Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Thoughts on getting a (federal) government position?

From the comments, a good request from "Postdoc":
[C]an you or someone else with inside knowledge put together a guide for how to get through government job applications? If anybody has ever found a job through USAJobs, you know how onerous and painful the application process is. You have to register for a new account for like 3 different sites before you even get to the application for some of them! And everything I've read says they're intensely specific, so one mistake and your app gets tossed.
Here's the last time we talked about this issue, over two years ago. I thought this comment, this comment and this one were good.

Readers, your thoughts on USAjobs and applying for state and municipal positions in general? 

29 comments:

  1. During some applications to HHS a year or two ago, the questionnaire was my nemesis... applicants who don't check the box for "most qualified, have gotten awards for this skill and taught it to others" for every single item are at high risk of having their paperwork go straight to the killfile.

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  2. USAjobs - already voiced opinion elsewhere - I'll just say here I think it's designed to be a waste of time.
    Applying for state jobs - my experience has been that usually the hiring entities have someone in mind, at least for mid-to-high level positions (and sometimes there are preferred candidates for low-level positions as well) - but the process struck me as more personal and somewhat more egalitarian than either federal or municipal hiring.
    Applying for municipal positions has consistently struck me as being very, very heavily tied to whether you are a card-carrying Democrat.

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    1. Also, only in federal job applications and municipal job applications was it frequently made *extremely explicit* -one way or another - that race was going to be a factor in hiring and likely used as a means of excluding candidates. I have only gotten this once in applying for a state job.

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    2. Actually, with nearly a decade and half of war, it's military service that gets you to the front of the line now.

      Are you going to start complaining about that?

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    3. No, why would I? BTW- there is a difference in complaining about something and telling it like it is.

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    4. Sorry to cast aspersions, but it's rather strange how you singled out racial preferences...not gender...not military status. All those are usually considered for public sector jobs...and at all levels of government, from what I've seen.

      What's not said is often as important as what is.

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    5. You should be sorry for casting aspersions, because that is exactly what I encountered - racial preferences. There was no mention of gender and little mention of military status.

      If you find it strange, perhaps you should take it up with the originating agencies and institutions. Is pointing out the existence of racial preference racist? There you are on a very sticky wicket, and I would suggest at the very least you have not thought your comment through.

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    6. In an ideal world, everyone would be hired based on nothing more than their qualifications: their gender, race, sexual preference, number of natural limbs, which university they graduated from and who they know would not count. The only exception which I might make would be if the applicant were a vet (I am not). That is how I try to treat people, because every other policy would be discriminatory, one way or another. I do that naively, because I want to believe that everyone wants to be judged on who they really are.

      In the real world of seeking a job at any level above Burger King, every competitive advantage which you can find counts. On the other hand, I have not met very many people who have been willing to admit the strings which were necessary to pull to land their jobs: obviously, it puts a dent in their armor. Especially if one's ego is set on inflation to membership in the Professoriate.

      For example, please recall Lance Armstrong, and for how long he was insisting that he didn't dope. My hat goes off to that reporter who doggedly kept on his track.

      Oh, yeah: on those Internet job questionnaires which ask for your gender or membership in various EEO categories, I now always decline to answer. Even though that makes it pretty obvious that I'm just a hetero white guy.

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    7. Generic, maybe you can help us to understand. Are you currently looking for work in order to change jobs or because you are unemployed? I have been there, the search for work in chemistry was nightmarish, and I would not wish the experience on anyone.

      Forgive me if you have already answered this question somewhere. I don't have time to sift through old comments this morning.

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    8. Even with affirmative action, the majority of the technical staff in the federal government is male (72.8%) and white (77.7%).

      http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/infbrief/nsf11303/

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    9. That's true, and those are interesting statistics. Thank you for the link.

      Respectfully, however, I would suggest that no one is likely to change their point of view by having this conversation here. It would be instructive to know why it keeps coming up. How can we all prevent these comments from being steered in a direction that is hostile and unproductive? I like my CJ funny and friendly.

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  3. Most federal managers don't have the ability to hire and fire like in the private sector. (Congress has made sure of that with well-intentioned laws to prevent corruption and discrimination--primarily through the creation of nine levels of bureaucratic hell around every HR action.) So if you hire a dud, you're stuck with him maybe for the next 30 years. (Some duds may even decide not to retire.) Choosing people you know can do the work--and who are actually already doing the work as post-docs--makes perfect sense. A lot of comments here are right: USAJobs does have a lot of ads for hiring specific post-docs as staff members. It sucks, but if you think there's an alternative for staffing, then write your Congressman...who will likely introduce a tenth level of bureaucratic hell for us to endure.

    Having said that, there still are some legitimate openings. I know a few people (but not many) who have gone through USAJobs completely unknown to my agency and have been hired. My advice: Be sure the manager knows--with no uncertainty--that you can do the job. Don't lie, but certainly don't understate your abilities.

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    1. Thanks for sharing your knowledge, Anon.

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    2. Another thing to know about USA Jobs is the some HR person who doesn't know anything about the position is often the one deciding who meets the qualifications of the position and therefore whose resume/CV will land in the hiring manager's lap. Therefore, your tyipcal fully technial resume may not be the best resume to submit to a job vacancy. Think APPLIED SKILLS and overall knowledge. Use the words in the vacancy in your resume/CV so that the HR person can directly correlate your skills and experience with those needed for the position- make it obvious becasue that person probably won't be able to draw conclusions like the actual person who is looking to hire will be. It's just another case of tailoring your application to the posting. Also, when answering the questionairres, again think analgous and applied skills. Even if you haven't done that exact task, if you have done something similar or analgous to it, then answer to the highest possible degree that you can. Often managers end up with people that answer the questions to get high scores but don't really have the qualifications while the people who are really qualified are too conservative in their answers and the result is the manager ends up not hiring anyone because there are no candidates that they like.

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  4. Well thank god I can stop trying to jump through their stupid hoops then.

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  5. Since I work at a federal research site, let me provide my 2 cents to the whole issue. Yes, the applications for federal jobs is a PITA, from application to interview to security clearance to actually starting work is a long tedious process, and there is a possibility that the job someone applied for already has a "suitable" candidate (someone who was a postdoc there).

    Having said all that, its complete bull to say that this is the case with ALL postings on USAjobs. heck, vast majority of jobs are for B.S. and M.S. level ones where the new hires are right off college with no such networking. Another thing GC and other commentators keep mentioning is most federal jobs go to minorities/women; I cant speak of labs across the country, but from what I have seen here, in dallas, ATL and RTP locations; this isnt the case across the board at all. Sure, there are some minorities hired, but largely hiring reflects the actual demographic of chemists (majority white males with some US citizen Indian/chinese origin males and small proportion of everyone else).

    So overall my take home message is that folks shld be less skeptical about the whole issue and by all means apply to federal jobs. The potential upsides are many, and the only thing to lose is time spent on the application. I thank God that I wasnt reading the comment section here when I applied for a job here, because conventional wisdom here seems like its an exercise in futility.

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  6. There can be other modes of entry into federal research employment, especially if you're looking to get in at the post-doc level. There are funding programs that allow PI's to more easily hire postdocs/lab hands as contractors, such as ORISE and Batelle. There are also means to get positions funded through places like the National Research Council, though you have to submit a proposal for this. Once in as a contractor, there are means to be converted to a government employee internally if they like you. There are also intern programs, a bigger one I think is called Pathways? I think you still apply to Pathways through USAjobs though. If you have specific labs you want to work in, I would email people directly and say you are willing to right proposals to find some funding. If they like your resume, that may be enough for them to bring you on board as a contractor at first.

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  7. The only way to get a full-time job with the Federal government is through USAjobs. When you apply have all the needed information at hand, arrange to have transcripts sent from your school (transcripts you provide will be disregarded), be prepared to wait six months, and expect to pay your own way to any interview. This is why it is so hard to recuit good people to federal agencies.

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  8. FYI Postdoc I would lose the attitude about USAjobs. The government is required to use this portal. Managers will get into serious trouble with the OPM and the GAO if they try to bypass it. Whinning during your telephone interview about it will not get you short-listed since the interviewer has to put up witth USAjobs. One way to look at it, any federal job will require long hours with even more kludgey programs and forms like you couldn't believe. If you can not handle USAjobs, then maybe government employment is not your cup of tea.

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  9. Hi 10:39,
    You wrote "If you have specific labs you want to work in, I would email people directly and say you are willing to right proposals to find some funding."

    Are you saying that:
    (a) it's possible to submit research proposals to permanent scientists with gov't labs, and suggest research programs or at least proposals?
    (b) the restrictions on number of years past completing the doctorate do not apply under those circumstances?

    Thanks

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    1. Yes. The proposal gets approved by the funding body, but the permanent scientist is co-PI. It's very much like an academic post-doc. The restrictions depend on which agency/lab you're applying to. There are post-doctoral awards that apply to people with less than 5 years from graduation but there are also mid-level/senior career awards. If someone is determined to break into federal research, in addition to applying through USAJobs, I would be pursuing these other avenues as well.

      http://sites.nationalacademies.org/PGA/RAP/PGA_047685

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    2. thanks, that was very helpful!

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    3. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  10. Hi AF,
    You will have to read my auto-biography (after I write it :-) ). I'm a US-American and Germanophile, who moved over there for doctoral work (against the advice of the elite university which accepted me for PhD work in California). Afterwards, I struggled on temporary faculty positions in Switzerland and the UK (yes it was possible to win grants, even before the local hires were able to do so), it was necessary to return to the US. Over here, while not lacking for effort, initiative and creativity, it has not been possible to land a real tenure/track job commensurate (IMHO) with my ambitions and experience. Of course, there are many other colleagues over here who also have not been able to land the jobs which they wish(ed) for. However, my suspicion is that additionally having an unusual pedigree and no committed cheerleaders over here is damning. Hence, I would also go into industry - of course industry has its own pre-requisites.

    Hope that wasn't all too boring or self-pitying to read.

    There is an interesting article which just appeared on the chronicle vitae that has some bearing: https://chroniclevitae.com/news/1066-the-paradoxical-success-of-the-professor-is-in?cid=VTEVPMSED1

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  11. You might appreciate this link: http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/impactofsocialsciences/2013/12/11/how-academia-resembles-a-drug-gang/

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    1. Hi "Z",
      Thank you for providing this link. I have experienced the ugly side of it in Germany, the UK and the US:
      1. my German "Doktorvater" (who later became president of the GdCh) refused to assist in the continuation of my Habiliation from Switzerland into Germany. I have only heard negative things about him from Germans, Brits and French. Wish I had known that before moving over there.
      2. The only job which I could find was a 5-year temp contract at a strife-ridden department in the UK. They sure as hell used my Swiss publication list in their RAE submission. Then they dug their own grave through a protracted civil war, incompetent leadership and were shut down by the university four years into my contract.
      3. The US is, indeed switching to an academic sharecropper mode. Your article quotes statistics from "the Atlantic", whereby >40% of teaching staff in North America are on temporary contracts. I had understood that it was, in fact closer to 70%. Perhaps that is because the author of your article was studying only social sciences?

      The best part of the article was, however "Figure 4", which indicates which country one should be in at different stages of your career.

      Currently, I have two applications pending for Senior/Lectureships in the UK. I can deal with the fact that the lecturing loads are higher and the pay is lower over there. But I sure as hell won't go back there on another 5-year contract!

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  12. Yes, Generic, you need cheerleaders. You never know where you're going to find a friend, so here's some humble, unsolicited advice: practice liking people until they give you a real reason not to, despite the fact that they may look different and may be competing with you for employment opportunities.

    Incidentally, two things pulled me out of unemployment:

    1. I spent a year doing work for which I was vastly overqualified and underpaid. I did it cheerfully and well, but I continued to diligently search for more appropriate openings. The management in my organization was very disappointed to lose me when a better gig came along, but no one faulted me for leaving. I have children to feed.

    2. In addition to staying in contact with old friends, I cultivated new friendships by surrounding myself with colleagues that I genuinely enjoyed listening to. Some of these ended up being the people who put in a good word for me when I landed an interview, and some were just interesting, supportive, and fun.

    I was only unemployed for a few months during the peak of the recession because I was willing to consider alternatives, not just to medicinal chemistry, but to all of chemistry. How long have you been looking for a job? It sounds like you may not really want a faculty position. You may find that you are a better fit in another area, and being willing to entertain the possibility of an industrial position is a good start. Being willing to occupy your mind with work that you feel is "beneath" you, considering your education, ambitions, and experience, though, might just get you back in the game.

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    1. Hi AF, thanks for taking the time to write back a thoughtful response. I appreciate all of it, although some of your advice might be based on misunderstandings.

      In a public forum such as this blog, the responses which I can make are limited. But I will admit to being better qualified for academia than industry. That being said, the article which "Z" has posted is really worth reading, especially in the context of work which is "beneath" one's self: it frequently does not leave you in a better professional situation than when you started out. In my case, after returning to the US, I bit the bullet and became a poorly treated "retro-post-doc" and adjunct. And the only TT position which I landed was in 2011, at a state university in a “fire-at-will” state which decided 2 years later that it didn't like the research for which I was hired. And hence I now consider industry or gov’t.

      CJ doesn’t like being a middleman regarding passing on alter-ego e-mails, etc. Otherwise, I would suggest making this dialogue private.

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  13. GC, I deleted your latest comment of 4:08 pm Eastern. Not appropriate for this blog, not a relevant set of links.

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