USAJobs Guide for Biologists and Ecologists

Authors: Shawn Taylor, Jessica Burnett

This guide accompanies this post highlighting careers in the US Government. The US federal jobs site, USAJobs, is notoriously difficult to use. This guide aims to clarify much of the process and is geared towards biologists, ecologists, and other natural resources practitioners interested in working for the federal government. Especially in the agencies listed below. It’s especially pertinent to graduate students (Ms & PhD) who are looking for a career outside academia, but a lot of the information also applies toward those with a Bachelor’s degree or in other fields. If you’d like to contribute anything or ask for clarification feel free to comment or add suggestions directly in the google doc version.

Agencies & Types of Jobs

Each of these agencies are like their own corporation. For the most part they all work independently of each other and with their own priorities. Some agencies will interact at the local level, for example when the Forest Service and BLM have land adjacent to each other, or when multiple agencies collaborate on protecting a common endangered species. This list is not all inclusive of every agency and their internal divisions.

U.S. Forest Service (USFS)

The USFS manages the numerous National Forests around the country. A large amount of the USFS budget goes toward firefighting. But outside that agency duties include permitting and administration of logging activities, grazing, mining, and recreation area management. Many positions are centered around large-scale restoration, especially where it concerns endangered species. All major activities must be done under the lens of NEPA and the Endangered Species Act. 

The USFS is hierarchical in structure. The national headquarters is located in Washington D.C, and the country is divided into 9 regions, each containing numerous National Forests (ie. the Gila National Forest, the Flathead National Forest, etc). Each Forest is again divided into districts, which is where much of the on the ground work happens. Each level (National HQ, Regional, National Forest, District) has its own office and staff and usually their own biologists, ecologists, foresters, hydrologists, botanists, geologists, rangeland specialists, soil scientists, etc. 

USFS also has a research division in Forest Research Stations. These are again divided into regions and have numerous offices throughout the country. A lot of research is geared towards better forestry management, restoration, and wildfire research. They run the numerous experimental forests around the country. 

The USFS has their own job board:, this has listings and outreach notices. All applications must still be listed on, and applied for, through USAJobs.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS)

Manages the day to day operation of National Wildlife Refuges and National Fish Hatcheries

The Ecological Services Program has a number of field stations throughout the country which interact at the local and regional level on conservation issues, especially about listed endangered species. A number of other programs, such as Migratory Birds, Fish and Aquatic Conversation, International Affairs, and Law Enforcement hire graduate level biologists and ecologists. The USFWS also helps administer and enforce the Endangered Species Act, and USFWS biologists are consulted by other agencies who have to consider endangered species in their NEPA planning. Information on USFWS and mailing lists is available here

National Park Service (NPS)

NPS manages all National Parks and most National Monuments. Each park unit has an array of biologists across all fields. If a park has locations with significant historical and/or cultural value they will also employ historians, archaeologists, and/or anthropologists. 

The NPS also has the Inventory and Monitoring Network, which is their ecosystem monitoring division. They have regional offices throughout the country, each one doing standardized monitoring at all parks in the area. Each I&M office has various biologists, data people, statisticians, and permanent field crews. 

Bureau of Land Management (BLM)

The BLM manages a large amount of land in the Western U.S. and Alaska. It’s mostly rangeland, but also includes numerous forests (especially in Oregon and Alaska). Instead of regions like in the USFS, management is divided first by state and then subset to districts. Thus most western states have a large State BLM office, usually in the capital city, and several small district offices. Like the USFS all these locations can have a range of science positions which focus on permitting and management of resource extraction, but also recreation and restoration.

U.S. Geological Survey (USGS)

The USGS is a science branch of the Department of Interior, and has two major areas of activity: hazards and environment and natural resources. In the 1990’s many federal biology research positions were moved into the USGS. An array of USGS stations around the country perform research, hazard analysis, mapping, environmental monitoring, education, and scientific outreach encompassing all areas of biology, geography, and natural resources. Some examples include: USGS Coop Units which are located on, and interact heavily with, universities around the country; the Core Science Systems, which has an extremely broad scope in research, modelling, and producing data; the Ecosystems Mission Area which researches numerous things such as land management, habitats, and endangered species. 

U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)

Besides the USFS several agencies in the USDA do significant activities in biology and natural resources.

Agricultural Research Service (ARS) – The ARS does an array of research to improve agricultural productivity and sustainability. They have offices throughout the country and focus on genetics, plant breeding, cropping best practices. etc. Research on rangelands and cattle grazing is included under this umbrella, so several western offices have a large focus on rangeland/desert ecology and restoration. 

Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) – This is an outreach organization which provides information on best practices and funding for various activities (eg. soil conservation, restoration, sustainable agriculture) to farmers and other land owners. They run the Plants Database and US Soil Survey. They have offices throughout the country and employ a lot of soil scientists, ecologists, biologists, agronomists, etc.  

Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) – APHIS plays a large role in regulating and monitoring for plant and animal diseases which directly affect agriculture.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

The NOAA Fisheries division manages marine endangered species under the ESA. This includes whales and other marine mammals, sea turtles, and ocean going salmon. They hire a lot of biologists.

Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)

The EPA administers various sweeping regulations, such as the Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act, and Superfund sites, among many others. They also do research in various areas when it’s relevant to their other goals. For example, EPA scientists do a lot of research on how PCBs and similar pollutants spread through aquatic food webs. 

National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA)

NEPA is not an agency of course, but it plays such a big role in the above agencies it deserves an entry here. All major activities on federal land require the local agency to go through the NEPA process. In general this involves gauging the environmental impact of a project, including effects on endangered species and their habitat, determining if those impacts are “worth it”, and outlining any mitigation plans and/or post-project restoration, and soliciting feedback from the public. Of course the actual process is much more in depth and can take years for any single project. You may also see the terms Environmental Assessment (EA) and Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) which are some of the main parts of the NEPA process.

Mines, grazing leases, logging, new roads, new trails, restoration activities, prescribed burns, new buildings, etc. all require a NEPA review. At local BLM and USFS offices many people spend a large amount of their time on NEPA activities. EA and EIS documents usually get input from numerous people (ie. wildlife/fish biologists, botanists, hydrologists, soil scientists, etc.). Some positions are hired exclusively to work on NEPA documents full time. 

If your considering a position where this will be part of your duties it would be good to read some example EA’s or EIS’s. The BLM hosts all of their NEPA projects here

On the job/ What to expect


Federal employees go through an annual performance review with their immediate supervisors. These are extremely agency specific. At the beginning of every fiscal year (starting in Sep.), or at hiring, these are reviewed and specific goals are laid out. 

Teaching & University affiliations

Some research oriented roles (eg. at some USFS Research Stations, USGS, or ARS locations) are located on a college campus and have the option of having a university affiliation. This can be a staff association which gives access to things like the library. Some people have adjunct professorships which allow them to teach classes, mentor graduate students, or serve on committees while still being a federal employee. 


Federal positions have some fairly generous benefits. 

Health Insurance. Plans vary by state. 
Life insurance
Thrift Savings Plan (TSP). This is the equivalent of a 401k and is available to federal employees only. It has up to 5% matching and a few tax benefits beyond what a 401k has. 
Federal Employees Retirement System (FERS). This is the equivalent of a pension. It’s not voluntary, and for anyone hired after 2014 the contribution is 4.4%. The benefits at retirement are calculated with a formula.
Annual Leave. Annual leave accumulates at 4 hours per 80 hour pay period, or slightly more if you’re employed for 3 or more years. It’s “use it or lose it” and past 30 days of leave you do not accumulate anymore. If you leave your position you’ll be paid out any unused annual leave, including at the end of temporary positions.
Sick Leave. Sick leave also accumulates at 4 hours per pay period. There is no limit on the amount of sick leave you can accumulate. If you leave your position you do not get a payout of sick leave, but you do not lose it either. If you are ever employed in a federal position again you can have any prior unused sick leave credited. 
Parental Leave. Federal employees can use sick leave for up to 8 weeks after childbirth or adoption, and are allowed 12 weeks (not necessarily all at once) of unpaid leave for childcare. 

Finding the jobs

This is the primary site for all federal job openings and applications. All other sites point to here.

Job announcements open and close constantly. The opening date is usually decided by an HR specialist, and not necessarily by the hiring supervisor.

Searching USA Jobs

In my experience the best way to see the latest jobs is to search by series. For example as an Ecologist I’ll search for all positions under the 408 and 401 series, filter to only permanent positions, and sort by open date to see the latest openings. This allows me to see all relevant positions regardless of location or agency. A soils person might search with 457 (Soil Conservation), 470 (Soil Science), or 458 (Soil Conservation Technician). Note everyone should also search for 401 Series (General Natural Resources Management and Biological Sciences) since many positions are advertised under it. You can also search the generic 400 series to show open positions in all biology and natural resource series. For more physical science based positions (eg. hydrology, meteorology, geology, etc), you should also search under the 13xx series. Social science positions (eg. archeology, anthropology, geography, etc) can be found under the 01xx series

New job announcements are posted every business day. If you open an account on USAJobs you can set up notifications to send a daily,weekly,monthly email whenever new postings match predefined searches. 

Other Websites

All federal jobs have to be advertised somewhere and the posting on USAJobs satisfies that requirement. If a supervisor has an applicant in mind they may not advertise anywhere else, but if they want a large applicant pool they’ll likely post it elsewhere. All ecology/biology job boards are good places to look out for. Some agencies have their own job boards (see above), but they’ll always point you toward the official listing at USAJobs.

Openings with numerous positions and/or locations.

Sometimes an agency will do a *bunch* of hiring all at once, and thus list the same GS Level and series at a number of locations. See this position for an example.

Openings that are open for 1 year.

If you are searching through USAJobs you’ll probably come across positions which have an open and close date one year apart, usually in many locations. These are for positions which are regularly hired, like seasonal technicians. Hiring supervisors, through emails and job ads, will point people toward these positions to apply by a certain date. At the specified date an HR specialist will “pull” all applicants at the relevant locations and go through the selection/interview process as normal while the official job ad remains open. 

This job is open to…

Federal jobs can be restricted so only certain people can apply. This is also known as the Hiring Authority. If you’ve never had a federal job before you’ll likely only qualify for positions that are “Open to the Public”. You may see positions open to only current, or recent federal employees, such as this one. Other options may be available for individuals with disabilities (under Schedule A), tribal members, and others. If you qualify for one of the options, make sure to look at what paperwork is needed and get it ready in PDF format now so it’s available when an announcement opens. Don’t bother applying for a position unless you fit one of the categories listed.
It is common to see the exact same position listed twice, the only difference being who the job is open to. See Hiring Authority for more on this.

Outreach job ads

Sometimes a job will be advertised as an “Outreach”. These are usually circulated via email and ask potential applicants to send a response expressing interest, and potentially sending a resume along as well. The hiring person uses responses to gauge initial interest and what to put into the official ad. Responding to an outreach is not the same as applying for the position.  At some point the official position will be posted on USAJobs. If you responded to the outreach the contact person may or may not notify you when it officially opens. 

Should you respond to outreaches? Yes, especially if it’s a position you’re extremely interested in. It gives an opportunity to connect with the hiring person and/or potential supervisor. Outreaches are also a good source to find more details about the job which may not be in the official USAJobs announcement. If you don’t respond to an outreach you can still apply on USAJobs, when the position opens, and be considered for the position.


OPM – Office of Personnel Management

This is the federal agency that dictates all the rules and standards which federal employment must be done. Everything from job advertising, hiring, benefits, promotion, etc, has a rule (and probably an entire handbook) made by the OPM. This is not a human resources department, as you’ll never interact with someone from OPM. Every agency has their own human resources department which handles personal issues, and usually local offices have 1-several people dedicated to this. 

GS Pay Level (eg. GS-5, GS-6, GS-7)

You’ll see these numbers on all job announcements. They designate the salary of a position as well as the experience required to be hired onto that position. Sometimes you’ll see ads with 2+ pay levels (GS 6/7/9, GS 11/12). This means two things: 1) the agency has the option of hiring someone at any of the levels, depending on the person’s experience. 2) If you’re hired at the lower level, then the higher level is usually* the maximum you can achieve through promotion.

*Sometimes an ad will have a higher Promotion Potential listed. 

The exact salary for the same GS level will vary depending on location. Positions in large cities will pay more than those in rural areas. You can see the exact amounts here. These will change slightly every year when congress authorizes a raise for all federal employees (usually around 1%). If the location you are looking to work in is not listed in the table, then the salary is not the “Base Rate”, but the rate listed under “REST OF THE UNITED STATES”. 

If you get an offer the salary is generally non-negotiable. I’ve heard an experience of someone getting an offer for a GS-7, but convincing them they met the qualifications for GS-9 and thus being hired at that. In this case the original announcement was in the range for GS-6/7/9. Someone else has had success negotiating a higher step based on having another offer or existing job with a higher salary. Also you *can* negotiate for some initial leave time. 

GS stands for General Schedule and is the primary pay schedule used in federal positions, with other pay schedules for positions like law enforcement (GL) or doctors (GP). You might also see pay levels on the ZP/ZT/ZS pay scale (instead of GS). The Z system is used in the Commerce Alternative Personnel System (CAPS) system in the Department of Commerce, thus is seen occasionally in biologist positions for NOAA. Current wiki authors have no experience with this system, but it seems like the main difference is a different promotional structure than the GS pay system. 


The step dictates the pay raises you receive after consecutive years in the same position. Each GS level has 10 steps. New employees are hired at Step 1 and move to Step 2 after one year, and Step 3 after two years. Higher steps require longer waiting times (2 years at steps 4-6, and 3 years at steps 7-9) such that getting to Step 10 pay takes 18 years. 

Read more on pay scales and promotions.

Series (401, 408, 482, etc.)

These designate the type of job being advertised. 4XX is in the Natural Resource/Biology realm, and is one of many job types specified by the OPM (eg. Accountants: 5XX, Transportation: 21XX). You also find other potentially relevant jobs in the Physical Sciences (13XX) or Social Science (01XX) series. 

The main thing the Series dictates is the base experience required for a position. For example an Ecologist (Series 408) requires college coursework in math and ecology. A Wildlife Biologist (Series 486) requires a range of classes in biology. The base requirements dictate what you’ll need to qualify for a GS-5 position using education alone (a Bachelors degree). Higher GS levels require the base requirements in addition to higher degrees and/or more experience. See Eligibility.

Position Types 

These definitions dictate the length of the position and the benefits received. 

  • Permanent positions last indefinitely, have all benefits (retirement, health insurance, sick and vacation leave) and are usually at a GS level of 7/9 or higher. 
  • Temporary positions are used for seasonal technician jobs and end after 6 months to 1 year and have few benefits (only sick and vacation leave). If you work for the same job year after year in a temporary position, you’ll be laid off at the end of each season and will have to go through the hiring process again the next season. You may see these casually mentioned as 1039 or 1040 jobs, as the official limit is Not To Exceed (NTE) 1039 hours, or approximately 6.5 months of 40 hour weeks.
  • Term positions end after 1-4 years but include the full range of benefits during that time, most federal post-doc positions are considered term positions. 
  • Permanent Seasonal. These positions are permanent in that you do not have to re-hired year after year, and you receive all benefits. It is seasonal in that in the off-season you go into non-pay status, where you won’t get a paycheck but you’ll still maintain benefits like health and life insurance. These positions are seen a lot in monitoring programs such as the USFS Forest Inventory and Analysis (FIA) and the NPS Monitoring Network
Veterans Preference

If you’re a military veteran you have preference over other applicants. This means that, as long as you meet the experience and/or education requirements for a position, you’ll usually go to the top of the list sent to the Hiring Supervisor. In some cases this means the Hiring Supervisor will receive an applicant list with only one person who has veterans preference, and only if and when they decline a job offer are other applicants considered. Most, but not all, positions consider veterans preference, and it will say so on the USAJobs announcement page. Read more about veterans preference here. Resources for veteran applicants are provided on the EEOC website

Competitive & Excepted Service

Most permanent positions are classified as “Competitive”, meaning that you compete with other applicants. There is also the “Excepted” service where the mechanism for hiring is more flexible. Each job announcement states which one it is at the very top. The main thing to know is that if you are hired into an Excepted position, in most cases you are not eligible for future positions which are only open to current Competitive employees (this is also known as Merit Promotion, and will be listed as Competitive Service under “This job is open to”). There is another hiring authority for current federal employees in the Excepted service (listed as Excepted service under “This job is open to”), but is less common. If you have a choice between a Competitive or Excepted position you should take the Competitive one (pay/location/etc. being equal).

Hiring Authorities

This is the set of rules under which the hiring process must follow for any single position. It will align closely with who a job is open to. As the applicant you don’t have to worry about the hiring authority for the most part as long as you are eligible and feel you qualify for a position. Keep in mind that some hiring authorities will give some benefits down the road. For example being hired under a Student Pathway authority, you may be eligible for a permanent position down the road without going through the application process or competing with other applicants. Similar exemptions exist for those with disabilities (See Schedule A hiring below). Take a look at the various hiring authorities, if none of them apply to you then you are limited to positions which are “Open to the Public”.
It is common to see the same job announcement listed twice, the only difference being the Hiring Authorities (as in each has different entries for “This job is open to”). Usually one will be “Open to the Public”, while the other will have more limited options. If you qualify for both announcements absolutely apply for both as there is no penalty for this. This seminar by a NOAA hiring supervisor gives a great overview of this aspect, and many other things.

Schedule A hiring authority

Applicants with disabilities are eligible to apply to positions under the “Schedule A” hiring authority (see here for eligibility criteria). Individuals hired under Schedule A are hired into a “Excepted service” status, meaning that their position is not considered “Competitive.” Although not mandatory, supervisors can recommend individuals hired under Schedule A to be converted into the Competitive status after 2 years of service. Vacancies are sometimes advertised using two listings, one for Schedule A applicants and the other for non-Schedule A. Individuals with disabilities are not limited to Schedule A positions.  If you wish to apply under Schedule A, clearly state your eligibility and interest in your resume and/or cover letter (here is an example). You are not required to disclose details of your disability nor your reasonable accommodations at any point during the application process, however proof of eligibility for Schedule A (e.g., note from a medical professional or a disability agency) is required at the time of application. OPM encourages eligible individuals to reach out to a Disability Program Manager or Selective Placement Program Coordinator (SPPC) for assistance in applying to USAJob vacancies, and to participate in the Selective Placement Program. Resources for Schedule A applicants are provided on the EEOC website.

Applying & Hiring Process

Application Process

The official job portal for all federal jost is To apply you’ll create a resume that has all relevant information. You can create several resume “packages” geared toward different position types, such as a Wildlife Biologist resume or a Restoration Ecology resume. 

People Involved

HR Specialist. This is a person, usually at a regional or higher level office, who handles all HR hiring and on-boarding related activities. In agencies that are constantly hiring new positions year round it can be their full time job. 

Hiring Supervisor. There is no official name for this, but they are basically the person at the local level who is looking for an applicant and will likely be your direct supervisor. As seen below they do not have complete control over who is selected.

Application Steps
  1. Job ad opens on USAJobs and receives a number of applicants.
  2. Job closes and no more applications are allowed. Jobs close at midnight eastern time on the specified closing date. Some will close sooner when they reach a certain number of applications, and if so is specified next to the open/close dates.
  3. An HR Specialist reviews the minimum qualifications and rejects any not meeting them. You may possess the minimum qualifications but if they are not well documented you’ll get rejected here. See Filling Out Your Application
  4. Of those meeting minimum qualification, the HR Specialist reviews the applicants using resume materials and the questionnaire, and chooses top qualified applicants. Top applicants are forwarded to the hiring supervisor for interviews. This is called the “Certification of Eligibles” so you might hear this referred to as “making the cert list”. 
  5. Hiring supervisor conducts interviews and chooses the desired applicant. If the list they receive is long they may not contact every person on it, thus you may not hear from the hiring supervisor even if you were referred.
  6. The decision goes back to the original HR Specialist who goes through the hiring and on-boarding process. Depending on the agency the hiring supervisor can only give a tentative non-binding offer of employment, and might say something like “I’m going to recommend we hire you”. Only the HR Specialist can send the official offer. 

If you don’t meet the initial qualifications (3) or meet them but aren’t among top candidates (4) you’ll get an email stating this. It will be at least several weeks, and potentially a few months, after an announcement closes for this to happen. The messages are automated and won’t give specific reasons for why you did not qualify or were not a top candidate. 

Eligibility for a GS level
By Education

To qualify on education alone you usually need the following for natural resource jobs.

  • GS-5 – Bachelors degree
  • GS-6/7 – 1 year of graduate coursework
  • GS-9 – Masters degree
  • GS-11 – PhD
  • GS-12 – Sometimes just a PhD, but sometimes also a year of GS-11 (or equivalent) experience depending on the position and agency.
  • GS-13 and higher. Only experience can qualify for these positions.

*While GS-8 and GS-10 are possible they’re rarely seen. 

You’ll need to prove your education and scanned transcripts are the best option for this. A good practice is to request official copies of all relevant transcripts now and have them sent to yourself, then scan them as PDFs so they’ll be available when an announcement opens that you want to apply to. Unofficial transcripts are fine for the application but they will likely request official transcripts if you are offered a position. As long as it states somewhere you have a degree awarded then that is sufficient. You’ll also need your transcripts in most instances to prove you meet minimum coursework requirements. See More on Education below.
If you are still in school and graduating soon you may still be able to apply. Look for text in the announcement to the effect of “Only experience and education obtained by XX date will be considered”. They are very strict about the dates. Some positions state that a degree must be earned by the start date. The HR specialist may ask for proof that you’ll attain a degree If you have yet to graduate. Generally some “official looking document” from your advisor or department head stating you’ll have a degree by a certain date will suffice, though this is at the discretion of the HR Specialist. Also the minimum education requirement for some positions is 1-2 years of graduate course work, so if you are 2+ years into your graduate program and graduating soon you can qualify without having the degree in hand yet.

By Experience.

You can qualify for a GS level without the above education by having 1+ years of work experience at the prior level. For example you can qualify for a GS-9 by having 1 year as a GS-7, or qualify for a GS-11 with 1 year as a GS-9. This can be equivalent work if it was not a federal position. For example 1 year of experience as field tech in an academic lab should be equal to GS-5 work and will qualify you for a GS-6 job. GS-6-9 are usually crew leaders or permanent biology positions, and GS-11 are usually doing research/analysis, or are the lead person managing various programs year round. Sometimes a year at GS-5 will qualify for GS-7 and the qualifications will say this.

To an extent, previous positions must match the one you’re applying for. For example having experience as a GS-9 Hydrologist won’t necessarily qualify you for a GS-11 Soil Scientist. Though skills and duties vary widely nowaday so it won’t hurt to try, as long as your experience meets the required specialized experience. See Filling out your application.

To qualify with non-federal job experience you need to lay out the job description of your prior job. It should match as close as possible to the “specialized experience” described in the job announcement. This can be done on your resume, don’t be afraid to make it as long as possible. In your application I also recommend having a letter specifically outlining each point of the specialized experience and referencing the prior job duty that matches it. See the Appendix for examples of this. Whether it counts or not is up to the discretion of the HR Specialist. 

By Education and Experience

It’s possible to combine education and experience if you’re falling short on one. The important thing is the total experience *time* must add up accordingly. If you have 1 semester of graduate coursework (approximately 5-6 months) and 4 months of GS-5 level experience, that will not qualify for a GS-6 position. 1 semester of graduate coursework and 6 or more months of GS-5 experience will. OPM guidelines for this are here, there are some stipulations for doing this with GS-9 or higher. The UGSS also has a detailed breakdown for combining experience and education. The final calculation is up to the discretion of the HR Specialist.

Any experience you have from your coursework (eg. graduate field or lab work) likely will not count as experience. See the Paragraph i Education and experience gained concurrently, here.

More on education

If qualifying by education you will need to meet specific coursework requirements. Each series has its own specifications. For example to qualify for a position under the Wildlife Biology Series, 486* you need:

  • 9 hours of wildlife courses
  • 12 hours of zoology related courses
  • 9 hours of botany or plant science courses

These are strict requirements and a lot of applicants miss qualifying by not considering this or being a few courses short. You need to provide transcripts to show that you took these courses, so always upload transcripts with your application. Also consider adding a letter in addition to your cover letter outlining all your courses. See the Example education qualification letter.

*You can still be a Wildlife Biologist if you do not have botany courses. Many of these positions are hired under the more general 401 series. For example see this large hire by the USFWS.

Multiple Job Series

Many announcements have multiple series listed. For example this one is advertised for either a 401, 408, 415, or 1301. In this case you must meet the minimum requirements for at least one of these series. In the questionnaire you’ll be asked about each series and whether you feel you qualify for it. It is possible to qualify for more than one series and it is ok to say you are qualified for more than one. Don’t forget about specialized experience, which in these cases is usually the same regardless of which series you qualify for. 

Filling Out your application

The hardest part about USAJobs applications is proving that you meet the minimum qualification. Therefore always read the Qualifications sections of the announcement. This is how the initial application pool is screened and HR Specialists will be looking at the exact wording of the announcement to match to your resume and experience. Especially look at the “specialized experience” as this is how specialties are defined at the higher grade levels (GS9+). For example an announcement for a GS-9 Hydrologist might have specialized experience as “management of streamflow data; evaluation and/or application of watershed hydrology models; operation of streamflow measurement equipment” and you must have these skills listed in your resume to qualify. Consider having a separate qualification letter, in addition to your resume, to highlight things. See the example in the appendix.


Most people recommend uploading a pdf resume/cv instead of using the USAJobs resume builder. A word doc is also acceptable and may have better results with the resume scanning software, but make sure to remove any attached comments. Near the end of each announcement you’ll find the “Required Documents” section which outlines the minimum details which need to be included in your resume. One of the most important things is putting the start and end dates of prior positions (down to the month) and hours worked for each job in your resume. This is because meeting the qualifications with prior experience is based on total time worked. When they say “At Least one year” they mean at least 52 weeks of 40 hours/week. Someone should be able to quickly look at the prior experience on your resume and do the math to make sure it meets the minimum.

Under each prior position list duties and accomplishments. This is where you should match the wording and specifics of the qualifications (and the questionnaire, see below) to your past experience and accomplishments. Don’t be afraid of being too detailed, especially for listing experience to match to the specifics of the announcement. Prior experience can also be freelance or volunteer work, but you still need to list the time frame and total hours per week worked. 


You can include references in your resume if you like but they are not required. The HR Specialist will not contact them for the initial screening. If your application makes it to the final application pool the hiring supervisor will request them if needed.

Cover letter

Absolutely include cover letters tailored to each position. These can be geared toward the hiring supervisor who will be doing interviews. Here all general advice about cover letters applies. If applying for a research position this can be treated similar to a university professor application package, where your cover letter highlights how you’re a great fit and a separate research statement highlights past accomplishments and future work and goals.


You should also read through the application questionnaire. You can find this linked in the “How you will be evaluated” section of the announcement. You’ll fill this out during the application after you upload documents. It will have some bureaucratic questions like what, if any, federal positions you’ve had before or your veterans status. Most, but not all, positions will also have a series of experience questions where you rate yourself on a scale from no experience to expert. In addition to the qualifications, details about these experience ratings are things you should highlight in your resume. The HR Specialist probably will not fact check anything beyond comparing it against your resume. The hiring supervisor (likely your future boss) may call references to verify things, or will be knowledgeable enough to know when experience has been overstated. Some embellishment is fine but outright lies (ie. saying you supervised technicians when you never did) can be justification to not hire you. 

Job/Application Questions

If there is a contact person on the announcement who looks like the hiring person (usually listed near the top), then consider emailing them asking for more details about the job, duties, location, etc. They can potentially tell you more in depth details about the position and it will also put you on their radar. Due to hiring rules there are many things they cannot say or discuss with you, so don’t be surprised if you get very vague answers. If the only contact person is in HR (usually listed near the bottom) don’t contact them unless you have a legitimate application question. This is likely 1 of 100’s of positions on their plate and they cannot tell you any specific job details beyond what is in the announcement. The HR contact can answer questions like what special forms may be needed or whether past federal experience falls under one of the special hiring authorities.

Hiring Process

If you accept an offer there will be plenty of communication between yourself and your new supervisor. You’ll likely be put in touch with the HR Specialist who will send you a bunch of on-boarding forms to fill out, though it’s also possible a local HR Person will handle this.

Background checks. All positions (except for seasonal ones*) will require a background check. Most positions are “non-sensitive”, so you’ll fill out form SF85. This involves writing down all your jobs, addresses, and schooling for the prior 10 years and 3 non-family personal references. Most of the time Letters *do* get sent to your personal references for them to fill out. 

*Seasonal positions that last 6 months or less usually don’t require a background check. But most seasonal positions have the option to extend an additional 6 months or longer, and if the agency/supervisor extends your position then you’ll probably be required to complete the background check then.

Other Resources
Record Seminars

This PDF contains three example letters outlining specific qualifications for job announcements.

4 Comments on “USAJobs Guide for Biologists and Ecologists

  1. Pingback: Jobs in the US Government for graduate students | Jabberwocky Ecology

  2. Make sure your cover letter and CV use all the terms used in the job notice. The first step is matching their buzzwords. They used to have GS2 staff with hightlighters looking for and counting matching terms. Now it is automated. You won’t get past GO if you don’t match enough of the buzzwords. Also, be prepared to WAIT. This process can be insanely long – months and months. Even if they offer you the position, it can take months to get “onboarded.” And no – they NEVER send out notices to those who didn’t make cert. They do not acknowledge applications.

  3. I’m sorry about your bad experiences, but besides matching keywords none of this is useful advice.

  4. Pingback: 5 More Non-Labwork Jobs I Wish I Knew About During Grad School – Life After My Ph.D.

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