right for you than to do it. Volunteering let’s you take your potential career out for a test drive before you commit.
Network: You’ve heard it a million times, it’s not what you know, it’s who you know. Volunteering gets your foot in the door, allowing you to get to know people who can help you find a paying gig or hire you themselves.
Learn about your organization: You may be sold on a particular public service career but not on a particular department or agency. Volunteering lets you check out an organization’s particulars in order to avoid choosing an organization you’re not passionate about.
Now that you’ve volunteered and are confident you want to pursue the career, it’s time to do your financial due diligence. Earning potential and growth rate are important factors you need to consider before making a final decision about any career and enrolling in the educational program that will get you there. Before thinking about the degree you’ll need, let’s take a look at the numbers.
Is a public service degree lucrative?
Although public service careers are often thought to be less lucrative than similar positions in the private sector, there are still a variety of career choices in the public sector that have a high salary potential. It’s also important to take into account the benefits that often come along with certain public service jobs, especially within local and federal government. This chart offers a look at a number of popular public service occupations along with their salary figures and other important information. Data is taken from the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook.
National Median Annual Wage
National Employment Estimate (2028
Projected Growth by 2028
High School Teacher
Postal Service Worker
High School Diploma
Social and Community Service Manager
Policer Officer and Detective
High School Diploma (followed by police
High School Diploma (plus firefighting academy
and EMT certification)
High School Diploma (plus CPR certification and
EMT postsecondary program)
Emergency Management Director
Bachelor’s (plus multiple years of work
* Education administrators,
elementary and secondary school.
Includes judges and hearing officers.
Includes tax examiners, tax collectors, and revenue agents.
Understand the Education Requirements
Before you can begin any career in public service, you’ll need to get the proper education and training for your particular career choice. As the chart above indicates, almost all public service jobs require a high school diploma along with some form of postsecondary training, often meaning earning a college degree. So, let’s determine what level of postsecondary education you’re going to need for the career you’re interested in.
What Level of Education is Required?
You can’t start a successful public service career without first getting the right education, and you can’t get the right education before knowing the proper level of education you’ll need to reach. So, once you’ve arrived at your shortlist of job possibilities, answer the following questions for each one. When answering these questions, keep in mind not only the specific entry-level job you want, but how far you intend to advance up the career ladder. Knowing your future plans will help you determine your immediate education requirements.
What’s the minimum amount of education I need to become a competitive hire?
What’s the minimum education I need to foster career growth?
What level of education do most people in the field have?
What are the Delivery Options?
Individuals seeking a postsecondary education have a range of flexible study options to choose from, especially when it comes to distance learning. Dozens of partially-online and fully-online certificate and degree programs are available today from fully-accredited and highly-respected colleges and universities. Online programs are great for anyone, but are particularly good for working professionals and those with busy family lives. As you begin to look into specific programs, be sure to answer these questions:
What type of education program fits your wants and needs? Campus, online, or both (blended)?
Is online learning possible for a portion of your training? Does part of your training require face-to-face work with patients?
Will I need a specific certification to get hired?
What School is Best?
With so many educational options available for public service careers, choosing the right one can take time and consideration. Although some entry-level positions may not require a college degree, it’s important to keep your long-term goals in mind when deciding on a training program. Advanced positioned with higher earning potential may require a minimum of a bachelor’s degree and going back to school once already employed isn’t as easy as getting the degree first. When selecting the best program and school for you, consider your answers to the following questions:
Do I want a general education in addition to my career training? Could a general education set me up for career growth down the road?
Do employers offer on-the-job training? Will that be enough to start (or grow) my career?
What can I afford?
career information is a great start, but if you’re really serious
about becoming what you want to be, you need to get all the specific
details. Conducting online research, speaking to people who work in
the field, finding out what graduates of similar degrees have gone to
do, and attending career events can help you find out important
information. Researching a job’s entry points, growth rate, salary
potential, and educational requirements are all musts. An education
is a huge invest and the key to a successful career. What do you want
About the Ranking
Each ranking on STEPS utilizes data from the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), which colleges and universities across the country self-report via surveys from the U.S. Department of Education. From there, data scientists analyzed the data and created a proprietary algorithm to rank each U.S. post-secondary institution and its online programs using 8 primary factors:
Number of online programs in a given subject and/or degree level
Number of online students at the college or university
Availability of Academic Counseling
Availability of Career Placement Services
Tuition & fees
% of students who receive institutional aid
Median earnings of students ten years post-entry (from the College Scorecard)
Institutional accreditation by an accrediting body recognized by the U.S. Department of Education
Also, to make sure each ranking honors the STEPS commitment to public service education, the following secondary factors were used:
AmeriCorps Match participation
Recognition as top Peace Corps school
At STEPS, we've done the best we can to generate the most useful rankings, program descriptions, and degree information possible. You can also use our filtering and sorting tools to visualize and narrow down the data however you see fit. And if you have any questions about this ranking, please don't hesitate to contact us directly.