Princeton University’s inspiring informal motto, “In the Nation’s Service and the Service of Humanity,” challenges the University’s students, faculty, and administration to pursue a higher purpose in life and broaden their perspective from personal gratification to the well-being of all members of the human community.
Given this University’s historical legacy in public interest and its embedded tradition of service to humanity, why did 33 percent of undergraduates from the Class of 2016 go into financial or professional and technical service jobs, while less than 2 percent went into public service? What can the University do to encourage more undergraduate students to pursue a rewarding career in public service after graduating?
This trend is not an anomaly. In 2015, less than 2 percent of Princeton undergrads entered into the public service positions compared to 33 percent that entered into financial or professional and technical service jobs. In 2014, the numbers were almost identical.
We live in a complex time, in which public servants are more important than ever. Our nation is grappling with challenges of climate change, foreign diplomacy, poverty, and social welfare, and ensuring equitable growth of the economy. Maintaining a steady pipeline of bright and committed public servants is critical to navigating these complex challenges. And as the federal workforce ages and retires, the need for young, skilled talent is paramount to the functionality of our government. Perhaps most importantly — under a president who does not seem to understand the benefits of a functioning government and continues to undermine the bureaucracy — having a strong, principled civil service is more vital now than ever.
To be sure, there are structural barriers that make careers in government difficult. Having served in the federal government prior to coming to Princeton, I am the first to acknowledge the frustrations that these barriers can cause. Many federal positions often require advanced degrees, and, as anyone who has tried to navigate USAjobs.gov knows, the systems for applying are less than intuitive.
Still, Princeton students have access to a well-resourced career services office, giving them the ability to find careers in federal government, to say nothing of the multitude of career options at the state or local level. What’s more, the many accomplished public service practitioners on faculty at Princeton are very willing to offer helpful insight and advice for surmounting the hurdles that can obfuscate the process of entering into a career in public service.
One deterrent to students going into public service is the negative portrayal of government service in the media. We are all prey to the recency effect, where our overall impression of something is largely driven by our last interaction with that object.
A constant bombardment of negativity about the government and the bureaucrats who make it work deters students from these careers. That’s why Princeton should make a strong effort to bring in more government practitioners who can show students all the benefits that careers in government can offer or do more to elevate the voices of faculty and graduate students who come from a public service career background. Judging from the many conversations I’ve had with both graduate students and faculty who have worked in government, I am confident that their perspectives will leave undergraduate students with a more positive view of public service.
The large presence of the finance and consulting industries on campus also changes students’ reference points for salary offers. Behavioral science has taught us that people base their value of an object on a relative reference point.
For example, if you are a student who sees your peers getting finance and consulting job offers, the high salaries of those industries become the reference point from which you judge all other job offers. By comparison, government jobs appear to offer paltry salaries. But government jobs also offer security, work-life balance, loan forgiveness, excellent health insurance benefits, and, most importantly, the opportunity to do meaningful work in service to your country. These positions also provide students with marketable skills and experience that are sought after by private sector employers, should they decide to leave the public sector down the line.
Princeton’s undergraduate Office of Career Services could create materials that encourage students to consider all aspects of a job offer, instead of just a high salary alone. Indeed, research has shown that advertisements for federal government jobs that emphasize the personal benefits of the job, such as the challenges or career benefits, increase the applicant pool while maintaining applicant quality.
Another challenge is that on many campuses, there are strong prescriptive norms around going into careers in finance or consulting. In other words, students feel that it is socially acceptable, if not encouraged, to follow these career choices rather than those in public service.
Norms are hard to change, but Princeton could begin to shift them by highlighting students who choose careers in public service, providing more resources for students interested in that path, and routinely bringing alumni to campus who work in government at all levels.
We can measure the success of these efforts by comparing how many students go into public service before and after these interventions. We should also compare ourselves to our peer schools as a control group, which would account for broader trends affecting who chooses public sector work.
Encouraging careers in public service would truly make this a campus in service to the nation, and humanity.
Leyla Mocan is a first-year masters student studying public affairs. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.