Working at a job you love isn’t always possible.
On average, we graduate with over $37,000 in student loan debt, according to 2016 data. It’s hard to sit and wait for that perfect job when you have that kind of debt to pay down.
But there just might be a solution to take care of both of those problems.
Working in the public sector often allows you to do a job you love, and in some cases (as discussed below) allows you to forgive some of your student loans.
So what are public service jobs?
Some examples of public service jobs include work with government organizations, family service agencies, or 501(c)(3) nonprofits. You get deep insight into diverse fields like diplomacy, public safety, and education.
You make connections that could lead to a career. And, of course, you’re doing meaningful work that helps the people around you.
You can stay in public service for several years, or take a contracted position for a year or two. We’ve listed a few common options here, and added answers to frequently asked questions about public service jobs.
This post primarily focuses on programs based in the United States. If you’re from a country outside the US, there are plenty of public service jobs around the world. Check your country’s specific programs and regulations.
The public sector
These fields are some of the most well-trod routes to public service. Good news—there’s almost always a need, which means regular hiring.
Start here if you already have some idea which field you’d like to work in. You should also be prepared to make a multiple-year commitment.
Health services, emergency management, disaster response, firefighting…these jobs and more are in the realm of public safety. As you might imagine, some public safety positions come with long hours and require performance under pressure.
But the field reports high job satisfaction, with good medical benefits and livable salaries. Check out Government Jobs to see the positions available, and the training required for each.
Teaching in a public school, including a university, is considered public service.
Most education jobs (with some exceptions like Teach for America, covered below) will require a teaching certification and possibly a master’s degree. Your undergraduate major doesn’t have to be education-related—schools seek teachers with well-rounded knowledge bases and passion for their subjects.
You’ll student teach and partner with experienced educators. The National Education Association (NEA) has good info for those ready to job hunt and those just starting out.
According to the NEA, a new teacher’s salary starts at about $40,000. With more experience and education, you can earn more.
Government and diplomacy
You don’t have to be a political science major or live in Washington, D.C to work in this sector. Federal, local, and state governments need workers in many fields all over the world.
Foreign service careers offer tracks such as:
- Information technology (IT)
- English language education
- Medical and health
- Administration and office management
There are plenty more, those are just a few examples. One of the greatest benefits of the government sector is the ability get to work abroad.
Whether your interest is law enforcement or environmental activism, there’s a place for you in the Department of State’s registry of jobs.
No matter what issue you’re passionate about, there’s a nonprofit organization that’s just as passionate. And every nonprofit needs skilled administrators – accountants, marketing experts, event planners, graphic designers, you name it.
Sites like Common Good list nonprofit office jobs with varied skill requirements. Grant writing or fundraising is a frequent need, if you want to put your college persuasive writing skills to good use.
Public service programs
Volunteer organizations often serve as gateway programs for new grads investigating career options.
Some programs, like Americorps, provide subsidized housing or help you find housing within your budget. You’ll also be given a living stipend in most cases.
Start here if you’re interested in public service but unsure whether to commit to a career. The programs below may only require one to two years of service.
You’ve probably heard of the Peace Corps— the organization that sends volunteers abroad to serve in global communities.
The application’s extensive and the stipend is only what you’ll need to live on. But the experience can broaden your horizons pretty significantly.
Often, volunteers take charge on projects and develop strong leadership skills.
Medical and dental care are covered while you’re in the Corps, but you’re responsible for student loans (though you can defer). When your service time is up, the Peace Corps has transition programs and financing in place to help you launch into your career’s next step.
Americorps programs involve service in the United States. Many volunteers start out through Americorps VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America), a division of Americorps that supports communities overcoming poverty. The NCCC (National Civilian Community Corps) works with nonprofits and local government leaders.
The broad range of focus areas, from environmental stewardship to veteran service, allows you to choose from multiple jobs and locations. After you’ve completed your term, you get an education award equal to the value of a Pell Grant (which changes annually).
Teach for America
The well-known teacher training program lets aspiring educators teach in a struggling school for two years.
If you’ve never taught before, don’t worry—you’ll get ongoing training. Though the program picks your placement based on need, you pick your preferences.
You’re eligible for loan forbearance during your time teaching, and you may qualify for Stafford and Perkins loan forgiveness programs.
Natural Resources Conservation Service
Interested in agriculture and environmental preservation?
The National Resources Conservation Service’s Pathways Program has a division designed for recent grads. They also offer an internship if you’re still in school.
Whether you’d like to explore forestry, biology, civil engineering, or another field, the Pathways Program provides on-the-job training.
You’ll serve either one or two years, and you may be able to move into a permanent position after that. The focus is pretty heavy on career development, so sign up if you’re serious about the environment.
Policy and education fellowships
Do you enjoy research? Are you thinking about graduate school?
If long applications don’t intimidate you, consider a fellowship that lets you learn while you work.
Fellowship programs in nonprofit fields tend to be competitive. Some require a certain GPA or a little experience under your belt; most are open to new grads.
Idealist has a catalog of fellowships in the public sector.
The requirements vary widely; so do the benefits.
Usually you’ll get at least a stipend or living allowance. You may need to supplement the stipend with part-time work.
Frequently asked questions
How do you know if public service is right for you?
Do you want the job for the job’s sake?
An Americorps position that helps you move to a new city may be an easy way to live in a place where you’ve always dreamed of living. But don’t take a public service job just for the relocation and other perks.
You’ll do your best and most rewarding work in a position that actually interests you.
Consider your life situation, goals, and priorities before embarking on an application. If you have a significant other and plan to start a family soon, for instance, you may not want a travel-heavy commitment like foreign service or the Peace Corps.
Is it easy to find a job?
Teach for America has grown more competitive in recent years, and the Peace Corps frequently turns applicants down.
Like any job, public service programs seek the best, most qualified candidates to fill spots.
Apply to multiple opportunities, and emphasize any related experience or future goals the service can help you fulfill. Show how you’ll be a standout performer.
What will the workload be like?
That depends on the job.
An office position for a nonprofit may have stable 9-5 hours, but when big projects come along, you may be expected to pitch in for evenings and weekends.
A public safety position could have night shifts and on-call hours, where you could be needed any time of the day or night. And in a stipended position with a set salary, you may not receive overtime pay for extra hours.
How much will you earn?
Steady government jobs are likely to pay the most, including retirement benefits, health care and other perks. The salaries can get as high as six figures, though you probably won’t be earning that right away.
Volunteer programs usually don’t pay more than a living wage.
Americorps provides a “modest living allowance”—enough to cover basic needs, but probably not enough to save for retirement. The amount may also depend on where your volunteer placement is; if the cost of living’s higher in your city, you’ll get a little more.
Will you get student loan benefits or forgiveness?
Sometimes—but not immediately.
You may get a temporary deferment or forbearance if you’re in a program with a fixed stipend, but you’ll need to make other arrangements after the volunteer program ends.
Fortunately, the government has an initiative to help you.
The Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program applies to public sector or nonprofit workers who work full-time for a qualifying organization. You’ll need to make 120 consecutive loan payments (at a rate of one payment a month, this takes about ten years).
After that, the remaining balance is forgiven.
This forgiveness only applies to direct loans. Perkins and Stafford loans aren’t considered direct loans unless you combine them into a Direct Consolidation Loan.
Peace Corps or Americorps volunteers can get the interest on their loans paid during their time of service.
Perkins Loan holders in the Peace Corps are eligible to get up to 70% of their Perkins Loans forgiven.
There’s also the option of an Income-Contingent Repayment Plan for loan holders with low income.
Are there opportunities for career advancement?
If you’re in a volunteer assignment with a fixed end date, you might wonder what’s coming next.
Network with your volunteer placement and use any transitional resources your program has put in place. With plenty of experience and responsibility behind you, you’re a valuable job candidate!
Many short-term volunteers end up working for their placements afterward at a higher salary. Government and diplomatic organizations may hire internally for promotions and leadership positions, as well.
Other public service workers go on to graduate school in public affairs or related fields. For high-level policy jobs, a graduate education may be a prerequisite.
Working in the public sector offers many benefits: a sense of purpose, the opportunity to learn and grow, and a means of making a difference in the world.
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