The Federal Government Is Hiring


What you should know about nonacademic careers for Ph.D.'s

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Yes, the federal government is hiring Ph.D.'s, at a time when the corporate sector is slowly turning around and when many academic institutions have put faculty recruiting on hold. In fact, the federal government is looking to market itself better in order to attract bright young people to fill the jobs of a professional work force that is at or approaching retirement age.

But is the federal government a good fit for new Ph.D.'s, or for those leaving an academic career? Well, the answer is that some federal agencies may be good choices for some Ph.D.'s. The very size of the government as an employer and the variety of agencies it encompasses make it worth taking a look.

In this column, I'll focus on agencies that employ a high percentage of people with graduate degrees and/or those that utilize the kinds of skills honed by Ph.D.'s -- with two exceptions: I won't talk about government laboratories or the CIA. The job opportunities available at government labs are well publicized, and the Central Intelligence Agency does a good job of making itself known to graduate students with the right skills on college campuses.

Let's start with Congress. From my conversations with recruiters and with former academics already working for the federal government, three agencies that support Congress all seem particularly suitable for Ph.D.'s: the Congressional Research Service, the Congressional Budget Office, and the General Accounting Office.

David Christopher, a recruitment coordinator for the Congressional Research Service, spoke with me about the "academic environment" of the agency and mentioned that many of the Ph.D.'s working there teach a course or two at colleges or universities in the Washington area. The agency looks for graduate students in public administration, law, library sciences, and social sciences, he said.

Patty Figliola, a Ph.D. in mass-media law and policy from the University of Florida, works as a specialist in telecommunications and Internet policy at the agency. Asked to describe her work environment, she called it collegial: "We bounce ideas off each other. In combination with the academic rigor of the place, it's also real world -- you have an impact on policy."

Located on Capitol Hill and governed by the Library of Congress, the agency provides nonpartisan research and analysis for members of Congress. Figliola likes the mix of projects: Sometimes it's a 29-page report on satellite systems and Africa, sometimes it's providing answers quickly to specific questions from members of Congress, sometimes it's writing briefs on topics of her choosing.

Jeff Kuenzi, whose Ph.D. is in sociology from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, is an analyst on social legislation for the agency's domestic social-policy division. He described the Congressional Research Service as "much more nimble" than many federal agencies. What he likes about his job is working extensively with other people and being able to think, read, write, and produce work that actually gets used.

The role of the Congressional Budget Office is to provide nonpartisan analysis focused on economic and budget matters. One of its recruitment brochures shows a pie chart of the educational background of its professional staff members: 20 percent have bachelor's degrees, 45 percent hold master's degrees, and 35 percent are Ph.D.'s. The budget office describes itself as "a public-sector 'think tank' that employs an elite, multidisciplinary staff of professional analysts."

Mike Gilmore, assistant director of the office's national-security division, said half of his division's employees are economists and half are from technical fields. His own background includes a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering from the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

An analyst in the General Accounting Office, Christina Cromley, said her work there has elements of the academic world but more advantages. Cromley has a Ph.D. in public policy from Yale University's School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. While she thinks that her Ph.D. skills are useful for her work, she also noted that many of the new people the agency hires have master's degrees.

The work at the accounting office, as in the two other agencies, consists mainly of doing research and analysis, writing reports, and briefing and testifying before Congress. At the GAO, however, the analysts also do fieldwork, going on interviews and making site visits such as looking at weapons systems or at national forests.

Cromley lists three factors that are most important to her about her work: the impact it can have, the teamwork that goes into producing it, and the opportunity to be constantly learning. She has found a good balance between her work and family life at the GAO, noting that she has access to an on-site gym, a meditation room, interesting seminar series, and flex time.

Elsewhere in the federal government, the Department of State generally, both in its Foreign Service and Civil Service positions, seems to be another happy home for Ph.D.'s. But, with the exception of the Office of the Historian, attractive opportunities are scattered rather than clustered in one agency or office. According to Diane Castiglione, director of recruitment for the department, the Foreign Service has a number of Ph.D.'s, but it is the analytic and communications skills of the candidates that are important, not just the fact that they hold a Ph.D.

In 1974, Judith Siegel began a career with the federal government as she was completing a Ph.D. on Shakespearean criticism at the University of Chicago. She has worked for several different federal agencies, and now, as the deputy coordinator in international-information programs at the department, she is in the Senior Executive Service, the top civil-service rank. She manages a program that sends Americans abroad to talk about American policy, society, and values and that originates and shapes information about such topics for foreign audiences through Web and print publications. She described herself as a generalist who works on 20 different things a day.

When Monica Belmonte was finishing her work as a Ph.D. in U.S. diplomatic history at Georgetown University, she started working at the Office of the Historian. Its approximately 40 historians, most of them Ph.D.'s, are responsible for keeping the diplomatic record of U.S. foreign policy. "You have command over your own volume," said Belmonte. "You do archival research, select and annotate documents to be printed, and write the summary. However, in the interest of objectivity, you do not analyze or provide commentary on the documents."

Belmonte explained that she started graduate school thinking that she would be a history professor, but over the course of her program she became disenchanted with academic life and, as she didn't want to relocate to just anywhere, she began to consider other things she could do in Washington that made use of her skills and training. The Office of the Historian has been a good fit.

The Internet makes it easy for you to learn about federal agencies, job openings, salaries, requirements, and application procedures. The Web site of the Office of Personnel Management, the government's main human-resources agency, is a good general site where you can get information about salaries and benefits and view listings of most vacancies open to outside applicants.

Most Ph.D.'s would start at a salary ranging from the mid-$40's to the mid-$50's. For any job that sounds interesting to you, be sure to visit the Web site of that particular agency as well.

All of the agencies mentioned here post openings on the central job site and/or on their own sites. As part of new marketing efforts, many agencies are starting to take part in federal-government career fairs on campuses around the country.

Yet for all this transparency of information, there also appears to be an informal hiring network at many agencies, in which people get referred to positions by people they know.

Note that in addition to full-time job openings, federal agencies have a number of internships and short-term, fast-track programs that facilitate a federal career. Such programs typically last a year or two, and pay a lower starting salary than the average.

Christina Cromley, at the General Accounting Office, noted that increasingly the agency hires new employees as interns while they are still enrolled in graduate school and at the end of the internship may make a permanent offer to begin upon completion of the graduate program.

The Office of the Historian also hires interns. On the State Department's Web site you can find out about the Thomas R. Pickering Graduate Foreign Affairs Fellowship, administered by the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation.

The Department of Health and Human Services has a two-year Emerging Leaders Program, mainly for scientists and some social scientists, which leads to permanent positions in such areas as health policy, medical research, and administration.

For information about the best-known internship, the Presidential Management Internship Program, go to its Web site. I continue to hear mixed reports about the program, both about the process of getting an internship once selected and about the level of work you get to do as an intern.

Setting aside the specifics, you need to think about whether you are a good match for federal-government employment. Here are three factors to consider:

Bureaucracy: Monica Belmonte describes the Office of the Historian as "a little scholarly enclave within the State Department," yet admits that day to day she feels the bureaucracy. If you can read through the job descriptions and all the application instructions, procedures, and rules without throwing up your hands in dismay, then maybe it's a good fit for you.

Quality of Life: There's a lot to be said for the quality-of-life issues that the government now brags about -- secure employment, the ability to move around within the system, reasonable hours, and good benefits. And Washington is a city undervalued by many Ph.D.'s that I've talked to. If you are an academic couple, both looking for satisfying employment, Washington offers all the opportunities of the federal government, plus a number of colleges and universities, plus a broad range of national associations, plus think tanks and research groups. Those are good bets for Ph.D.'s.

Service: In the words of Patty Figliola, who had worked in the corporate sector before working at the Congressional Research Service, "I like serving my country. I feel I am serving a larger purpose, not just working for the money."

Mary Dillon Johnson, who has a Ph.D. in English from the University of California at Berkeley, is director of graduate-career services at Yale University's Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.