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A conversation with public policy majors on public service

Focus group.PNG
Noreen Hosny / The Daily Princetonian

60 percent of graduating seniors in 2023 characterized their career plans as “in the nation’s service,” but this varied widely by job field. For example, 100 percent of respondents going into nonprofit or public service work considered themselves as “in the nation’s service,” whereas this applied to just a third among soon-to-be consultants. 

To get a closer look at the culture surrounding public service career paths and the pressures students face from professors, their peers, and economic factors, The Daily Princetonian hosted a focus group of seven Princeton students, juniors, and seniors in the School of Public and International Affairs (SPIA), politics, and economics departments, to hear their unfiltered thoughts on what it means to live a life in the nation’s service.

What we found was that the decision to pursue a career in public service is not clear-cut as Princeton’s motto suggests. Frustrations with government bureaucracy, financial factors, and peer and faculty influence all serve as barriers to pursuing a career in the nation’s service. Over the course of our conversation, each participant offered their own perspective on the benefits their Princeton education offers themselves, their communities, and humanity. 

To ensure that participants were honest, truthful, and candid in their answers, we chose to make this summary of their discussion anonymous.

Influences on career choice

Of our seven participants, five considered what they did over the previous summer to be “in the nation’s service.” When asking participants if they believe their career after Princeton will be in public service, four raised their hands.

“Honestly, I don’t know what I’m gonna do after graduation,” said the participant who lowered their hand for the second question. “I’m planning on pursuing law as a career, and I don’t know what would happen after I go to law school."

We then asked participants how the internship experiences they’ve had have influenced their choice of career.

“It’s a Princeton stereotype … that we all end up being consultants or finance people,” said one individual who had a finance internship over the summer. They then outlined the stereotypes those entering finance careers face — “we crash the economy, we work extremely long hours, [and] if you actually like it, you might be a psychopath,” they said.

Another participant felt jaded about their internship experience, which was in the public sector field, not finance.

“I was working in the federal government, and I realized pretty quickly, like, I do not want to work in the federal government,” they said. They then outlined the bureaucratic hurdles government policymakers face, saying that they felt they had the ability to make a greater impact working in the nonprofit sector with its more energetic work environment and less red tape.

“I think it’s just as helpful sometimes to have an internship that teaches you what don’t like.”

When discussing the influence of coursework on career choices, some students identified specific introductory-level courses that made them change their plans.

“I came into Princeton as an economics major, and then I took macroeconomics [ECO 101: Introduction to Macroeconomics] … it really disillusioned me with economics as a career,” one participant in the SPIA department said. 

Multiple participants expressed regret over choosing to major in SPIA, saying it was too late to switch to politics and that COVID-19 limited their opportunities to explore other majors.

Compensation and selling out

Salary considerations are often a reason for those considering careers in public service to change their plans for the private sector. In our focus group, participants expressed mixed views on the influence of compensation on their career choice.

“I have over $100,000 in student loan debt coming out of this university. There is no version of public service that is going to pay that off,” said one participant. “I knew that coming into this school … it’s gonna have to be [the private sector].”

“Since I’m not from the [United States] and don’t have citizenship, I don’t consider public sector work in the [United States] as an option for me, and I don’t like the idea of it,” one international student said. “I find with the public sector … it’s like a career-ender when it comes to financial flourishing.”

Others were more willing to accept lower compensation in exchange for a career that is more fulfilling to them.

“For me, I’ve decided that my preference is just to be low-income for the rest of my life,” one individual said, before expressing frustration that SPIA forces a binary of being a “sellout” or choosing low-paying work in the public sector.

“I think there are in-betweens, but I’m not sure that they’re especially advertised or made accessible.”

Another participant responded to this concern by mentioning government consulting as a middle-road between “selling out” and low-paying public sector jobs.

“One of [my friends] is working on broadband internet access in tribal communities … they’re making good money, they’re consulting. Did they sell out, or are they doing the job the government can’t do for itself?” they said.

“I want to be able to survive,” one participant said, following with “[my] concern is ‘am I going to be happy in a job?’ rather than ‘am I going to make money in this job?’”

We then asked participants if, given a binary choice, they would choose a lower-paying but fulfilling career or a higher-paying but less-fulfilling career. Of the seven focus group participants, five chose the lower-paying, but more fulfilling career.

The role of identity

Many first-generation, low-income (FGLI) students in our focus group expressed both frustration with Princeton’s culture and amazement at the opportunities provided by the institution.

“I’m gonna be honest: I didn’t even know the word ‘consulting’ existed before I came to Princeton,” one FGLI participant said. “[Consulting] feels like a golden ticket. Maybe that’s not how it is, but that’s how it’s advertised.”

They followed up by stating, “for me, the idea of continuing to be in generational poverty is absolutely terrifying … that I’m not the one that stops it.”

“Princeton purports that they are understanding of it, but I really don’t think they are,” they continued.

Another student remarked how working in the private sector would violate their moral compass by pushing the kinds of policies that have harmed their own community.

“For me, as a working-class person … a lot of the consulting and finance jobs are the ones that are oppressing us … how am I going to pay back my community if I’m going to keep forcing the boot down on them?”

Our conversation touched upon themes of race as well. One student highlighted how an overlooked benefit of affinity-specific departments is that they provide informal networks of professionals for students of color to tap into.

“A lot of Black students on campus, we end up in [the African American Studies department], because the people in AAS are so awesome for us in finding a mentor if you’re in the department.”

The future of employment

Public and private sector careers vary in their vulnerability to economic downturns. We asked participants about their thoughts on the economy post-graduation and their prospects in today’s strong labor market.

“My family has a lot of people who work in finance, and their job cycles are like, crazy … because of the economy, there’s a lot of fluctuations,” one participant noted. “Right now, if I do become a lawyer, I’m not exactly sure where the technology would be in terms of AI … there’s a lot of nervousness about that.”

Some viewed their smaller network, compared to their legacy student peers, as being a disadvantage in finding a job after college.

“These people are literally operating on a network that you can’t even see,” one participant observed after detailing an instance in which their friend obtained an internship through a connection of their Princeton-alum parents. “It feels like this entire operation in the clouds that’s hidden from you.”

Other participants had few concerns about their employability after graduation.

“Princeton is the golden ticket. I’ve believed it for four years. I’m not worried at all … This place has so much money. If nothing else, I can work here!”

The Orange Bubble

We then shifted our conversation to Princeton’s environment surrounding career paths and the influence of faculty, administrators, and the town of Princeton itself on choosing to follow the path of working in the nation’s service.

“I think there’s a big move within the professors and the graduate students [in] SPIA to push people towards working in the nation’s service,” said one participant. “Some of the old hats in SPIA are still very much like ‘You can make money! You can work at McKinsey!’ ... [but] there is a tide change happening within the department with [Dean Amaney Jamal].”

Other students were less optimistic about the future of public service within their department.

“I don’t think there’s a specific message from the [economics] faculty,” said one student. They mentioned how the careers economics majors are pushed towards are heavily influenced by whether they are on the political economy track or pursuing the finance certificate, among other paths.

We then asked participants how living in Princeton has affected their perception of wealth and influenced their career choices. Princeton has a median household income of almost $120,000, far higher than the state of New Jersey as a whole and the national median household income of just over $55,000

“The perspective of Princeton is so strange because I never thought of myself as low-income before I came to Princeton,” one participant said. “I come to Princeton and all of a sudden $100,000 is the measure for whether or not you’re poor? What the heck?”

Another FGLI student expressed their alienation in Princeton’s environment.

“I feel so out of place, this wasn’t created for me,” they stated. “By being a Princeton student, the University makes you feel like if you put in the work, this could be the place for you.”

“I am very envious of students who come in here and feel like a place like this is created for them … [they] feel like this was always going to be their life.”

Some participants shared anecdotes of being shocked at the affluence of their peers.

“There’s just something about sitting in lecture behind someone and seeing them order over $1,000 in Lululemon and then seeing that person get like, the best jobs, the best everything.”

Closing Thoughts

To close out our conversation, we asked participants to summarize the culture of career development at Princeton in one word.

Our final question asked students if they agreed with the broad sentiment that they could have a successful and fulfilling career in public service and be well-compensated. Five raised their hands, and two sat silent.

As one said, “It feels like getting in here was just the start — it’s not the end goal.”

Ryan Konarska is an associate Data editor at the ‘Prince’ and a staff News writer.