Making the Most of Your Public Service Opportunity

Making the Most of Your Public Service Opportunity

Category : PROspective

As a continuation of his last two articles, Robert Merritt talks about how to make the most of your career in public services.  To read his previous article “The Many Roads to Federal Service at CDC” click here and to read his article “An Accidental Career in Public Health” click hereThis article was originally published in April 2022. 

Written by: Robert Merritt

One of my responsibilities as a senior scientist and manager at CDC is to foster the development of young professionals. I take this very seriously and encourage all my peers to do the same. I’d like to offer some thoughts and advice to those of you that might be considering a career in public service. Although these are drawn from my work at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), they would also apply to work at a variety of other public federal, state, or local agencies (and even many non-profit organizations).

First and foremost, remember: “It’s not about you.”

Public service is focused on others. Currently, the public sector is, without a doubt, a very challenging place to work. Intense scrutiny, vocal criticism, unpredictable resources, and volatile politics will test your mettle, sheer will, and selfless service every day. It is work that aims to support the general welfare and needs of all citizens. This career choice is not about money or fame, but about understanding where we are as a society and how to make it better in some meaningful way. It has been said that public servants have some core qualities (or attributes) that enable them to successfully navigate and contribute to public service. These, in my opinion, are willingness to learn, desire to help others, and an ability to engage people.

Will to Learn

The fact that most of us have (or will soon have) a graduate degree does not negate the need for lifelong learning. Common sense dictates that continuous quality learning is important to every endeavor – especially professional development and success. Therefore, eagerness and craving for new information are essential. To make a positive difference, you should seek to constantly refresh your understanding and learn to adapt to change. My experience is that knowledge and the half-life of knowledge (the length of time that knowledge stays active and accurate) diminish over time.

I strongly urge each new member of my team to seek as many opportunities to learn as they can. What does this mean? Don’t just sit idle and inwardly reflect on your newly acquired book knowledge! Apply your knowledge, skills, and abilities by actively engaging and putting them to practical use! Get to know your colleagues and their expertise through informational meetings. Learn about emerging and new priorities by attending seminars and grand rounds. Join a journal club or community of practice (COP) on a topic of interest. Register for some of the hundreds of training courses sponsored by the agency.

To be successful, you need to be adept at lifelong learning and understand that what you learn now may not be the same in the future – so you need to keep ahead of the curve. Make yourself as informed, well-rounded, and observant of the world as possible.

Make a Difference

The public sector exists to bring services to people, so those working as public servants should have a strong desire to work on behalf of others. As advocates for positive change, leaders in public service know that their positions come with a profound sense of duty. Every public servant has an important role to play, whether they serve as executives, administrators, project officers, program officials, medical officers, epidemiologists, health scientists, or statisticians.

Therefore, the best route to accountability is through public sector professionals who really dedicate themselves to making a difference. We need to invest in the people of our civil service system by developing their skills and strengthening their standards, so they understand the real importance of good governance and the critical role of accountability. The key to future, continued good governance and accountability lies in the way in which we recruit, train, develop, manage, and lead our future public servants. In the end, we are accountable to the citizens we serve.

Engage Others

Public service is not a solo exercise. It’s a team sport. If you want to make a difference in the public sector, you must be ready to include and engage others as part of your work. Think beyond your own organizational perspective and look at things from the viewpoint of our citizens, including (but not limited to) taxpayers, legislators, grantees (city, county, state, tribal, territorial health departments), voluntary and non-government organizations, other Federal agencies, and global partners.

I realized early in my career that the more connections one makes, the more opportunities present themselves. Public service (especially at CDC) is an area in which employees are encouraged to continuously develop professionally. Therefore, creating a wide-reaching professional network opens many doors, simply by establishing relationships with others.

At my agency, I advise participating in meetings scheduled by your immediate group of colleagues (supervisor, team leader, and branch chief), Division, Center, or Agency; employee organizations and associations (there are over 30); workgroups (there are 12); and/or other advisory groups, boards, committees, and councils (there are over 10). Get involved and put yourself out there!

Ultimately, it is entirely what you make of it: if you do not make the effort to develop professionally, your experience will not be as beneficial as it could be. With the right experience and research, you can change your life–and help others at the same time!

Robert Merritt is a graduate of Washington and Lee University, Emory University, and The University of the South (Sewanee) where he received academic training in sociology & anthropology, medical sociology, public health, and research methods & statistics.  His research career has spanned over 30 years with positions at the Smithsonian Institution (SI), Emory University, Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).  He is currently working as a health scientist in the Division for Heart Disease & Stroke Prevention (DHDSP) at CDC. 

Featured Image by Mukuko Studio on Unsplash

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