This toolkit can help scientists navigate the process of applying for government jobs, with information on how to search for science-based positions in the executive branch, guidance on tailoring your resume and cover letter, and tips for interviewing.
To help the nation tackle its most pressing issues, the federal government depends on a pipeline of new and diverse professionals with scientific expertise. But today, a shortage of federal scientists means that important science-based work is not getting done. For example, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has announced its intention to hire 1,000 employees by May 2022 to deliver on its mission and rebuild its staff in the wake of losses during the previous administration.
With federal scientists playing important roles in protecting our environment, health, safety, and security, there are multiple opportunities for early- and mid-career scientists to help address these challenges. And jobs in the federal government usually come with excellent benefits, including competitive pay, health insurance, and retirement plans; some positions even pay off student loan debt. There is no better time to consider applying your talent, passion, and skills to government service. Our nation needs you.
Becoming a Federal Scientist
To help the nation tackle its most pressing issues, the federal government depends on a pipeline of new and diverse professionals with scientific expertise. With federal scientists playing important roles in protecting our environment, health, safety, and security, there are multiple opportunities for early- and mid-career scientists to help address these challenges (see the box). And jobs in the federal government usually come with excellent benefits, including competitive pay, health insurance, and retirement plans; some positions even pay off student loan debt.
Why Are Federal Scientists Important?
Scientific evidence often serves as the backbone of policies affecting our daily lives, from the air we breathe and the food we eat, to the water we drink and the medications we take; from addressing global climate change to combatting deadly pandemics. Scientists spur innovation, inform policy and decisionmaking processes, and provide vital information and services to the public at large. Their work is critical to the government's role in developing and implementing science-based activities in service of the public good. Our government needs scientists with various types of expertise, including skills and experience in research, science communication, program management, and policy development.
The work of federal scientists affects lives around the world, and it is especially crucial in making a difference for those from underserved communities (Desikan et al. 2019).Numerous federal programs are designed to address inequities around health, environment, and prosperity outcomes—from lifting community voices in policymaking to providing food security—and many of these programs serve low-income communities, Indigenous communities, and communities of color.
Of course, politics can sometimes make the work of federal scientists difficult and challenging, and efforts to politicize science-based decisionmaking have happened across every administration to some extent. This can make it seem like government is not a great place for scientists, potentially discouraging them from entering the federal workforce. The good news is that 28 federal agencies have scientific integrity policies, developed to deter and prevent political interference in science-based decisionmaking (Carter, Goldman, and Johnson 2018; MacKinney et al. 2020; Carter et al. 2019). Moreover, the Biden administration has signaled its intention to further strengthen scientific integrity and ensure that future federal scientists have stronger rights and work in environments where they can thrive and enjoy long, productive careers serving the public (Executive Office of the President 2021).
Today, though, a shortage of federal scientists means that important science-based work is not getting done (Davenport, Friedman, and Flavelle 2021). For example, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has announced its intention to hire 1,000 employees by May 2022 to deliver on its mission and rebuild its staff in the wake of losses during the previous administration (Lee 2021).
To help scientists navigate the process of applying for government jobs, this toolkit provides information on how to search for science-based positions in the executive branch, guidance on tailoring your resume and cover letter for federal agency jobs, and tips for interviewing with civil servants.
The toolkit is specific to the executive branch, but it can also help you when applying for positions in the legislative branch. In addition, the appendix (online at www.ucsusa.org/resources/federal-science-jobs) lists sources of information on best practices for applying for work across the government, including internships and fellowships for early- and mid-career scientists interested in gaining short-term experience.
Applying for Federal Science Positions
There are three major steps to applying for almost any job: searching for openings, building a resume and cover letter, and interviewing. However, applying for federal government jobs differs from applying for work in the private and nonprofit sectors. Most important, you need to know how to navigate USAJobs.gov, the federal government's primary portal for submitting applications. Use this website to search for positions and to create a resume, fill out applications, and track the entire application process.
Searching for a Federal Science Position
The federal government posts its science-based jobs, including internships and fellowships, in multiple places. You can find them on USAJobs, social media, and agency websites, through a Google search, or through your personal and professional networks. Some scientific associations also offer science policy fellowship placements across the federal government such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE).
On USAJobs, you can browse positions available based on agency, job title, location, and type of occupation. This website provides a lot of information, but also check out the websites of individual agencies for further information on their work and missions. If you are a college student or a recent graduate, navigate to the "students and recent graduates" sections to find opportunities tailored for you.
Tips on searching for federal science jobs:
- Create an account on USAJobs and save your job searches. Set up email notifications so you can receive information about new postings that match your search criteria.
- Pay particular attention to the qualification and eligibility requirements in a job posting. Applicants should satisfy most, if not all, of the qualifications listed in the posted job description. While in other industries you may apply for jobs you are not entirely qualified for, your skills should more precisely fit what government agencies say they are seeking in the positions they post.
- You can search for a position based on your expertise (e.g., geologist, toxicologist, biologist, physicist). Scientists of all types are needed across the government.
- Some federal positions are posted under different "hiring authorities." These hiring authorities represent special hiring paths that help agencies hire individuals representing our diverse society or fill occupation types that are in short supply. For example, a direct hiring authority can hire experts for which an agency has found a shortage (e.g., the United States Fish and Wildlife Service may need fishery biologists, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration may need mathematicians). There are also hiring authorities for people with disabilities and for veterans (OPM.gov, n.d.). The Office of Personnel Management's hiring information webpage lists several authorities, along with information about them.
- Subscribe to agency mailing lists for job notifications. Some positions are posted only on agency sites.
- Leverage your membership on LinkedIn and in professional societies to both connect you with federal employees and learn about positions that may fit your expertise and experience. Stay in touch with these contacts and ask them to keep you in mind for future openings.
Developing a resume and cover letter
Your resume and cover letter are key to success in applying for federal government jobs. Together, agencies will use them to determine if you meet the job qualifications and requirements.
Tips on developing your resume:
- Federal resumes are multiple pages long and should detail your work experience and qualifications.
- After creating a profile on USAJobs, use the website's Resume Builder to ensure that your federal resume includes all important information. Note that most federal agencies want your resume to be in the format provided by USAJobs.
- You can create multiple resumes on USAjobs, tailoring each to a specific job opening. You can also create a searchable master resume that includes all your skills, work experiences, and education.
- Mirror the language in the requirements section of each posted job description, particularly any keywords or phrases that describe required skills.
- Demonstrate your impact on your field using statistics when appropriate (e.g., I published three peer-reviewed papers in the last two years).
- Check your spelling and grammar. Then ask a friend or colleague to proofread your resume carefully. Often, a federal agency will not consider an applicant whose resume contains spelling or grammatical errors.
Tips for writing a government cover letter:
- Cover letters are sometimes optional, but submitting one can give you an edge over candidates who do not submit one. They are just as important to landing a job as the resume.
- Use the cover letter to reiterate and emphasize why your skills and experiences qualify you for the job. Tailor cover letters to each job and agency.
- Review the agency's mission, then describe how your goals align with the agency's. For example, if you apply for a position at the EPA, highlight your passion for and work to protect human health and the environment.
- Be specific in stating which of your skills and experiences qualify you for the position. Re-read the posted job description and use its details to tailor your cover letter.
- Keep your cover letter brief. Hiring teams often must read through hundreds of applications, so be straightforward and include only relevant information.
In addition to submitting a resume and cover letter, the agency may ask you to submit other materials. These will vary based on the position posted. Transcripts are often required; they must be submitted in electronic form. A transcript and list of credible work experiences are important for determining whether an applicant meets the specifications for a posted position.
After submitting your application, you will be contacted by email or phone if you are selected for an interview. When contacted, immediately write down all the information about the interview and keep your notes where you can find them easily. Ask who will interview you and what the interview format will be. Most federal government interviews are conducted by phone or using an online portal, and one government employee or several might interview you. Ask what information you need for traveling to or logging into the interview.
Tips on interviewing:
- Do your research. Search the web for information, including the mission of the agency, department, or office you would be working for. If you know anyone who has worked at the agency, ask them to tell you about their experience there.
- Search for information about the interviewers. What are their backgrounds and current roles? Think about how you might interact with them if you received the job.
- Conduct a mock interview. Ask for help with this from a colleague or friend who can provide you with critical, constructive feedback.
- Sell yourself and your skills as much as possible. Many federal interviewers do not ask follow-up questions, so take your time, think, and include everything the agency should factor into considering your application.
- Follow up with a thank you to the interviewer(s), either with handwritten notes or emails.
A Plethora of Government Science Positions
Scientists are greatly needed across the government, and there are multiple opportunities for early- and mid-career scientists to enter careers across all three branches. If you are a college student or recent graduate, pay particular attention to opportunities listed through the Office of Personnel Management's Pathways Program. It was created specifically to recruit, hire, develop, and retain students and recent graduates for careers in the federal government.
Jobs in government service can be personally and professionally rewarding, and they can make a big impact on the health, safety, and security of people and communities around the world. Whether it is helping people stay healthy, planning a mission to Mars, or developing a conservation strategy to save an endangered species, scientists of all varieties are essential to our nation's well-being. There is no better time to consider applying your talent, passion, and skills to government service. Our nation needs you.
Jacob Carter is a senior scientist in the Center for Science and Democracy at UCS. Shea Kinser is the program and outreach associate in the Center. Melissa Varga is the Science Network community and partnerships manager in the Center.
Carter, Jacob M., Emily Berman, Anita Desikan, Charise Johnson, and Gretchen Goldman. 2019. The State of Science in the Trump Era: Damage Done, Lessons Learned, and a Path to Progress. Cambridge, MA: Union of Concerned Scientists. https://www.ucsusa.org/sites/default/files/attach/2019/01/ucs-trump-2yrs-report.pdf
Carter, Jacob M., Gretchen Goldman, and Charise Johnson. 2018. Science under Trump: Voices of Scientists across 16 Federal Agencies. Cambridge, MA Union of Concerned Scientists. https://www.ucsusa.org/resources/science-under-trump
Davenport, Coral, Lisa Friedman, and Christopher Flavelle. 2021. "Biden's Climate Plans Are Stunted After Dejected Experts Fled Trump."Washington Post, August 1, 2021. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/08/01/climate/biden-scientists-shortage-climate.html
Desikan, Anita, Jacob Carter, Shea Kinser, and Gretchen Goldman. 2019. Abandoned Science, Broken Promises: How the Trump Administration's Neglect of Science Is Leaving Marginalized Communities Further Behind. Cambridge, MAUnion of Concerned Scientists. https://www.ucsusa.org/sites/default/files/2019-10/abandoned-science-broken-promises-web-final.pdf
Executive Office of the President. 2021. "Memorandum on Restoring Trust in Government Through Scientific Integrity and Evidence-Based Policymaking." Memorandum, January 27. Washington, DC: The White House. https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/presidential-actions/2021/01/27/memorandum-on-restoring-trust-in-government-through-scientific-integrity-and-evidence-based-policymaking
Lee, Stephen. 2021. "EPA, in Midst of Hiring Spree, Faces Uphill Push for More Staff."Bloomberg Law, July 14, 2021. https://news.bloomberglaw.com/environment-and-energy/epa-in-midst-of-hiring-spree-faces-uphill-push-for-more-staff
MacKinney, Taryn, Jacob M. Carter, Genna Reed, and Gretchen Goldman. 2020. Strengthening Scientific Integrity at Federal Agencies: Recommendations for 2021 and Beyond. Cambridge, MA: Union of Concerned Scientists. https://www.ucsusa.org/sites/default/files/2020-08/si-report-roadmap-for-science.pdf
OPM.gov. n.d. "Hiring Authorities: Policy, Data, Oversight Hiring Information." Washington, DC: US Office of Personnel Management. Accessed August 19, 2021. https://www.opm.gov/policy-data-oversight/hiring-information/hiring-authorities
Appendix: Guide to Applying for Jobs, Internships, and Fellowships
A–Z Index of U.S. Government Departments and Agencies
- Lists of and links to homepages of all US government department and agencies
Internships, Fellowships, and Other Work Experience Opportunities in the Federal Government
- A comprehensive listing from the Congressional Research Service of internships, fellowships, and other opportunities available in the federal government
GoGovernment from the Partnership for Public Service
- A wide range of advice about applying for federal positions, from searching for the right position on USAJobs.gov to negotiating a final offer
- Free trainings and other resources on a suite of government topics and issues, including tips and advice for prospective applicants
- Regular postings featuring federal job opportunities across multiple agencies and at various skill levels
Office of Personnel and Management Hiring Information Webpage
- Information on multiple topics regarding federal hiring, including hiring authorities available to veterans, students, interns, and persons with disabilities
Office of Personnel and Management Pathways Program
- Information on internship and fellowship opportunities via the Pathways Program, an FAQ, and a list of opportunities in participating federal agencies
- Three pathways for students depending on interests and eligibility: the Internship Program for current students; the Recent Graduates Program for students who graduated from qualifying institutions within the past two years; and the Presidential Management Fellows program for students with advanced degrees
Partnership for Public Service's Federal Hiring Advice
- Resources providing guidance to those seeking positions in the federal government, including an outline of some benefits of working for the federal government and a how-to document for navigating USAJobs.gov
Princeton University's Federal Government and Job Search Guide
- Tips for searching for and applying to federal jobs and internships
- Advice on formatting and developing resumes when applying for federal positions
- A wealth of information and application advice in the students and recent graduate section on current federal job opportunities
- Virtual Student Federal Service that enables students to browse a list of government projects they might be interested in; connects those projects to job descriptions and application forms on USAjobs.gov
A recruitment and referral program that connects students and recent graduates with disabilities to federal and private-sector employers
Managed by the Department of Labor and the Department of Defense
Provides a number of resources, including sample "Schedule A Hiring Authority for Persons with Disabilities" letters and an FAQ about the program
Asian Pacific American Institute for Congressional Studies' Congressional Internships
- Places Asian American and Pacific Islander undergraduate-aged students in congressional offices for paid eight-week internship experiences
Congressional Black Caucus Foundation Internships
- Multiple opportunities for students to interact with professional legislators and leaders in all branches of government
- Internships pay stipends and offer housing and office placements
Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute Internship Program
- Paid summer and semester internships for Latino undergraduates
- Offers an early career webinar training series providing information to make applicants more competitive; includes a webinar highlighting need for more science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) majors in public policy careers
Internships in the House of Representatives and the Senate
- Internships opportunities and applications generally posted on committee and member websites
- Generally unpaid
Department of Energy Stipend-based Internships
- Participates in the Pathways Program as well as providing a number of stipend-based internship opportunities
Department of Energy Scholars Program
- Exposes students to the operations and science-based mission of the department through paid appointments that typically last for 10 weeks in the summer
Department of Defense STEM Internship Program
- Multiple opportunities for STEM students to work alongside department scientists and engineers on a variety of projects via multiple summer and semester programs across the nation
Department of Transportation Summer Transportation Internship Program for Diverse Groups
- Paid 10-week, summer internships for juniors and seniors enrolled in accredited institutions of higher education within a department office
- Focus on providing opportunities to women, persons with disabilities, and individuals from demographic groups that are historically underrepresented in transportation work
Health and Human Services Emerging Leaders Program
- Competitive, two-year, paid, internships offering experience rotating through work in multiple operational department divisions
Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities National Internship Program
- Multiple opportunities for students in all majors for paid summer and semester internships
- Includes funding for round-trip transportation and housing
Minority Access National Diversity and Inclusion Internship Program
- Stipends and some assistance with travel for interns selected by federal agencies and other participating programs
Morris K. Udall and Stewart L. Udall Foundation Native American Congressional Internship Program
- Opportunities for American Indian and Alaska Native students to intern in federal agencies, congressional offices, and the White House
- Includes stipends, housing, and travel assistance
National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency Summer Internship Program
- Summer internship opportunities for students enrolled in accredited two-year or four-year colleges to conduct research and policy analysis
- Paid, 10-week summer appointments
National Institutes of Health Summer Internship Programs in Biomedical Research
- Summer internship opprtunities for undergraduate, graduate, and professional students to spend eight to ten weeks working with institute investigators
- Modest stipends
Science, Mathematics, and Research for Transformation (SMART) Scholarship for Service
- A Department of Defense program providing scholarship funding to STEM students
- A student receiving more than one year of SMART funding while seeking an undergraduate STEM degree must intern with a department-affiliated institution for at least one summer.
American Association for the Advancement of Science Science & Technology Policy Fellowships
- Places students with advanced degrees in offices across the executive, legislative, and judicial branches to learn first-hand about policymaking
- Paid; typically one year
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Fellowships
- Multiple opportunities for recent PhDs in public health and other health-related sciences
- Paid positions typically lasting one to three years
Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education STEM Fellowships
- Paid fellowships for students with advanced degrees seeking opportunities to experience work in science policy at affiliated Department of Energy research facilities and offices
- Usually one year with the possibility of extension
John A. Knauss Marine Policy Fellowship Program
- Administered by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Sea Grant Program
- Paid one-year fellowships to serve in an executive or legislative office
- Offers experience in national policy decisions affecting ocean, coastal, and/or Great Lakes resources
Smithsonian Institution Fellowship Program
- Smithsonian-wide opportunities for students with advanced degrees to conduct independent research or studies related to the institution's collections or facilities
- Appointments vary from ten weeks to one year depending on the study and fellowship awarded
- Includes stipends
Women's Congressional Policy Institute Congressional Fellowships on Women and Public Policy Program
- Open to women pursuing advanced degrees or who have recently completed a Master's, Doctorate, or professional degree with a proven commitment to equity for women
- Eight months in congressional offices as legislative assistants on policy issues that affect women
- Paid with a stipend for health care
- 15 to 20 paid, one-year fellowships for placement in Cabinet-level agencies, the Executive Office of the President, the Vice President's office, or smaller federal agencies
Carter, Jacob, Shea Kinser, and Melissa Varga. 2021. Becoming a Federal Scientist: A Guide to Applying for Jobs, Internships, and Fellowships. Cambridge, MA: Union of Concerned Scientists. https://www.ucsusa.org/resources/federal-science-jobs