The allure of public service led many of us to come to Washington and to Georgetown. After graduating from college way back in the Precambrian Era, I joined the United States government with a vague goal of doing good.
After a few twists and turns, I ended up working on foreign policy and found a passion that has continued ever since. Years later, I was lucky enough to find a job at Georgetown where I could teach students interested in public service in all its forms.
I have always urged my students to consider joining the government regardless of whether or not a Democrat or Republican was in office. But the unfortunate reality is that politics does and should affect students’ decisions on a career in public service. After the election of Donald Trump, I have never heard as many students voice concerns about joining the government.
A number of students flatly disagree with the president-elect’s policies and values, while others worry that his various pronouncements, such as calls for a hiring freeze or angry tweets at the intelligence community, will make joining and working for the government impossible and even nightmarish.
Yet even if students object strongly to the policies and principles of a new administration, public service is still an honorable path they should seriously consider — with a few caveats.
Much depends on where students hope to work. For example, if a student is opposed to Trump’s calls to deport migrants without documentation, he or she should not seek work in the Departments of Justice nor Homeland Security that might manage such a program.
As with any job, students should also focus on who might be their immediate boss. This particular figure may prove decisive in shielding employees from a politicized environment or perhaps could even make the problem worse.
Graduates who are unsure of entering public service should remember a bit of good news: When you take a job in government, you will usually begin your career at, or near, the bottom of the ladder. You will initially have little say over the big, morally fraught decisions, where senior officials will bear the personal culpability.
Indeed, most new graduates will spend some time learning their craft as new hires relegated to minor issues or placed under heavy supervision. As they prove themselves, they will spread their wings — but that will take time.
What this means is that you will be better positioned for a more substantive and senior job in four years, when a new administration may enter. In fact, if bright young men and women do not enter government now, there will be a lack of mid-level talent in years to come with potentially disastrous results for America.
Trump, like any incoming leader, probably has not made up his mind on many issues, and he needs good counsel to make the best decisions. If you believe many of his policies are misguided, then, like many presidents before him, he may make a midcourse correction to salvage what he can. It is vital to have people, such as Georgetown graduates, ready to critically evaluate current policy, offer alternatives and implement them properly.
Finally, as I hope you have learned at Georgetown, the government is not just the president. We have already seen in confirmation hearings important figures such as the secretary of defense and secretary of state nominees assume stances that differ markedly from other presidential advisors and Trump’s own remarks on the campaign trail. It remains unclear whose views will win out, but policy is likely to reflect a mix of views, not just those that receive the most headlines.
Many of you who oppose Trump’s agenda may still have legitimate concerns about your role in a new administration. I would urge you to think hard about what you would not be willing to do and the conditions under which you would resign. Write them down. Share them with friends. And then look them over from time to time to make sure you have not crossed your own red lines. No one knows what the future will hold, and you should be prepared to leave as well as to serve.
Daniel Byman is the Senior Associate Dean of the School of Foreign Service. FROM THE DEAN’S DESK appears every other Friday.
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