How to Apply for a Federal Job: A Toolkit for Scientists

September 21, 2021 | 10:00 am
'Find Job' post-it notePhoto:
Jacob Carter
Former Contributor

Today we released a toolkit to help early- and mid-career scientists navigate the application process for federal jobs. The Biden administration has signaled an increase in job opportunities across the federal government, many of which we hope fill the thousands of scientific positions lost during the past four years. We also hope that the administration sticks to its commitment to create a workforce more closely resembling the US as many from underrepresented communities have historically been left out of federal science positions.

I must admit that I am personally happy to see this toolkit available. As a graduate student, a career in the federal government was not discussed often and resources for navigating the government application process were sparse at midwestern universities. When applying to internships and fellowships, I was often left in the dark or found myself using resources maintained by universities within the Washington, DC beltway. If you are a graduate student in a similar position I hope that this toolkit provides you some light.

Why should I apply for a federal job?

There are so many answers to this question and I think each largely depends on what matters to you. But here are some reasons why I, and others, have found holding positions in the federal government a rewarding experience.

The application of science to inform policy to better protect public health, safety, and the health of our environment is incredibly rewarding. I really enjoyed conducting research as a graduate student and publishing my work, but I am one scientist who really enjoys seeing science applied to public policy. For me, and many others, it is rewarding to see a policy formed with scientific evidence at its core that you can see has an impact on communities across the country.

The federal government offers great benefits and pay can certainly be competitive – average government salaries are competitive with both the private and nonprofit sectors. Federal government benefits such as health insurance, retirement, and vacation can be superior to many private and nonprofit positions. Some federal positions may even help to pay off your student loan debt.

Federal jobs allow you to move around – across the country or within the government. I’ve heard multiple federal employees say that one of the most rewarding benefits of a federal position is the ability to move around the federal government and work on multiple projects – you’re not stuck in the same position forever unless that’s where you want to be! You also won’t be stuck in Washington, DC if you were thinking it – nearly 85% of federal jobs are located outside of the nation’s capital and thousands of employees work abroad.

Federal job applications are unique

Some aspects of applying to federal jobs are unique in comparison to the process for applying to positions in the private and nonprofit sectors. Maybe most unique is the portal that you will have to use to find most federal job postings, develop your resume, and send in all your application materials –

You may have heard that USAjobs is not the most user-friendly webpage of all time, so we have provided some tips and guidance in the toolkit to help you navigate the site. One of those tips is that you should create a master searchable resume so hiring authorities can seek you out as a candidate, but also so you can use this resume to create others on USAjobs that are more tailored for specific positions (it’ll save you time, trust me).

Another unique aspect of applying to federal positions is the search. While you may apply to positions in private and nonprofit sectors that you may not entirely qualify for, you’ll want to apply to government positions where you fit most of the position’s qualifications. Government positions are very competitive, and many receive hundreds and hundreds of applications. It is therefore important to tailor your cover letter and resume and detail how you fit most of the skill and experiences sought out in the job description posted.

Anything else I should know?

There is a lot more advice and guidance in our toolkit that I encourage you to read. Additionally, check out our appendix for a list of other helpful resources including internship and fellowship positions that can allow you to get your feet wet and help you figure out whether a federal government position is right for you. You can also join us for a Twitter chat on October 4th, 2-3pm EST where current and former federal scientists discuss what it’s like to hold such positions – follow @SciNetUCS on Twitter for the latest. Also seek out folks in your network who have had experience and talk with them – some of the best career advice I’ve ever received have come from friends and family.

The expertise of scientists is greatly needed across the federal government. Our world is still dealing with a deadly pandemic, facing the worst effects of a climate crisis, and will need to tackle other science-based issues like antibiotic resistance or the decline of pollinators in due time. There is so much work to be done and no more time to wait. The Biden administration cannot simply work toward a scientific workforce similar to that of prior administrations – it is time to boost science capacity to deal with the serious and timely issues at-hand.