Is a career in politics right for me?
Since the end of America’s recent presidential election, the number of people expressing interest in running for public office has sharply increased. According to Fortune, Emily’s List, a political action committee that helps Democratic, pro-choice women get elected, received over 4,000 inquiries from women seeking assistance running for office. Nearly half of those requests – 1,660, to be exact – were received since Jan. 20. Meanwhile, The Washington Post profiled a newly formed organization named 314 Action that aims to encourage scientists to run for office and help them get elected.
The recent election made clear the chaos that surrounds a political career. Yet despite the hours, media scrutiny and stress, many people are driven to seek office by a desire to better their communities.
Here’s how to determine if a career in politics is right for you:
Qualities of a successful politician
Possessing the following characteristics is essential for exceeding in the world of politics:
Between meetings, hearings, fundraisers and emergencies, politicians often work more than 40 hours per week. The increase in activity begins on the campaign trail – a potential candidate’s day is full of interviews, speeches, rallies and organizing events. It doesn’t let up once elected to office. Furthermore, no two weeks are the same. It’s possible to have a few days of relative normalcy followed by a flurry of meetings, news crews and long hours.
Much of a politician’s job entails advocating for or against certain policies. A city legislator might argue for new laws regarding traffic violations, while a school superintendent might have to appeal for an expanded budget. Both situations require a person communicate their cases effectively, whether in writing or when speaking aloud.
Politicians must frequently speak before an audience in closed-door meetings, town halls, press conferences and interviews. They must be able to think quickly on their feet, speak clearly and coherently, and respond to questions without being easily flustered. New politicians don’t have to be the world’s most eloquent speechwriters, but they do need to be able to deliver a message that resonates strongly with their listeners.
One could argue a politician cannot be successful without strong leadership skills. Even if they aren’t running the country, most are responsible for a group of citizens or an individual team. As leaders, they must be able to prioritize, delegate assignments and, most importantly, inspire others to action.
Interestingly, a politician’s leadership skills often come across as narcissism. According to an older study referenced by Psychology Today, although politicians tend to score higher on the Narcissistic Personality Inventory than university faculty, clergy or librarians, their results were largely due to their high marks in leadership. When it came to the other narcissistic traits – exploitativeness, superiority and self-absorption – politicians weren’t statistically different from the other groups.
According to data from the Network of Schools of Public Policy, Affairs and Administration, 45 percent of graduates from an NASPAA-accredited program found a job in government within six months of graduation. These positions spanned federal and local levels, and a small amount of students even found government careers internationally.
Positions in this field range from executive offices to department administrators. Below are just a few of the political careers available to MPA graduates and the major skills they require:
Effective legislators aren’t shy about meeting with citizens. Rather, they welcome the chance to get to know the people in their districts, learning their concerns and figuring out what’s important to them. A legislator’s job is to represent his or her constituents – individuals, businesses and groups – especially when it comes to creating laws and public policy. In a way, legislators are political advocates, arguing for or against decisions that affect their districts.
Because of the demands to meet with constituents, legislators must be great time managers and communicators. Their schedules are often packed, but responding to constituents – especially at local levels – is part of the job description. As such, legislators must remain organized and have active listening skills.
Being a legislator does require some independent research. They must weigh both side of an issue, not just the arguments presented by constituents or lobbyists. However, their ultimate responsibility is to the former, not the latter.
There are several positions available under legislators, although they vary from office to office. Some of the most common are:
- Chiefs of staff
- Legislative assistants, correspondents and directors.
- Press secretaries.
Like legislators, analysts exist in all areas of government. Their primary job is to assess the rules, protocols and processes of government offices for inefficiencies and suggest areas for improvement.
To do their job well, analysts rely less on the opinions of constituents and more on knowledge of history, statistics, research budgeting, public policy and management. They must be critical thinkers, adept problem solvers and well-versed in the way governments operate.
City managers are hired by the city council rather than elected by the public. Their job description entails supervising all of the community’s operations and administrative processes, making sure everything runs efficiently and effectively. In this way, a manager’s job is similar to a government analyst’s. However, managers work on a smaller scale and are less focused on identifying and solving problems.
A good city manager is able to multitask and oversee many different operations at once. He or she understands transportation, parks, schools, zoning and any other part of the city that involves the public. In addition, a manager often takes the role of liaison between elected officials and the public.
MPA students hoping to begin a political career should obtain their degree from an institution that provides a wide variety of rich resources in addition to a great curriculum. Rutgers offers numerous tools that allow students to expand their education and pursue their dreams of public administration.
The Virtual Museum of Public Service, sponsored by the Rutgers-Newark School of Public Affairs and Administration, is an online experience designed to inspire visitors and display the field’s rich history.
The Center for American Women and Politics, a member of Rutgers’ Institute for Women’s Leadership, is a research institution designed to track and analyze information about women’s participation in politics. CAWP offers numerous educational and outreach opportunities designed to encourage gender diversity in the public sector. The center also provides its own list of resources for aspiring politicians.
In addition, the SPAA hosts, sponsors and appears at numerous public service and administration conferences around the world.
The online Master of Public Administration from Rutgers School of Public Affairs and Administration (SPAA) gives students a broad understanding of the field and its relevant issues. Students become competent at defining public problems, analyzing quantitative and qualitative data, developing and communicating creative solutions, and implementing ethical and practical courses of action.