How I got a job with the government, and why you can’t.

If you didn’t already know, I work for the federal government as an investigator. I like to think my job is pretty cool and apparently a lot of other people do too. I get asked pretty frequently, both here on the blog and in real life, how I managed to snatch up a sweet gig at such a young age. Like this email I got the other day…

I’m a 23 recent graduate working as a Talent Acquisition Specialist. I studied psychology in school (Industrial Organizational Psychology) and wanted to know what career you took in the public sector since you yourself was a psychology major.

I’ve been trying to apply for HR jobs in the public sector since I was in school, but almost all HR jobs go to vets. I know most of your current topics are about the married life, houses, etc., but I’d love to hear your advice.

Let me tell you the story…

The week before I graduated college with a Bachelor’s in Psychology, I got an email from one of my psych teachers that said something along the lines of “Hey this job looks pretty cool, you should consider applying for it.”

At first I was a little offended. Although my degree was in Psychology, everyone knew my plan was to go to medical school so I could become a Psychiatrist. Instead of taking surfing, bowling, or pottery as my general electives in college, I suffered through Calculus, Organic Chemistry, Physics, and Microbiology. My professor knew my plans, so why would she send me an application for a job in a completely different field?

Maybe because the job sounded awesome! 

These were a few of the highlights from the application:

  • Be a special agent (yes please)
  • Work from home (is this a joke?)
  • Travel the world (who doesn’t want to do that)
  • Get a work car (I want to save gas money)
  • Make reasonable money (might not ever be rich, but I’ll make enough)

My world was rocked. The job seemed too good to be true. But was it worth giving up my dreams of being an MD? Obviously I ended up getting offered, and accepting, the government job.

Goodbye medical school debt, hello income! 

So Mr PDITF reader guy, how can you get a government job like me? Two words…

You can’t. 

Allow me to explain, per congressional requirements, veterans must be given a preference when applying for government jobs (often a ten or fifteen point advantage on each application).

Say I score 100 out of 100 on a certain application, a veteran also applies and scores 91 out of 100. Since they are a veteran, they get a 10 point bump netting them a total score of 101 out of 100. They get the job, I get a rejection letter. The priority is hiring veterans, not necessarily hiring the most qualified candidate.

To be honest, I got really lucky and graduated at the right time. My job was announced through a short-lived hiring model called the Federal Career Intern Program (FCIP). The FCIP was created by Bill Clinton in 2000 with the goal of attracting “exceptional men and women to the Federal workforce” and preparing them “for careers in analyzing and implementing public programs.”

Or in other words, it was a way for the government to hire unexperienced college graduates, instead of being forced to hire veterans, to backfill all the pending baby boomer retirees.

About 100,000 people in total joined the federal government through this program. That was until March 2011 when Obama signed an executive order ending the FCIP, basically saying it was unconstitutional and veterans needed to be given preference for federal jobs.

Now when people ask me how they can get a job like mine I tell them this,

  • join the military
  • serve a few years
  • get out
  • pray you get deemed most qualified

23 thoughts on “How I got a job with the government, and why you can’t.

  1. Haha, Larry!

    My first job out of college (many moons ago) was a Federal job as a bank examiner for the OCC. It was AMAZING! I still miss that job. It was not the same situation as yours, but Congress passed a law after the S&L loan crisis that every bank had to be examined at least every 18 months, whereas before a “good” bank might not be examined for years and years. So they needed more examiners and I was hired. Slowly over the years banking regulation was loosened again so I’m sure hiring slowed down. It was a really great interesting job if anyone out there is looking into that as a career.

  2. In high school (1999) I visited Georgetown med school. I heard the med school dean Drill Sergent talk about “We only accept 4.0’s” and “After undergrad I will own your life for the next decade”. Then hearing from the current med school students and their hundreds of thousands in debt, and what healthcare reform might mean if it ever passed I decided I didn’t want to go to med school. I ended up going to the only school that I got accepted to for engineering instead of Bio/chem/pre-med.

    Sometimes I wonder what it would be like if went to Med School instead, but when I compare where I am now to my sister who graduated dental school a few years ago I am pretty certain I made the right decision for myself

  3. This is what my tax dollars are going to? G-men like you sitting at home all day!

    I kid.

    That’s cool though. You sound like you love your job and not having to do medical school + residency saves time and money. And time is money! And money is savings and investments and retirement. And Baby Ninja’s college fund! Again, I kid.

    🙂

  4. Like Ninja, I was lucky enough to get into the federal government before the vets preferences really kicked in. I did not get hired through the FCIP program but as an entry level specialist in my field. I was able to get promoted to the point where now I have become a “hiring manager” and have a few pointers:
    – Look for jobs specifically for recent college grads/Pathways program. This is designed as a gateway for college grads. But I do believe that vets preferences may apply here as well, but at least you know these jobs were posted with recent grads specifically in mind so you have a better shot;
    -Be ready to apply at a moments notice. While some postings are open for a set period of time, some will state that it will close after receiving a set number of applications, which can be any day so be ready as soon as you see something you are interested in. Also, note that your resume should look very different than if you were applying for a job in the private sector. I would recommend getting a book specifically regarding applying to jobs in federal government. When i was first looking for jobs, I was not writing my resume correctly until someone tipped me off. The very next job i applied for in the correct way, I got!
    -Be patient. It is not unheard of for hundreds or even thousands of people to apply to a single vacancy announcement so it will take time to look through all those resumes and try not to take things personally if people do not respond right away (or at all).
    -This may not apply to you, but if you are an individual with a disability, you may be able to get into the federal service through “Schedule A.” Like the veterans preferences, this is another special hiring authority to promote the hiring of qualified individuals with disabilities.

    But I hope this was helpful. It can be frustrating at times but if working in the federal government is something you really want, please keep applying. Also, please know that there are plenty of managers in the federal government who want to hire recent college grads 🙂

  5. You forget two other important steps.

    1. Be a minority.
    2. Be born a female.

    No one loves hiring to fill quotas than government. I am a government employee commenting anonymously because some people will take offense at this idea but it happens every day.

    • Really race and gender quotas are a sensitive topic? You mean affirmative action is a polarizing and controversial subject?

      Who woulda thunk it? You should get a gold sticker for that revelation!

      There’s nothing wrong with having an opinion, but it’s horrible form to leave such a thoughtless, shallow comment to summarize your narrow view.

      One might say you are a little bitter and insecure because you are a government employee who is clearly:
      1) Not a minority
      2) Not a female

      You also failed to acknowledge the existence of quality government employees who are minorities and females. But maybe they’re just quota fillers to you?

      I think this blog would be better served if next time you don’t comment anonymously, more specifically, not at all.

      • “You also failed to acknowledge the existence of quality government employees who are minorities and females. But maybe they’re just quota fillers to you?”

        That’s an issue though. Because AA exists, the question is on everyone’s mind. Did you get hired because you’re qualified or because you have the “right” skin color or genitalia? That hurts those employees because even when they’ve reached good positions, people don’t think they actually earned it.

    • I was rejected a scholarship (and future jobs) because of this. My 99th percentile on the qualifying test vs. his 70th percentile based on my skin color alone. Everything worked out in the end for myself, but no system is without its flaws.

  6. Med school is not for the faint of heart. Our daughter is currently in residency and after watching what she had to go through from beginning to this point, I don’t know how we have any doctors at all. You really, really have to want it. She took an anatomy class her first semester at a community college (they had a cadaver lab–which she loved!) and that was it. Fortunately, she was able to live at home while in med school so her loans “only” totaled $160,000. However, with interest during the four years of residency, it will be @ $300,000 before she’s in any kind of position to start paying them back. That’s why so my med students specialize–they can make more money. She also plans to work in a place without a lot of docs–she’ll make at least double what she would earn in say the New York, SFO, LA area. That surprised me.

    • It’s good that your daughter got through med school my sister is facing a similar loan amount currently. However, Med School may not the last large debt she will have to take on for her work. I am not sure how the health care law is going to change things but when a doctor retires he will sell his practice or client list for a few hundred thousand up to a few million depending on the size of the practice to other doctors in the area. Usually buying an already established practice is the best investment a young doctor can make but obviously not many people (even doctors) have a few million lying around to purchase a practice without a loan.

  7. Why shouldn’t those that served our country be given preference for government jobs? They do still need to be qualified and meet the job criteria. I’m happy that my husband fought in the military to protect the freedom of people like you 🙂

    • Why SHOULD he be given preference because he was in the military?

      There are many people qualified for almost any job so why does a military past make him so much better than applicants without it?

      Maybe you should reconsider your point. No one said your husband’s service was unappreciated but perhaps you could consider both sides of an argument before getting pouty.

      My grandfather served in the Navy. Did it make him a better IRS auditor? No.

      You need to answer your own question.

      And don’t forget MY tax dollars and other non-serving people’s tax dollars PAYED for your husband to be in the military. Think about that next time you get all high and mighty because he “protects the freedom” of everyone.

        • ND Chic,

          It’s pretty sad the best response you could muster was to point out my spelling error. Going back to your comment in the first sentence, you used “that” when you should’ve used “who.” I guess you only like correcting other people’s writing.

          Your childish attempt at a comeback just further proves that you have no point and can’t back yourself up.

          Reality: Your husband shouldn’t get preference because he served in the military. He served. Yes. Good for him! But just because he’s your hero doesn’t mean he should have a leg up when it comes to employment. How is that fair?

          Oh wait. It’s not.

          • I think that it is fair because we have a military that will accept most. If you are able to get in the military, then you have the same advantage. Where it isn’t fair is if one is denied entry into the military because if a disability. For instance, if I tried to get in the military and could not because I have hearing problems, then that would not be fair.

            With the exception for disabilities that would disqualify one from entering the military, I do think that its more than fair that those with who have served our country be given preference for working for it. Quite obviously, most people agree with me because this is the law and we are a democracy.

      • Perhaps because the civil service was specifically created to give veterans jobs?

        • Oh I’m sorry.

          I totally forgot that veterans were incapable of beating out other applicants, you know the normal way?

  8. I think you’re giving the veteran’s preference too big of an emphasis here. I can’t get a job in the government because they’ve cut budgets for almost all agencies and froze hiring across most of the government (a majority of the job posts I saw were filled internally but were required to be posted on sites like USAJobs, or were just never filled because of budget cuts). I am a veteran and applied for 75+ government jobs, and I can tell you right now that my veterans status didn’t do a damn thing for me. So sure, veterans may get a 5 to 10 point preference, but there would have to be open jobs at all in order for people to be hired.

  9. I also work for the federal government as a special agent, ( I wonder if we work for the same agency). I was hired last January, no veterans preference, there are still positions where non-vets do make the cert, you just have to have the necessary experience and be able to justify it. A lot of people I see that don’t meet the qualifications of both internal and external federal postings are that they may have experience doing a portion of a job and think they deserve a higher pay grade with more responsibilities when they’re applying, but haven’t done the job so they don’t qualify for that higher pay grade. So while you may have 10 years of experience and think you deserve to come over to the federal government as a GS-11, you may need to take something at a GS-7 or 9 just to get your foot in the door.

  10. The other disadvantage about joining the military is that you might see active service and get injured or killed. It seems a big risk just to get an advantage on a job application… Join the military because that’s what you want to do, and make it work for you, but not because you might get another cool job in the future, because as sure as eggs the rules will have changed by then

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