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Advice / Career Paths / Exploring Careers

Get Into Government: An Insider's Tips for Breaking In

If you’ve caught the public service bug, it can be hard to know where to begin.

Maybe you peruse the open listings, but all you come across are openings for building inspectors, city tree pruners, and correction officers—somehow not exactly what you’re looking for. Maybe you start blindly sending cover letters to departments you’re interested in, but never hear back. (Hint: They’re probably sitting beneath a paperweight somewhere, gathering dust.) Maybe you even get out networking to learn about potential openings, but still feel like you aren’t quite getting your foot in the door.

And therein lies the eternal question: When you’re just getting started, how do you find your footing in the vast world of city government?

Well, the short answer is, you have to get a little creative. If you’re trying to break into local government, here are a few other approaches you might take to land that first job.

Apply for a Fellowship

I list this option first because this is how I made my grand and powerful entrance (okay, more like my sweaty-palmed and knock-kneed entrance) into city government. There are a lot of fellowships out there that offer a greater degree of respect than an internship, a stipend to cover your expenses, and the chance to prove yourself to potential employers.

For example, the Urban Fellows Program in New York City—my first stop on the government totem pole—offers a nine-month placement in a government agency (with a stipend). During the day, I worked on public after school programs, but at our weekly seminars, my class of fellows regaled me with their knowledge of parks, transportation initiatives, and education policies. By the end of nine months, I’d built a network that allowed me to get a formal job in the Mayor’s Office (and I’d gotten more hands-on experience than I would have in a more traditional government internship).

Similar programs exist in Chicago, Washington, DC, Phoenix, Kansas City, San Francisco, and many other cities, and they seem to be popping up with greater frequency as local governments recognize the value of training the next generation of public sector leaders.

Volunteer on a Campaign

During my time in Mayor Bloomberg’s administration, I had a large number of colleagues who got their start on his campaigns back in 2001 and 2005. They were there from the beginning, and they helped to shape the policies and programs that later became hallmarks of his time in office.

Working on a campaign doesn’t guarantee a job on the other side—especially if the candidate you’re supporting doesn’t win. But assuming you pick the winner, being able to say that you knocked on doors in the pouring rain and made hundreds of phone calls gives you a pretty strong leg up in the interview process. Whether you get a paid leadership position on the campaign or you’re out every weekend canvassing, proving your merit and aligning yourself with a candidate can lead to many open doors once the candidate assumes office.

Campaigns are, of course, seasonal by nature, so start paying attention to upcoming mayoral or city council elections in the city you want to work in. If there are no regular elections scheduled soon, look out for special elections. Most campaign websites will provide contact information for prospective volunteers, and paid jobs are posted on the websites of advocacy groups and standard career websites. It’s important that you can get behind the candidate’s politics, as you’ll not only be persuading voters to support him or her, but you’ll also be seeking permanent employment should the candidate get elected. And you don’t want to work for a boss you don’t believe in.

Open Up to a New Policy Area

I’ve met a lot of recent graduates who absolutely must work in housing policy, or whose dreams would be shattered if they didn’t land a job in counterterrorism. But launching your public service career doesn’t require becoming a subject matter expert in your first year, or even several years, on the job. In fact, a better way to get going is to find opportunities where they exist—even if they aren’t necessarily in the sector you thought you wanted.

After college, I was certain that I wanted a career in education policy. When the right opportunities at the Department of Education just weren’t presenting themselves to me, I ended up working in government operations. I found myself immersed in infrastructure projects and sanitation initiatives—a far cry from the human services issues I cared so much about. But my interest in the nitty-gritty of New York City’s sewer system surprised me, and my career moved in a direction I never could have anticipated had I failed to keep an open mind. Staying open to different policy areas kept my options open, and instead of focusing on becoming an expert in a single area, I focused on building a project management skill set that I could apply across a range of policy matters.

The lesson: Don’t turn down an opportunity immediately just because it’s not exactly what you want to be doing in the long run. Instead, focus on gaining the transferable skills and connections that will help you no matter where you end up in government.

Go Back to School (and Not Just for Public Policy)

This one may not be such a secret, but if the job pickings are slim and city hiring freezes are lifting too slowly, you can always build your credentials with a graduate or professional degree. When hiring managers are sifting through piles of resumes, those three little letters next to a candidate’s name can help her to stand out from the crowd. And those letters don’t have to be MPA or MPP.

My colleagues in the Mayor’s Office had law, business, and urban planning degrees, in addition to traditional public policy and public administration degrees. In fact, these days, a business degree holds more and more clout in the public sector as employers are looking for leaders who understand the ins and outs of management and finance.

The investment of both time and tuition should not, of course, be taken lightly. But a lot of degree programs offer classes at night so you can prevent an unwieldy accumulation of student loans while kick-starting your public service career. And many programs offer tuition forgiveness for students entering into public sector exployment.

There is no one path to government glory, but a little bit of creativity can open a lot of doors. And once you’re inside—well, then, as with any other job, it’s all about the elbow grease.

Photo of man getting started courtesy of Shutterstock.