5 Tips for Advancing Your Public Service Career

Ready to lead? Two professionals explain how to advance your public service career with an MPA degree, community involvement, and a stellar reputation.
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You can pursue many careers in public service: city planning, education administration, nonprofit management, grant administration, law enforcement, and public policy — just to name some.

As a public service professional, you can also advance into leadership positions and executive roles by building tenure, earning an advanced degree, and continuing to impact your community positively.

We asked two public service professionals for insider advice on advancing your public service career. Here are their top five tips.

1. Earn an MPA Degree

Earning a master of public administration, or MPA, can help public service professionals qualify for leadership positions. It can also raise your salary potential and strengthen your expertise.

Earning an MPA accelerates the foundational knowledge and experience on a management and leadership level across all spectra, said Stephanie Thomas, a contract compliance manager with the city of North Miami.

An individual becomes well rounded in areas focusing on policies, civic engagement, finance, law, management, or leadership, to name a few, she added.

Thomas earned her degree through the University of Miami UOnline's master of public administration program.

My writing improved. … The professors made time for students whenever needed and were sensitive to the needs of the students as life happened, said Thomas. The courses were in line with my day-to-day skills as a manager of a department.

In an MPA program, you'll take courses like political ethics, budget and financial management, productivity improvement, and digital governance.

Roxana Lemus, a child advocate manager and another graduate of the University of Miami UOnline's MPA program, graduated from her public administration degree program with a strong understanding of proper ethical behavior and an ability to see different perspectives in the decision-making process.

[Earning an MPA degree] prepares an individual to confront the challenges facing our world today by being a visionary leader that demonstrates empathy and compassion mixed with holding oneself accountable and responsible to set the example for others to follow, said Lemus.

Attending a graduate program in public administration prepares you to be a leader through targeted classes, projects, and mentorship.

The [MPA] program is designed for a student to succeed because of the variety of courses offered, said Lemus, and the extensive, experienced background of each professor [ensures] that you are a well-rounded student and gain perspective about the different components of public administration.

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2. Find Mentors and Mentees

Seeking out mentorship can help you grow exponentially in your career. A mentor can give advice, connect you with other professionals, and challenge you to develop new skills.

Both professionals we spoke to agreed that becoming a mentor is — like receiving mentorship — a vital part of growing your public service career.

One person cannot do it alone, but a team that is made up of individuals with diverse backgrounds can help lift you in ways that allow you to grow, explained Lemus. And it is important that you are able to provide mentorship in the future to those that seek opportunities like you once did.

You could teach others, become active in your alumni group, or mentor fellow professionals in entry-level roles.

Do not keep all that knowledge to yourself; help others to elevate, advised Thomas. The most rewarding part of being a public servant is mentoring others for success or preparing a succession plan.

3. Build Essential Soft Skills

Your education and work experience may land you a job, but your soft skills can ultimately lead you to a promotion.

Skills like being a team player, communicating effectively, and showing a willingness to learn are essential for a successful career in public service.

I do believe that professionals in public service need to have the foundational skill of self-awareness, said Lemus. This can enhance critical thinking, encourage employee motivation, provide inspiration, [and allow you to] handle conflict management with effective communication.

You may even already have some soft skills, like patience or creativity. Most professionals develop soft skills over the course of their careers with help from peer and manager feedback.

You can learn to become better at things like taking initiative, adapting to change, and leading teams.

4. Cultivate a Positive Reputation

Developing a strong reputation in your public service field can also help lead to job promotions and new opportunities — not to mention a long, fulfilling career.

[Public service is] a small community, and people share information as well as refer individuals for upcoming promotions or job openings, said Thomas. Guarding and protecting your reputation is priceless.

Don't just target leaders and managers when improving your reputation — your co-workers won't always work in the same space or role as you, and they could end up leading a team at a different organization.

You want those peers to think favorably of you when a new opportunity arises.

Your reputation is everything, especially within a career of public service, said Lemus. This stems from your work ethic and your interpersonal experiences that follow you everywhere you go.

Your peers are more likely to remember you if you perform helpful, respectable work in a professional manner. Make each project and interaction count toward building a positive reputation.

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5. Connect With Your Community

Both Thomas and Lemus recommended finding ways to connect with your community.

Seek out associations, committees, organizations, events, and memberships in your field. You'll meet people who could hire you down the road and learn from peers who have different experiences than you.

As you move up in your career path, the individuals you meet may very well be the ones who hire you or refer you to other employers, explained Thomas. Relationship-building cultivates your character, and your mentors through this process will serve [you] well in your future endeavors.

You can also use your time to network with fellow professionals and learn new skills.

[The] best way to gain experience is by interning and volunteering so that you can have skills under your belt and gain connections along the way, said Lemus. I am personally so thankful to the Orlando Police Department for my internship opportunity because they provided me with the key that unlocked so many doors for me today.

A solid reputation in your public service community is just as important as any other qualifications you gain. Don't overlook the importance of getting to know the right people.

With Advice From:

Portrait of Stephanie Thomas

Stephanie Thomas

Stephanie Thomas is a seasoned public sector professional with nearly two decades of service. She is a dedicated public servant ready to fight for her district, making a choice to serve the community in which she was born and raised — and still lives today in the same house.

An avid learner, Stephanie earned an associate degree in pharmacy from Miami-Dade College, as well as a BS in health information management and a master's in health informatics and management systems from Florida International University. She also holds a master of public administration from the University of Miami and a doctorate in health sciences from Eastern Virginia Medical School.

Portrait of Roxana Lemus

Roxana Lemus

Roxana Lemus is a child advocate manager for Guardian Ad Litem in Pasco County, Florida. She has worked as a victim advocate for about six years. Her experiences include completing internships with the State Attorney's Office of the Ninth Circuit and the Orlando Police Department and serving as a victim advocate with the Child Advocacy Center, Pasco Kids First, and the Pasco County Sheriff's Office.

Her passion for supporting victims has led Roxana to help hundreds of individuals file civil injunctions, guide others through the criminal justice and child welfare processes, collaborate with various service providers, assist immigrants and Spanish speakers with visa and translation services, and create a hate crimes resources list to better assist different populations.

Roxana earned her bachelor's from the University of Central Florida and her master's from the University of Miami. Both degrees have allowed her to elevate her advocacy to explore systemic issues and propose potential solutions.