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Dear PoPville – Looking for Advice on Finding a Federal Job?

by Prince Of Petworth March 7, 2013 at 2:30 pm 55 Comments

Photo by PoPville flickr user dullshick

“Dear PoPville,

I am looking for your old threads on how to successfully apply for a federal job. I know I read some great tips in the past, but can’t seem to find the discussions now.”

Unfortunately this question was asked in the forum and for some reason the reader who posted the question has deleted it with all the helpful tips. Sorry to all who gave such good advice. So let’s start a new thread here which folks will be able to use as a reference for tips on finding a federal job. How’d you get your federal job? How long did it take? Are there any other good places to look besides OPM?

  • YESSSSSSS! Thank you for this post!!

  • Anon

    I got hired into a group that is composed of a bunch of people who went through my same graduate school program. They recruited directly from my graduate school.

    It was two easy interviews, my interviewers really liked my outgoing personality, and I had an offer for a full-time career position (NO contract). The process took about 4 months from start to finish, but only because one of those months was over the holiday season and slowed everything down.

    I know I’m really lucky. I felt pretty lazy throughout the job hunting process, as it was only the second application I submitted and I watched friends struggle for up to year while they searched for a job.

    My two points of advice:
    1. Just like the private sector – “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.”
    2. A little personality goes a long way in the drab world of the federal government.

  • Anon2

    1) Know someone (preferably several someones; internships are a one route to this, connected friends/relatives another)

    2) Be a verteran/disabled/otherwise preference-worthy (moves you to the top of the list for some jobs so long as you meet the minimum qualifications)

    3) Get lucky (narrow is the way, and few there be that find it)

    • Anonymous

      Used Anon2 to differentiate from Anon above. Didn’t mean to borrow someone’s avatar. Completely unintentional.

  • Anonymous

    USPTO is really easy to get into– they hired me as a GS-7 before I’d even graduated college. Part of the reason it’s so easy to get in, unfortunately, is because they have trouble retaining qualified people. But if you’re an oddball that enjoys being holed up in an office searching through documents and not talking to a single person for 10 hours a day it might be good for you. Folks either quit within the first year or stay there forever.

    • Contractor

      This is so true. They either quit the first year or stay until they die.

      There are also non patent examining positions at USPTO that one can get pretty easily by starting off as a contractor because they hire from the contractor pool. Sadly, there is a hiring freeze on many of these contractor positions right now.

    • saf

      I’m married to an examiner. He enjoys it. Generally.

      And yes, it is NOT for everybody.

  • Anonymous

    I was an intern (30 hours/week) first, then got a temp-to-permanent position. Including my time as an intern I searched for about 4 months.

    Networking is important. Patience is also helpful.

  • Anonymous

    It might not be the fastest route, but if you’re a contractor and your client likes you they might bring you into their fold. Half the guys I support now used to work for my company.

    • shermanavethug

      Backdoor way – Work as a contractor in a federal office if they like they will bring you on board.

      Know somebody because if you don’t veterans usually get a higher priority from annoucnement that do not give preference to other federal employees.

    • Agree here. Just about the only way to get in the door unless you get into some special hiring program or are a disabled vet. That said, slogging it as a contractor can be rough…

  • Anonymous

    usajobs dot gov is a freakin nightmare, don’t even bother. Just work on meeting people in your field.

    • JB

      It truly is a horrible website. I tried applying to jobs that way for awhile, but it was a complete waste of time. I thought I’d heard a bunch of stuff when Obama first took office about all these changes that were coming to the hiring process: no more KSA’s, quicker process, etc…

    • anon

      I am now in my fourth federal job.

      I got each job by applying through usajobs.gov — no personal connections involved.

      I will say, however, that once you’re already a Fed it’s easier to move from one federal job to another. In part that’s because once you’ve figured out what kind of resume/KSA combination works, you’re better prepared for the next application you submit.

      • MAR

        You my friend are a unicorn…I’ve been a fed for almost 3 years now and was a contractor for 5 years before that. I have applied to hundreds of jobs on usajobs…and have never even been referred to a hiring official.

        I have never met someone that has gotten a job purely through usajobs…it is all about making connections.

        • Eb

          I also got my federal job straight from usajobs without knowing anyone, at least not at the agency. I had friends who were Feds help me adjust my resume for maximum KSA matching, but otherwise it was the hundredth-plus one I applied for. Nearly all the people we’ve hired since were newbies, too. Persistence and asking for help from someone who was successful is the key.

    • anon

      my personal favorite is when I applied for the job that paid about 40% less than i was making and I had more education and more experience than required just to see if this thing ever works. I wouldn’t take the job even if i was offered one. I got an automatic email notifying me that I didn’t qualify to be referred to the hiring manager.
      I guess you need to sprinkle those keywords around your resume a lot to pass the first software filter.

      • No wonder…

        Please explain to me again your rationale between being rejected due to non-qualification?

        I’m having a hard time understanding your belief that even though you made more money, had an additional degree, and ‘more experience’ (awfully arbitrary), you were turned down because of the application process.

      • I know for a fact there are key words they look for in the resume that you post to USA jobs and people get rejected simply by not having them. There’s not an actual person who looks through every resume to determine if it meets the position description or not.

        Anyway, I’d say with 80% of federal jobs they already have someone in mind and post the opening for the formality rather than because they are actually going to hire a random person. It sucks (unless you know someone) but that’s just the way it is.

        • No wonder…

          Making the CERT 101

      • anon

        When describing your qualification, you need to be sure repeat the specific language of each KSA. There is a filtering process and you have to imagine it is a 10 year old child who is doing the filtering. They cannot translate your language to connect it what the KSA requests, which is why you have to repeat the KSA language.

        Also, if you have qualifications or experience that fit several KSAs, do not refer to what you wrote in a different KSA. Repeat the qualifications and experience again. The ones doing the filtering can only use what you’ve written under each KSA to “score” your qualifications. (Yes, you are actually assigned a certain number of points for each one. Veterans get bonus points just for being a veteran, which is why they often go to the top.)

        Anyway, that’s the trick to even be considered. No one with any hiring power will even see your CV and application unless you write, long, bureaucratic KSAs.

  • Marymay

    If you’re in grad school, the PMF program is the way to go. There are also internships and fellowships– I know many who have used these to transition to FTE.

    Most of the vacancies on usajobs.gov are already for a specific person. Gear for the ones listed “many vacancies”. Also, KSAs are gone now so make sure your resume includes as many words from the annoucement /questionaire as possible.

    Truthfully, it’s all about whom you know and if that person has any pull. Network. I’m a Fed and it took me a year to find another Fed job. It took my colleague 2 years.

    • Yeah, I got my first fed job via the PMF program. Went to the PMF job fair, had a job by the end of the day, it was pretty sweet.

      I got my current job via my former boss (he told me about the opening and gave HR a head’s up). Unfortunately networking definitely helps…

      And even with that connection, the whole process took 3.5 months from the time I submitted my application to the day I started.

      • anon

        I’m a fed now, and I don’t mean to discourage anyone, but the volume of applicants that come in from usajobs is OVERWHELMING. If you’re job-searching, you may not want to limit yourself to a “fed only” kind of search. We often seen 400+ applicants for one open position. Ugh.

        • different anon

          This is true.

          I think the number of people seeking federal jobs shot up dramatically when the private sector wasn’t doing so well, and application numbers have remained high.

          And now many federal agencies have less money than they did just a few years ago, which means there are fewer brand-new jobs being posted. Plus, some agencies are under hiring freezes, so positions that are vacated don’t get filled.

  • Agree with many of the comments above.
    Don’t get discouraged – even if the posting is “for someone” apply – they have to interview the top 3, and if they like you they may let you know when another vacancy appears.

    Also – with the current budget situation lots of agencies are on a hiring freeze.

    • Fed

      I work in HR for the federal government and we are not required to interview the top three. However, I would not let that discourage anyone from applying.

  • It’s not necessarily about who you know… I’ve gotten several fed interviews based on my resume alone (over 15 years of private industry and fed contractor jobs). You can work to the point of getting a fed job through the normal process of merit, but there’s a few things to remember:

    Most feds are on a pay freeze and at risk for furloughs currently because of the budget impasse.

    If you like web development and graphic design, you will be more hands-on as a contractor more than a fed (generally in the larger organizations).

    Contracting generally pays more money in IT right now – unless you’re a tenured employee, raising your pay grade in a Federal job is harder than doing so as a contractor these days. Entering a fed job from a job contracting is more likely to get you started at a higher pay grade.


    • Anonymous

      Yeah, it seems like an odd time to be looking for Fed jobs. I’m also not sure why anyone would limit themselves to those jobs, unless you’re after something incredibly specific. Usually a better version of the same job exists in the contracting world.

  • Annony

    If you have an interest in working with USAID you might look at the Global Health Fellowship program ghpf.net

  • Anonymous

    Like others I was hired as a PMF straight out of grad school. That was basically the only way the Department level policy shop I first worked in would hire entry-level people.

    I believe the PMF program has changed though and now you do not have to be graduating from grad school in the year that you apply?

    • 20010

      During my PMF year, almost half of us weren’t offered positions (and not for lack of trying…) It’s just as discouraging as the other avenues…

      • Anon

        Yes, many of my friends who had PMF could not find a position. The issue is that many agencies didn’t want to hire a PMF because there are required raises and promotions every so often. They would rather hire a “normal” candidate in case of budgetary problems and didn’t want to find themselves squeezed by being required to give PMF’s raises.

        Another group that got screwed were the Treasury’s Hamilton Fellows. They couldn’t give jobs to the 2 people I knew who received the fellowship. It’s such a shame, since they were outstanding candidates.

        So much expensive deadwood in these agencies that they can’t get rid of.

  • Women’s Bar Association of DC

    For legal jobs, the Women’s Bar Association of DC is holding an event on this very issue in two weeks:

    Event description:
    Looking for a job in the federal government? This program is for you!

    Our speakers on this panel represent a diverse array of government agencies and will provide must-know tips on the application process! From navigating USA jobs.gov, to writing a successful resume, to nailing your interview, you will come away with valuable information to assist you as you navigate the government job market.

  • Anon

    Have the words “Harvard” or “Goldman” on your resume. The system seems to flag those quickly and give you an automatic 2nd look by HR.

    I work in policy with a few recent hires from those institutions and they don’t know their head from their ass. But, of course, they get paid a buttload while we teach them how to do their jobs.

    • lol! I have one of those words on my resume and I am not at all surprised by this comment. That said, many of these fed and policy jobs are so specialized that few people are going to know what they’re doing from day 1 – that is what training is for (and in my opinion, training is where fed offices like mine fall short).
      I got my fed job through a USAjobs posting soon after grad school – I decided to accept a GS-7 position (with a career ladder that involves yearly grade promotions until a 12) even though I thought I was qualified for a 9 at the time. Anyway, my point is that you might have to take a position at lower pay than you’d like right off the bat to get your foot in the door (you can disregard this advice if you’re a lawyer or have another specialized background that you didn’t mention when posing your question). I have a friend at NIH now who worked there first in an admin position and now is grant manager – he’s convinced he wouldn’t have gotten the job he has now without taking the lower-level position first. Good luck!

      • Anon

        True, we are pretty specialized. We do a lot of international negotiating with other governments on policy and then subsequently writing rulemakings, which you really can’t learn in school or the private sector. Still, these individuals are particularly useless at everything EXCEPT promoting themselves.


  • DCDC

    I agree with many of the previous comments, so will only add one aspect that hasn’t been mentioned. I am currently also applying for fed jobs advertised to “All Sources” and several time have gotten bleak responses telling me that my application would not be reviewed because they had had so many applicaitons from people with veterans’ preference that they would be able to find enough suitable preference candidates to interview therefore there was no sense to review applicaitons from those without veterans’ preference. And these are for jobs that have nothing to do with DoD or national security issues at all. I am not unsupportive of the veterans’ preference, but I do feel like I am banging against a brick wall.
    So – patience, yes, and getting to know people, yes, and look into any program that might get you in the door – anything extra has got to help.

    • Eb

      I feel ya, and I’m not sure what kind of job you’re looking for, but keep in mind that a lot of vets entering the work force have supply, office, or other experiences that translate well into some of the more generalist positions. Or otherwise are qualified for a GS 5/6/7 clerical job. Three of the last four Program Assistants my department hired were vets (and the fourth is a returned peace corps volunteer) – if the job is something a person with some college or a bachelors could do, and requires no specialized knowledge (ie a science, engineering, technical, regional foreign policy, etc), they are going to have plenty of preference candidates for it. I’d also respond to your comment by noting that many vets are specifically NOT qualified for DoD or defense work just by virtue of being a vet. The military provides conflict training (weapons, tactics, whatever) but if the person ended up spending active duty in an office in Germany, they’re not necessarily prepared for a defense job. There are also not enough civilian defense jobs to go around for all the vets coming back (who want a fed job) nor does status as a vet mean they want to stay in defense. Naturally, they are going to look to other agencies.

  • Like anything else pursue all the angles. I got a federal job through USA jobs easily once but I know now it’s a nightmare. The influx of veterans has made it harder as well as increased competition from people laid off from private sector jobs.

    One tip I have is that if you see an opening for 2 weeks or less, it’s a promotion/inside hire kind of deal and your chances of moving forward in the process are slim to nil unless you are perfect for the position.

    • Not true — I think some of the jobs I’ve successfully applied for were open 2 weeks or less.

      However, it’s probably true that if a place has an internal candidate in mind, they’re unlikely to list the position for more than 2 weeks.

      It might make sense to be skeptical of jobs that are open for only _1_ week, but don’t assume anything about jobs that are open for 2 weeks.

      Actually, before my agency got hit with a hiring freeze, I think we were talking about listing a position for only two weeks in an effort to get a halfway manageable number of applications. And I think there were still more than a hundred.

  • Anon

    I was called in for an interview 3 months after I applied for my Fed job. I had over a decade of private sector experience in my field, but I went for something a few steps below what I was qualified for…because it was open and I just wanted to get my foot in the door. I took a pay cut, but it has been worth it. I recently completed a career development workshop at work that, along with skill refreshers, taught the participants how to answer and write for KSAs. The top resource recommended by our HR Dept. is a book : How to land a top-paying federal job. The best advice I received in the workshop was to be ready to explain (verbally and in writing) examples of your results. Seems obvious, but apparently it’s a common misstep made by applicants in their KSAs or interviews. For instance, if asked to state a challenge and how you handled it…don’t stop there…push the result. Interview panels are armed with workbooks with questions followed by three columns (presumably challenge/action/result or something similar). That third column is crucial and if they’ve got nothing to put in it, you’re dead in the water. I’ve never been on a hiring panel myself, so I cannot speak to how they tally the points. I’d like to hear from anyone out there who has been on a panel and might have a tip or two!

    • Anonymous

      This is really helpful – thanks for sharing your experience!

    • D

      I recently left an agency for which I interviewed several applicants a week. My preference was for candidates that spoke naturally and not as though they were reciting lines from a book or seeking to fill a column on my worksheet. I mostly wanted to see that they truly understood the work, rather than having a superficial understanding from media reports. As someone mentioned, personality and energy also went a long way. The process is tough, but with 200+ applicants per opening, I suppose it has to be. The trickiest part is getting past the computers and into the interview.

  • MAR

    Also…Im sure whoever wrote in probably knows this…but now might not be the best time to get in as a Fed. I know where I work there is an indefinite hiring freeze because of the sequester/furloughing budget mess. Yippee!

  • How about ways to avoid federal employment? I’ve been a fed for 8 years (some in legislative branch though) and the environment now is so toxic, I wouldn’t recommend it for anyone who needs any certainty. It is very stressful, Especially if you are below a 13. I worry constantly about the furloughs since we are expecting a child in the fall, then there are shut down fears regularly and the lack of promotions available these days.
    If I had to do it all over again, I wouldn’t have chosen federal employment. I am looking to leave, but not sure pregnancy is the best time to shops around.

    That said, many agencies are insourcing because they are finally realizing how expensive contracting is. That’s how my Husband got his job. And he’s a veteran which definitely helps. He likes what he does but isn’t paid well for now – still better than the contract be was on though!

    • Anon

      Personally, I would wait to have my baby first before jumping ship so I could take advantage of maternity leave. A new employer does not have an obligation to give you maternity if you haven’t been with them for at least one year. And even then, you must work for an employer with more than 50 workers. A small start-up or non-profit does not need to give you anything.

      Please look up the details of the Family and Medical Leave Act.

      • Feds don’t have maternity leave beyond what you have leave you have earned and a supervisor can limit you to 6 or 8 weeks depending on type of birth. I know the FMLA issues…but it is a n win situation that I have to LOL about to keep from telling off everyone at work heh

    • Anonymous

      I wish I could find the Washington Post article I read about a week ago. It was talking about how Fed jobs, which used to be a source of pride and job stability, are no longer either. They interviewed a lot of Feds who either wished they hadn’t gone into the government or were discouraging their kids from doing so.

  • CG

    With all seriousness, I’d say you’re better off staying away from federal employment. I’m in my 12th year with a foreign affairs agency and working conditions continue to deteriorate; I’m not talking about the pay freeze (which isn’t great, to be sure) but more about the resource cuts and the tired ‘do more with less’ mantra that means, in reality, work longer hours to get the job done. With Feds being the favorite congressional whipping boy and the yearly nightmare of the dreaded Continuing Resolution – it just gets really old. I took a 26k pay cut when I left the private sector that, at the time, felt more than worth it to do something other than sell things to people who didn’t need them and chase bonuses. Unfortunately, federal service now comes with enough headaches to make me jump ship.

    My advice: ignore the fed listings and move on.

  • Have you considered working for DC Government?

    • Anonymous


      My experiences with the DC govt hiring system make USAJobs seem like a picnic. Horrible horrible

      • I’m sorry to hear that. All I can say is keep trying. Take the ranking factors workshop DCHR offers and attend the DC job fairs. We can always use more dedicated qualified staff.


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