Monday, March 4, 2013

A terribly interesting guide to USAjobs

From this week's C&EN, a fascinating little letter on USAjobs (emphases mine):
Regarding “Defense Research: Recruitment, management overhaul needed to prevent scientist shortage” (C&EN, Nov. 5, 2012, page 11), I’m happy to see federal employment highlighted as an option for ACS members. I feel compelled, however, to share my experiences so others are more informed about the hiring process for federal employment. 
First, many positions posted on USAJobs, the federal government’s official job list, are geared toward either a specific person already working for the recruiting agency or a contractor working for that agency. Despite rules requiring a competitive hiring process, the position descriptions are written to fit specific candidates. This practice excludes ~98% of candidates from consideration, although exceptions are made for “status candidates,” such as veterans, laid-off federal employees, military spouses, or disabled persons. 
To be a real contender for any scientific position, you must have a large body of previous experience, and you must write your résumé so that it matches your experience to the description verbatim. For recent graduates, this means it is next to impossible to get hired without a “recent grads” opening or exceptional luck. 
Next, pay close attention to the announcement details: “series and grade” and “promotion potential.” In the federal system, Ph.D. graduates fall in the GS-11 to -13 series; master’s, GS-7 to -11, and bachelor’s, GS-5 to -9. To move past your maximum promotion potential, your supervisor and the human resources department must post a new job opening on USAJobs and go through the “competitive hiring process.” Some supervisors see no incentive to do this, and they are not required to do so. 
Additionally, unless you can clearly and conclusively show that your experience matches the position, don’t waste your time applying for jobs above GS-11 if you’re not already working in the federal government. Positions posted at GS-12 to -15 require “a year of experience at the next lower grade level.” Typically, there is no substitute for this federal experience. Applicants should read that as, “This is someone’s promotion.” 
As for the 37.6% of the Department of Defense’s scientific labor force being eligible for retirement, they’re likely the last vestiges of people covered by the Civil Service Retirement System (CSRS). Under CSRS, employees try to work for 43 years to reach their maximum pension. CSRS was phased out in 1986; those who were hired then are likely to stick around for another 16 years so they can collect the nearly 90% salary annuity given under CSRS. 
Richard Helmich
Lakewood, Colo.
If I was President for a day, my 2nd executive order would be to demand that USAjobs be written in plain English, rather than Federalese. It'll never happen.


  1. The Aqueous LayerMarch 4, 2013 at 11:36 AM

    The outplacement firm that we were placed with a few years ago had a 2h class in applying for jobs with the Federal Government. It's tricky, for sure. If you don't give all the information required you aren't asked to fill in the gaps, your application gets whacked, basically. Even submitting your credentials through formal sites like the FBI or CIA (both of which I did), you tend never to hear back unless they are interested (they were not)...

    If you get frustrated by the lack of communication from the private sector job openings, the ones for the Federal Government are typically worse.

  2. I guess I'm just an old cynic, because I had no idea that there were people who didn't already know this.

    Additionally, many of the jobs posted are geared toward a specific federal employee (in the same or a related agency) working in a different department than the one the job is posted in, aka the infamous "Sideways Promotion."

    Bottom line: Unless you already have an "in" with the Feds, the best you can hope for with USAJobs is a bottom-rung position and the opportunity to wait for someone to die so you can move up in the ranks.

  3. I don't think all of these tips apply to every agency. The FDA hires at GS-12, for example. However, a lot of the jobs are filled by "knowing someone" just like they are in the private sector.

    1. EVERY and I mean EVERY opening I have seen in the last 2 years outside of DC at 12+ has only been for "current FDA employees".

    2. I am a current FDA employee and we hire people from outside, with no connections, all the time. That may be more true on the regulatory side than the research side though.

  4. I had a federal research job prior to grad school. This was "back in a day" when there were loads of jobs for BS/BA noobs and I lived very close to an agency. I'm no longer employed by Uncle Sam but there are things I've noticed while applying for jobs (before getting the awesomesauce one I currently have):

    1. Pay very close attention to the acronyms. Federal job ads are full of them. NTE, means the term of the job is not to exceed that amount of time. Usually 1-2 years. They're not kidding. It's routine for post-docs to have to find new labs at the end of their NTE term.

    2. If you know someone in the agency ask them to refer you. While I didn't get a job this way, I was confirmed to be in the running for several. That's more progress than I made otherwise.

    3. Do not expect a GS11 with a newly minted PhD, unless you got that PhD while working in government. It could happen, but if it does consider yourself a lottery winner or something. And don't forget there are within-grade steps. Jumping grades with each year of service does happen, but it slows down the higher your grade. Generally by the time you're a 9 or 11, depending on how you entered the gov't, you're hopping in-grade steps instead.

    4. With the sequester all those "standing" job openings that you see on some federal websites do not represent actual openings. Send in an app if you've got time to spare, but don't expect a response.

    5. It is possible to get those GS12+ jobs but you pretty much have to have been a CEO, university president, superhero, or something similar...and they have to have been actively recruiting you.

    6. Landing a gov't job is no longer a secure job. At least when I started working there in the 90s we had a 2 year provisional period with permanent jobs. We could be dismissed at any time during that period. And retirement is now the Thrift Savings Program, which functions exactly like a 401K. Health insurance is just like at any other job. Most plans are 80/20 PPOs.

    7. On a positive note, every single job I applied to on USAJobs sent me a response. And they notified me when my application was actually being reviewed by hiring officials and advancing through the process. This was A LOT more feedback than I ever received from any other job ad. It would have been nice for industry employers to do something similar and just let me know I was out-right rejected instead of answering my apps with silence.

    1. All very accurate except for #3. Typical starting point for Ph.D.s in the GOV is GS-11, unless you apply for something lower. The thing that people with doctorates need to look out for is the openings that cap at GS-11. If you hire into a job at 11 and it tops out at 11,'re stuck until they post a GS-12 for you. As I said in my letter, this isn't guaranteed nor required. This is exactly the situation that I currently find myself. Just looking to help people avoid my mistake.

  5. So you think it's less important than sending a drone to the ACS Headquaters?

  6. CoulombicExplosionMarch 4, 2013 at 2:13 PM

    Your sign-off does beg the question - "What would be CJ's first executive order as POTUSA-for-a-day?"

    1. Metric on pain of death, I would presume.

  7. I’d like to add a few more pointers to deciphering federal job announcements on

    1. If it says that there one vacancy for the position, then carefully read the rest of the announcement. This is a sign that they are already reserving the opening for someone. Especially if the job description is overly detailed, AND if the description includes things that only a government employee would do, such as reviewing regulatory documents or advising government officials, arranging meeting between federal and private stakeholders, etc.

    2. Whatever the job announcement says, go on and carefully read the questionnaire that usually has to be filled out for the application. There is generally a link somewhere in the ‘how to apply’ page to all the questions. Again, if these are overly detailed and appear to be geared towards a specific resume, then they’ve either already picked out the person who will be getting the job, or they are restricting the candidate pool to persons who are/recently were interns, post-docs, fellows or contractors for that agency.

    3. On the other hand, if the announcement says that there are ‘few’ or ‘many’ openings, than these probably are true openings that someone outside the government has a chance to get. Especially if the rest of the announcement is not overly detailed. I have seen people get these jobs who had no government experience or connections.

    4. I do agree that announcements for GS 12 and above are more likely than not to be either for current government employees or for people with some connection with that agency, such as a post doc or contractor. GS 9-11, on the other hand, are a lot more likely to be open to the public.

    5. If you do apply, absolutely describe your experience using the EXACT wording in the job description. It’s not because a computer is scanning for keywords – it’s because an HR person, one most likely without a college degree, will be scanning your resume and deciding if your application will be moving onto the next stage.

    All this being said, I do wonder why there are occasional notices on the ACS job board for federal jobs. About a year ago, I had an absolutely bizarre experience to do with a federal job that appeared on that site. But that is a post for another time.

  8. The patent office has been hiring very aggressively at the entry level, but not so much for chemists. Though not mentioned in the usajobs ads, chemists essentially need to have a PhD with extensive post-doctoral, industrial, or other specialized experience. There are a lot of former Pfizer employees with some serious credentials floating around, amongst others. And to echo an above point, the resume is key; once the resume is formatted to get past HR, an offer is all but guaranteed. But the patent office is about the production. Either one does the job quickly and well or one is terminated within the probationary year.

  9. "Typically, there is no substitute for this federal experience"

    That can be interpreted in a myriad of ways....

  10. Most of what is written there is not generally true for all agencies. It is most likely true for DOD--sounds like that is what the letter writer is familiar with--but not generally true of other agencies.

    It is emphatically not true that GS12 is for internal candidates only. Damn near every scientist I am familiar with at my agency came in from outside at GS12. That's the standard scientist hire. GS11 is, basically, the equivalent of a new PhD (a postdoc position), GS12 is a PhD with postdoc experience (like Assistant Prof) and is wide open to external candidates if you know how to craft the resume, which is the key. You certainly don't need to "have a large body of previous experience" other than what is typical of a PhD w/ postdoc but you do have to know how to craft your resume to the description.

    That said, if you are trying for DOD or one of the similar agencies (DHS) don't bother if you don't have veterans status. You will never make it past the screen because there are so many people with a science background who are also veterans. Try to get into one of the other agencies and then perform a lateral move later via an internal search.

    For bachelor's holders, this is how it works (I've banged my head against the wall with HR people over some recent hires, so I know): It is true that GS 5-9 is the level you come in at (usually technician positions), but if you're going to apply for any position and you are not currently in the government--to have any shot in hell at it, you need to craft your resume and application to be "qualified" by dumb as rocks HR people at the GS-6 level. Again, this is because at the GS-5 level there is always a veteran or two who lock up the field because they get preference. Preference means we must offer the job to the veteran over anyone else with the same qualifications. It doesn't matter if there are 90 other applicants at the same level, if there is a veteran in there, they must be offered the job and there is always a veteran at GS-5 level. Always. GS-5 is basically the "you have a bachelors" level, no experience. Once HR has sorted people into GS-5 you're done--it is death and in the govt there is absolutely nothing that the hiring person can do override HR's judgment.

    Here's the thing, GS-6 is the "you have 1 year of experience post bachelors" or "you have taken 3 graduate courses" level. Basically, anyone with 1 year of experience doing any science related work post degree should qualify at GS-6, but most people don't. This is where people get in trouble not crafting their resumes correctly. It's easy for HR people to qualify candidates with graduate coursework for GS-6 because it is on the transcripts. But it is rare that people who have experience (even years!) in the private sector get qualified at GS-6 because they didn't write their resume the way HR drones want it. You need to look at the specific expertise required and then "prove" to HR people that you have at least 1 year experience "post bachelors" for each item on your resume. I could write about this in detail--but for example, one of the "abilities" that HR requires standard for all technician hires in our agency is something like "Ability to use computers for statistical data analysis..." Now there hasn't been a person who has graduated with a science degree in the last 20 years or so that doesn't at least know Excel or Sigmaplot or something equivalent. This is standard right? But you see if you don't prove that you have 1 year of experience at this "post degree", you get knocked into GS-5 level (death) rather than GS-6. Since probably 90% of resumes have things like software expertise listed under the "other information" category, all of those get knocked out by the HR drones and we can't talk to them.

    1. This is true. I interned in a gov lab, applied for a job after BS. Went for interview, found out wasn't really an interview, rather an opportunity for my supervisor to educate me about how fucked the gov system of hiring is currently. Some HR person with no experience in the field what so ever (literally people can't pronounce the words in the ad) evaluates and scores the apps, and then forwards the top X% to the hiring personel.

      Like you mentioned, there are tons of vets at GS-5, and God bless them for their service, but it frustrates supervisors when they can't hire the best person for the job.

      The advice I got was similar to what has been said: just copy all the requirements for the job and say, verbatim, that you did X,Y, and Z. I was told to list I knew ow to use Word. In 2010. Yeah....

    2. Yep! Spot on!

      And no, what I wrote wasn't true for ALL agencies. Every agency is different, but broadly speaking, from my experience being hired and now applying for other jobs with other agencies, I think I gave readers a broadly insightful picture into how GOV/USAJobs hiring works, i.e. its dirty and broken.

      I hadn't known any newly minted Ph.D. to be hired in as a 12 until a recent application I had with the EPA, since typically the genius HR-peeps take the year of experience at the next lower grade level very literally VERY often. This was much to my chagrin having currently served 2 years as an 11.

  11. "7. On a positive note, every single job I applied to on USAJobs sent me a response. And they notified me when my application was actually being reviewed by hiring officials and advancing through the process. This was A LOT more feedback than I ever received from any other job ad. It would have been nice for industry employers to do something similar and just let me know I was out-right rejected instead of answering my apps with silence. "

    This is true. In fact, I even had two separate hiring officials call me to let me know that I was the most qualified candidate for a job, but that they were required to fill the position internally. (USGS and USACE, several years ago, if anyone cares.)

  12. Are the agencies REQUIRED to interview a certain number of people? For example, if they post a "this is someone's promotion" job, must they also interview the top external applicants? Or some token women or minorities? I was just asked to schedule a phone interview with an agency for which the job ad seems to be someone's promotion. It's hard to tell if it's a waste of time or a real chance.

    1. If you applied to a 'US Citizens' opening and are getting an interview it means you're likely 1 of 3 top candidates. Good luck, you're at the very last stage before you get an offer. Managers are not required to interview a given number of applicants, they only have to justify why they disqualify someone. Often the first person they interview will get an offer if they show they are a good fit socially, and have the skills to do the job.

  13. One last bit that I wasn't able to include in my letter is that the qualifications of anyone selected for and accepts a position with the GOV is open to requests under the Freedom of Information Act. So, if you think you were REALLY well qualified, or you just want to see who got the job over you send a FOIA request to the contact listed on the job opening.

    You'll need to tell them 3 things to get the information:

    1. What information you are seeking. Stating simply, "I'm requesting the qualifications of the person selected for Announcement # 1234." is enough.
    2. How they should disseminate this information to you. Email? USPS Letter?
    3. How much you're willing to pay for this information. I usually say $10, but I've yet to be charged.

    Using FOIA I have found out that I have NOT been interviewed or contacted for the following jobs:

    1. GS-12 Environmental Engineer/Environment Scientist with the EPA. An employee at the state level that had been working with them for the past 3 years was selected. He had a BS degree in chemistry. For reference, I have a Ph.D. and a ~ 1 year of experience at the time.

    2. GS-12/13 Supervisory Chemist with the USGS. An employee currently working in the lab was selected. The selection took ~ 9 months, during which time she served in the position temporarily. She worked in that lab since graduating high school, earned a BS in chemistry while working there, and had about 20 years experience. Definitely more qualified than me, but the time taken to make the selection was exceedingly long.

    3. (This one really made me angry.) GS-12/13 Scientist/Chemist with the EPA NEIC. A newly minted MatSciE Ph.D. was selected. For reference, I have a Ph.D. as well and 2 year at GS-11. Additionally, I work in the same building; have collaborated with a scientist in the EPA NEIC on two separate occasions and I had my collaborator drop a word that I had applied to the selecting official. I also had a friend from grad school who's a GS-13 chemist with the CPSC apply. Neither of us was contacted for interviews, and are clearly more qualified. I'm investigating this one further.

  14. Glad that I'm a few months from finishing the PhD. Every 7, 9, 11 that I qualified for this summer was followed by "however, since we have received a sufficient number of veterans in the best qualified category, your application will not be forwarded (or in some cases won't be reviewed)". Didn't realize how many high level archeologists/vets there are. Archeology is not rocket science but I hope 25 years of experience counts for something.

    1. Best bet? Go do a stint in the National guard and get that Vet status......without it, you will NEVER get's come first. Sucks, but that is the game