What Is a Career in Government Like?
Updated September 20, 2022
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In addition to spanning virtually all professional fields, government careers offer great benefits and allow people to make an impact in their communities.
The government relies on millions of employees to provide services to the public, care for veterans, deliver the mail, and keep the government running. These public sector employees benefit from clear pay structures, strong benefits programs, and opportunities for career advancement.
Many government employers offer similar career paths as private sector employers, but with more benefits. For example, accountants and auditors working in government often receive more vacation time than their private sector counterparts and they qualify for pensions. By contrast, however, private sector companies can often pay higher salaries. In-demand government industries also include law enforcement, civil engineering, education, and healthcare.
Public sector employees work in a variety of positions at the federal, state, and local levels. This article explores the advantages of public sector employment and the best ways to launch a career in government.
What Is a Career in Government Like?
At the federal, state, and local levels, public sector employees keep the government running.
Jobs in the U.S. government include political careers working for the executive, judicial, and legislative branches of the federal government. At the federal level, government employees can work for the military, the post office, federal law enforcement agencies, and other federal agencies and departments. State and local governments also employ specialists in areas like education, taxation, public works, and civil service.
Thanks to the wide range of jobs available in government, people interested in civil service jobs can find opportunities in a variety of fields. For example, engineers can design public infrastructure and aerospace technology, while healthcare professionals care for veterans.
This is even true within government branches. Take, for example, the thousands of employees who work in the legislative branch. These employees research policies, conduct budget assessments, and draft bills. During legislative sessions, they help elected officials prepare for hearings. Legislative careers also exist at the state level: The National Conference of State Legislatures provides a list of job openings.
In some government positions, election cycles can affect career growth. For example, new top-level elected officials might change policies that affect ground-level government employees, sometimes even moving or eliminating their departments. But for the majority of jobs in government, elections play little role in daily tasks and career progression.
At the federal, state, and local levels, public sector employees keep the government running.
While many upper-level federal employees work in the greater Washington, D.C. area, they can also work across the country. Many federal organizations, like the Social Security Administration, Federal Emergency Management Administration, Bureau of the Census, and Agricultural Research Service, have offices outside of Washington, D.C. For example, the Veterans Health Administration (VHA) employs more people outside of D.C. than inside it.
State and local governments also hire employees in every state and county in the country. Understanding how the U.S. government works can help prospective government employees find job opportunities.
For example, again consider VHA, which is part of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. VHA operates 1,255 healthcare facilities across the country, including medical centers and outpatient care sites. These facilities make up the country's largest integrated healthcare system, employing 322,000 healthcare professionals and staff.
The physicians, nurse practitioners, and registered nurses who work for VHA work in every state in the country. As federal workers, VHA employees can participate in loan repayment and tuition reimbursement programs. VHA also hires information technology, mental health, and healthcare administration professionals.
How Are Careers in Government Different From Careers in Politics?
What is the difference between careers in government and careers in politics? The main difference is that the millions of public sector employees who work in government are not elected or affiliated with anybody who is elected. Meanwhile, elected officials, campaign staff, and political appointees work in politics.
Government jobs include the day-to-day jobs that keep the country running, like government accountants, judges, mail carriers, and law enforcement officers. Military careers also fall under government jobs.
The main difference is that the millions of public sector employees who work in government are not elected or affiliated with anybody who is elected.
While jobs in politics typically involve declaring a political party and potentially campaigning for power, government careers follow more traditional professional arcs, with candidates starting at entry-level and working up as they gain experience. Jobs in government include roles in the military, engineering, healthcare, education, the criminal justice system, accounting, foreign policy, and law. As a result, many more jobs exist in government than in politics: 3,867,028 government jobs at the state level alone, and 7-9 million federal government employees.
Careers in government offer many perks. Public sector employees benefit from competitive pay and strong benefits, including subsidized medical and dental insurance. Government jobs also offer retirement pensions, unlike many private sector jobs, and government workers can also qualify for public service loan forgiveness programs. Finally, with millions of jobs in government, prospective public sector employees can usually find opportunities in their field and location.
Entry-Level Jobs in Government
Government departments and agencies hire entry-level professionals for careers in diverse fields. For instance, the Air Force hires mechanical engineers to design planes, while VA hospitals rely on nurse practitioners to care for patients. Public sector employees can also work in law enforcement or in legislative roles, where they craft and implement public policy.
Prospective government employees can research federal agencies or visit USAJOBS.gov to learn more about specific opportunities. Keep in mind that many government jobs use the same title across agencies, and that the agency you work for can matter more than your job title. The following list introduces some of the diverse job opportunities available in the government.
Auditors check the accuracy of business and financial records. They conduct thorough reviews of government agencies to identify waste or financial abuse and review publicly traded companies to ensure they follow financial regulations. Most auditors work closely with other accounting professionals to create reports based on their findings.
A bachelor's degree in accounting prepares graduates for auditor careers, though some roles require a CPA license, which generally requires a master's degree.
Caseworkers help individuals and families access social services. They typically work for government agencies where they meet with clients, keep detailed case reports, and support families in need. Caseworkers can also refer clients to other agencies or help schedule appointments. Depending on their agency of employ, they may connect clients with housing assistance, work with children in abusive situations, or help senior citizens.
Government caseworkers typically hold at least a bachelor's degree in social work or a related field.
Engineering technicians provide support for engineers and scientists. They help run diagnostic tests, conduct routine maintenance, and assess production quality. In government roles, engineering technicians assist engineers working on public works projects, military aircraft, and energy projects. They may specialize in an area like civil engineering, mechanical engineering, or aerospace engineering.
Engineering technicians need strong communication and teamwork skills. Most roles also require a college degree, such as an associate degree in engineering, or practical training in engineering.
Industrial hygienists evaluate workplaces to make sure they meet safety standards. In government, industrial hygienists usually work for a federal agency like the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, where they evaluate workplace conditions to make sure employers follow regulations. The role may require conducting site visits and analyzing potential hazards.
Careers as an industrial hygienist generally require a bachelor's degree in a STEM major or a related field. Candidates also benefit from field experience.
Legislative aides support elected representatives in the U.S. Congress or a state legislature. They communicate with constituents, perform administrative tasks, and conduct research to help legislators make laws. Legislative assistants also prepare reports and brief their legislators on issues that affect policymaking.
Most legislative aides hold a bachelor's degree. Experience as a legislative intern can help candidates move into full-time roles. The job may require overtime or unusual hours during the legislative session.
Legislative analysts evaluate laws and regulations to determine how they impact businesses, schools, or other organizations. Most legislative analysts specialize in an area like healthcare, education, or labor laws. Government legislative analysts usually work for legislative offices or public agencies, where they determine how proposed legislation will shape their department's responsibilities.
An educational background in political science, public policy, or public administration helps legislative analysts pursue entry-level roles. Experience in their specialty area can also help.
Legislative correspondents work in congressional offices, where they respond to mail from constituents. They draft letters to constituents and record feedback about legislative issues like healthcare, the environment, or the energy sector. Legislative correspondents usually work on a team with other congressional staffers to address the needs of constituents and keep their congresspeople appraised of new developments.
In general, legislative correspondents need a bachelor's degree. Experience in politics or government -- particularly legislative experience -- can help legislative correspondents break into the field.
Mechanical engineers design and manufacture new products, which includes planning and developing mechanical devices and then testing them to make sure they operate as intended. In government roles, mechanical engineers build aircraft, generators, ships, and other complex mechanical devices.
Most careers in mechanical engineering require a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering. A professional certification can help candidates stand out. Some supervisory roles may prefer a candidate with a graduate degree.
Nurse practitioners are advanced practice registered nurses who can treat and diagnose patients and sometimes even prescribe medication. In the government, nurse practitioners may work for branches of the military, Veteran's Affairs, the Federal Bureau of Prisons, or in community service settings. Nurse practitioners coordinate with physicians, nurses, and other healthcare professionals to care for patients.
Nurse practitioners must hold a graduate degree with extensive clinical training. Some nurse practitioners also complete a residency. They typically work in a clinical setting.
Operations analysts evaluate government agencies and departments to look for ways to improve efficiency. They identify problems in agencies and recommend improvements. Depending on their field, operations analysts may specialize in a particular agency or analyze operations across different agencies.
Entry-level roles typically require a bachelor's degree in a field like public administration or business. Analytical and communication skills help operations analysts, as does the ability to work effectively in a team.
Policy analysts analyze public policies, regulations, and laws. They also promote policies to achieve particular goals and help implement new policies. Many policy analysts specialize in an area, like energy policy, immigration, or education. They may work for government agencies or for elected political representatives.
A degree and experience in political science, public policy, or public administration help policy analysts break into the field. The position may require field work and travel.
Government program analysts research the impact of government programs. They also analyze costs and effectiveness to determine how to improve programs. Program analysts report to federal executives and meet with officials in the program to give progress assessments.
Entry-level program analyst jobs require a bachelor's degree in a field like public administration, management, business, or statistics. Candidates need strong analytical skills.
Public Affairs Specialists
Public affairs specialists communicate information about their agency or department to the public and the media by creating news releases, brochures, and other publicly available materials. Depending on their role, public affairs specialists may give interviews to the media or act as a spokesperson. Public affairs specialists are sometimes called press secretaries or public relations specialists.
Most roles require a bachelor's degree in a field like communication, public relations, or journalism. Strong communication skills and a background in crisis communication can help.
At the federal level, special agents work for law enforcement agencies like the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) or the Secret Service. They investigate violations of federal law, question witnesses and suspects, and gather evidence in the field. Special agents must analyze evidence and data, write reports, and work with prosecutors to enforce the law.
Special agents must hold an undergraduate degree, typically in a field like criminology, criminal justice, or law enforcement. Many also have graduate degrees and previous criminal justice experience.
Which State Is Best for Government Work?
Every state employs thousands of government workers. But which state is best for government work?
When considering the best states for careers in government, prospective public sector employees should consider average salaries, cost of living, and job openings. Other factors — like the structure of state and local governments, the state's budget, and the leading political party in the state — can also help prospective government employees narrow their choices.
Some states offer higher salaries and more job opportunities for government employees than others. In general, states with a higher cost of living often pay higher salaries, with California, Connecticut, and Massachusetts ranking among the highest-paid states for government employees. But the ten best-paying states also include Iowa, Minnesota, and Colorado.
Large states like California, Texas, and New York employ the most government employees, while smaller states like Vermont, Wyoming, and South Dakota employ fewer than 15,000 government employees.
Average Government Pay, March 2019
Source: Annual Survey of Public Employment & Payroll
What Is the Best Way to Get Into Government?
Public sector employees can kick-start their careers by gaining the skills, education, and experience necessary for careers in government. As in other fields, building connections in government can help prospective employees advance their careers.
Many careers in government require a bachelor's degree. When considering schools, prospective government employees can research colleges with a reputation for producing public-service-minded students.
What major prepares graduates for jobs in government? The social sciences, the humanities, and public administration can all prepare prospective government employees. These fields build the critical thinking, research, and communication skills required for government jobs. Some schools also offer a government major. Check out the top bachelor's programs in political science, legal studies, history, and economics to learn more.
Public sector employees can kick-start their careers by gaining the skills, education, and experience necessary for careers in government.
The federal government also hires employees with backgrounds in healthcare, engineering, nursing, accounting, and mathematics. Nearly every college major can lead to job opportunities in the public sector. Recent graduates can check the government's list of federal occupations by college major to learn more about opportunities in their fields.
Gaining professional experience while in school can help graduates find work after graduation. For example, completing an internship with a government agency offers practical experience and networking opportunities. The Pathways Program provides internship opportunities for current students. These paid internships help students explore potential federal careers while they're still in school.
Similarly, the Recent Graduates Program offers work experience to professionals who earned a degree within the past two years. Participants complete interactive training and benefit from mentorship while working for a federal agency.
AJA represents judges and promotes the administration of justice. Members benefit from professional development resources and peer mentorship opportunities. The nonprofit organization publishes a quarterly journal edited by judges. AJA's annual and mid-year conferences offer professional development and training opportunities, seminars, and programs to keep judges current in the field.
NCSL represents state and territory legislatures and promotes interstate cooperation. NCSL hosts meetings and legislative summits to connect legislative officials and offers training and professional development tools and resources, including a bill-tracking tool, a directory of legislative officials, and the State Legislatures magazine.
IACA brings together professionals who specialize in justice system administration and management. The nonprofit organization publishes newsletters and a journal to keep members current on court administration. The journal focuses on contemporary court administration and management with an international scope. IACA also promotes the courts as independent institutions through its resources.
FEBs promote collaboration between federal field agencies by creating interagency partnerships and fostering communication. For the 85% of federal employees located outside of Washington, D.C., FEBs connect federal leaders and provide a forum to exchange information. They also provide information on administration initiatives, promote efficiency in meeting agency goals, and offer incentive programs for employees.
AAFEA supports African American leaders in the federal government. The association offers professional development resources, builds partnerships between senior-level associations, and sponsors programs to promote career advancement. Members benefit from scholarship opportunities, leadership development programs, and leadership-focused events and webinars. AAFEA also hosts an annual scholarship with networking opportunities.
A nonprofit, nonpartisan organization, Executive Women in Government supports women pursuing senior leadership positions in the government. The organization builds professional relationships and offers mentorship for women leaders. Members benefit from networking opportunities, career resources, and news reporting that helps them stay current on developments in the federal government.
Frequently Asked Questions
What Degrees Are Good for Government Jobs?
A background in political science, public administration, or public policy can help candidates find jobs in government. The government also hires a variety of specialists, like nurses, engineers, scientists, teachers, and business analysts. Many careers in government require a bachelor's degree, though not all: For example, police officers are generally not required to have a degree. Candidates seeking jobs in government should research the entry-level degree for their field of choice.
How Hard Is It to Get a Job With the Federal Government?
The competition for federal government jobs in the U.S.A. can be high, and the hiring process often takes several months. You may also need to apply several times before you find an open hiring window.
Who Qualifies as a Federal Employee?
Federal employees work for the executive, legislative, or judicial branch of the federal government. The executive branch includes many federal agencies and departments that operate throughout the country, such as the Department of Justice, the Department of Agriculture, and the Department of State. Federal employees also include law enforcement officials, military personnel, and other civil service roles.
Does the Federal Government Have Good Benefits?
Yes, the federal government offers benefits for employees, including healthcare and retirement plans. For example, federal employees can participate in two pension systems to pay for retirement costs and they also qualify for Social Security benefits. Learn more about benefits for federal employees.
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