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Federal Government

Job Application Systems | Agencies | Online Resources

Careers with the U.S. Federal Government

The US Federal Government is the largest employer in the United States. It is responsible for protecting the environment, regulating worker health and safety, ensuring the safety of the nation’s food supply, overseeing air traffic control operations, forging international partnerships in an era of globalization, fighting ongoing battles against poverty, homelessness, and illegal drug use, and conducting a global war against terrorism.

Nearly all federal departments and agencies maintain an international affairs division. Federal job hunters are encouraged to explore a wide variety of agencies that may be involved with international policymaking.

Hiring within the federal government is decentralized. Each agency manages its own hiring and is best viewed as a separate employer. The US Office of Personnel Management (OPM) functions as the federal government’s human resource division, regulates hiring practices and provides vacancy information for the entire federal government.

In an effort to recruit top talent, the federal government offers federal loan forgiveness for employees working in any level of government or for a nonprofit. See information below in “Online Resources.”

Career Paths

There are two main public sector tracks to consider: foreign service and civil service.

Foreign Service Officers spend the majority of their time outside the U.S., with occasional stateside rotations. The only means of entry into the Foreign Service is via the examination process and placements can take up to two years, so if this is a career path students are considering seriously, they should aim to take the written examination during the spring before or during their first year of a 2-year Master’s program. The oral examination is offered at different times throughout the ensuing fall and winter. It can take up to a year to be placed following successful completion of the oral examination phase, as more candidates pass than there are positions to fill.

Civil Service positions can be gained through the competitive hiring process (i.e. government positions posted to usajobs.com and other sites) or through application to the Presidential Management Fellowship program, which is a 2-year, fast-track program for graduate students. There are also agency-specific fellowship programs that allow entrée into entry-level positions. Hiring for full-time civil service positions happens throughout the year as positions become open. The application process for the Presidential Management Fellowship Program starts in the early fall of a student’s final year of graduate study.

Internships are technically available along both tracks, since the State Department internship offers placements either within the State Department bureaus in DC, or in embassies abroad. November 1 is a key government-wide deadline for many internships. State Department, CIA, DIA and many other internship applications are due on this date to allow for ample time in which to perform the necessary security clearance required of these positions. There are some specific internships that have a later application deadline, and many internships not requiring clearance may even have spring deadlines.

Though an appropriate position opening cannot be guaranteed for all returning interns within their respective agencies, the internship experience can greatly increase the chances of an intern’s employment within the same agency where the internship experience has been a mutually rewarding one. Despite a rigid civil service competitive process, insider connections and recommendations can weigh heavily on the hiring decision and some agencies even see their internship program as a direct feeder for future full-time offers (OMB, CIA, Treasury, Fed).

Most white collar federal jobs fall under the “General Schedule” or “GS” pay scale. Under this system, jobs are ranked according to level of responsibility and difficulty, and are assigned corresponding “grades” and salaries.

College graduates with a four-year degree typically enter the system at GS-5 or GS-7. Master’s level graduates usually enter at a GS-9 or higher, depending upon number of years of work experience. PhD graduates typically enter at GS-ll or higher.


A combination of three factors can help potential employees understand where they fall in the GS scale: education, experience, and location. Even if a candidate fall solidly into a specific GS level, there may be room for negotiation along the “steps” within that GS level that depend on these three factors. In the federal system, where an employee lives affects the amount he is paid because pay is adjusted for cost of living. This is called a “locality pay rate.” To access the General Schedule and view locality pay rates, visit http://www.opm.gov/oca/08tables/indexGS.asp


Qualifications Necessary

While careers with the federal government vary widely depending on the agency, here is a selection of skills that will be an asset to any federal job: Superior written and oral communication skills; excellent research and data analysis skills; demonstrated leadership; proven research and analytical abilities; ability to work in a team environment; and strong work ethic and dedication.

Remember that since the federal government offers opportunities in just about every field and at all levels, working for the federal government can be a great career builder, not simply a career.

The Office of Personal Management maintains a website dedicated to federal jobs and employment information called USAJOBS (url below). While all federal positions require candidates to complete the online application process, making connections with individuals (such as SPEA alumni) and working in the agencies and/or departments that interest you is highly recommended. Pay special attention to the answers you provide in the online application as your responses serve as screening tools for OPM.

Federal Application Systems

  • USAJobs.gov - Official job application system for jobs with the U.S. Government
  • USAJobs.gov - Excepted service departments
  • Studentjobs.gov - Entry-level positions with the U.S. Government - Run by USAJobs.gov

Government Agencies

Online Resources

Public Service Student Loan Forgiveness

  • FinAid.org - Information on federal student loan forgiveness for 10 years (120 payments) of public service

Associations/Websites