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Cornell University

Public Service Careers

What is Public Service?

Public service is a broad term that encompasses a wide range of public issues. At its core, public service work is about supporting communities, serving others, and protecting the rights and interests of the public. The two main categories of employers in public service work are non-profit organizations (the voluntary sector) and government organizations (the public sector) of all types and sizes. Some examples include: 

  • Hospitals
  • Community development
  • Research centers
  • Human services agencies
  • Policy think tanks
  • International affairs agencies
  • Civil rights advocacy
  • Labor law firms
  • Environmental organizations
  • Schools of all levels
  • Arts, history, and cultural organizations

Some positions are unique to public service, while others have similar responsibilities to those in the private sector, just in a different setting. For example, most organizations, regardless of sector, need marketing, finance, management, public relations, education, and/or legal work.

Corporate Social Responsibility

While not directly public service, careers in Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) often appeal to mission-driven students. CSR is any action a corporation does to benefit the relationship between a corporation and the community. This can be a variety of “responsible actions” that benefit both the company and community—employee engagement, financial donations, volunteerism, and environmentally conscious practices. CSR programs have begun to play an increasingly larger role in for-profit businesses. 

You may also hear terms like social purpose business or socially responsible business. These are for-profit businesses that aim to have a direct impact on the social need while also generating a profit. Social enterprises or social entrepreneurship are similar—new business ventures that aim for a “double bottom line” promote social change and still turn a profit. More information on teaching careers can be found using the CSR resources in our Career Resource Library.

Why Public Service?

A career in public service might be a good fit for you if you connect with either of these:

  • Are you passionate about a particular social issue or want to see a certain change in the world? Look for organizations whose goals or mission match your interest. Nonprofits are frequently associated with issues, e.g., environmental advocacy. Governments, local through national level, also work for the public good and address many of the same issues.
  • Care deeply about a variety of social issues, but mainly want to apply a particular skill to make the world a better place? You might prefer to narrow your search by skill or job title. For example, you can search for positions as a research assistant or community organizer, and see what organization inspires you to apply this skill.

Suggested Next Steps:

  1. Review the pages in this section for information about specific types of public service careers. We have specialized knowledge about: Non-Profit, Government, Teaching, Corporate Social Responsibility, and Sustainability.
  2. Meet with a career advisor to help narrow your focus. This is available in both your college career office and with specialty advisors. Call us to find the right advisor for you, +1 (607) 255-5296.
  3. Search the Resource Library for tons of online resources!
  4. Complete your Handshake profile to receive e-mail notifications regarding events and opportunities. Select any of the following under “interested industries”: non-profit and teaching—NGO; non-profit—other; social assistance; higher education; K-12 education; other education; religious work; government—government—local, state, and federal; defense; international affairs; politics; sustainability and corporate social responsibility—environmental services; consumer packaged goods; farming, ranching, and fishing; forestry; natural resources; scientific and technical consulting; utilities and renewable energy.
  5. Our Canvas Course has a Career Exploration module that can help you explore public service careers—through networking, job shadowing, and online tools. There is also a page on Federal Job Apps.

Graduate Programs

No particular major is necessary for admission to a graduate degree program in public service or government. Most schools seek to enroll students who demonstrate the potential to make positive mission-focused contributions and have a commitment to public service. They are looking for you to show you care about the cause or issue that is a focus in that program—equity, sustainability, justice, reliable research, child development, etc. This can be demonstrated through classes, co-curricular clubs, work, and/or volunteering, so don’t be afraid to apply.

Graduate programs in this area often represent a wide spectrum of age and experience, extending beyond the recent college graduate, to include mid-career professionals and those returning to the workplace. As you consider the various degree programs and career options that are possible for you in public service, remember to seek guidance from your support network. You may want to meet with a Career Advisor, your academic advisor, and/or faculty of related Cornell programs, such as the Cornell Institute for Public Affairs (CIPA).

Common Advanced Degrees

People who wish to pursue a career in public policy or management, or who aspire to leadership roles in the nonprofit or government sectors, generally obtain a Master of Public Policy (MPP), or a Master of Public Administration (MPA) that can include a concentration in Nonprofit Management. Though less common, there are several master's degrees that are similar, such as the Master of Arts in Public Management (MPM) and the Master of Arts of Nonprofit Management.

Many other graduate degrees can be valuable in the nonprofit and government sectors. The JD (law degree) or a Master of Business Administration (MBA), with a nonprofit management emphasis, are good examples.