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Navigating the Federal Black Hole: USAJobs and the Frustrating Civil Service Employment System

By Michael Orange
MS in Biohazardous Threat Agents and Emerging Infectious Diseases

Have you ever applied for a federal job and failed to pass the initial USAJobs screening process, or even worse, were ghosted after an interview? You have an undergraduate degree, an M.S., and possibly a Ph.D. You know you possess the necessary skills and abilities. You have the desire and passion to work as a public servant and still, you have not yet landed that interview or job. 

Applying for a position with the government or a government contractor can be overwhelming and stressful. Sifting through thousands of job postings on the federal platform known as USAJobs is daunting and tedious. Furthermore, navigating individual agency websites, external search engines, or social media sites such as Indeed, ZipRecruiter, and LinkedIn can be demanding. But, do not be discouraged. 

Navigating the system requires persistence, commitment, and an understanding of the federal résumé formula. In this series, I will first discuss my journey in applying and landing a job working for ANSER and the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD). Then, I will highlight obstacles you may encounter as a biomedical graduate seeking federal employment: 1) Navigating USAJobs and government contractor applications, 2) Landing a cleared job without an active clearance, 3) Leveraging career resources and networking, and 4) Dealing with rejection and finding a support system. More importantly, I will detail the hurdles I encountered and how I managed them.

My Story

In 2016, I graduated from Saint Vincent College – a small, liberal-arts institution in southwest Pennsylvania – with a Bachelor of Arts in Biology and two minors: one in Spanish Literature and Conversation and one in Psychology. I recognized early on in my education that I had a calling to pursue a career as a public health servant; however, at the time, this calling led me to attend an osteopathic medical school, just as two of my family members had done in the past. Osteopathy, after all, is about taking a holistic approach to public health, but more so, understanding the body, mind, and spirit of your patient and treating the “whole person.” In addition, integrity, altruism, ingenuity, and a willingness to sacrifice are all qualities that make an exceptional physician, and consequently, are characteristics I believed I could exercise in my future career.   

I even matriculated as a medical student before acknowledging that I might have needed more experience. What about the opportunities my professors had prepared me for during graduate school? I was disappointed in myself for dismissing the plethora of public health career opportunities Georgetown’s Biomedical Graduate Education (BGE) had highlighted during my Master’s program – opportunities that I was interested in and passionate about during school. Looking back at my undergraduate experiences, I feel that I was under the misconception – as I believe many other undergraduate Biology majors are – that if you do not go into an Allied Health profession, you must pursue a career in the laboratory conducting research. (Let me also stress that there is absolutely nothing wrong with working in a laboratory. I personally found as an undergrad that research was not a path that specifically targeted my interests.) I was an 18-year old under the impression that pursuing graduate school in the STEM field meant you would either conduct research, teach, or do both. Thus, I assumed following a pre-health professional track was the best route.

Commitment to Service

In the summer of 2016, I discovered Georgetown’s Master of Science program in Biohazardous Threat Agents and Emerging Infectious Diseases – a perfect match, I thought, for someone with a passion for microbiology looking to strengthen their application for a future Infectious Disease residency. By the fall of 2017, I accepted a seat for the incoming class and surprisingly discovered that many of my professors and seminar lecturers were made up of government employees, most of whom were experts in fields such as Homeland Security, Bioterrorism, Agroterrorism, CBRNE Threat Reduction, Biosafety, Biosecurity, Biological/Chemical Defense, Defense Threat Reduction Initiatives, and Global Infectious Diseases. 

In class, professors and adjuncts emphasized applying to the following federal agencies: Department of Homeland Security (DHS); Department of Defense (DoD); Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI); Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA); Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC); World Health Organization (WHO), National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC); National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID); Central Intelligence Agency (CIA); and contractor organizations such as Booz Allen Hamilton, General Dynamics, Dynamis, ANSER, SAIC, and Leidos, to name a few. 

In time, I found that the core values of my professors and their respective organizations coincided with the Benedictine Hallmarks of my own undergraduate education. These hallmarks serve as a guide for living a life of excellence and virtue. Growing up in a Roman Catholic family and attending a Catholic undergraduate institution, I was instinctively guided by the Rule of St. Benedict. This Rule provides teachings about virtues such as stewardship, obedience, and stability. It taught me about finding fulfillment in a lifetime of commitment and service to my community. Just as these federal agency core values are guided by a professional ethos of service, integrity, and excellence, so too am I guided by hallmarks such as hospitality, community, humility, and discipline. By the end of my graduate career, and with plenty of guidance, I found that a career as a civil servant would personally be a fulfilling vocation. 

The Wait

Starting in the spring of 2018, I began applying to any agency or organization who had a biodefense or biosecurity department, or related directorate. My first offer came from the University of Pittsburgh’s Department of Environmental Health and Safety as a Laboratory Biosafety Specialist. Fortunately, I discovered during the interview that a professor of mine at Georgetown was the Ph.D. advisor of my interviewer – Pitt’s Biosafety Officer. In other words, networking aided my application and gave me something to discuss during the interview outside of the typical questions. So, remember to network with your professors, colleagues, and seminar speakers during school and any internships. You never know when it will help. I will detail networking more in depth in the section Career Resources and Networking

Now, this job was not a federal position where I could dive into work specifically involving CBRNE threat reduction or Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction (CWMD), nor did it require or sponsor secret security clearances. However, since I was about 50 applications deep into USAJobs and had not received any updates, I decided to accept the offer as a means of acquiring experience in the biosafety and biosecurity fields. If I had reached my 50-application mark with no updates, perhaps my educational experience was simply not enough to earn an interview. So, I used this opportunity to further my career ambitions. I spent time conducting BSL-1, 2, 2+, and 3 inspections to verify guidance with government regulatory agencies.  I provided support to Pitt’s biosafety and chemical hygiene programs. Most importantly, I continued applying to federal positions. Unfortunately, as the months moved on and as I approached my 100-application mark with USAJobs, I still had not received any updates. Perhaps I was formatting my resume incorrectly, or that my professors really weren’t exaggerating when they dropped hints of the federal hiring system being a lengthy, drawn out process. As it turns out, both were true. 

The fall of 2018 rolled around and I had still not received any interviews. After reaching out to several contacts in the D.C. area, I started getting a grasp of how challenging the federal application process can be, whether you are entry-level or highly experienced. Here is what I learned:

  1. The application process is lengthy. On average, it can last anywhere between six months to one year just to begin interviewing and undergoing background checks. That most certainly is not the information a recent graduate wants to hear, especially when the student loan grace period ends 6 months following graduation. Finding a job, affording rent, and paying off student loans – talk about anxiety-inducing.
  2. Platforms like USAJobs utilize automated systems and if your résumé does not follow a specific formula, your application will never even make it into the hands of a Human Resource (HR) specialist.
  3. The majority of positions in the biodefense field require secret or top-secret security clearance before getting hired. Unfortunately, there are not many organizations that are willing to sponsor clearances. This has created a stressful environment for graduating M.S. and Ph.D. students who wish to work for the federal government but do not have a clearance. The dilemma as a whole is similar to what I refer to as the “millennial conundrum,” which will be discussed in the section, Landing a Cleared Job Without Active Clearance.

A Leap of Faith

Learning this was disheartening, as it set me back to square one. I needed to revamp my entire federal résumé, start re-applying, and reach out to career resources and networks who could offer advice on adjusting my approach to federal applications. Fortunately, I had a stable and secure job. On the other hand, I lived in Pittsburgh, PA where I could not make any headway with positions I was passionate about in the DC/Virginia/Maryland (DMV) region. So, I decided to take a leap of faith and accept a 3-month contract as an actor at a local theatre in southwest Washington, D.C. (Yes, I also have a background in performing arts, but that’s a story for another day!)

Although I was working anywhere from 40 to 60-hour weeks, this opportunity let me tap into the networks I built at Georgetown to acquire a better understanding of the civil service employment system as a whole – all while paying my monthly bills. 

After my 3 months in D.C, I moved back to Pennsylvania in the hopes that I would start hearing back from agencies or contractors. I landed the occasional interview through USAJobs and contractors, but I was not receiving any solid offers. In the spring of 2019, I surprisingly received a phone call congratulating me on my acceptance into medical school. It was a shot of adrenaline after a year of constant job rejection. Without hesitation, and more importantly, without sitting down with my wife and family to discuss my decision, I accepted the offer and started classes in July, essentially tossing aside everything I had worked for over the last two years. 

On a side note, for students currently considering medical school, the application process is just as lengthy as the federal job hunting process. I recommend that you spend several months preparing for the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT), take the MCAT in the spring of the year prior to the class you would be entering, and then submit your application and score early that same summer. The journey to medical school is a long, arduous path. My journey in applying is one that dates back to 2015, so needless to say, that phone call was an overdue pat on the back. 

A month into classes however, I noticed how frequently I was dwelling on the past, questioning whether I had made the right choice entering this cycle. Perhaps I wanted more experience with an agency like the HHS or CDC before becoming a physician. After all, my goal was to become the best possible physician I could be. If I could sum up one takeaway from my time at Georgetown, it’s that as an alumnus or alumna, you are tasked with the opportunity and the responsibility to make the world a better, safer, and healthier place. That’s what I try to do every day with my work. Should I choose to become a physician, I want to truly make a difference in our world – to address local issues while having a broader impact and to serve with quiet patriotism.

After many discussions with my wife and parents, I took another leap of faith and withdrew from the program. I had not worked so tirelessly for the last two years to merely abandon my ambitions. So, with a healthy dose of fear, I jumped back on the federal job-hunting bandwagon and decided to treat the process as a full-time job.

The Persistence

From 7 AM to 5 PM – every day, including weekends – I was applying, making phone calls, and networking as much as humanly possible. I followed up with HR departments and recruiters I had emailed my résumé to months ago. I would check in on a monthly basis to see if they had any entry-level positions available that would sponsor security clearances. The persistence ultimately paid off in the form of two offers: one on a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) contract and another on a DoD contract. In the end, I selected the DoD position with ANSER primarily due to their mission aligning with my own interests. ANSER is committed exclusively to public service, values collaboration and integrity, and offers countless valuable resources that I believe will aid me in the long run as I work toward larger goals. 

Currently, I work as a DoD Technical Program Analyst with ANSER, where I provide support to the Joint Program Executive Office for Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear Defense (JPEO CBRND). Primarily, I apply analytical skills to address the programmatic and technical challenges associated with destroying the U.S. chemical weapon stockpile by the U.S. Treaty deadline of 2023. In addition, I provide program management, objective studies, and analyses to the national security, homeland security, and public policy communities. More recently, I have been actively coordinating and presenting a daily Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic preparedness dashboard analysis for the PEO ACWA Program Executive Officer, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense, Assistant Secretary of Defense, and Under Secretary of Defense. This dashboard analyzes medical surge capacity and client site infection/hospital rates.

Public service has never faced as demanding a test as it does today. The public is watching our government through the eyes of the media on a daily basis, and, with this challenge comes an opportunity – an opportunity for real change and real leadership. If you are passionate and serious enough to work for the federal government, then start with the basics. Do not presume that your GPA and school name alone will land you that dream job overnight. While they will certainly help, it will take grit, determination, persistence, and a basic understanding of how the system works.  

Sometimes, the road to success is a long one; however, the great thing about falling down is that it’s a great feedback mechanism. Making mistakes leads you to seek out alternative methods if you persist. Then, if you are persistent, committed, and passionate about pursuing a career as a civil servant, you will develop the motivation, skills, and discipline necessary to land that dream job. Of course, this is information I did not consider during the initial federal application process. I believed that the late nights and countless hours I had put into graduating from a high-demand program with honors would practically guarantee offers; in other words, I was taking the shorter road. One piece of advice I’ll offer to current students and job-seeking alumni is to take the long road and acquire the necessary skills so that you can build success that lasts.

  • CBRNE: Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear, and High Yield Explosive
  • CCDC CBC: U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command Chemical Biological Center
  • CDC: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
  • CIA: Central Intelligence Agency
  • CWMD: Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction
  • DHS: Department of Homeland Security
  • DoD: Department of Defense
  • DTRA: Defense Threat Reduction Agency
  • FEMA: Federal Emergency Management Agency
  • FDA: U.S. Food and Drug Administration
  • JPEO CBRND: Joint Program Executive Office for Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear Defense
  • NCTC: The National Counterterrorism Center
  • NIAID: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases
  • NIH: National Institutes of Health
  • OPM: Office of Personnel Management
  • PEO ACWA: Program Executive Office for Assembled Chemical Weapons Alternatives
  • SCI: Sensitive Compartmented Information
  • USDA: U.S. Department of Agriculture
  • WHO: World Health Organization
  • WMD: Weapons of Mass Destruction

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