Guide to Public Service Degrees Comprehensive Resources and Information to Help You Plan for Your Education

Meet the Expert

Dr. William Hatcher Read bio

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Shannon Lee Read bio

The public service field provides an opportunity for individuals to make a career out of helping others. There are numerous potential jobs available in the public service sector, from teachers to first responders to charity administrators. With such a diverse array of potential professions, learning how to begin a public service career can be confusing. For instance, is a college degree necessary? If so, what level, and in what field? These and other similar questions will be answered in this guide as we provide an overview of the public service industry.

Quiz: Is Public Service Right for Me?

Work in the public sector isn’t for everyone. While positions in public service are extremely varied, they do share some common characteristics that make them quite different from jobs in the private sector. Before finalizing an academic path of study, complete the following quiz to find out if you have a future career in public service.

Next Steps: Understanding the Public Service Sector

Public service involves working for the betterment of society, but what kind of education is necessary? The quick answer is that almost any degree can be useful for a future career in public service. But for those who want a job in a certain area or with a particular organization, a specialized degree or training will be necessary. Let’s look at common industry areas in the public sector and what kind of educational paths can get you there.

What is public service and what areas of study fall into public service?

By strict definition, public service refers to services provided to the general public by a public entity, such as a state, local or federal government. However, public service also refers to assistance provided by charitable nonprofit organizations, which may be completely separate from any government. Therefore, public service can be thought of as an activity by an organization whose mission is not to benefit the organization (such as through profits), but instead provide for the greater good.

There are many types of public service careers and just as many ways to obtain the necessary education and training to get there. Here are a few.

  • Education.

    Public service jobs in education can include working everywhere from as a teacher at a state-funded agency to becoming a tenured professor at a large public university. To work in education, individuals will usually need at least a bachelor’s degree. However, additional training or education is typical, such as getting a graduate degree (doctorate, in the case of a university professor) or obtaining a teaching license, certificate or specialized training.

  • Federal, Tribal, State & Local Government.

    These civil service jobs can include many potential positions. Examples include a clerk at the county courthouse processing court filings, a construction worker for the state department of transportation or a park ranger at a national park. Educational level can be anything from a high school diploma to a graduate degree, depending on how competitive it is to get the job and the nature of the work.

  • Foundations, NGOs & Nonprofits.

    Public service organizations not affiliated with the government often focus on charitable work. Types of positions typically found at these types of organizations include accountants, managers, fundraisers and specialized professionals, such as doctors, lawyers and construction workers. The typical degree path to work at a foundation, NGO (non-governmental organization) or nonprofit includes a minimum of a bachelor’s degree and relevant work experience.

  • Intelligence & Security.

    Intelligence and security usually refers to military or intelligence gathering/analysis work. This usually means working for the United States Department of Defense as a member of the armed forces or at an intelligence agency like the NSA or CIA. Potential jobs include an intelligence analyst, pilot, soldier or various occupational roles (like cook, mechanic, driver or photographer). A high school diploma is necessary to begin as an enlisted soldier; a college degree or specialized training is necessary for commissioned officers. For intelligence work, a bachelor’s degree will usually be a minimum requirement, with graduate degrees in a technology related field recommended.

  • International Development & Humanitarianism.

    There is some overlap with international development and humanitarian work and non-governmental organizations. However, with international and humanitarian work, the tasks are often more complex, with more significant political and logistical hurdles. A lot of the work therefore falls into one of two categories. First, there’s high level work involving diplomacy, politics and management. This might include attorneys, lobbyists or similar representatives to advocate for the organization and help accomplish its goals. To fulfill these roles, individuals can expect to obtain a bachelor’s degree plus either relevant experience or a graduate degree. Next, there’s the “on the ground” work, such as constructing basic infrastructure in less developed nations, providing medical care in war torn areas or distributing food and medicine. This type of work usually has less formal degree paths (specialized humanitarian work excepted, such as providing medical care), although some experience is preferred.

  • International Relations & Cultural Diplomacy.

    The United States Department of State is an excellent option for those in this field. Individuals can pursue a career as a Foreign Service Officer or Specialist and work in other countries, or they can stay closer to home and focus on budgeting or management tasks. To work in the Foreign Service, a bachelor’s degree is typically needed, although a graduate degree or proficiency in a foreign language is helpful. There aren’t any set degree paths here, but study in any foreign language, anthropology, history, sociology, economics or political science would be useful.

  • Politics, Policy & Advocacy.

    Work in this area often includes professions such as lobbyists, attorneys and politicians. For more technical positions, such as law, a bachelor’s degree (in any field) then a juris doctor (law) degree is necessary. Lobbyists usually require a bachelor’s degree as well, in a relevant field such as public relations, journalism or communications. It’s also very common for politicians to have at least a bachelor’s degree, often in a field such as history, political science or business. For advocacy work, a bachelor’s degree in a relevant field is fine for entry level work, although a graduate degree in administration or management helps with advancement or when seeking a competitive position.

Is a public service degree worthwhile to pursue?

Jobs in the public sector often have a reputation of low pay. While this may be true in relation to a roughly equivalent position in the private sector, there are a large number of public sector positions that are by no means low-paying.

Occupation Median Annual Wage in the U.S. (2016 data) National Employment Estimate (2016 data) Projected Job Growth by 2026 Average Degree Level Required
High School Teacher $58,030 1,018,700 8% Bachelor’s degree
School Principal (elementary, middle and high school) $92,510 251,300 8% Master’s degree
Postal Service Worker $56,790 502,400 -13% High school diploma or equivalent
Political scientist $114,290 7,300 2% Master’s degree
Judge and hearing officer $109,940 43,800 5% Professional degree
Fundraiser $54,130 90,400 15% Bachelor’s degree
Social and Community Service Manager $64,680 147,300 16% Bachelor’s degree
Police Officer and Detective $61,600 807,000 7% High school diploma or equivalent
Soldier Varies 1,087,286 N/A High school diploma or equivalent
Firefighter $48,030 327,300 7% Postsecondary nondegree award
EMT and Paramedic $32,670 248,000 15% Postsecondary nondegree award
Emergency Management Director $70,500 10,100 8% Bachelor’s degree
Budget Analyst $73,840 58,400 7% Bachelor’s degree
Tax Examiner, Tax Collector and Revenue Agent $52,060 62,100 -1% Bachelor’s degree
Health Educator and Community Service Worker $44,390 118,500 16% Bachelor’s degree
Geographer $74,260 1,500 6% Bachelor’s degree
Urban and Regional Planner $70,020 36,000 13% Master’s degree

Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook

How has public service changed over the years?

As a whole, the view of public service has remained the same: a universal appreciation and support of individuals undertaking roles to help their community. What has changed over time is the question of who provides the service. Over the last few decades, there has been a shift to the “new public sector” in response to the evolving needs of the public. Instead of a public sector that focuses solely on government employment, any career that contributes directly to the public good such as nonprofits or education is now categorized as public service.

We need to revitalize the concept of citizen duty and push graduates toward giving back to their communities through public service.

Dr. William Hatcher

Choosing Your Path: Explore Public Service Degrees by Level

Any postsecondary institution will have a degree, certificate or diploma that provides the training and education necessary for a career in public service. Let’s take a look at some of the varied options.

Certificates and diplomas are the quickest programs to complete, often taking less than a year. These programs provide tailored and focused information for a very specific field or industry.

Certificate examples:
  • Emergency Medical Technician
  • Fire Science
  • Building inspection
Common requirements:

High school diploma or GED is necessary to enroll. Program completion typically takes anywhere from a few weeks to a full semester and consists of two to four courses.

Career options:

Diplomas and certificates are best for those who need vocational training, with a focus on hands-on skills and knowledge. As a result, those already working in a public service profession can benefit from a certificate or diploma to expand their potential for professional growth. For example, a county construction worker can obtain a building inspection certificate and take on additional job duties at work.

The associate degree provides more knowledge than a certificate or diploma and takes a bit more time; however, it is a great way to get into the game as soon as possible.

Degree examples:
  • Emergency Service Management
  • Criminal justice
  • Construction Management
  • Management
Common requirements:

An associate degree takes two years to complete. General education requirements are included in the curriculum, like English, science and math. Program-related courses consist of about two thirds of the 60 credits required for graduation.

Career options:

Associate degrees are ideal for professions who don’t require four years of education, such as first responders or those who want to work in the trade-related fields, such as construction or basic office and clerical work. In addition, from an economic point of view, the associate degree is a great stepping stone for later obtaining a bachelor’s degree.

For most budding public servants, the bachelor’s is the degree most often required. For those who require only an associate degree or less to get started, the bachelor’s is still a good idea – it can provide a professional advantage in a competitive field.

Degree examples:
  • Economics
  • Accounting
  • Journalism
  • Communications
Common requirements:

Usually lasting four years, the bachelor’s curriculum is made up of about 120 to 130 credits and provides a well-rounded education. In many schools, a major isn’t declared until the student’s second year of college.

Career options:

Of all the degrees for public service, the bachelor’s is the most common. It allows for a diverse level of learning as well as meets the requirements for a vast majority of public service jobs. It can also set up an individual for the greatest professional potential. For example, a firefighter will do just fine with an associate degree, but a bachelor’s degree will be helpful if they want to advance to Chief or serve in a management capacity later on.

A master’s degree provides the specialized knowledge and training necessary for taking a policy and management-driven approach to achieve the goals of a public interest organization.

Degree examples:
  • Master of Public Administration
  • Master of Business Administration
  • Master of Public Policy
  • Master of Social Work
Common requirements:

Most master’s level programs last about two years, although accelerated programs can result in completion in as little as 18 months. There are no general education requirements. It’s common to complete a capstone project or special internship where students demonstrate the knowledge they have learned in an actual or simulated real-world problem.

Career options:

With a master’s degree, the vast majority of potential public service careers are possible. This degree will usually allow public service workers to take on more specialized roles in their job or move up to a management position.

A doctorate represents the highest degree possible in any field and is relatively rare in most public service positions. A doctorate is most useful in teaching and research roles.

Degree examples:
  • Doctor of Social Work
  • Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in Public Policy
  • PhD in Economics
  • PhD in Health Policy
  • Doctor of Public Administration
Common requirements:

The exact requirements depend largely on the student’s prior background and specific program. For example, students entering with only a bachelor’s degree will have more subject-oriented credits to complete than someone who already has a master’s degree. However, many programs consist of about two years of coursework, following by a dissertation, thesis or some other form of major project that represents the student’s knowledge of their subject area.

Career options:

A few select public service positions require or strongly prefer a doctorate. Because the doctorate degree (especially the PhD) is often driven by research and analysis, a doctorate is usually only needed for those interested in teaching at a university, conducting research or developing high-level policies.

FAQ: Pursuing a Public Service Degree Online

Individuals looking to move into a public service career or advance in their existing job as a public servant will appreciate online degree programs. One of the hallmarks of online education is the flexibility it offers, which is especially useful when working full-time or supporting a family while taking courses. It’s safe to say anyone interested in getting a public service degree online will not be alone in their academic endeavors.

Public service students will find online education particularly useful for the same reason most online students appreciate it— the ability to learn at their own pace. The primary reason many individuals choose a public service field is to help others, and as such, they often begin work in the field as soon as possible. That’s where the online programs come in; they allow students to continue working while taking courses. This flexibility allows additional time to volunteer and gain valuable real-world experience.

While online programs can allow students to accelerate their learning, the resulting heavy course load can make volunteering or working almost impossible. However, by allowing students to complete their degrees as soon as possible, they can resume their public service work quickly.

Many degrees common for those entering public service are available online. They include:

While many degrees for public service may or may not be available online, prospective students should have no problem finding an online degree that will provide the necessary education to achieve the desired professional destination.

Online students seeking a public service degree will usually have available the same academic resources available as traditional students. However, much of this assistance will be available remotely. For example, at BYU – Idaho, online math students have chat access to a personal tutor. There will also be opportunities for academic assistance from the class instructor through online course delivery mediums, such as Blackboard or Moodle.

Yes! Online students are treated just like on-campus students and financial aid is no different. Whether it’s a state grant, federal loan or school-exclusive scholarship, all are viable options for online students. The only caveat is that the school offering the online degree or program must be accredited. Also, if there is a private scholarship, the sponsor reserves the right to include any eligibility requirement it wants, such as excluding online students (although this is almost nonexistent in practice).

To learn more about funding your online education, see Financial Aid for Online Schools.

Choosing the right online program for public service will depend largely on the needs and goals of the student. The following are a number of program characteristics students should pay attention to when searching for the right program.

Online Delivery Method

Course material can be delivered in a variety of ways. For example, with synchronous online learning, students will need to be at their computer at a certain time for a particular course requirement, such as a class discussion or lecture. There will also be relatively frequent deadlines for assignments. If a student needs more flexibility with coursework, then asynchronous online learning may be a better option.

With asynchronous learning, students can truly self-pace their learning. This might include watching a lecture whenever and wherever they feel like it or turning in an assignment when they are able to do so (within reason, and as long as the overall course is completed within a certain period of time).

Accreditation

Accreditation is imperative for anyone getting a degree, online or off. Accreditation can be thought of as a certification of a school or program by an independent organization, confirming that the curriculum meets basic academic standards. In other words, accreditation ensures the degree a student receives means something. If an online program or school isn’t accredited, stay away from it.

In-Person Curriculum Requirements

Online degrees allow students to avoid the physical classroom, but those who choose a career in public service often need the opportunity to help others in person. Finding a program that incorporates in-person requirements into the curriculum can be a nice bonus in that students can receive course credit for something they want to do anyway. For instance, at LSU’s online Master of Social Work program, students must complete two advanced field internship courses, which require students to be supervised in an agency setting while they prove their skills and knowledge.

Faculty and Alumni Network

Whether taking classes online or in person, networking is vitally important. Students choosing an online school should consider how well the program’s faculty is connected and where its alumni are. For example, students interested in working with a particular government agency might want to choose a program where they can learn from faculty who have worked there or opt for a school where numerous graduates find jobs in the preferred organization.

For more information about choosing a specific online program, click below to learn more about online learning.

Online Degree Programs

Know Before You Owe:
Paying for a Public Service Education

Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program

What is the Public Student Loan Forgiveness Program (PSLF)?

This program allows individuals working for a nonprofit organization or the government to wipe away a portion of their student loan balance.

What types of public service employment qualify for this program?

Basically, any government job (state, local or federal) will qualify. A nonprofit organization must be a tax-exempt 501(c)(3) organization for associated jobs to qualify.

What are the eligibility and payment requirements?

Besides working full-time in public service, students must have made 120 qualifying monthly payments.

Are all types of loans eligible?

Any type of loan provided under the William D. Ford Federal Direct Loan Program will qualify. Additionally, the student must not have defaulted on the loan.

Is this program in jeopardy?

Officially, the PSLF program is not going away, as no official announcement has been made. However, the 2018 proposed budget set forth by the White House includes plans to eliminate the PSLF starting in July 2018. Keep in mind that this proposal must pass Congress and even if it does, there’s a chance that it will only apply to future students.

Additional Options for Loan Forgiveness

If the PSLF program is officially ended, all is not lost for those interested in public service. Below are a number of special government programs that allow students to reduce the amount they must pay for their student loans.

  • REPAYE Plan

    Under the Revised Pay as You Earn Repayment Plan, a student’s monthly loan payment is 10% of their discretionary income. If they make these payments for 20 or 25 years, any remaining balance is forgiven.

  • PAYE Plan

    The Pay as You Earn Repayment Plan is similar to the REPAYE Plan, except payments only need to be made for 20 years before the balance is forgiven.

  • IBR Plan

    The Income-Based Repayment Plan requires students to make payments equal to either 10% or 15% of their discretionary income for either 20 or 25 years before the remainder is forgiven.

  • ICR Plan

    The Income-Contingent Repayment Plan requires 25 years of repayments, but each payment is the lesser of either 20% of the student’s discretionary income or what the student would be paying in a 12-year repayment plan.

To apply for any of these four repayment plans, students must submit an Income-Driven Repayment Plan Request. Additionally, none of these repayment plans are dependent on a student’s choice of academic study or profession.

Another option for those in public service is the Federal Perkins Loan cancellation. Under this option, a student may have a full or partial Perkins Loan cancellation if they work as a:

  • Teacher
  • First responder
  • Soldier
  • Public defender (attorney)
  • Early childhood education provider
  • Nurse
  • Medical technician
  • Faculty member at a tribal college or university
  • The parameters for cancellation vary depending on the specific job, but most common is a total cancellation of the Perkins Loan after five years of service. Students might receive a partial forgiveness of 15, 20 or 30 percent of their loan for less than five years of service. Those interested in cancelling their Perkins Loan must contact the loan provider for more information.

    Scholarships and Grants

    American Radio Relay League:

    Don Riebhoff Memorial Scholarship – $1,000

    Applicants must be active amateur radio license holders pursuing a degree in international studies. The application deadline is late January, but applications can be accepted as early as October of the previous year.

    Association of Government Accountants:

    National Academic Scholarships – $1,500 to $3,000

    Rising college freshmen or current undergraduate and graduate students may apply for these scholarships. Other eligibility criteria include the study of accounting, economics, finance or public administration and submission of the scholarship application by mid-April.

    Community Foundations of the Hudson Valley

    Michael P. Murphy Public Service Graduate Scholarship – $1,000

    Open to residents of Dutchess County, New York, any student who will attend an accredited graduate school and pursue a career in government may apply for this scholarship by early May.

    Goedeker’s:

    Goedeker’s Appliances Annual Public Service College Book Scholarship – $100 or $500

    Students who are enrolled in an accredited college but who also work in a public service position may apply for this scholarship. Application deadline is early July.

    Government Finance Officers Association:

    Goldberg-Miller Public Finance Scholarship – $15,000

    This scholarship is for graduate students who will enter state or local government finance. Applicants must be full-time students and apply for this scholarship by late January.

    The Harry S. Truman Scholarship Foundation:

    Truman Scholarship – Amount Varies

    Interested students must demonstrate a strong interest in a public service career. In addition to an exemplary academic record, preference will be given to students who will obtain a graduate degree in law, public administration, public health education, social work, international affairs or public policy. The application deadline is the first Tuesday in February.

    International Association of Law Enforcement Intelligence Analysts:

    IALEIA Education Scholarship – $1,000

    College students may apply for this scholarship if they are a member of the IALEIA (or the immediate family member of an IALEIA member) and studying in the criminal justice, statistics, intelligence or analysis field. The application deadline is the middle of February.

    Greater Kansas City Community Foundation:

    Vern Chesbro Memorial Scholarship Fund – Amount Varies

    To apply, students must have graduated from a Franklin County high school and pursue a college degree in public administration or political science. The application deadline is early April.

    Jewish Foundation for Education of Women:

    JFEW Eleanor Roosevelt Scholars – Amount Varies

    The JFEW sponsors a public service scholarship for women which helps pay for college and provides a summer internship stipend. Eligibility requirements include attending a postsecondary school in the New York City area, maintaining at least a 3.0 GPA and demonstrating interest in public service.

    Tau Kappa Epsilon:

    W. Allan Herzog Scholarship – $3,000

    Active members of Tau Kappa Epsilon with at least a 2.75 GPA can apply for this scholarship as long as they are studying finance, accounting or economics. All applications must be submitted by mid-March.

    Women’s Overseas Service League:

    Women’s Overseas Service League Scholarship – $500 to $1,000

    This scholarship is intended for female students devoted to helping the public service profession. Primary eligibility requirements include evidence of prior commitment to public service and having completed at least 12 credit hours of postsecondary school work while maintaining at minimum 2.5 GPA.

    Expert Advice: Planning for & Making the Most out of Your Public Service Degree

    Dr. William Hatcher is Director of Augusta University’s Master of Public Administration program and an Associate Professor of Political Science. His research focuses on the administrative features of community development and public finance. His research agenda tries to understand why public administration scholars and practitioners often have different opinions regarding the efficacy of certain administrative practices. His research has appeared in journals such as American Journal of Public Health, Journal of Public Affairs Education, Public Administration Quarterly, and The Review of Regional Studies.

    What are some of the most common misconceptions about work in public service, and how can students get a true view of the career they want to pursue?

    First, many feel that they’re going to start at a top management position. Public organizations, like the private sector, are institutions where employees have to work their way up the ladder to executive positions.

    Students in public affairs are attracted to public service in hopes that their work will make a difference. At times, students can become frustrated that government is slow to change. Professors in public affairs programs need to stress the incremental nature of public service.

    What can students in college do to enhance their marketability to potential employers upon graduation?

    For students in public affairs programs, there are three areas of their resume to focus on during graduate school:

    1. Networking with professionals in their desired area of public service.
    2. Learning about the intersections between informational technology and public service.
    3. Appreciating the importance of courses that may not be “fun” like public budgeting and quantitative analysis. Being able to conduct data analysis is an important tool for public affairs graduates.

    What advice would you give to students who wants a career in helping people, but are having trouble choosing the right degree program for their needs?

    Easy. Enroll in a Master of Public Administration (MPA) program. MPA degrees are versatile academic programs. Graduates work in government, nonprofits, and the private sector. Students are trained in a wide range of skills and techniques, such as human resource management, leadership, data analysis, program evaluation, budgeting, policy development and implementation, general management, and many other areas. For most programs, students will have the ability to pick electives in their desired areas of expertise in public service.

    MPA programs are going to teach students the tools that they need to advance their careers in public agencies, nonprofits, and even the private sector.

    Joining Professional Public Service Groups & Organizations

    From professional development opportunities to paying for school, many of the following organizations serve as a great resource for students as well as professionals.

    • American Bar Association (ABA)

      The ABA’s mission is to find ways to improve the legal profession. It supports law students by providing access to learning and networking opportunities.

    • American Foreign Service Association (AFSA)

      The AFSA advocates on behalf of members of the United States Foreign Service by offering scholarships and internships, as well as general information about the career.

    • American Society for Public Administration (ASPA)

      Those interested in public and non-profit administration will benefit from joining the ASPA. They will find networking opportunities, scholarships, student newsletters and access to the Student and New Professional Summit.

    • Association of Government Accountants (AGA)

      The AGA works to help financial management professionals in the public sector. Membership benefits include skill building, promoting accounting and auditing standards, scholarships, education opportunities and job postings.

    • Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association (FLEOA)

      The FLEOA is dedicated to helping current and future federal law enforcement officers by providing legal help to active duty law enforcement officials and scholarships to Academy (student) members.

    • Government Finance Officers Association (GFOA)

      The GFOA works to help government finance officials better manage their local government operations. Student resources include scholarship and internship opportunities.

    • International Association of Law Enforcement Intelligence Analysts (IALEIA)

      The IALEIA is a professional organization that supports and advocates for law enforcement analysts. It also provides scholarships, networking and career resources.

    • International City/County Management Association (ICMA)

      This organization is intended for any professional who serves local governments or otherwise has an interest in city and county governance. Student members can take advantage of job postings, internship and fellowship opportunities.

    • National Council of Nonprofits

      The National Council of Nonprofits assists nonprofit organizations at all levels of government and allows for student membership at state chapter organizations. Student benefits include member discounts, job postings and professional advice.

    • Partnership for Public Service

      The overarching mission of the Partnership for Public Service is to improve the operation of the federal government and encourage individuals to seek a career in public service. One of the best benefits for students includes the Public Service Internship Program.