From First Inkling to First Day: Finding My Way Into a Federal Career

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Research Center. Photo Courtesy Blaine Connor

When I started my PhD program, I did not intend to work in the federal government, or even to do applied research.  Yet after fieldwork and the birth of my daughter, my thinking about my career changed.  I realized that I preferred working as part of a team, wanted to share whatever I learned with a wide audience, and wanted my work to have some tangible impact.  As a new parent, I sought work that would provide a decent living as part of a necessarily two-income family, support some work-life balance, and be in a location that would work well for my whole family.  In federal employment I saw the promise of meeting these goals.  The problem was, my knowledge of federal careers was quite general.  What specific jobs might I like and which were I well-qualified for?  How competitive was the hiring process and what did it entail?

A great way to find out this sort of information, especially for someone like me who didn’t know any government-employed anthropologists, would be to make contacts in NAPA and SfAA at their annual meetings.  At the time, I didn’t know that and couldn’t afford the expense or time off from my non-research job to attend conferences, so I dove in online.  In the end, it worked out. Through a combination of preparation, perseverance, and luck, I eventually landed a federal job that suits my interests and background.  In the case it might help others setting out, recognizing that everyone’s journey will be somewhat different, I thought I would share how I got here.

 

Step One: Find the Possible, Narrow to the Likely  

To find the possible, I casted a wide net by setting up queries on the federal jobs clearinghouse, USAJOBS. I searched for full-time listings with a specific minimum salary in certain parts of the country. My query included a range of terms like “anthropology,” “Japan,” “research,” “international,” “behavior,” “education,” and “sociology” (!). I had new listings emailed daily as closing dates could be as short as one week.  To see if what came back sounded appealing and like something I was well-qualified to do, I paid especially close attention to each job’s occupational questionnaire.  If your resume can’t currently support high self-ratings on the questionnaires of jobs you want, you’ll know what skills to acquire (e.g., many jobs that interested me required more statistics credits than I had, so I picked up a course).  Helpful resources at this stage were the USAJOBS site, The Federal Resume Guide, and Shirley Fiske’s “Working for the Federal Government: Anthropology Careers.”

 

Step Two: Be Ready to Pounce, but Mostly to Wait, With No End in Sight  

The hiring process was lengthy, with great stretches of waiting punctuated by sudden bursts of “this must happen immediately.”  I received my notice of qualification and rating (higher numbers are better) soon after applying, which was encouraging.  But, that was followed by three months of silence.  Then, like a bolt from the blue, I was invited to schedule a phone interview — the following day if possible!  A request for a job talk came a month later with a week notice.  Another month later came an offer to apply for a four-year associate fellowship.  The fellowship had the same pay and benefits, but with an expiration date.  I figured getting a foot in the door was the hardest part, so I happily filled out more paperwork and sent in recommendation letters and official transcripts.  Of course these were due as soon as possible to the local office, who had to forward them with a recommendation to hire to the central office for the final approval.

Unlike faculty jobs where start dates follow the academic calendar, I had no way to know for sure how long that approval would take.  Undoubtedly it varies by agency, job, qualifications, and so on, but in my case it took nine months – and I was “fast tracked”!  After a final flurry of activity including fingerprinting, background checks, more paperwork, and a physical, I had my start date.   Based on this experience, my advice is to prepare what you can in advance so you are ready to react quickly, but don’t stop applying to other jobs that come up.  You may have a long wait.

 

Step Three: Show That You Have the Flexibility to Contribute Right Away

Why was I picked?  By luck and some design, I had acquired — during, but also before and after, the PhD — most of the knowledge, skills, abilities and other characteristics (the dreaded KSAOs!) that I needed for my job — and demonstrated them in my application, interview, and job talk.  They were looking for someone who had used a wide range of methods (qualitative and others), showed eagerness and an ability to learn about new problems and approaches, had worked effectively with others, and had a pitch-in attitude.  In short, they were looking for exactly the type of person described by Jason Lind in his July 2015 Anthropology News column, “Mentoring the Next Generation of Practicing Anthropologists”: someone with “anthropological flexibility” who could step into an ongoing concern and quickly make an impact.  Having stories from fieldwork as well as my other jobs which demonstrated that flexibility and adaptability helped them feel comfortable with the hire.

 

Perseverance and Luck.

It took over two years from first inkling to first day, but a year into the job, I can say it was well worth the wait.  I get to do meaningful work with a good set of colleagues.  If you’re out there looking, I wish you success and hope your journey is a little faster!

 

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Blaine P. Connor

Blaine P. Connor is an associate service fellow (behavioral science) with the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), Office of Mine Safety and Health Research (OMSHR), Pittsburgh, PAThe views expressed are those of the author and do not represent NIOSH or the US government.

Sarah Ono, Heather Schacht Reisinger and Samantha L Solimeo are contributing editors of Anthropology in the Public Sector.

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