Looking for a Federal Job? Some Practical Advice
Art Gómez, May 2006
From The Profession column of the May 2006 Perspectives
In contrast to standard practices within the academic community, the sheer enormity of the federal bureaucracy makes the job application process comparatively more impersonal. At this writing, there are more than 20,000 job descriptions listed on the Federal Register, thus rendering the possibility for a preliminary personal interview virtually impractical. Clearly, the applicants' principal challenge lies in their ability to match formal educational and personal work experiences with the appropriate job. There are, in my judgment, a few fundamental steps that will make this cumbersome process less difficult and more fruitful. Inasmuch as I am an employee of the National Park Service, this essay leans heavily upon the application process with which I am most familiar. But a number of other agencies within the Department of the Interior also follow procedures similar to those of the National Park Service, and so do most other federal agencies. While specific details will no doubt vary from one government bureau to the next, the following general discussion should be of use to anyone seeking a federal job.
Identifying the Appropriate Job Description
In recent years, government employers have simplified this process by consolidating all federal job vacancies into a central database. The government's official employment web site, www.usajobs.
opm.gov, lists all current job openings by career field, government agency, and organizational department. In addition, the U.S. Office of Personal Management (OPM) has an information hotline (912-757-3000) from which the same information may be obtained 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
Essentially, there are five basic terms of employment within the federal system: Permanent, Career Conditional, Term, Seasonal, and Student Employment. It is critical that applicants are fully aware of the category under which the job they are pursuing falls. Each category varies in terms of longevity of employment, entitlement to benefits—that is, health, life, paid leave—and eligibility for retirement. Some of the distinctions between the above listed categories are as follows:
Permanent: Generally implies full-time employment complete with all health, retirement, and leave entitlements.
Career Conditional: Equals full-time employment including all benefits, but subject to a one-year probationary period that requires an in-depth performance evaluation before final conversion to permanent status.
Term: This is the equivalent of full-time employment plus benefits but only for a specified duration of time. These jobs are generally associated with special, ongoing projects within the agency—such as an archeology field investigation or a special historical research project. It is important for the applicant to be aware that the hiring agent will not guarantee employment beyond the specified duration (two to four years) of the appointment. In recent years, most of these jobs have failed to convert into permanent positions.
Seasonal: As the name suggests, these are part-time appointments only, and are generally associated with field assignments such as in national parks, national forest units, administrative offices, and other perennial employers. National parks, for example, hire additional seasonal employees, especially during peak visitation periods throughout the year. Bear in mind that these part-time positions are not entitled to benefits other than cumulative sick leave and minimal vacation days. While limited in scope, seasonal employment within the National Park Service still remains the most consistent means for advancement into permanent status.
Student Employment: The federal government offers two programs for full-time students commencing with secondary school through a graduate program. Employment under this category is regarded as temporary only. The Student Educational Employment Program (SEEP) provides flexible, year-round work for students actively enrolled in an accredited academic program. These jobs provide valuable experience that generally counts toward future job applications within the federal system.
Contracting: Contractual arrangements provide opportunities for temporary employment with the federal government. Government contracts soliciting historical expertise generally fall into two categories: (1) Those with a monetary threshold not to exceed $25,000, for which a Request for Quote (RFQ) is mailed to prospective bidders upon request. (2) Those whose monetary value exceeds $25,000 require a more in-depth application or Request for Proposal (RFP), which is posted on the government web site www.fedbizopps.gov for a period of 15 days. Bidders for an RFP contract should not expect to receive notification of award in less than 60 days from submission of their application. Contracts requiring historical research and writing abilities generally are awarded for periods of 12 to 36 months.
Preparing the Resume
The days of the dreaded SF-171 government application are gone, much to the relief of both aspiring employees and those tasked with making the hiring selection. The applicant may request the much more user-friendly Optional Form 612 from OPM or submit a standard personal résumé or curriculum vitae for consideration.
As in the case of applying for an academic position, the résumé or c.v. should be a concise, well-written, thorough compilation of formal education, other specialized training, and related work experience. It is especially important, in light of the staggering number of job vacancies listed, that the applicant specify the job title and job announcement number so that the application is matched with the appropriate job. Besides the requisite personal data, the résumé should include the pay range that you are willing to accept, any preferential status—that is, veteran, physical disability, former Peace Corps or Vista volunteer, previous work experience as a federal employee, or recognition as an outstanding scholar (3.5 cumulative GPA for all undergraduate and graduate course work completed).
While specific jobs within an agency may emphasize formal education in a field that relates directly to the job description, the vacancy announcement will generally give you a range or option of hands-on work experience that may serve as a substitute for classroom instruction. An example might be: one full year of specialized work experience at the grade level for which the applicant is making inquiry. Successful completion of two full years at the master's level in a related field would also be applicable, or a combination of the two. Specialized training for which you have received an accredited certificate of completion should be mentioned, even though it may not seem relevant. A personal example would be my military training in Mandarin Chinese at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California. While I have never had occasion to use this particular skill as a National Park Service historian, graduating from the highly regarded military institution may have further validated my linguistic capabilities. My knowledge of Spanish—particularly relevant when I applied for my first permanent historian position with San Antonio Missions National Historical Park—would have appeared in sharper focus because I was skilled in Chinese as well. Bottom line: do not discount previous training as irrelevant to the job for which you are applying.
With résumé in hand, you should begin the active search for a compatible job. If you are simply looking for any job within the federal system, www.usajobs.opm.gov will list all current vacancies under the category "Basic Search." If, however, you are seeking employment within a specific agency or bureau within the government, you should enter that specification under the tab "Agency Search." This tab gives the applicant several choices: The appropriate department or agency, the organizational subcomponent, job location within the U.S. mainland or Alaska, the occupational series—for example, 0170 Historian or 0025 Park Interpretive Ranger—and the salary range or pay grade the applicant should be prepared to accept. Once you have specified the agency, advance to "Search Jobs" to locate the specific job vacancy for which you wish to apply.
Completing the Job Application
Once a specific position posting is located on the web site, different tabs connect to pages that provide the applicant with the particulars of the job including duty location, job summary, type of appointment, pay grade, salary range, and, most important, the deadline date for application submittals. Be certain to note the vacancy announcement number that you will use throughout the remainder of the process to identify the particular job for which you are applying. A deeper search within the vacancy announcement will lead you to the "Duties" tab. Read this section carefully as it details in precise terms what is expected of you in this position. This section also contains detailed information about the benefits associated with the job. Finally, this section provides the name and address of the hiring authority to whom you will submit the application and a telephone and Internet point of contact should you have additional questions that need to be answered.
The latter provides an excellent opportunity to inquire about information generally not provided in the standard vacancy announcement, yet is critical to making your decision to accept or reject a job offer. For example, many national parks and monuments are located within urban localities that are notorious for their excessive cost of living, such as San Francisco, Santa Fe, Washington, D.C., and New York City. A job with an annual salary of $45,000 may not be worth considering if the cost of living precludes a livable net salary after taxes. Conversely, park ranger positions are often assigned to some of the nation's remotest areas—for example, the Mohave Desert, the Great Plains, the Rocky Mountain West, the Navajo Reservation, or Alaska. In these cases, the applicant must be aware of what limitations affect the availability of park housing as well as the suitability of the existing dwellings. If the park unit or office to which you have applied is easily accessible, a personal visit to familiarize yourself with your prospective work environment is advisable.
The "Qualifications and Evaluation" tab in this section constitutes, in my view, the most significant portion of the application process. First are the Knowledge, Skills, and Abilities (KSAs) that represent the heart of the federal job application process. These require a thoughtful, narrative response and should be considered the equivalent of the assessment of your research and publication capabilities in the standard academic interview. The response should not only be brief yet comprehensive, but should also not deviate from the question being asked. How well prepared you are for the specific job and what relevant skills and abilities you bring to the task at hand are determined for the most part from the KSAs. Inasmuch as a personal interview is very unlikely during this process, how you present yourself in writing will determine the manner in which your application is "rated."
Be prepared for painfully broad questions to which brief but specific responses are expected. I am reminded of my first attempt to answer the KSAs required for the historian position in San Antonio. I agonized over the question: "Ability to communicate both verbally and in writing in the Spanish language." Having been born into a Spanish-speaking family and formally educated in the language at the secondary and baccalaureate level, my answer could have filled several pages. An adequate but concise response eluded me. At this juncture, my 10-year-old son, who had been observing my personal anguish, asked me what was wrong. After I explained my dilemma, Chris—wise beyond his years—advised, "Dad, why not just write Sí/Yes?" Obviously, that response would have been brief and accurate, but inadequate. My point here, however, is that you should be precise in making your abilities relevant to the job requirements.
There is nothing wrong with admitting that you have no hands-on experience in certain areas, but clearly indicate that you are indeed trainable and willing to make up for any deficiencies. Please do not "bluff" your way through an answer; there will be follow-up inquiries into your application should you be among those considered for the job. On the other hand, we sometimes have experience in planning, financial accounting, communication, and other relevant areas that we have understated on the application. These skills, in fact, may be germane to the job. So, think creatively but honestly about the relevance of your previous experience to the job you are seeking. Finally, carefully select the references you list on the application and ask their permission to do so. It is a certainty that the hiring official will contact at least one of your references for a recommendation on your behalf.
Application Submittal and Follow-up
As noted above, the vacancy announcement provides the address to which the completed application should be submitted. Be absolutely clear about the announced "Deadline for Application" or "Closing Date." No application will be considered if postmarked after the specified date. Increasingly, many federal agencies are resorting to an online application process, and the specific position description will also provide details about how an applicant may submit an application electronically.
It is completely appropriate to make personal contact with the hiring authority after forwarding your application as a follow-up to ensure receipt. Again, this is an opportunity to accumulate information on the size of the organization, the locality, cost of living, available housing, etc. A telephone conversation with the designated point of contact will also assign an identity to you beyond the application number.
The opportunity for a face-to-face interview is rare, but you should expect a telephone interview. This process greatly reduces the expense of purchasing appropriate clothing for the interview or absorbing travel expenses to get there. You will only have this one opportunity to express yourself verbally about why you are the person best suited to the job.
So, commence your search, submit the application, and revel in the prospect of becoming gainfully employed. You have earned it.
—Art Gómez is the AHA Council member assigned to the Professional Division. He is supervisory historian in the National Park Service, Intermountain Region, Santa Fe, New Mexico.