Hello all,

At Amherst College, roughly 31% of students go into finance/ consulting while only about 12% go into public service. Many other schools have similarly imbalanced post-graduation outcomes. A group of us at Amherst College are trying to change that, starting here. We want to create a public service pipeline akin to the finance/ consulting pipeline that already exists.

Issues we need to address:

  • Public service opportunities are not as well known or advertised as finance or consulting jobs
  • The finance and consulting timeframe is super early and takes advantage of college students' uncertainty
  • Public service jobs are usually not seen as prestigious compared to finance/ consulting

These are just a few of the major issues that we need to address. I'll be happy to go more in depth in the comments or additional posts. We have some ideas to address them but I'd love to hear any ideas you have or you have seen work at your universities.

 

Thanks so much for your help!

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This sounds great! I don't have any solutions, but a related issue I wonder about (as someone who went into consulting after undergrad): Does public service have the same or similar learning opportunities and exit opportunities as finance consulting? Being EA-minded in college, I did not perceive public service as having either of these strongly. So this is either a strike against people in public service, or a matter of bad marketing

"Public service" is obviously a huge and diverse category, but my strong impression is that many public interest jobs (including at the entry level) offer substantially better exit opportunities within public service than nearly any  management consulting gig (and I think this is true to an even greater extent if the comparison is with entry-level roles at investment banks or hedge funds). The problem, I think, is that at least in the U.S., there are very few public interest jobs that are 1) entry-level, 2) open to generalists without prior experience in some very specific area, 3) involve the kind of "substantive" responsibilities that would make them comparable "learning opportunities" to the positions available in consulting and finance, and 4) are at least in the vicinity of moderately high-impact work (very broadly construed). And the positions that do exist that meet these criteria are, of course, extraordinarily hard to get. Basically, I don't think the issue is actually that trying to enter public service  straight out of college is a bad career move.  I think it's often quite a good career move, and I definitely think more people should do it, but I think a big part of the reason more people don't is that it's a very risky thing to commit to as an undergraduate (compared to the options available in the private sector). Conditional on, e.g., actually managing to land a position doing the kind of work you want to do within an executive agency, though, I think the public servant is probably better-positioned for impact (including over a multi-decade time horizon) than the management consultant or the investment banker.

I would totally agree and that's why we're trying to push more people towards it. I think all of the concerns you bring up are entirely valid but I think one huge piece of why people don't go into public service after college is visibility of these jobs. Private sector companies advertise all of their internships and jobs super well whereas non profits don't nearly as well. There is also the clear recruiting timeline for finance and consulting that takes advantage of college student's general lack of information on future opportunities.

Very clear, thank you! Out of curiosity, what type of achievable and potentially-leading-to-high-impact roles are you going to try to push people towards? If you have stuff online somewhere I can look at that so you don't have to type out an answer.

 

Best of luck with this!

We're still trying to figure out exactly what roles we want to center which is part of why I wrote here. We've mostly figured out the suggestions we're going to make to the school in terms of trying to generally change the culture. Part of it will be brining nonprofits and NGOs on to campus the same way we do banks and consulting firms. 

I will say that part of the issue is non profits and NGOs not doing a good job of advertising internships and entry-level jobs whereas everyone can easily find out how the recruiting cycles work for finance and consulting.

We don't have anything published yet but we're going to be publishing op-eds and an open letter in the next 6 weeks and I'll definitely make another post/ respond here with it.

[To clarify in case this was unclear: I am just a random outsider and have no association with this Amherst student group.]

I’m a bit skeptical that just trying to get more nonprofits to recruit on campus is a winning strategy here. Among other things, the vast majority of nonprofits don’t have dedicated recruiting staff, and the people responsible for hiring don’t have the time to travel to college campuses to recruit for entry-level positions. The same is going to be true of most public sector openings at the entry level, too. (I do think there are exceptions to this — you might be able to get some of the RA programs run by the Federal Reserve System to recruit on campus, which I think would be awesome.) Regardless of whether or not you get these organizations to come to your campus, though, I think you face the even more significant obstacle of many students believing it just isn’t a good career move to take a job in public service straight out of college. I’m not sure getting these jobs more visibility changes that. My sense in college was not that the people entering finance or consulting would instead have gone into government if they’d been aware of the availability of government jobs.

I think that to make a difference here you have to change the way people think about the opportunities presented by analyst programs at consulting and financial services firms. You have to show people that these aren’t the best things they could do out of college, given basically any set of public service career objectives.

As I see it, this pitch might look something like this (obviously, the details would vary based on the individual in question’s career goals, but for the sake of argument…): 

Let’s say you’re a senior in college, and you really, really want to work in the Executive Office of the President (of the U.S.) one day. There are basically three types of ways you could get there: 1) you could work in a Congressional office, in which case it would be reasonable to try to get a job on the Hill straight out of college; 2) you could enter the campaign world and try to attach yourself to a particularly promising candidate; or 3) you could attend a graduate program that would position you to enter top policy jobs. Options 2 and 3 could both plausibly include a stint in consulting right out of college, but I don’t think that’s likely to be the optimal path in either of those directions for most people making such a choice. In the case of option 2, if you want to work in communications in the EOP, you will probably want a comms job on a campaign, and if you’re about to graduate and don’t see a campaign you’re itching to join, then I think joining a political communications firm or the press office of an elected official at the state level or on the Hill would be your best bet. This template can also be applied to working in ops in the EOP -> ops on a campaign -> ops in state government or a Hill office (-> college student). If you’re considering option 2 but are hoping to do policy work in the EOP, then you’re probably going to want to do option 3 before doing option 2 anyway, so let’s jump there. 

To get a job in the EOP, there are basically three kinds of graduate school paths: 1) law school; 2) a top public policy (or similar) master’s program; 3) a PhD in a field in which the EOP needs people with subject-matter expertise (economics, certain scientific fields, etc.). If you want to go to law school, there is no marginal advantage to working in an elite management consulting or financial services job post-college relative to (more) attainable options in public service (to pick an arbitrary example, this), and there may be disadvantages (e.g., less time to study for the LSAT). If you want to get an MPP/MPA from Harvard, Princeton, etc., there is no marginal advantage to working in an elite management consulting or financial services job post-college relative to… basically any job in government — working on the Hill for a few years or for the municipal government of any major city would make an applicant more appealing to those programs. And if you want to get a PhD in nearly any field, working in academic research for 1-3 years will be wayyy more advantageous when you’re applying than spending two years at Bain or Goldman would be. In many fields, if you’re the sort who could get a job at Bain or Goldman, you could also get an RA job working for a world-renowned scholar, and that goes a very, very long way in PhD admissions. 

The rejoinder here, I imagine, is: “What if you don’t have any idea at all what you want to do? At the very least, an MBB consulting job won’t close any doors.” I definitely believed this argument when I was a senior in college, but in the years since I graduated, I’ve come to think that the high option value provided by elite analyst positions in finance and consulting is, to a large extent, limited to private sector roles and is thus of considerably lesser value to people aiming to have careers in the public interest. My sense is that hiring managers (outside of finance/consulting, and especially in public service) are almost never looking mainly for generalists who can legibly signal high intelligence. For the vast majority of positions, the marginal benefit of additional points on the SAT, or whatever, pales in comparison to the marginal benefit of relevant domain experience and motivation/commitment to the work of this position. As a result, a lot of government jobs strongly prefer people with a demonstrated history of working in public service. The thought is that committing to a career in public service is a costly signal, and people who are willing to pay the cost to send it are more likely to be motivated and less likely to jump ship to climb a professional ladder. On top of that, the competition for some of these positions is so steep that they don’t even have to compromise on other desirable attributes to get people who can demonstrate that commitment; they can just use it as a tie-breaker to distinguish otherwise identically qualified candidates at the top of their pool. So, more generally, I now think that to underspecialize is to lose options and good ones, too, as most really cool jobs require some degree of specialization. 

This obviously doesn’t answer the question of how to choose what to do after one graduates, which, admittedly, is genuinely hard. At a minimum, though, there’s some reassurance in the fact that the costs to making the wrong call aren’t that high. People in the first few years of their career typically enjoy a lot of latitude to pivot and try new things as long as they have a good attitude about it and aren’t in a rush to climb any ladders professionally. I basically did this and think it ended well. On that note, one thing that really helped me was having a lot of free time to reflect about my goals (and research how to best achieve them) in my first year out of college, when I was feeling very professionally unsatisfied. (I would hate to be very professionally unsatisfied and not have a lot of free time to figure out how to remedy the situation, which I imagine would have been the case if I’d been in consulting or finance.) I generally think that having free time to reflect and pursue independent projects in one’s first few years out of college is really underrated by most people, especially among EAs, for whom the returns to reflection are probably especially high. I’ll conclude just by saying: One of the best pieces of career advice I’ve ever gotten was to prioritize working in places where my incentives would be aligned with my values and where I would be surrounded by people who would support me in making professional decisions in a manner consistent with my values. I think people tend to underestimate the impact of their environment on the possibilities that they can imagine for themselves. I know I did for a very long time. 

I think it's more a matter of bad marketing more than anything. There are definitely prestigious public service opportunities but part of it is also that many schools make consulting/ finance the default option.

You may want to look at Teach for America and Venture for America as potential models

I'd been looking into Teach for America a little but I'm looking into Venture for America now and it is super interesting thank you!