Every year, I conduct interviews for the NYC Urban Fellows fellowship program I did after college. And it’s always fascinating to hear different people’s motivations for starting a career in city government.
Some come to it because they were raised on a daily dose of public service along with the requisite glass of milk. Some believe it’s the best place to work for social justice. Others are geeking out hard about city planning or public health, and they’re ready to roll up their sleeves and get right in the weeds. For many, it can be hard to figure out how to channel these early motivations into a specific path.
When I was beginning my career in government, I put a lot of pressure on my very first move. That first move, I imagined, would dictate the choices available to me when I was ready to make my second move, and my third, and so on. I worried about closing doors, fearful that every one would lock behind itself (though I later learned this isn’t really true).
Despite this pressure to consider my every move, my initial approach to career development was anything but chess-like. And if I had the chance to counsel my younger self with whatever wisdom I’ve acquired in the ensuing years, I’d offer a breakdown of the different ways I’ve seen colleagues carve out their own paths. I’d tell myself that each approach is equally valid. And I’d keep in mind that a first step is just that: not a lifelong commitment, but a first step.
1. Pick a Field
One college senior I interviewed could talk about nothing but counterterrorism. That was his calling, his passion, and his field of study—and to work in any other policy arena would have been a real square-peg-circular-hole situation.
People with a passion for a particular field probably have the easiest time figuring out where to start. They can pinpoint whether a role sounds right for them simply by looking at the name of the department. But a laser-focus on a small sliver of the vast organization can also be limiting. If you’re a counterterrorism guy, and there are no job openings in the counterterrorism department, you’re pretty much resigned to sitting on your hands and refreshing the careers page until something pops up. Not an ideal way to start earning that paycheck and building that resume.
On the bright side, there are more productive ways to wait out this time. Particularly in government, so many of the problems people are working to solve are interconnected in major ways. Housing overlaps with public safety, education with employment. And just about everything intersects with budget making and the law. Even when the subject matter overlap is minimal, the transferability of skills is often high. When a former colleague of mine finished her degree in housing and urban planning, job prospects in that field were bleak. She found a job in government finance and got to work on as many transferable skills as she could in the meantime. When that housing opportunity opens up, she’ll be qualified to jump in at a higher level.
There’s nothing wrong with knowing what field you want to be in and aiming to start where you hope to finish. But if it takes some time to get there? Don’t despair (and do get creative).
2. Define a Role
I used to work with a statistician who lived statistics so hard that he often dreamed in code. Sometimes when I went to ask him a question, and he was in the middle of developing some complicated algorithm, he found it difficult to converse with me in the English language. He was born for statistics, and there was no question it was the right role for him, no matter the subject to which he was applying his numerical sensibilities.
Approaching your career from the specific role you ultimately hope to occupy is another fairly straightforward strategy, and it’s likely to yield a higher number of openings than the field-driven search. The public sector is an ecosystem vast enough to accommodate almost any type of professional role. There’s the policy and project management space, contracts and legal work, public finance and budgeting, and a wide range of technical positions, to name just a handful.
Developing a role-based trajectory has the benefit of widespread applicability. You may spend five years as a budget analyst in transportation, and then another five in public schools before moving into infrastructure. With a role-based approach, you can move horizontally as you move vertically, immersing yourself in a wide range of fields. It’s a logical approach if you’re starting out without a strong magnetic pull toward a particular type of work, and if you’re open to being a bit of a generalist in terms of the issues you’re working on.
3. Follow a Mentor
Where would the Karate Kid be without Mr. Miyagi? Luke Skywalker without Yoda? This path is harder to create for yourself than it is to fall into. But if the opportunity presents itself, it can be a powerful and meaningful route to choose.
Some of us are lucky enough to work for or with a person who goes out of his way to impart some of his wisdom to help us through our early fumblings. This person sees in us the opportunity to cultivate a leader or even a successor, and we see in him the chance to get a leg up on professional wisdom.
Sometimes finding a mentor means seeking him or her out. Sometimes a mentor finds you. Certainly, it’s often a mutual relationship that’s hard to force if it doesn’t come naturally.
But many who work as hard as they can under the tutelage of a mentor benefit from future opportunities. This person has come to rely on you, believe in you, and see you as an asset as she continues in her own career. The lessons you learn from someone dedicated to your professional development can transcend the value of becoming an expert in a particular field or role. The power of one person vouching for you—whether it be within her network or as a reference for future opportunities—is a resource worth cultivating. And you can pay it forward someday, when a would-be mentee comes along in need of a little guidance.
Of course, every career move stems from some combination of luck and intention. You do your best to create your own opportunities, and short of that, to put yourself in the best possible position in anticipation of future opportunities. Many times, I’ve asked someone how he got to where he is, and he’s responded, “I guess I kind of fell into it.”
It’s a frustrating response for someone trying to strategize around those early decisions. But, recognizing that the best-laid plans often go astray, it’s still helpful to approach that nebulous first step with a modicum of structure. And, in the words of a famous mentor, “may the force be with you.”