Navigating Through a Government Job World
Chemists work everywhere!
Over the years, I interviewed for jobs ranging from forensic chemist at the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration to research professor at Drexel University.
As PhDs, we have mastered the art of learning. As a result of completing an ultra-specific dissertation, one of our best talents becomes our capability to learn. One of my favorite quotations from <em>It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia</em> comes from the character Charlie Kelly as portrayed by Charlie Day. He says, “Oh, get a job? Just get a job? Why don’t I strap on my job helmet and squeeze down into a job cannon and fire off into job land, where jobs grow on little jobbies?!” (Season 3, “The Gang Sells Out”).
Most of us can empathize with Charlie’s frustration. Prior to working at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention(CDC), I worked in science policy at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and completed a post-doctoral fellowship at Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health. How did I come to work at CDC?
In 2010, I took a federal resume writing workshop. In this workshop I learned how to use keywords from government job announcements in the federal resume, and how to format a federal resume.
Due to this, I obtained three job interviews at CDC from applying to jobs on USAjobs.gov. I also obtained a CDC interview through old-fashioned networking. A field service engineer in the region mentioned that a team lead at CDC was looking for a PhD chemist, and he forwarded my information to her.
Under a variety of circumstances, I did not receive any of these positions. One position was eliminated, two had been earmarked for internal candidates, and the team lead decided she wanted to hire no higher than a master’s level candidate. Still, I had made a positive impression during these interviews, and my current team lead hired me on as an Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) Fellow.
There are pros and cons to working in the federal government. Federal jobs tend to be more secure. There is more budget stability in the government vs. the private sector, and not to mention, stronger employee unions. As a result, competition for these jobs is intense. Hiring and promotion are guided by a commitment to diversity and inclusion more than ever before, primarily due to the President’s Executive Order 13583 on Establishing a Coordinated Government-Wide Initiative to Promote Diversity and Inclusion in the Federal Workforce (the Executive order).
CDC is definitely an organization rich in diverse cultural backgrounds and heritages. However, hiring can be a long process due to extensive background investigations dependent upon the level of security clearance the job requires. Typically hiring takes at least a few weeks or longer.
Working in the federal government ensures that you will be paid according to government-wide regulations and policies, such as the General Schedule locality pay that covers the majority of civilian white-collar federal employees.
Moreover, employees receive adequate health insurance, retirement benefits, and vacation time (average base starts at 10 holidays + 13 vacation days + 13 sick days).While government bureaucracy can cause slower adoption of current trends, political pressure may hinder or promote work, and national political trends, i.e. furloughs, may stop work altogether, there is an overall satisfaction in serving the nation.
In the Division of Laboratory Sciences (DLS) where I work as a laboratory scientist in the Tobacco and Volatiles Branch in the Tobacco Exposure Biomarkers laboratory, the immediate hierarchy is something as depicted in the graphic below.
In my opinion, there are only a few ways to get your foot-in-the-door in DLS at CDC.
Most people are hired initially in a contractor or contractor-type position until an associate/senior service fellow or career appointment position becomes available. These include ORISE, Battelle Memorial Institute, McKing Consulting Corporation, among others. There are also programs, such as the Presidential Management Fellows Program, the Association of Schools and Programs of Public Health Fellowship, and the Epidemic Intelligence Service, that may transfer to more permanent employment. All of these avenues are worth exploring if you are interested in working at CDC.
CDC also has a vast social media network. There are several Facebook pages (e.g., CDC Global, CDC Tobacco Free), Twitter feeds (e.g., @CDCgov, @DrFriedenCDC, @CDCMMWR),and LinkedIn pages (e.g., https://www.linkedin.com/company/centers-for-disease-control-and-prevention).
Whether looking for a private or public sector job, the general actions are the same. Be persistent, make yourself known, network, get hired and do good work, and then pay it forward.