Posted in: Campus

Harvard’s Young Public Servants

By | July 24, 2012

Graduation was quickly approaching, and after Will Leiter ’10 completed his thesis, no immediate threats loomed on the horizon. Though he wanted to enter politics and return to northern California, beyond that the future was uncertain. Leiter, currently a legislative aide for a California state senator, tells the HPR, “I’d counsel current seniors to not stress about it so much, and be comfortable with waiting to get something you’re really happy with.” His first-hand experience highlights this challenge, as this anxiety surrounding the plunge into public service is actually quite common.

In 2007, 47 percent of Harvard College graduates went into finance or consulting, a number which dropped to 29 percent with last year’s graduating class given the weak recovery. Nevertheless, while this has provoked debates on campus about the ethics of opting for lucrative careers, few have examined the stories of Harvard graduates who jump into public work after college.

Getting Hired

Familiarity breeds comfort, and while the job search for financial and consulting positions is extraordinarily harrowing, the process is standardized. As senior Dylan Matthews explained to The Washington Post columnist Ezra Klein, the process parallels college applications: “There are a handful of firms you really care about, they all have formal application processes that they walk you through, there’s a season when it all happens, all of them come to you and interview you where you live.” Indeed, after fall recruitment, many seniors walk away having secured an alluring, prestigious job.

Meanwhile, Kara Minar, Career Services Director for the Harvard Institute of Politics, tells the HPR that public service hiring lacks this consistency. Fluctuating budgets mean job opportunities arise unexpectedly, often with very limited application timeframes. Therefore, an organizational mismatch means that even students with strong interests in public sector work head off into Wall Street.

The Rationale for the Private Sector

There are well established paths from the moment graduates enter the private sector. Many Harvard students envision working for two years before attending business or law school and eventually returning to the workforce with a promotion. Danielle Gram ’10 tells the HPR, “It’s really obvious where you’ll end up in ten years if you do a good job.” She is currently working on promoting peace in Uganda, but regarding her own path, she comments, “It’s more nebulous. There’s no one that has followed the exact path that I have taken and that I will take.”

Sympathetic tutors tell students that this is normal, that a modicum of uncertainty is perfectly appropriate. However, whereas “safe” finance and consulting careers have large presences on campus, pursuing the unknown comes across unnecessarily risky. Many students also arrive on campus not knowing what work to pursue after college, and simply follow existing trends. Indeed, students have been acclimated to avoid taking chances, because for them, familiarity is synonymous with safety.

Perhaps there are other frameworks influencing the decision process, foremost among them the academic environment. Markers like grades and leadership positions in organizations’ hierarchies are natural methods to differentiate people when our studies and activities are similar. For-profit sectors offer clear performance metrics and reward outstanding employees with bonuses and increased seniority.

Taking the Plunge

As Lindsay Hyde ’04, founder of the mentorship non-profit group Strong Women Strong Girls, told the HPR, “Trying, experiencing, and deciding gets you really fired up.” For instance, Gram has realized that systemic change in Uganda cannot be driven by non-profits, and now she is considering a career in foreign policy or national security. Beyond geopolitics, Danny Kim’s (’09) experiences working as an urban pastor in California contributed to his decision to pursue medical school and eventually work as a community-focused physician.

These experiences provide invaluable insight, and in politics, as Leiter notes, grades and one’s ability to solve brainteasers become less relevant. Regarding his experiences, he says the main questions asked to potential employees are: “Have you worked on a campaign? What have you done on politics? What issue do you really care about? And how do you express your caring?” He adds, “It’s really important that you have a track record of work.”

For Harvard students considering public service, graduates recommend making connections and exploring potential careers now. Gram cites her internship with the Harvard Humanitarian Institute as a truly significant experience that gave tremendous support to pursue her work today. However, students must proactively seek these opportunities, because many might not be offered or advertised at Harvard itself.

More personally, public service can also allow students to escape “the bubble” surrounding Harvard’s ivy walls. Kim states that his time spent volunteering and listening to others’ stories at the Harvard Square Homeless Shelter was his, “most important” experience and a, “great break from Harvard.” Indeed, sometimes these forays into the real world remind students of why they came here: to improve others’ lives.

Endless Possibilities

Today, technological marvels and changing attitudes about service have provided immense possibilities for service. As former Tulsa mayor Kathy Taylor explained to the HPR, “My generation, especially… first generation college graduates, was first focused on making a stable lifestyle. Our public service began [with] volunteering.” In contrast, today, careers in public service are legitimate and respectable full time job prospects, entailing everything from business to engineering and consulting.

These lessons from Harvard peers should not deter students, but rather provide valuable lessons. Students’ anxieties concerning “the road less traveled” might arise from others’ skepticism, but that skepticism is framed primarily by habituation. Reflecting on this, our efforts would be for naught if we lose the courage that prior leaders had when entering public service.

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