Network: Do it with your classmates. Do it with alumni. Do it with faculty. Do it with staff. Get to know anyone and everyone you can. I hated it as a student. Our career service office kept on us about it all the time. I thought getting a job was all about my qualifications, not who I knew. I was wrong. You do have to be qualified, but you also need to be known. Go to professional gatherings (if ELGL has a Pop-Up conference nearby by—go!). Go to alumni-student mixers. Find ways to meet people in the field you want to work in. Talk to faculty and staff at your school about alumni of your program working in the field you want to work in. Have them connect you with that person—and get an informational interview with them early on. The earlier you do it, the less it feels like you are asking for a job and truly interested in what they do. They know you want a job, and they might want to hire you—but they cannot if they don’t know who you are.
Office Hours: Go to them. Seriously. Faculty are not (typically) horrible people. Sure, I’ve met a few that I’d rather not talk to, but most of us are pretty approachable people. We want to know what you are up to, what is challenging, what isn’t, what works and what doesn’t. If you don’t show up, we have a much harder time helping you when you struggle. Are we going to be besties if you show up? Probably not, but I will know what your needs are a whole lot better. I don’t need to be your best friend to help you learn, but the more I know you the better I can assure that your experience is the best it can be.
Graduate School is for Graduates: By this, I mean that you are not an undergrad student anymore. Graduate work is and should be, quite a bit harder. If you could skate by as an undergrad by skimming your class notes the night before the test, you may be in for a wake-up call now. Your reading load is going to be higher than it was too. Learn how to read faster and more efficiently—you probably cannot read word-for-word all of the text in your readings and get all of your work done. Find ways to skim efficiently and effectively. There are plenty of resources online for this. I tried to read everything word-for-word my first couple of months of grad school and I nearly burned out. Form a study group and help each other out—when it is appropriate (your teachers should let you know when it isn’t—I know I tell my students when collaborations are and are not appropriate).
Professional Programs Require Professional Level Work: We expect higher quality work now than we did when you were undergrads. Errors and sloppiness that you got away with earlier aren’t going to fly. I read my work from the start of my MPA and compare it to the end and I could see are a real difference because of the level of expectation my professors at the Maxwell School had for me, and it paid off. I see far too many people that think starting an assignment the night before will cut it, it won’t. Share your work with your classmates. Have them read your work, and read theirs. Be honest with each other—you are probably both not great at professional writing and other skills on day one. Go to office hours and get help if you are under water and don’t know what to do.
Budget and Finance Skills: The most important advice I got going into graduate school was from my undergrad mentor. He told me to take every budget and finance class I could take in my masters’ program. I was somehow wise enough to take his advice. These skills have helped me in every job I’ve ever had. Every employer wants you to be able to put together a budget. And they all want someone who can read a financial report. You don’t need CPA-level skills to be a contributing member of your team when it comes to budgeting skills. Learn Excel. Learn it well. Learn how to make a flexible budget with a spreadsheet and you’ll save months off of your life as a public administrator.
Quantitative Skills: Many employers want you to know how to statistics and number manipulation. Many employers don’t yet know that they need someone who can do this because no one ever has. But if you come into your job knowing how to gather, organize, wrangle, and analyze data, you can make not only your job easier and more efficient, but you can make it easier for your employer to achieve their objectives. I’ve spoken to a lot of old school folks in local government and a lot of them are afraid of numbers, so they don’t ask their newbies to use them as much as they should. You need to be the ambassador to quant skills. Take as many of these classes as you can, and find as many ways to apply these skills in class as you can.
Have Fun: Some of my best life-long friends were the people I met as a grad student. The intensity of the programs and the fact that you are all working towards degrees that will put you in similar jobs creates a bond that is unique. I still call up my MPA friends to help me solve problems and talk to my students.
Benjamin Y. Clark is an assistant professor of public administration in the School of Planning, Public Policy and Management at the University of Oregon. His research focuses on autonomous vehicles, public sector crowdsourcing, 311 systems, coproduction, local government management, and budgetary/financial management. He teaches public management, public policy, and the applied research Capstone course. He has been an Executive Committee member of the Association for Budgeting and Financial Management (ABFM) since 2013. Prior to his career in academia he worked for nearly a decade as a public servant at the local, federal, and international levels. He received is BA from Indiana University—Bloomington, MPA from the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University, and his PhD in Public Administration from the University of Georgia.
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