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Unofficial Guide to Getting a Federal Job | The Gov Gurus - Gov't Career Advice That Works

Categorized | Hiring Process

Unofficial Guide to Getting a Federal Job

Posted on 20 December 2008 by admin

Approximately once a month, I get an email from a family member or friend that goes something like “My cousin/neighbor/babysitter is really interested in federal jobs. S/he can’t figure out the process. Can you give her some inside guidance?”

Whether OPM wants to admit it or not, the process is still way too confusing for outsiders. They don’t know what job series they qualify for, can’t figure out what grade they could qualify as, and sure don’t understand KSAs. Most of the job application advice is written in bureaucratic-speak or so vague that it is not really helpful.

I’ve written these job searchers dozens of emails (and phone calls) with my advice. Rather than repeat myself, I thought I would publish my guide in one place and offer it to all individuals looking for a federal job. I’d love to hear your comments and I’ll continue to revise the piece to provide the most comprehensive “Unofficial Guide to Landing a Federal Job”

1) Start with

You’ve probably been here but almost all government jobs are posted here. The trick is learning to navigate the system and its filters to find the job you want. There are too many jobs there so you need to do a good job filtering to find the jobs you want.

-Job Series - First, you have to find what job series you qualify for. If you are an engineer, you shouldn’t be applying for jobs as an auditor. Use series search and browse through all the occupatinal series to find the ones you are most interested in. If you are a generalist, you probably want to search for Management and Program Analyst positions (343) as it is a large category. Other key series are 2210 (IT Specialist), 511 (Auditor), 1811 (Criminal Investigator), and 1102 (Contract Specialist). One good way to find what you qualify for is USAJOBS list of job series by college major.

- Grade Series - Second, you have to figure out what grade you qualify for. Federal grades range from 1 to 15 (highest) with a special series for senior executives. Read the specifics of each job announcement but here’s some general guidance on what grades to apply for. Entry-level college graduates should apply for GS-5 or GS-7 (if you have over a 3.0 GPA). Recent master’s graduates should apply for GS-9 positions. PhDs and Lawyers should apply for GS-11s. If you are coming to the government with experience, it is difficult to gauge what specific grade you would come in at.

-Promotion Potential - Make sure to pay attention to the promotion potential for the job. It should say in the job announcement and the higher the promotion potential the higher your potential salary can be in the future. For example, in a GS-9 job with a promotion potential of GS-13, you can move from making $45,000/yr to $80,000/yr in three years if you perform well.

-City Search - If you are a geographically restricted, make sure you refine your job search by city. Make sure you include the names of surrounding towns and cities. For example, when I was searching for jobs in the Tampa/St. Petersburg area, I forget to include the city Bay Pines which is nearby and had a ton of federal jobs.

-Agency search - It is helpful if you have any ideas on specific agencies or work you want to do. The gov’t is big (2.8 million employees) so obviously there is variation and thre may be a better fit based on your interests - environment, homeland security, foreign affiars, etc. If you are pretty flexible, that is good as well as some agencies are harder to get into (such as Department of State, EPA) and you may find other agencies just as rewarding.

-Write Good KSAs - I’ve written a whole post here about writing good KSAs. The short takeaway - spend time on them, use keywords, specific examples, and keep to about a page each.

-Have Realistic Expectations - You will not get the one job you apply for and it will take awhile. Here’s my experience. I graduated from University of Pennsylvania with a Master’s degree funded by a government fellowship and I had a previous government internship. Still, I applied for 40 federal jobs (GS-7 and GS-9 job) and I got 4 interviews and 3 job offers. The timeline also varies by agency. I heard back from agencies in a range from 3 weeks to 4 months. There can be a variety of factors affecting this ranging from ineffecient HR processes to competing priorities and budget freezes. While I used to complain about this time lag and black hole, I applied for a number of private sector jobs approximately a year ago and I have to say it wasn’t much better and had just as much variety. One consulting firm put me through about 8 interviews over a 4 month period before pulling the job due to funding issues. And there were many more similar stories.

-Learn How to Read USAJOBS - There’s a real art to reading USAJOBS announcements. By law, agencies must post their opportunities on USAJOBS even if they really have an inside candidate they want to hire. A couple tips….make sure the job is even opening to outside candidates. It should say on the job posting whether it is open to all citizens, only current feds, or only employees at that current agency. Additionally, check to see the number of positions they are hiring for. Generally, I do not like to apply for a job unless they have multiple vacancies. If they only have one opening, they may have an inside candidate. This changes a little as you get to the higher grades but is still somewhat true. Additionally, look how long the job is open for. If it is too short (7 days), they normally have an inside candidate. If it is continuous and open, I find they are often black holes and may not be even hiring, just collecting resumes. I personally prefer 2 to 4 week openings. A dream opening for me would be multiple positions and open 3 weeks.

2) Entry-Level Leadership Programs

There are a number of good sites to look at outside of USAJOBS. One of the best opportunities are the 2-year entry-level leadership development programs created by federal agencies. The Presidential Management Fellows program is the most well-known and is for recent graduates with advanced degrees to work at a range of federal agencies. However, many agencies have started their own programs either based on agency or career field. I’ve listed a number of them at under Resources/Recruitment Programs. These programs often start recruiting in fall/winter for individuals to start after graduation in May so they may not be a good fit if you missed their application dates.

3) Networking is Key

The truth with any job search is networking is important. Contact any federal employees you know whether through neighbors, alumni associations, previous co-workers, etc. Take them out for a cup of coffee for an information interview to explain your situation. By law, these individuals can’t directly give you a job but they can let you know about opportunities and guide you through the process.

A key part of networking is joining groups that help your case. Join Young Government Leaders, a young professional organization for feds, as they send a newsletter with great info and advertise openings. Join, a social network for govies, and look for openings and reach out to relevant members for their guidance.

4) Other Key Resources

There is a whole industry around appying for government jobs. Most of it is useless information that you can find on so it is not worth much more than a perusal at a bookstore. At, I’ve listed a ton of free resources that can help you in your job search. Start reading the government trade magazines to get an idea of the latest trends in gov’t and hiring. Check out the various government organizations. Finally, if there is a government conference in your area, try to go (maybe if you volunteer you can go for free) and network.

Here are some particularly good websites: -Good site that guides you through the application process
- Lists best government agencies to work for - Put on by three good non-profits, this provides guidance to public service careers. Not extremely federal focused but good.

Other personal favorites:
Lily Whiteman’s columns at Federal Times and Washington Post. She actually has a book coming out called “How to Land a Top-Paying Federal Job.” It’s not out yet but I’m hopeful this provides a great resource to the process.

Derrick Dortch hosts an online chat at Washington Post and a separate series on Federal News Radio that are quite informative about the government hiring process.

6) Picking a career field

As mentioned earlier look around at the various job series to see which ones you qualify for. Many articles have been written about where the government jobs are but I think three great fields that will continue to rise are acquisitions, IT, and finance. The government has trouble recruiting and retaining in these career fields which are becoming rapidly important. These career files have some special hiring exemptions and pay structures so it may be quicker to get in and easier to advance.


If you are interested in federal service, you don’t necessarily have to contribute as a federal employee. The federal government contracts out most of its work. A good way to get into the government industry is to work for one of these consulting companies. They can be quicker to hire and may pay a little more (although there are trade-offs). Plus, you often work on-site with other gov employees so it is common to eventually get hired by the federal government. There is a lot of variety in the consulting companies both in terms of size, specialities, and pay so do your homework. Here is one list of the top 200 government contractors. I’ve also used Vault to research consulting companies.

Hope this helps and good luck in landing a federal job. Federal service is a great way to serve your country, learn great new skills, make a good paycheck, and advance in your career.

I would love to hear any comments from any current feds (or searchers) on the article. I’ll continue to add and make edits based on your comments. My idea is to create a good article that follows the 80/20 rule (80% of the key info is in 20% of the space) and provide a good starting point when searching for a federal job.

Photo Published Courtesy of Creative Commons License by Flickr user “James Gordon”

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