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Rising Stars: City-Government Champion

By Sarah Shapiro

Despite his fantastic experience as a philosophy major, Patrick didn't get into the grad school that he was sure was his next step. He applied for a receptionist role at his hometown mayor's office. Within 3 months he was the mayor's Communications Director--on duty morning, noon, and night and making a difference in his local community.

Name: Patrick Thronson
School: Harvard
Major: Philosophy
Years Out of College: 2-5
Title: Communications Director
Company: Salt Lake City Mayor's Office
First Steps

"Immediately after graduating from college, I worked as the development director for a small non-profit, mentoring organization in Boston. I was somewhat tired of the Boston area and of asking for money for a living (even though the organization is truly remarkable), so I moved back to Salt Lake City, where I grew up. One month after moving back, I applied for a job as a constituent liaison and receptionist at the Salt Lake City Mayor's Office. I did this job for about one month before becoming the personal assistant to the mayor, managing his schedule and correspondence. Three months later, Mayor Rocky Anderson appointed me to be his communications director, a position which I've held for just over one year. I expect to continue in this position until the mayor leaves office in early 2008."

"My workplace, like many in the public sector, tries to hire from within to the greatest extent possible, since government work often requires detailed policy knowledge and extensive prior experience in communicating with the public. By initially taking a job that was not my first choice, and did not fully engage my interests, I was able to prove my abilities and take on a more engaging and fulfilling role."

Challenges Faced

"One of the largest challenges I faced was adjusting to a work environment where I am always on call. I am essentially on duty morning, noon, and night, every day of the week, for the mayor, city personnel, and the media. This can lead to a state of mind where I never feel like I've left the office, so I have to force myself to put my Blackberry down and take a hike up the canyons or see friends. On the other hand, I'm in the thick of many exciting events, and am never bored with what I do. I have an extremely low tolerance for boring environments, so the excitement of my job is a great gift."

My Experience

As the communications director for the mayor of Salt Lake City, Patrick says: "One of the more appealing aspect of my job is its variety and unpredictability. It is almost useless to plan my week ahead of time, since what I intend to work on at the beginning of a given week is generally not what I end up pursuing as the week progresses. Politics and city government operate on a different time scale than other pursuits, with tight deadlines consistently cropping up in a totally unexpected manner. As someone not inclined to routines, this works well for me."

"The most appealing aspect of my job, however, is being able to shape policies that actually make a difference in people's lives, and communicate these initiatives to the public in a manner that appeals to people of many different political persuasions. City government is where the rubber meets the road, where the policies pursued generally have a much larger impact on people's everyday lives than policies pursued at a state and federal level. I work for a mayor who is more of an activist than a politician, which makes for an atypical, extraordinarily fulfilling work environment."

"Many of my classmates and peers are interested in working in politics at a national level, but few are interested in politics at a local level. This makes sense, to a degree: national politics is often driven by debates about the big issues, about the identity of our country, the role of government, and our place in the world. These debates matter deeply, as the answers we give to these questions influence the way elected officials at every level make certain policy decisions."

"There are so many initiatives that can be pursued, however, without becoming embroiled in large political discussions or acrimony over wedge issues. People of all political stripes can support initiatives that actually increase the quality of life in our communities, such as increased energy efficiency, better planning for growth, cleaner air, enhanced economic development in underserved neighborhoods, or approaches to criminal justice that seek to address the root causes of crime, rather than focusing solely on expensive, wasteful punishment. Exploring and debating the big issues is vitally important, and the national stage has an inescapable appeal. However, we also need to ensure we don't lose focus on concretely improving our own communities."

Next Steps

"I began as a pre-med major, but switched to philosophy. I had the intellectual experience of a lifetime with my major, which constantly challenged and altered the way I thought about the world. Philosophy is one of the great loves of my life, and I continue to pursue it in whatever way I can."

"So, naturally, I thought that graduate school was the only path for me. Despite solid grades, test scores, and recommendations, I wasn't accepted to any of the nine schools to which I applied. (The reason given by a few schools was that I did not have a recommendation from a tenured philosophy professor--I had recommendations from an a graduate student, an associate professor in philosophy, and two tenured professors in other fields.)"

"I was incredibly disappointed by this setback, but it ultimately served me well. It gave me the opportunity to take a break from school and gain some valuable work experience. I also stopped thinking of academia as the only thing I was capable of doing, or the only thing that mattered. Finally, I realized I could use skills gained by majoring in philosophy in other fields. The writing and analytic skills I gained, as well as my coursework in political philosophy, have been great assets in my current position."

Advice for Others

"Some university environments encourage a particular cast of mind where graduate school, the major professions, or work for a non-profit are the only options for employment of which people can conceive. My experience as a grad-school reject allowed me to realize there are great places to work besides those often touted by professors and students."

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