“Look for the Helpers”: A Guide to Public Service Careers
In an uncertain world, one thing is more certain than ever: We need people who dedicate their lives to helping others.
As Fred Rogers, more commonly known as Mr. Rogers, once said, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.'”
Do you want to be the kind of person Mr. Rogers was talking about? If so, consider a career in public service.
In this guide, you’ll read about the ins and outs of public service, whether you should consider a career in this field, and what personality traits public servants should have. You can then find a list of public service careers for those who have backgrounds in social work, psychology, and related fields.
What is Public Service?
Public service could be loosely defined as a service provided by the government or other organizations relying on government funding for the public interest.
Unlike those working in the private sector, in which companies operate to gain profits, public servants perform duties to help ensure the health, safety, and happiness of society. Public servants’ work doesn’t usually involve producing goods—these jobs are service-oriented, with their “output” being hard to measure in quantifiable terms but nonetheless essential to a functional society.
This broad definition includes a wide range of career fields. Elected officials, government workers, police and fire departments, social workers, correctional workers, and those working in public health or education would be included under this definition. But so, too, would those who build or maintain infrastructure projects or nonprofits caring for at-risk populations.
Why Should I Work in Public Service?
There may be no better way to make a difference in your community or make headway on an issue you care about than by choosing a career in public service. Studies increasingly show meaningful work is the largest contributor to a positive employee experience—more, in fact, than pay.
Aside from a sense of meaning and purpose, careers in public service offer other benefits as well. You’re unlikely ever to grow bored, as the need for new ideas and creative solutions is unending.
Additionally, public sector jobs tend to offer generous benefits, including paid federal holidays and good health insurance. They frequently have greater job security than private-sector companies, which are dependent on revenues and certain market forces—communities always need government officials, educators, and public safety or health personnel, for example.
In some cases, your public service work may even be rewarded with student loan repayment assistance.
What Traits Are Best Suited to Public Service Careers?
First and foremost, a strong commitment to serving the public essential for anyone considering a public service career. The slow pace of political and governmental processes, budgetary concerns, socioeconomic challenges, and more may frequently impede your ability to effect positive changes, and it can easily become frustrating. That ingrained commitment to your purpose will see you through those difficult moments.
Patience is a key trait for public servants. Solutions don’t happen quickly.
Regulation, bureaucracy, and budget constraints also mean you’ll need strong creative problem-solving skills and a demonstrated ability to motivate, collaborate, and communicate with others.
Honesty and empathy will be important traits to help you build consensus and earn colleagues’ and the public’s trust.
It’s also important to have the strong critical thinking skills necessary to make quick, difficult decisions under pressure, often with people’s livelihoods, health, or safety at stake.
This work can be emotionally taxing. You may encounter situations involving the loss of lives or property; deep social inequities; children or families living in dangerous or abusive circumstances; and disturbing criminal activities. Many times, you must put aside your emotions to do the work.
By extension, public servants need to be self-aware. It’s important to maintain a work-life balance, finding ways to blow off steam and have fun outside of work. Additionally, it’s essential to be willing to find mental health assistance for yourself if you need it.
Where Do People in Public Service Careers Work?
Public service careers share some commonalities: They involve performing services rather than the production of goods, and they support the good of individuals and communities. However, this work may take place in many different settings and organizations:
- Government: Public servants may hold elected offices (city council, school board, legislation, etc.), or they may perform legal, recreational, or administrative duties. For example, those working in the prosecutor’s office, public library, DMV, forestry service, or parks and recreation department would be considered governmental public servants.
- Healthcare: Although many healthcare providers are privately owned and operated entities, all healthcare workers perform public services, and many hospitals and other healthcare facilities are publicly funded. Workers in this field may include nurses, long-term care providers, or paramedics.
- Public safety: This area might include police, traffic, or corrections officers, as well as firefighters or animal control officers.
- Public health: This sector focuses on community wellbeing. It includes social work, mental health and substance abuse caregivers, health district authorities, public health educators, or rehabilitation counselors.
- Education: Publicly funded schools, both in K-12 or higher education, employ large numbers of workers, from teachers and paraprofessionals to school administrators, counselors, nurses, librarians, and more.
- Nonprofits/NGOs: A nonprofit organization works to solve problems or address issues without seeking profit—their funding is devoted entirely toward staffing and activities that help further their missions. They may receive a mix of public and private funding. Nongovernmental organizations, or NGOs, are nonprofits that perform work in the government space, such as organizations working to boost economies or protect voting rights in developing nations.
Public Service Careers for Social Work and Psychology Graduates
When looking for public service careers, you’ll find options requiring all sorts of education and training. All these careers serve important roles in maintaining a happy and healthy society. However, if your passion lies in psychology, social work, or other related fields, you can play a very special role in supporting your community.
Here are just some of the many public service career options available for helpers like you.
Domestic Abuse Social Worker
Fast Facts About Domestic Abuse Social Workers
Domestic abuse social workers are a type of child and family social worker specially trained to intervene on behalf of children and families in danger of neglect or abuse. They may act quickly to remove a child from an abusive home, identify potential foster families, assist families with securing counseling or other resources, and perform other duties that help reunite happy, healthy families.
Their work may involve office time, but a large percentage of their work is in the field, visiting clients at their homes, schools, shelters, and other locations.
This work can be emotionally difficult, so patience and compassion are important, as are excellent interpersonal and communication skills when it comes to listening carefully and speaking tactfully and clearly. You’ll also need to be good at problem-solving, especially under high-pressure or emotionally charged situations.
Fast Facts About Forensic Psychologists
Forensic psychologists work closely with the criminal justice system, applying their skills and training to consult with attorneys on mental health evaluations, selecting jury members, resolving disputes, and servings as advisors or expert witnesses in the courtroom. The research they conduct may help develop interrogation techniques or profiling or rehabilitating criminals.
They’ll need to be strong communicators, and excellent at listening and establishing trust with offenders, working on teams, conducting research, analyzing data, and knowledgeable about the law. They also need to set aside personal biases to approach their work in a non-judgmental way and be able to cope with circumstances that can be emotionally difficult or have the potential for safety risk.
Fast Facts About Health Educators
Health educators work with community members to share important health and wellness information and promote healthy behaviors. They may lead education programs for young children in schools, share information about sexually transmitted diseases with college students, assist new parents with infant care or breastfeeding, collect and analyze data about community health outcomes, and advocate for health resources or policies to improve people’s health.
They should have strong interpersonal skills, including good writing and presentation abilities, and be good at thinking creatively to solve important health problems and educate the public.
Healthcare Social Worker
Fast Facts About Healthcare Social Workers
Healthcare social workers are a specially trained type of social worker who helps patients understand, cope with, and adjust to their diagnoses. This may mean helping terminally ill patients accept their mortality, assisting families with caring for or managing diseases or conditions, or communicating the concerns or other emotional and mental effects of patients to doctors and other healthcare professionals.
They often work for hospice organizations or hospitals, with a patient population that is often elderly but may be of any age or condition.
Being tactful, compassionate, and patient is essential for people doing this work, as are excellent communication skills and strong organizational abilities, as you’ll often need to maintain records on multiple patients at multiple facilities.
Fast Facts About Police Counselors
According to Psychology Today, police officers tend to have higher rates of suicide than the general population, and it’s often associated with mental distress. Police officers frequently deal with disturbing or traumatic situations, including rape, violence, or even murder, and they’re often at risk for assault and abuse.
Fortunately, the issue is gaining recognition, and mental health counselors who specialize in police counseling are increasing in number.
In this role, if you’re a licensed clinical psychologist, you could work one on one with clients in therapy sessions, or they may work as consultants with nonprofits such as Blue H.E.L.P. or individual police departments.
It’s important someone in this role be familiar with police work and the culture of policing and not have pre-existing biases about the profession.
Probation and Parole Officer
Fast Facts About Probation and Parole Officers
These professionals work with people who are either placed on probation rather than sentenced to prison or have been released from prison and are serving parole as they gradually re-enter society.
They may interview the probationer/parolee and their friends and family members to ensure smooth transitions and determine whether they’re complying with their sentences, evaluate and recommend rehabilitation programs, provide resources for job training or education, perform regular drug testing, maintain progress reports, and appear in court regarding the offender’s background.
This work is often very rewarding, but because offenders may be hostile or live in difficult circumstances, people who do this work should be prepared to defend themselves if necessary and be able to handle stressful situations.
Fast Facts About School Counselors
School counselors provide emotional, mental, or even academic support to students to help them be successful at school. They may conduct aptitude assessments; work with families and teachers to develop educational plans; counsel students one on one about issues they’re facing; lead classroom or small-group instructional sessions about issues such as bullying, sex education, substance use, or college and career planning; assist students with time management or study habits; and identify or report social or behavioral problems or suspected cases of abuse, neglect, or other areas of concern.
Interpersonal and communication skills are critical for those in this role, as are empathy, compassion, and some instructional abilities.
School Social Worker
Fast Facts About School Social Workers
Distinct from school counselors, school social workers work with social services and assistance agencies to ensure children’s and their families’ social, psychological, and academic wellbeing.
Their work may extend beyond school counselors’ scope to include foster care, shelter, or adoption agencies. They may also advise teachers or school staff regarding truancy, teen pregnancy, or other risk factors.
Social and Community Service Manager
Fast Facts About Social and Community Service Managers
Social and community service managers lead programs and organizations supporting public wellbeing. They may manage homeless shelters, veteran programs, senior centers, after-school programs, hunger-relief organizations, or other entities operating in the public interest. Often, this means measuring outcomes and compiling data to justify funding or demonstrate effectiveness.
They may also hire, train, evaluate, or terminate staff and oversee their daily duties. Their work calls on strong managerial and problem-solving skills.
Social Services Caseworker: Adult Protective Services
Fast Facts About Adult Protective Services
Social services caseworkers with adult protective services (APS) are responsible for protecting the elderly and adults with disabilities who aren’t fully capable of caring for themselves. They may intervene in cases involving abuse or neglect, financial exploitation, or other safety concerns. This means assessing clients and their living conditions, working with law enforcement and other health and safety officials and experts to develop service plans, and generally helping clients to remain safe and maintain their dignity.
You’ll need to be a strong and tactful communicator, show plenty of compassion, be able to work under high pressure, and stay organized as you maintain careful records.
Social Services Caseworker: Child Protective Services
Fast Facts About Child Protective Services
Child protective services (CPS) caseworkers have the important, rewarding job of investigating allegations of child abuse or neglect for their local or state CPS agencies.
This may mean visiting clients’ homes and observing family and living situations, appearing in court to testify in custody or criminal matters, placing children in foster care and maintaining contact to ensure the safety and wellbeing of children, and finding safe places for children to live, which may include relatives or adoptive homes. Intending to keep families together whenever possible, they work to reduce trauma as they conduct investigations and prepare reports.
It takes a special person to do this high-pressure work, which can be emotionally trying, exhausting, and full of long or unusual hours. You should have excellent interpersonal skills to have these difficult conversations, as well as a careful, organized reporter of information.
Social Services Caseworker: Disability Services
Fast Facts About Disability Services
Those in this career have an important responsibility to advocate for people with disabilities, which might include permanent injuries, diseases, or mental illnesses. They may assist with finding appropriate resources to cope with their conditions, identify rehabilitation services, work with employers to make their workplaces more accessible for people with disabilities, or locate personal care services to assist clients with day-to-day life tasks such as bathing or preparing meals.
In this role, interpersonal skills are essential. It takes significant patience and the ability to demonstrate compassion to work with people with disabilities, who may be frustrated by or unaware of their conditions or unwilling to accept help.
They need to make their clients comfortable, instill trust, and be excellent at communicating clearly and effectively with clients, their families, and representatives from local offices or organizations.
Veterans’ Mental Health Counselor
Fast Facts About Veterans’ Mental Health Counselors
Veterans’ mental health counselors focus their expertise on counseling veterans and their families, who may struggle to cope with their military experiences. This may involve helping clients address post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), re-enter the workforce or family life, overcome substance abuse or physical injury, maintain relationships, deal with anxiety or depression, or other circumstances unique to veterans.
They may work with the Veterans Administration at its local offices or in private, state government, or local government care facilities.
As a counselor, your interpersonal, listening, and communication skills should be very strong. You should be somewhat knowledgeable about and interested in veterans and military life, as well as patient with and compassionate toward this particular population.
Where to Find Public Service Internships or Jobs
Sponsored by the U.S. Department of Labor, CareerOneStop provides access to individual state job banks.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Fellowships and Training Opportunities
The CDC maintains this listing of hands-on, short-term internship programs in public health available for undergraduate students.
Commissioned Corps of the U.S. Public Health Service
The USPHS offers various student internships in public health for undergraduate and graduate students. Participants are paid and receive travel, health, and housing benefits.
This New York-based nonprofit was created to connect people looking for ways to turn ideas into action with the organizations who need them as employees or volunteers.
Office of Inspector General for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
This page offers internship opportunities with the OIG, which is charged with maintaining the integrity of over 100 HHS programs through audits, reviews, investigations, and more.
Partnership for Public Service
This nonprofit, nonpartisan organization works toward a more effective American government. Its Public Service Internship Program is for undergraduates and graduates.
Professionals for NonProfits
This woman-owned organization works to provide talent to the nonprofit sector in fundraising/development, finance, human resources, management, and more.
The Conference on Asian Pacific American Leadership
CAPAL works to empower Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander youth by working to increase opportunities to get involved in public service. Its scholarship and internship program is for undergraduates or graduates interested in working within the public sector, in Washington, DC, and throughout the U.S.
Upload your resume, create a jobseeker profile, and explore careers with the federal government. The site includes suggested career pathways.
Work for Good
Founded in 1999, this job board (formerly called Opportunity Knocks) is focused exclusively on mission-driven career opportunities.
This national organization recruits and places volunteers with various nonprofit organizations in local communities addressing some of America’s biggest challenges. Additionally, AmeriCorps hires full-time staffers who become employees of the federal government.
Association for Public Policy Analysis & Management
APPAM is a professional association dedicated to improving public policy and management. It does this through its annual research conference, peer-reviewed multidisciplinary journal, an ongoing commitment to diversity and inclusion, and initiatives fostering student participation in policymaking and management.
A service of the Partnership for Public Service, GoGovernment is a site designed to serve as a guide for young people interested in pursuing careers in the federal government. It provides information about various careers, matches your unique background with appropriate career pathways, provides tips for applying for jobs, and more.
International City/County Management Association
The ICMA is a professional association for city and county managers or other employees with local governments. The organization’s website offers valuable resources such as job boards, career progression information, listings of training and networking opportunities, career guides, and more.
This unique website matches people interested in volunteering with activities, organizations, and missions that are important and well suited to them and located in their local areas. Those interested in public service who would be interested in volunteering before committing to careers or looking to build their resumes may find this a useful place to start.