Going Public: So Many Options!
By Sarah Ferguson • April 08, 2011•Politics and Government
So now that you are (hopefully) thinking about choosing the public path, you may be wondering “what next?” The ultimate goal is to get a public sector job. However, if you’re anything like the save-the-world bleeding heart I am, it’s hard to focus on a direction because you want to help every cause. Trust me, I know that feeling.
Making a decision about what policy/social justice area to pursue for a career can be intimidating. So, take a couple deep breaths and remember, having these options is part of why people go into public service—it’s like a Chose Your Own Adventure book! The question is, which adventure to pick?
There are two things I have done that have helped me narrow my goals—fellowship/scholarship applications and internships. These opportunities helped me develop a general direction for my career and kept me on the public path.
The first major fellowship application I completed was during my junior year of college. I’d already had some experience in the public sector, but sitting down and writing an in depth application helped me realize that I really wanted to devote my career to public service. Of course, there are many benefits to actually receiving a grant, but for me the most valuable aspect of those applications applying and interviewing. The process allowed me to articulate my convictions and goals in the context of my future career, which was motivating and empowering. I know it may feel tedious at times, but having to write about your plans in a cogent, persuasive way will pay off, even if you don’t get the dough. Plus, it will give you ideas about the next steps you want to take in your career. There are several public interest fellowships for law school grads; for those of you looking for ideas, PSLawNet is a great resource.
Internships in political campaigns and government offices also helped me form ideas about where I wanted to focus my energies. These opportunities allowed me to meet people in many fields and learn about a variety of career options in the public sector (I discussed two of my former colleagues in my column last month). If you have the opportunity, I recommend interning for a government official at the local or federal level. It will give you a chance to work on a broad range of policy issues, interact with your community, and meet driven, energetic people. Also, there are many career options for lawyers in government, so making these connections early may lead to a j-o-b after graduation.
In terms of applying for government internships (or jobs), I suggest checking out your local government homepage, which will likely list all major public officials and internships in their offices. If you’re more interested in working at the federal level, check out usajobs.gov. Making a personal connection to the office is always useful. Simplistic though it may sound, one way to do this is read the news to see who is advocating for a cause you feel strongly about, contact their office (via cover letter and résumé), reference the work they’re doing and tell them how you can help them. Then bug them. Seriously. Government staff members are busy people and one way they’re going to remember your application is if you remind them about it. This should always be done in a professional way, of course, but there’s nothing wrong with follow up e-mails/phone calls to confirm that they’re received your application and to reiterate your interest.
Outside of government there are seemingly endless non-profits that hire lawyers to provide general counsel or direct services or both. These organizations provide amazing “on the ground” experience. Applying to them is just as competitive as government work, if not more so. However, as with government jobs, making a personal application directly to the office is always a good idea. These groups are typically more focused on a particular issue area or population of people, so make sure your résumé and cover letter reflect your interests in that area. A good way to get a feel for what’s out there is to look at idealist.org. As you will see, opportunities abound.
Also keep in mind that choosing a particular path in public service is just the first step in what will be a long career—you can always change your course. The experiences you gain in the non-profit or government sector will be valued by employers in either the public or private sector. But, if you still need some more convincing, tune in for my June column (I’ll be taking finals in May).
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