Navigating the Federal Employment Process

 Whatever your field of chemistry and type of job you want, there is probably a job suitable for you with a unit of the federal government. The federal government offers laboratory and non-laboratory employment opportunities for chemical professions. Laboratory employment opportunities include the national laboratories and laboratories operated by U.S. cabinet departments such as the Department of Energy, Department of Agriculture, and Department of Defense. Regulatory agencies such as the Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency also offer chemists employment opportunities. Independent government agencies such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office are additional sources of employment opportunities.

Jobs under the Office of Personnel Management are subject to Civil Service laws found in Title 5, Code of Federal Regulations. Excepted Service job are not subject to appointment, pay, and classification rules under Title 5. Excepted government units set their own qualification requirements that are less stringent. These government units can hire non-citizens but preferentially do hire veterans of the U.S. armed services.

Where to find information on job openings

Nonstatus jobs are those for new entrants into government service. These must be posted on the Internet website. This job site is free. (Another job site for federal government jobs, charges job hunters for their services.) Job listings are updated daily and searchable using keywords. At any time, approximately 15,000 jobs are posted. Most job openings for chemical professionals are posted in the 1320 job series. Status jobs are for those with three years of government service and veterans who have completed three years of military service. Posting of these jobs on USAJOBS is optional.

Applicants must set up a USAJOBS account. After doing so, they can create their résumé online and post it. Job hunters can also set up a search agent to alert them when jobs matching their interests are added to USAJOBS. They can focus their searches by job location and job specialty such as analytical chemist or job title.

Job listings indicate that a government agency is seeking to fill a position. They also provide the salary, job grade, provide the job location, and promotion potential. In addition, listings detail how to apply for a position, provide the key requirements applicants must meet, and describe how the applicants will be rated. Job listings are usually purged after three months; however, some agencies such as NIST maintain continuous listings on USAJOBS.

The national laboratories do not use USAJOBS. Instead they post their job openings in the careers section of their website.

Qualifications, pay and benefits

Job classifications and degree requirements for many government positions are:

  • GS-5                 BS Degree
  • GS-7                 BS Degree with 3.0 GPA or higher
  • GS-9                 M.S. Degree
  • GS-11                PhD Degree

Government jobs have a 1 to 3 year probationary period. Citizenship and security clearance requirements vary from one government job to another.

Pay scales for many government jobs are available at Salaries compare well to similar industrial jobs and are generally higher than in academia. Actual salaries vary from one locality to another because they are adjusted for the local cost of living. Medical and dental insurance, life and long-term disability insurance, saving plans equivalent to 401k plans, retirement benefits, vacation and sick leave vary from one government unit to another.

How jobs posted on are filled

After an application is received the candidate is assigned an appropriate GS level. A competitive list of eligible candidates is established for each job opening. Many applicants are disqualified because they fail to show the required education or experience for a specific job opening, do not submit all the required forms, or fail to demonstrate that they have the required knowledge, skills and abilities specified in the job posting. All these requirements are quite rigid. Other reasons for disqualification include lack of required college transcripts, failure to provide other required information, or improper or late submission of the application.

Variations in hiring practices

Some government units have different employment application procedures. For example, the EPA posts job openings on their own website ( and the Department of Justice uses Avue Digital Services to provide the software its job applications process.

The most important factors in applying for government positions include:

  • Job-related experience
  • Weight given to previous job responsibilities with less attention paid to skills
  • Qualifications of candidates
  • Performance in interview
  • Recommendations from known persons
  • Reference checks

Since government jobs are public service, more weight is given to volunteer work the candidate has done than is the case in the private sector.

Knowledge, Skills Abilities (KSAs) statement

A job announcement may ask you for your KSAs. Each question asks about responsibilities and accomplishments that you can claim and that show why you’re qualified. Make sure your responses are complete but concise. It helps to use the same keywords in your response as used in the job announcement.

There are many similar jobs available in units of state or local government. The procedures for applying for these jobs vary from state to state and city to city.

Government service offers many rewarding careers for chemical professionals. So wise job hunters will include government job opportunities as part of their job-hunting strategy.

As a full-time writer, John Borchardt is the author of the ACS book “Career Management for Scientists and Engineers” and more than 1,400 articles published in magazines, newspapers and online. He is also an ACS career consultant.

4 Responses to Navigating the Federal Employment Process

  1. fentonh says:

    Mr./Dr. Borchart, you specifically recommend “employment opportunities” with the Department of Energy.

    I regularly check the DOE labs’ HR sites and enter the word “chemistry” into their search functions. At Brookhaven, NREL, Argonne, Sandia, and the Berkeley consortium, the OVERWHELMING proportion of the job openings are for POST-DOC positions, not regular employment. In case one is nevertheless inclined to gain additional experience as a post-doc, then, wait: if your doctorate is more than three or sometimes five years in the past, then your application is ineligible. The rationale for this policy (if one is lucky enough to find someone willing to comment on it) runs along the lines of “prevent exploitation” (huh? Sounds like age discrimination to me)

    Mr./Dr. Borchart, do you have any comments on this situation? Is there any inclination to change this policy?

  2. John Borchardt says:

    The national laboratories and some other labs offering pos-doc or internship positions often offer permanent positions to post-docs and interns who perform well in these temporary positions.

    Post-doctoral and internship positions are intended to broaden one’s skills and enhance one’s qualifications as a chemist. As such, the practice in government – and often in academia – is to offer positions only to recent Ph,D. graduates. I, for one, would like to see post-docs offered to mid-career chemists seeking to develop expertise in technology fields new to them. However, the presumption seems to be that such individuals can develop this expertise through independent study. This begs the question of how such individuals can do research and publish or patent in the field to develop credentials that will help them in job hunting.

    I would like to see mid-career internships developed for and offered to a significant number of chemists seeking to change their field or move into non-traditional careers.

  3. Thank you for your response. I, too am confused that national laboratories are so inflexible on assisting in the re-training of mid-career scientists. After all, it is at these laboratories where cutting edge technology is supposed to be developed. They would rather hire post-docs from abroad than mid-career American scientists who seek relevant retraining.

    I am writing you right now from Brookhaven National Laboratory, where I am so lucky to have developed some connections that allow me to work here as a visiting scientist for a few weeks each year.

    While here, I have asked some of the post-docs about the subject that you most recently raised:
    “The national laboratories and some other labs offering post-doc or internship positions often offer permanent positions to post-docs and interns who perform well in these temporary positions.”

    Actually, the individuals with whom I spoke strongly deny that it is so easy to get a permanent position here after a successful post-doc experience. They assert that the success rate is not more than 10%. In fact there are numerous empty laboratories here (in the chemistry department).

    Finally, I should mention having discussed the anti-retraining policy of DOE laboratories with Dr. Nancy Jackson (herself an employee at Sandia). She, too thought that the policy was not helpful.

    So that leads me to ask: both you and Dr. Jackson have much more clout in the ACS than I do; I’m just a vastly under-employed but passionate research scientist. Why aren’t either of you raising this in the upper echelons of ACS policy advisors?

  4. NSA Job says:

    This is some important info for anyone applying for government work. The importance of volunteer work cannot be understated!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: