10 Things to Know Before Applying to Public Service Jobs

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Laura Berlinsky-Schine2.3k
July 24, 2024 at 11:43AM UTC

Looking to help others? Want to use your career to effect real change in the world? Hoping to learn and grow in your career? If so, then a role in public service could be the one for you.

Public service is a broad field encompassing many different jobs, specialties and niches. Beyond giving you a forum for making a difference, it offers a number of benefits. One of them, although not a benefit of every public service job, is student loan forgiveness, meaning you won't need to pay back parts or all of your student loans.

What else should you know before pursuing a public service job? Let’s take a look.

What are public service jobs?

Public service jobs are roles within government or 501(c)(3) nonprofit organizations. Some of the specific organizations include:

• Americorps (including Teach for America)

• Peace Corps

• Government agencies at various levels

• Protective services

• Public health services

• Public safety services

• Disaster response services

• Military services

• Law enforcement services

• Public schools

• Nonprofit private schools

• Institutions of higher learning (public or nonprofit private)

• Foreign services

• Youth services

• Library services

• Red Cross

• Legal services

• The Salvation Army

Jobs and careers within these agencies span a number of sectors and niches. Just some examples include (but are not limited to):

• Accounting and finance

• Administration and office services

• Biological engineering

• Civil engineering

• Environmental engineering

• Forestry

• Information technology (IT)

• Graphic design

• Healthcare and medicine

• Management

• Marketing

• Mental health counseling

• Research

• Social work

• Teaching and education, including English as a second language (ESL)

• Writing and journalism

What public service jobs qualify for student loan forgiveness?

According to the Federal Student Aid office, an office of the U.S. Department of Education, you must be employed full-time by a U.S. federal, state, local or tribal government or not-for-profit organization that is tax-exempt under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code to qualify for public service loan forgiveness (PSLF). Your eligibility is not determined by your particular role or job but by the nature of your employer. 

You must also have direct loans, repay your loans under an income-driven repayment plan and make 120 qualifying payments. Loans from the William D. Ford Federal Direct Loan Program qualify for forgiveness. 

The FSA office suggests submitting a Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) & Temporary Expanded PSLF (TEPSLF) Certification & Application (PSLF Form) each year (or any time you change employers). 

Certain agencies specifically are not eligible for loan forgiveness, including labor unions, partisan political organizations and for-profit organizations. The latter category encompasses for-profit government contractors; contractors are only eligible if they are “directly employed” by a qualifying employer (in other words, the employing organization, not the contracting organization, is what counts). Some types of nonprofits that aren’t tax-exempt under Section 501(c)(3) may still qualify, depending on the types of services they provide. Be sure to check with an organization where you're considering working to see if they offer PSLF.

Visit the FSA office’s website to learn more about whether you qualify for student loan forgiveness.

10 things to know before applying to public service jobs

There are many ups and downs to public service jobs. Here are 10 things you should know before you commit to a role in the sector.

1. The work is sometimes low-paying (but not always).

Public service jobs have a reputation of being low-paying, but that’s not the case across the board. While positions in, say, Americorps are low-paying, others have high earning potential. Particularly those that require graduate degrees. Some programs also offer incentives, such as stipends to cover your basic needs (food, housing and more), along with student loan forgiveness, retirement benefits and insurance.

2. Some jobs are extremely competitive. 

Public service jobs are by no means a fallback — and if you’re thinking of pursuing one because you can’t find a job, you rethink it. Teach for America, for example, is extremely competitive, accepting only approximately 15% of applicants annually — most of whom are high-achieving students or professionals in their fields.

And that’s not the only job that frequently turns down applicants. Public service roles shouldn’t be your “safety” job — they can turn into highly lucrative, prestigious positions in their own right, often leading to other jobs...

3. Many jobs can lead to roles in other sectors.

Public service roles are far more than simply a stepping stone. If you do well in your initial position, it could open up jobs in a wide range of industries — not just the one you pursued initially. Many employers see public service jobs as excellent preparation for careers in any number of sectors, depending on where and how you gained experience. Plus, they will recognize that many jobs in this sector are extremely competitive and view your application highly if you chose to pursue an off-the-beaten-path role prior to applying for a role in the private sector.

4. You may be facing long hours (but not always).

Perhaps you’ve heard some scary stories about employees working crazy hours at their public-service jobs. And it’s true — there are some organizations and roles that demand a considerable amount of time. Others, however, don’t demand hours that fall outside of a typical 40-hour workweek. In fact, in some positions, you may not even be allowed to work longer hours as per government or organizational roles.

It’s important to realize that even at jobs that usually have fairly fixed hours, you could find that situations arise that require all hands on deck, and you’ll be asked to work additional hours.

5. Networking plays a critical role in landing a job.

Network, network, network. This is critical advice for finding a job and advancing in practically any and every industry, and the public service sector is not different. Chances are, you already know people who work in public service in some capacity. They might work directly for these organizations as employees, sit on boards, volunteer in some capacity and so on. 
Or, you could have connections who know others who are affiliated with public service employers and jobs. It's important to cast a wide net when networking. Check in with alumni from your college (or even high school), family, friends, acquaintances, former and current colleagues, professors — anyone you can think of. It's very likely that someone has a connection to whom they might be able to refer you for advice and even possible roles in the sector.

6. Volunteering can help you get a foot in the door.

Volunteering isn't necessarily the most glamorous role, and it's a position that won't pay the bills. But not only can it be extremely rewarding, but it can also help you land a paying role in public service.
Even if you don't end up at the organization where you are volunteering, showing that you've done this work on your resume will demonstrate your commitment to advancing an area or a cause that is important to you. It will also suggest that you have built up skills and knowledge that will be extremely relevant to your work, especially if you've chosen an organization whose mission aligns with your career interests.
And you could even find a job at the organization where you're volunteering. If something comes up that interests you, you'll have a leg up against other applicants, because you already have a connection to the organization. 

7. You could have the opportunity to explore the world.

While not all jobs in the public service sector require or give you the chance to travel, many do. Some organizations, like Teach for America, could assign you to locations all across the United States. The Peace Corps, meanwhile, will send you to usually underdeveloped countries or those with emerging economies. This can open up your eyes to new cultures and experiences — ones you probably wouldn't have been exposed to otherwise.
Of course, this type of travel isn't for everyone. And there are plenty of careers in public service where you'll be able to stay put where you are currently. But if you'd like to have an adventure, you could very well be able to do so.

8. Public service encompasses many sectors and professions.

Think you're not the public-service type? It might not be the right path for you — true — but you should be aware that there is no one "type" in public service. By now, you've probably realized that there are many, many organizations and roles within public service. No matter what your background, your education, your skills, your interests or your particular specialty and knowledge, you'll more than likely be able to find a role within the sector that will work for you.
That doesn't mean public service is for everyone — or that every role within public service is the right fit for you. If you think you might be interested in a career in this world, you should aim to explore the possibilities available to you so you can find the one best suited to you. 

9. There are frequently opportunities for advancement (even if you have a role with a specific timeframe).

If you have a specific assignment, such as one through Americorps, you may be watching the impending end date with dread. And yes, some assignments do, in fact, end. But there could very well be opportunities for renewal in some cases.

You could also be able to advance in your career and climb the ranks at your organization, whether there was originally a fixed-end date or not. Either way, there is often plenty of room for growth in the public service sector at nonprofit organizations, government agencies and other types of employers.

10. The organizations and roles are rarely set in stone.

Roles in the public sector are constantly evolving, as are the organizations themselves. Even if you were hired to perform one specific set of responsibilities, you may well find yourself taking on other roles and demands, too. This is true from the entry-level assistant all the way up to the CEO — it’s not unlikely that you’ll encounter your boss or your boss’s boss pitching in with various tasks, however “low-level” they might seem.

If you’re considering a career in the public sector, you must be willing to accept that any role you take on could evolve. You’ll need to approach the job and the organization with an open mind and embrace the possibility of change.

3 signs public service is right for you

Is public service for you? It's not the right course for everyone, but for some, it's the perfect place. Here are three signs it’s the right path for you to pursue. 

1. You’re interested in making a real difference.

It sounds cliche, but it's the truth: public service jobs are often ones that allow you to make meaningful change in the world. If you're someone who wants to leave your mark on the world, then this could very well be your calling. This is a place where you can do some real good. Is every single task and responsibility going to clearly advance an important cause? Probably not. But that doesn't mean these duties don't still contribute to the big picture and that you yourself won't play a critical role in manifesting true change.

2. You’re looking to learn.

Learning is at the core of public-service jobs. Whether you're just out of college or a seasoned professional, working in this sector will allow you to build important skills — ones you can inevitably apply to other roles in a wide variety of industries — and gain knowledge you might not have been able to learn otherwise. At the end of the day, public service is a place that is absolutely ideal for growth. You'll also be able to apply the knowledge and skills you already have in plenty of different capacities.

3. You’ve read this article and think it’s a good fit!

By now, you've read through this article and probably have a better sense of what the world of public service entails. Does it sound like the right place for you? Could you see yourself thriving there and making a meaningful difference and contribution? If this sounds like you, then it could be time to make the leap and find your path in this important sector.

About the Career Expert:

Laura Berlinsky-Schine is a freelance writer and editor based in Brooklyn with her demigod/lab mix Hercules. She specializes in education, technology and career development. She also writes satire and humor, which has appeared in Points in Case, Little Old Lady Comedy, Jane Austen’s Wastebasket and The Haven.

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