Working for the Federal Government

Posted by Debbie Koh

Welcome to 2012! Moving forward, I will alternate my posts between more career development-focused entries and more general musings on the public service field (similar to last month’s “The Business of Non-Profits”).So, let’s get started.

A Non-Official Guide to Possibly Working for the Federal Government

I’ve talked to enough people curious about how to crack into this area, so here’s my quick and dirty primer for Wagner students looking to work for the federal government. My disclaimer: I am not an expert. This is based on my personal views and experience at the US Agency for International Development (USAID) and only the tip of a very large iceberg. While at Wagner I did attend an excellent overview by someone who is an expert: Paul Binkley, Director of Career Development Services at the Trachtenberg School of Public Policy at George Washington University. His presentation, “U.S. Federal GovernmentCareer Opportunities,”is still available via Career Services.

1. Identify your agency: for many people with a desire to work in international health and/or development, USAID is the logical first step. But other “domestic” agencies, like the Centers for Disease Control and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, also do internationally focused work.(HHS recently developed its own Global Health Strategy). Or, consider smaller agencies like the Millennium Challenge Corporation.

Lesson learned: government agencies are huge and may do work in your area of interest, despite first impressions. Start with the big names, but don’t overlook less obvious opportunities.

2. Do you really want to work for the government: getting a job working directly for the government (known in DC parlance as a “direct hire” position) is harder than it sounds.There is a whole science and strategy to applying to or that I won’t even attempt to broach. The best-case scenario is to identify some sort of fellowship or program that will narrow down the application pool of thousands; eligibility is typically based on current enrollment in a graduate program. Below are a few starting points:

  1. Presidential Management Fellows (PMF): though still highly competitive, PMF is a two-year fellowship that allows for appointment into a government position upon completion. I came across PMFs at USAID who completed their two years there and others who began working there after completing their fellowships at other agencies. Check in with Career Services for instructions on the application process, as schools are only allowed to nominate a certain number of applicants. You may only apply during your final academic year.
  2. Student Temporary Employment Program and Student Career Experience Program (STEP/SCEP): I knew a USAID summer intern who returned to her masters program in the fall, returned to USAID as a SCEP intern and then converted to a position at the Agency. I know the least about these programs because I wasn’t eligible, but USAID details its own STEP/SCEP opportunities.
  3. Other fellowships/internships: this is where you have license to use creative Internet searches and your networks. For example, the USAID Indonesia Mission is recruiting interns in Health, Education, Democratic Governance, and Economic Growth (application deadline February 2012) but the announcement didn’t make the main website. A good start for those thinking about international health is the Global Health Fellows Program. Eligibility requirements may vary.

Lesson learned: current Wagner students should take advantage of their status and look for opportunities now. Don’t wait until after graduation!

3. So you don’t really want to work for the government: recent grads haven’t missed the boat. A better strategy may be to identify some of the many organizations and companies (“contractors”) that won government contracts and are looking to hire. I won’t mention any specific contractors but to start, here’s a list of 2011’s Top 100 Contractorsvia Washington Technology and one of many international development coalitions. Again, start big but try to identify smaller companies where competition may be less fierce. Many people jump between contract and direct hire work; it’s all about getting your foot in the door at first.

A not-so-recent grad with at least a couple years of experience, including work in developing countries, and a willingness to be based overseas may also consider a direct hire option at USAID called the Development Leadership Initiative (DLI). This initiative is meant to double USAID’s Foreign Service workforce. I saw new batches of DLIs coming in fast and furious, but the program is scheduled to end this year.

Lesson learned: decide whether one’s best option is to work direct hire or contract and proceed from there.

My advice is to pursue several strategies at once. I failed at one of PMF’s many elimination rounds and received rejections or no responses from multiple internships. When I landed an internship and got to Washington D.C., I attended workshops and presentations, volunteered at conferences and talked to as many people as I could about how they got where they were. Eventually, I transitioned into a contract position. It just took some perseverance.

Debbie graduated from Wagner in 2010 with her MPA in Health Policy and Management, International Health. She returned to her native California in 2011 and currently works for Venture Strategies Innovations. Follow her on Twitter at @thedebkoh or connect via LinkedIn. All views expressed are her own.