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The Thrill of the (Government Job) Hunt: How to Master the USAJobs Puzzle

This article was originally published by the Author at ThePOSTDOCket.

As a participant in the AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowships (STPF) program I had always dreamed of applying my scientific knowledge to civil service. Through my fellowship placement at the National Institutes of Health, I was equipped with an exemplary mentor, a supportive network of STPF alumni, and ample opportunities to grow in my career.

But while I felt well prepared for the future, there was a single obstacle that caused my anxiety to flare up: USAJobs.


The supermassive black hole at the core of supergiant elliptical galaxy Messier 87, or an incredibly on-point metaphor for USAJobs (Event Horizon Telescope collaboration et al.)

USAJobs, which refers to the United States Governmental Job Board, has been known to induce shudders among federal employees and government contractors alike. In fact, people often refer to USAJobs as a “Black Hole” because of the tendency for resumes to get sucked in without ever resurfacing. USAJobs has also gained notoriety for its rigidity, which tends to exclude qualified individuals from being referred to a hiring manager.

Fortunately, through my new network, I have learned a few tricks that may help job seekers escape the dreaded resume black hole and get their resumes into the hands of a hiring manager. If you are a scientist who is interested in a government career, I would like to offer the following pieces of advice to remember when confronting USAJobs for the first time:

  1. Use the Resume Builder to create your government resume: If you have never written a government resume, don’t panic; USAJobs has a built-in tool to ensure that your information is in the correct format. To create my federal resume, I entered the basic information using the Resume Builder, downloaded the PDF, and converted it into a Microsoft Word document to add additional sections later. Using this tool ensures that you include the required information about each of your previous positions such as the time in the position, your key duties and responsibilities, and your major accomplishments. 


  1. Learn to use the search filters:  Since USAJobs contains posts for all federal agencies, narrowing down positions suited to your expertise and education level is crucial. Most civilian federal jobs are classified based on the General Schedule (GS) system, which is determined by a combination of experience and educational level. For instance, obtaining a Ph.D. qualifies a candidate for most positions at the 11th level (GS-11), so postdocs looking for open positions should not look below this level. Also, USAJobs classifies positions using job series codes based on the area of expertise. For example, as someone who was performing program management work in the NIH extramural environment, I specifically targeted my search towards jobs with a series code of 0601 (“General Health Science”). 


  1. Pay attention to the language of the announcement: Although the Resume Builder may be used to create the basic format of your federal resume, it is important to tailor the content of your resume towards the job announcement. Unlike a private sector resume, USAJobs resumes generally do not have a page limit, but it is important to list the accomplishments and responsibilities that match the position description. For instance, if you are applying to be a Scientific Review Officer, be sure to highlight your experience reviewing grant applications, manuscripts, and research presentations. If you cannot identify the keywords from the Job Duties or Qualifications sections that should be highlighted, use a word cloud generator! This tool will show you which words to use frequently when framing your accomplishments and responsibilities in your federal resume. 


  1. Be generous with the questionnaire: Besides uploading your federal resume, you will also have to complete a questionnaire that is specific to the job that you are targeting. This questionnaire will ask you to rate your level of expertise with different tasks associated with the job vacancy. Although academic postdocs are trained to avoid overconfidence, it is crucial that you are NOT too hard on yourself when taking the questionnaire, because a low score could impact your ability to be referred to the hiring manager. Therefore, I encourage you all to remember that you should be comparing your level of expertise to the average layperson rather than the experts in your field. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, only 1.2% of the U.S. population has a Ph.D. Therefore, remember that while you might underrate yourself, you are an expert in your field!


  1. Talk to the hiring manager: Postdocs are trained to withstand rejection, but learning that you did not make the certificate of eligible candidates (i.e. the “cert”) is never pleasant. To find out why you were not referred to the hiring manager, it is important to reach out to the human resources (HR) contact on the job announcement. A short email exchange with HR staff about your job application might reveal how you can improve your resume for future postings. 


  1. Request an appeal if necessary: Furthermore, if you have reason to believe that you should have made the certificate of eligible candidates based on your combination of education and previous experience, you can always appeal the decision by requesting a formal reconsideration of qualifications to the HR contact. I actually underwent the formal reconsideration process when I was rated at a GS level below my qualifications. Upon a successful appeal, I ended up getting an offer at a higher grade than my initial offer. Although confronting HR reps might seem daunting, advocating for yourself during the job search will usually leave you in a much better position than before. 


While USAJobs appears daunting to those fresh out of academia, it is important to not let its intricacies hinder your dreams of public service. Remember to reach out to any contacts you might know who have obtained federal positions, have colleagues proofread your resume, and just keep applying! Your expertise and unique skill set are extremely valuable in the government sector, and if you can survive your dissertation defense, USAJobs should be just a small hurdle. 

Image: USA Jobs Logo,

Figure 1 Credit: The supermassive black hole at the core of supergiant elliptical galaxy Messier 87, or an incredibly on-point metaphor for USAJobs. (Credit)

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