These days, Hollywood TV studios are making public service careers look intriguing through protagonists on shows likes Parks & Recreation, House of Cards, VEEP, and Rookie Blue. But what are these jobs really about? Here’s an exploration of some of the top public service positions as portrayed by your favorite Hollywood heroes (or villains, depending on your view), and what these careers actually look like in real life.


Position: Parks and Recreation Director

As Seen On: NBC’s Parks and Recreation

Parks and Recreation follows Leslie Knope (played by Amy Poehler), a deputy director in the Parks and Recreation Department of Pawnee, Ind. Leslie’s goal is to beautify her town and boost her career, all the while working alongside quirky public officials and stubborn citizens.

In Real Life: Directors in a parks and recreation department oversee the creation and maintenance of municipal recreational spaces. Parks and recreation directors are selected through a government hiring process, which can vary depending on location. Most cities require advanced degrees for director-level positions along with experience working in a city’s parks department and some management experience. A person in this position can expect responsibilities such as planning capital expenditures, preparing and presenting annual budgets, and managing project requests.

Degree That Could Get You There: Master of Public Administration



Position: Nonprofit Executive Director

As Seen On: Netflix’s House of Cards

Claire Underwood (played by Robin Wright) is the wife of U.S. Representative of South Carolina Francis Underwood (played by Kevin Spacey) in House of Cards. Claire is founder and CEO of the charitable organization, Clean Water Initiative, with a primary goal of improving her and her husband’s public image.  However, her business affairs are a tangle of shady nonprofit fundraising deals ripe with political intrigue.

In Real Life: Nonprofits and their fundraising activities are regulated by state and local governments. An executive director’s role is to oversee the operations of the organization. Executive directors report to a board of directors and can also be charged with board development. Many nonprofits require their executive directors to have an advanced degree, and candidates will find it helpful to have a broad background in program and people management as well as finance. Some larger organizations may require years of previous nonprofit experience with a proven track record of fundraising and growing organizations.

Degree That Could Get You There: Master of Public Administration in Nonprofit Management



Position: Chief of Staff

As Seen On: HBO’s Veep

Former U.S. Senator Selina Meyer (played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus) accepts the call to serve as Vice President of the United States, but realizes the job is nothing like she expected. The show follows the V.P. and her staff as they work to leave a legacy, while trying not to be taken down by the political games that define Washington. Anna Chlumsky plays Amy Brookheimer, the Vice President’s Chief of Staff. Often the only voice of reason in the room, Amy tries (and often fails) to salvage her boss’s credibility in one embarrassing situation after the next.

In Real Life: An executive-level chief of staff is often considered one of the most powerful positions in Washington, assisting the President or Vice President, overseeing the Executive Office staff, and managing information flow and communications. Most chiefs of staff are former politicians. An individual looking to pursue the position would need policy analysis, people management, and communication skills.

Degree That Could Get You There: Master of Public Administration in Public Policy and Governance



Position: Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) Agent

As Seen On: AMC’s Breaking Bad

Breaking Bad features DEA Special Agent Hank Schrader (portrayed by Dean Norris) as the brother-in-law of the show’s anti-hero, chemistry teacher-turned-drug lord Walter White (played by Bryan Cranston). Schrader is loud-mouthed, crass, and seemingly fearless to take on suspected criminals. In the first few seasons, Schrader puts on a tough, arrogant front, but by the end of the show, many of the situations he is faced with have left him vulnerable and disturbed.

In Real Life: Special agents with the DEA perform investigative and tactical operations anywhere in the world that drugs are being used, created, and sold. As federally commissioned law enforcement professionals, DEA agents make arrests and gather evidence for criminal cases. Since 2001, the DEA has adopted an aggressive strategy that inserts DEA agents into hostile organizations that use funds from narcotics sales to finance terrorist operations. DEA agents are among the federal government’s most highly qualified and comprehensively trained law enforcement professionals.

Degree That Could Get You There: Master’s in Criminal Justice



Position: Chief of Police

As Seen On: ABC’s Rookie Blue

A steamy police drama set in Toronto, Canada, Rookie Blue follows the lives of five rookie cops as they become police officers in the “real world” and face experiences that no amount of training could have prepared them for. In their high-stakes careers, even the smallest mistake can have deadly consequences.

In Real Life: For some police officers, chief of police is the pinnacle of a law enforcement career. Agencies hire in the spirit of service, not adventure, and look for individuals with problem-solving skills, integrity, and compassion. Officers are required to be U.S. citizens and are preferred to be over 21 years old. Minimum fitness and rigor requirements are expected, but vary from agency to agency, requiring prospects to take exams, physical tests, background testing, psychological testing and more. Rising to a chief of police position is often a next step for veteran command officers who have shown leadership and management abilities, hold minimum of a bachelor’s degree in a related field of study and preferably a master’s degree, as well. They are expected to have administrative, investigative, and patrol experience, and some agencies prefer the applicant has held the rank one level below the chief within that agency.

Degree That Could Get You There: Doctor of Public Administration or PhD in Criminal Justice



Position: Correctional Administrator

As Seen On: Netflix’s Orange is the New Black

The show follows Piper Chapman (played by Taylor Schilling), a woman in her 30s who is sentenced to 15 months in minimum-security women’s prison for a drug crime committed years earlier. Along the way, she makes friends and forms relationships with many eccentric and unusual fellow inmates and prison staff who don’t always follow the rules.

In Real Life: Orange is the New Black doesn’t quite give the full—or accurate—picture of a correctional administrator’s role. Primary responsibilities often include managing the prison’s budget and personnel and ensuring the safety of the facility, staff, and inmates. As a result, a correctional administrator (also called a warden) typically needs an education and background that includes employee management, financial management, security, as well as criminology.

Degree That Could Get You There: Bachelor’s in Criminal Justice


Hollywood often makes public service careers appear humorous or glamorous.  But those who have committed themselves to public service know that the real value and appeal of the job is in serving—protecting and shaping their communities to be better and safer places to live.


Learn more about Capella University’s online public service degrees.

* Disclaimer