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Navigate Your Career Through USAJOBS

Pamela Collins
Aug 3, 2016

At some point during your AAAS S&T Policy Fellowship year, you might consider getting hired as a Fed.  To help you pursue this path, the Mentoring and Fellows over F**ty affinity groups organized “USAJOBS Insights,” in which alumni Fellows discussed strategies to maximize chances for success.  In this blog article, posted by event co-coordinator Pamela Collins, an anonymous current Fellow summarizes several key recommendations that emerged from the evening's discussion.

1) Equip your resume to survive the gauntlet.

Consider using the USAJOBS Resume Builder to identify essential content and then craft your own, more visually appealing resume. Meticulously describe your responsibilities and achievements -- the hiring process scrutinizes specifics and you never know what will pique the reader’s interest. Detail each of your past positions (work and volunteer) in at least one (ideally two) pages; be mindful that mere length may differentiate you from the next applicant. Emphasize your soft skills, even more than you think you should, using action words such as “managed,” “spearheaded,” or “coordinated.” If you must, list your technical skills as keywords at the end. And rather than simply listing courses of study, explain the skills you developed in each and how they gave you the qualifications for the job that you seek. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, incorporate keywords from the job description into your resume (Tip: use them all, and use the critical keywords often). 

2) “Make the cert.”

Your resume will most likely first be screened by a computer algorithm, which checks to see whether and how often keywords from the job description appear in your resume. Based on this and your responses to the assessment questions (Tip: seek to justify a 5/5 whenever possible), the algorithm ranks applicants on a point system.  Human Resources (HR) combs through the “most qualified” applicants, validating responses from the assessment of the resume.  They trim the pile of applications, embracing reasons to disqualify applicants.  If you prevail, HR certifies you as qualified for that job series at a particular grade (e.g., "Health Science Policy Analyst" at the GS-13/14 level).  You’ve “made the cert” and the hiring manager (i.e., your potential supervisor) will review your application, and may choose to interview you.

3) Stop underestimating yourself.

Cast away self-doubt; you deserve “most qualified.”  You don’t need to be the world’s expert, and you can’t compare yourself to others in DC, in the fellowship, or at happy hour. Give the algorithm and HR every reason to keep you in the game. Seek job listings with grades reading “12/13/14,” “12/14,” or “12/13" with promotion potential to "14" (they are equivalent). Remember that where you start on the GS scale is critical, so enter at the appropriate level (13 or possibly even 14). You may actually qualify for a higher GS level than you realize based on total current compensation (i.e., everything you pay taxes on – not just your current salary) or the type of work that you are currently performing (as fellows, it is not uncommon to be performing work equivalent to what is expected of a higher GS level).

4) Cast a wide net.

The alumni all agreed on advice that surprised most current fellows: Set up several (ideally 6-7) job alerts and review them daily (not weekly). Explore job series outside your specialty and comfort zone; offices all over the federal government are looking for your skills.  Don’t disqualify yourself from a job unless it requires a medical degree and you lack one. The more you apply, the greater your chances of making the cert, and your cert is valid for six months.  Apply even if the application window is brief, because window duration does not imply that there is an internal candidate.

5) Start sooner; thank yourself later.

Applying for a job is itself a part-time job. First, curate your LinkedIn profile, either tailored to target your dream job, or purposefully generic so you fit a variety of jobs.  Next, maintain multiple versions of your resume so you can quickly apply for positions as they occur. Finally: apply, apply, apply! By applying for jobs, you are literally “getting your name out there.” If you pass the cert for one position but are not offered the job, you may be sought out for another position that has not yet been advertised.

In closing

Not all of these suggestions will be ideal for everyone. For the lucky few who get hired into their current office, the application process is more forgiving.  Everyone is a unicorn with unique destinations and navigation skills.  Keep asking for directions, building roads beneath your feet, and making room for others to follow.

Image courtesy of Sylwia Bartyzel of

Pamela Collins


This blog does not necessarily reflect the views of AAAS, its Council, Board of Directors, officers, or members. AAAS is not responsible for the accuracy of this material. AAAS has made this material available as a public service, but this does not constitute endorsement by the association.

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