Jobs in the US Government for graduate students

Do you have a graduate degree and are looking for a job? The US Government hires thousands of people with your skill set. Here I’ll give a quick overview of the scope of those jobs.
If you’re looking for the exhaustive guide for applying on USAjobs its here.

Why should I work for the federal government?

A career with a federal agency can be just as rewarding, and sometimes extremely similar, as a career in academia. Science, outreach, and land management agencies do a large amount of work that requires the exact skills you learn while in graduate school.

There are numerous perks to working for the government. Job security can be very high as federal employees have a lot of protection against unlawful termination, even when agency funding is cut. If you’re looking to escape academia but don’t want to wander too far, many agencies have research focused institutions where publications are the primary goal. In these cases much less emphasis is placed on outside funding and mentoring students. A lot of these organizations are even located on universities campuses where you can be an adjunct professor if desired. 

For natural resource folk the major land management agencies have numerous monitoring programs where it’s possible to get permanent field positions, or associated management roles. The day to day management of parks, forests, and other public lands also require knowledge of the wildlife and ecosystems in addition to project management and people skills. The positions can pay well too. Someone with a graduate degree could start out making $53k (GS-9) to $76k (GS-12) per year, with cost of living adjustments in most major metro areas. Most years will have a small (1-2%) raise to match inflation. There are also automatic raises at 1-3 year intervals. Other benefits include a 401k, pension, and an array of health insurance plans.

Where can I work with a graduate degree?

The figure below shows the number of employees with graduate degrees for the mainstream science agencies in recent years. The GS and ZP labels indicate different entry pay levels for someone with MS degree (GS-9, ZP-2) and PhD (GS-11/12, ZP3), though they can be obtained with relevant experience too and numerous people without graduate degrees have similar positions. The numbers below also do not include leadership positions (GS-13+, ZP-4+), which for the most part are attainable thru promotion only. Non-permanent positions can be “Term” positions, when someone is brought on for a specific project for 1-4 years, and also post-doc positions. 

What types of jobs are there?

This next series of figures shows the types of positions prevalent across the same agencies. The codes correspond to the different OPM Occupational Series. For example the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) hires numerous chemists, while the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) hires the majority of hydrologists in the government. The Forest Service (USFS) has a large number of Foresters, but nearly just as many Wildlife Biologists and Archaeologists, as well as Ecologists and Botanists. The most Fish Biologists are employed by NOAA, who is in charge of all endangered and protected ocean animals. The “General” categories are the most common. Agencies use this when a role doesn’t fit precisely into other occupation codes.

Where are the jobs located?

Jobs described above are in every state, though some agencies are more spread out than others. Public land agencies have positions throughout most states, while other agencies are in a handful of locations. For example Centers for Disease Control (CDC) employees are mostly in the Atlanta, GA headquarters.

How do I apply?

Unfortunately finding and applying for federal positions is notoriously difficult. The official jobs site, USAJobs.gov, can have 100’s of open positions for a single occupation type, each one with slightly different requirements. Advice on what exactly should go into an application is also lacking. Numerous people who are extremely qualified aren’t even considered for some roles because they do not meet the exact eligibility requirements, or did not communicate their qualifications well enough. For these reasons I wrote a guide for applying to positions on USAJobs you can find in this post.

Code & Data

Figures above were made with data released monthly by the Office of Personnel Management. The code is available on GitHub.

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