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In the hierarchy of government employees, there are the presidential appointees, and then there are those in the Senior Executive Service (SES). In 1978, the Civil Service Reform Act created this tier of public service workers to “ensure that the executive management of the Government of the United States is responsive to the needs, policies, and goals of the Nation and otherwise is of the highest quality.” 

As such, SES-level staffers work as the liaison between presidential employees and the rest of the government workforce. To earn such a prestigious role in the country’s civil service, a candidate has to fulfil five major qualifications, as delineated by the U.S. Office of Personnel Management.

You must meet the following criteria: 

  • Leading change both inside and out of a government organization, through creative and strategic thinking.
  • Leading people to achieve the department’s goals, defuse conflicts and build a team of diverse, highly qualified employees.
  • Results-driven and versed in skills such as customer service, entrepreneurship, technical knowledge and problem-solving. 
  • Business-minded with expertise in human, financial and technology management.
  • A coalition-builder, working with other branches of the federal government, as well as state and local offices, to achieve your department’s goals. 

But applicants don’t just need to demonstrate skills in these five areas. To climb the ranks and achieve an SES position, you have to start your career in government early — even while you’re still earning an undergraduate degree. That planning should, of course, include internships and job experiences you have while you study. Of course, what you study can have a bearing on your future as a member of the SES, too. Consider these majors to pave the way for you in your federal government career.

What Should I Study to Join the SES? 

There’s no one answer to this question — it takes the right studies and work-experiences to push you to the rank of the SES. However, you can set yourself up for success by focusing on one of these subjects. You might notice some overlap between these courses of study and those required for a political career, and that’s no mistake. You want to make your career in public service and leadership, too, so it makes sense that you’d be learning the same as the nation’s future politicians. 

Start your quest to join the SES by studying one of the following six fields:

1. Political Science

You can align your studies to many of the must-have qualities of an SES member by studying political science. Through your education, you’ll learn how to cultivate relationships within the government and with international entities.

Plus, you’ll sharpen your knowledge of political theory and public policy-making. All this will leave you with a deep understanding of how the government works, the information you’ll need to know as you rise through the ranks of the public sector to become a member of the SES.

2. History

History repeats itself — we have all heard this phrase, and we’ve even seen it to be true. If you want to work for the government, you will succeed by learning about its past first. So, study up on the theoretical frameworks that led Americans to build the institution in which you want to work.

Learning about the foundation of other countries’ governments could help shape new ideas about ours, as well. History majors also learn about other cultures and social attitudes, which can help fulfil the diverse requirement of an SES candidate. Finally, a history degree will require plenty of critical thinking, which you’ll need in any career path, but especially in the public sector. 

3. Business Administration

So much of business administration goes hand in hand with a career in the SES. For one thing, you’ll learn to manage people and delegate to them. On top of that, business majors can whip out statistics and management models that would help guide a government department. Plus, to be successful in business, you have to be a clear communicator, both when you speak and when you write. This skill would be vital as a government leader, too. 

4. Computer Science

A degree in computer science could set you up for a high-paying career, including a role in the SES. Your studies will translate well into a government career, especially if you take cybersecurity or a management-minded approach to your studies.

You will emerge with a data-centric way of solving problems, which will serve you so well in the public sector. Plus, it’s never a bad idea to master modern technological advances that can make your job easier.

5. Economics

As an economics major, you’ll learn all about money — who has it, how it gets transferred to others and how people consume and spend it. This knowledge will only help you when you enter the SES. You can provide smart insight as you help to create government policies.

Plus, you’re likely to be a logical leader with good management skills, thanks to your studies in economics. 

6. Public Administration

This degree might be the most aligned to a career in the SES. That’s because a course in public administration will show you how to succeed in the public sector. You’ll learn how to organize your department, analyze its progress and manage it for continued success.

Plus, you’ll learn a bit of political theory along the way to further stoke your career in the government.

Public Building-SES Career Path

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What Level of Education Must I Reach?

There’s no one-size-fits-all educational plan when it comes to the SES. You don’t necessarily need to go beyond your bachelor’s degree to get this position, but some jobs may require you to do so to achieve your goal. 

Of course, a bachelor’s is the base-level degree required for a career in government. Right out of college, then, such a credential will be sufficient to get you an entry-level job in the public sector. However, with time, you might want to consider studying for your master’s as well. Many high-ranking government employees have additional degrees beyond their first diploma. Plus, you can use your master’s to set you apart from other SES applicants. To that end, you can use your impressive resume to negotiate for better benefits and pay once you reach the SES. 

You don’t need to go beyond a master’s to join the SES, but you shouldn’t turn away from studying a doctorate if you want to. Such a degree could help you hone your knowledge and skills if your original course of study didn’t quite align with this career path. 

Why Would I Want to Work at SES? 

For most in the public sector, it’s natural to want to work for the government and give back to the world around them. However, the SES and other public-sector jobs come with a slew of practical perks that could further sway you to go for it. 

For one thing, government employees have the most health care packages to choose from of any U.S. Worker. They receive generous retirement plans, too, with pensions to sustain you throughout your non-working years.

You can rest assured your job in the government will likely remain secure. Even in times of economic shifts and downturns, public-sector positions tend to endure — it’s uncommon for government departments to conduct sweeping layoffs. Surprisingly, government workers tend to receive higher pay, too, which makes their job security even sweeter. 

Plenty of public-sector employees laud the fact that the government gives them flexible hours, which means they can choose when they start and end their workdays. This flexibility promotes a better work-life balance for them, which means they’re happier both inside and out of work. 

Enough time-SES Career Path

Finally, the government provides its employees with countless other benefits that make working in the country even more lucrative. You could earn a bonus for helping the public sector recruit new employees, for instance. Or, you might get cash for moving from one city to another to fill a government post. The government will often repay its employees’ student loans, and they provide plenty of continuing education opportunities — you could get your master’s degree to pursue an SES career through such a program. 

Some difficulties are sure to come with an SES role or any other public-sector job, for that matter. Some staffers complain it’s hard to climb the ranks, and there aren’t many positions at the top. The same is true of many departments and jobs, including that of the SES. However, you might find it worth the wait to achieve the high-ranking leadership role you’re considering now. 

Start Now, Join the SES Later

Ultimately, a job in the government means you’re helping make the nation better and improving the lives of everyone living here. If you make it into the SES, you’ll have an even more hands-on role in contributing to your country. 

But you have to start somewhere, and that somewhere might be your college degree. So, choose wisely — the above courses of study will give you the tools you need to be a knowledgeable leader down the line. Once you have the right academic foundation, there will be no stopping you in your public-sector career. And, one day, you could very well rise to the level of the SES.


Written By
Alyssa Abel is an education writer specializing in student life and academia. She writes on everything from college and career prep to K-12 methodologies and educator resources. Follow her updates on her website Syllabusy

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