Key Job Search Lessons from a U.S. State Department Intern
By Andreas Lucido
In transitioning out of the military, I quickly realized that choosing my next career path would not be an easy decision. However, my passion to serve naturally drew me toward federal employment. Like many others who have served our country, I wanted to be a part of something bigger than myself. I knew that working on projects for the greater good of the United States would continue to offer me truly fulfilling opportunities. Therefore, I spent my first year of business school applying for internship positions on the USAJOBS website. Through this process, I discovered many differences when compared to working in the military and applying for positions in corporate America. The following topics discuss a few of the key lessons from my interactions with high ranking Government Service (GS) employees and Senior Executive Service (SES) leaders over this past summer.
Brevity is not rewarded on the federal resume:
It is best for federal applicants to be as comprehensive as possible. Many times, computer software is used as the initial filter for screening candidates. Moreover, job summaries, duty descriptions, and qualifications for these positions are written with great complexity. Matching key words and articulating specialties for that position can help overcome an applicant’s first obstacle. With this in mind, it is still extremely important to maintain and update that standard one page (civilian) resume. Once a federal applicant receives an interview invitation, the applicant should forward their one page resume to the interviewer. Even federal interviewers can have a difficult time trying to comprehend the resumes built on USAJOBS. Applicants should do the interviewer a favor and keep it simple by providing a well-constructed one page resume.
Networking can still lead to a federal position:
Although federal agencies do not have the hiring authority to pipeline talent, there have been cases where a simple word of mouth communication can lead to a new job opening being filled. For example, I noticed that several government contractors became federal employees because of the relationships they had built in a certain office. Furthermore, I saw many retired Colonels, with over twenty years of military experience, fill GS-13 positions and a few Captains, with only five years military experience, fill higher level positions than those retired Colonels. In rare circumstances, I have even heard of instances where office chiefs or directors can tailor a position to fit the qualifications of a certain hand selected candidate. At the end of the day, informed applicants are not just dropping their name in a hat and hoping for the best.
Veteran’s Preference: Veteran’s Preference is a federal law that gives eligible veterans preference over other applicants in almost all competitive and excepted federal appointments. A five-point veterans’ preference will move a candidate’s application to the top of the list. For example, if one hundred applicants apply for a federal position and there are five veteran applicants, the five veterans will most likely be interviewed first and one of those veteran applicants will get the position. Likewise, a QUALIFIED applicant with a ten-point veteran preference is given the highest eligibility of all. If an office chooses not to hire a QUALIFIED veteran with a ten-point preference, the decision must be validated through the Human Resources department. I noticed that many supervisors were frustrated by this policy, as it was difficult to hire applicants without military experience for certain positions. With that being said, it is important to remember that someone who is qualified may not always be the most qualified.
Interviews are based on personality and experience:
Most of the federal interview process is developed as a way to determine an applicant’s overall qualification for a position. The interviewers are typically direct supervisors and potential colleagues. Case and behavioral based questions are rarely used, if at all. Interviewers are also looking for organizational and cultural fit. Do they see the candidate getting bored in the position and quitting after two weeks? Applicants can best prepare for the federal interview by knowing their strengths and weaknesses as well as effective ways to communicate what they have accomplished.
Federal hiring is not quick a process:
Applicants must be prepared for the long haul, especially if the applicant is applying for a position that requires a security clearance. Agencies can vary in terms of speed and efficiency while certain positions simply require more or less stringent screening. I personally know candidates that have received phone calls up to a year after submitting their application with an inquiry about starting a position. Therefore, it is never too early to apply, even for those already holding a security clearance. It is important to note that a Department of Defense security clearance is different than a Federal Government security clearance. The Office of Personal Management (OPM) will decide either to grant reciprocity or conduct another investigation. The hiring process can be long, but OPM is working with the agencies to try to streamline the process to 90 days.
Negotiations are limited:
Everything is negotiable right? Unfortunately, federal hiring is a very standardized and regulated process. For instance, applicants that apply for a GS-13 position will only receive GS-13 and Step 1 pay. One cannot negotiate GS-13 and Step 7 pay. However, applicants that apply for a GS-11/12/13 “ladder” position may be able to negotiate to start at the GS-13 grade based on their qualifications and experience. On the contrary, the hiring chief or director can make a decision to start an applicant at the grade of GS-12 and the promotion to GS-13 will be determined by time. Similarly, the applicant does not have the opportunity to make GS-14 in that GS-11/12/13 “ladder” position. The applicant will need to find an opening for a GS-14 position underneath a different job title, department, or agency.
Know Yourself and Learn the System:
Knowing what you want to do and where you want to do it is not necessarily the best advice for federal applicants. For those who want to work in government, I would say it is more important to know what rank they are looking to serve based on their qualifications and goals. In addition, they should apply to as many departments and agencies as possible. They should not put all their eggs in one basket and they should not settle. I spent my summer internship talking with as many people as time allowed. I sat down with my supervisors every morning over coffee to learn about the system. Although there is loyalty, my biggest takeaway is that most federal supervisors have been around long enough to know that the system is a very bureaucratic one. There are truly no hard feelings when it comes to applications and position changes. It is all about a person’s capacity to serve and how well they navigate the federal employment system.
Andreas S. Lucido is MBA candidate at the University of Illinois. He served as a Captain with the U.S. Army Rangers and has interned at the U.S. State Department. Following graduation, he will be serving as a public sector consultant in Washington D.C. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org