By David Lat

Above the Law, April 3, 2018–

Applying to the federal government isn’t like applying to any old employer.

Working for the federal government might not be as appealing as usual, given some of the controversies surrounding President Donald Trump and his administration. But don’t let the negative headlines and unhinged tweets fool you. Below the upper echelons of the executive branch, it’s “business as usual” at many agencies of the Deep State federal government — and these agencies have a wide range of interesting and appealing jobs that need to be filled.


Last week, I attended a panel at the Global Privacy Summit of the International Association of Privacy Professionals (IAPP) called “Getting Hired for a Privacy Job in the Federal Government.” The panelists all work in privacy positions, but the advice they gave transcends the privacy space and would be useful to anyone seeking employment with the federal government. I distilled their counsel down to the following five tips.

1. Understand the codes of federal government jobs.

The federal hiring process can be confusing to the uninitiated. The panel gave a helpful overview of how government jobs get classified.

For example, let’s say you come across a job announcement that refers to a position as “GS-0306-12.” The four-digit number in the middle refers to the position’s “occupational series.” Government positions get classified by occupational series, and knowing how the series system works will help you find an appropriate position. For example, here are four common occupational series for privacy professionals:

– 0306: Government Information Specialist (includes FOIA and privacy)
– 0343: Management & Program Analyst
– 0905: Attorney
– 2210: IT professional series, including cybersecurity

So in our example, the job in question is a position as a Government Information Specialist, which often involves Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and related privacy issues.

The “GS” in the job announcement means the job is on the “General Schedule” pay scale, the most prevalent salary scale for government jobs. The General Schedule has 15 grades, and 10 steps within each grade; the higher the grade, the higher the pay.

The last number, “12,” refers to the job’s grade on the GS scale. So in our example, this is a GS-12 job. If you look at the GS salary scale, you’ll see that the current pay for a GS-12 job, Step 1, is $63,600 (not including “Locality Pay” that varies depending on the cost of living in the city where the job is located).

After a year in this GS-12 job, you would be eligible for promotion from “Step 1” to “Step 2.” The pay for a GS-12, Step 2 job is $65,720 (again, not including Locality Pay).

The General Schedule is not the only pay scale for government jobs. For example, there are “Senior Executive Service” or “SES” positions, which generally involve leading large or complex organizations. SES positions come with higher pay than the GS scale determined under a performance-based system featuring broad salary ranges as opposed to specific salaries. Lower-level SES salaries and higher-grade GS salaries can overlap.

2. Understand the difference between “competitive service” and “excepted service.”

The rules for “competitive service” hiring are more strict and more rigid. Here’s how the OPM website explains the difference:

In the competitive service, individual must go through a competitive process (i.e., competitive examining) which is open to all applicants. This process may consist of a written test, an evaluation of the individual’s education and experience, and/or an evaluation of other attributes necessary for successful performance in the position to be filled.

Appointments to the Excepted Service are civil service appointments within the Federal Government that do not confer competitive status. There are a number of ways to be appointed to the excepted service such as appointed under an authority defined by the U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM) as excepted (e.g., Veterans Recruitment Appointment) or being appointed to a position defined by OPM as excepted (e.g., Attorneys) More information can be found about the excepted service in 5 U.S.C. 2103 and parts 213 and 302 of title 5 of the Code of Federal Regulations.

If you’re applying for a competitive service job, you could be competing against applicants who get a hiring preference (e.g., veterans), which could explain your lack of success if you don’t get interviewed. If you qualify for a hiring preference, you should claim that preference when you apply for a competitive service job, since it will give your application priority over those without a preference, as long as you are found to be a qualified applicant.

If you get hired into a competitive service job, you will attain “competitive status” after working in that job for a period of time. This status will allow you to apply for future federal jobs that are limited to competitive status applicants only, facilitating your movement between different federal positions over your career.

Attorney positions are “excepted service” positions. As such, they are not governed by the same rules and preferences, and it could be easier to get into the government by taking a job as a lawyer. But note that lawyers often end up working in government in jobs that are not officially or exclusively attorney positions, so the difference between competitive and excepted service still matters even if you have a law degree.

3. Tailor your résumé to the qualifications of the position you’re applying for.

Many a federal job search begins on the USAJOBS website, where many federal positions get posted. For each job, the USAJOBS listing will have opening and closing dates for the application period, pay scale and grade, appointment type, salary range, work schedule, and duties and responsibilities.

Pay close attention to the duties and responsibilities — and tailor your résumé accordingly to emphasize different aspects of your background (truthfully, of course). Don’t use the same résumé for all of your USAJOBS applications.

Why? Résumés initially go to a “human capital officer” for an initial HR screening. This person doesn’t work in the specific agency or component doing the hiring; instead, this person is conducting a (fairly cursory) check to make sure that the résumé matches up with the duties and responsibilities in the posting. So as an applicant, you should construct your résumé to show how you are capable of fulfilling the duties and responsibilities of the job you seek (again, truthfully; you shouldn’t be applying to positions for which you are not qualified).

The human capital officer will review the résumés submitted for a posting, then forward selected résumés to a hiring official at the specific agency or component — who must pick interviewees from that pool of résumés. The hiring official will not even see all the other résumés that didn’t make it past the human capital officer — which is why it’s so important for your résumé to demonstrate that you fit the position you’re seeking.

4. If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.

Federal government hiring is highly competitive. If you apply for a position and learn that you were “not referred,” it means that your application was not among those forwarded by the human capital officer to the hiring official at the agency.

Don’t get discouraged. Perhaps you didn’t get referred because other applicants had preferences, or because your résumé wasn’t a good fit for the particular position. But you should keep an eye open for future opportunities, and apply to them if appropriate. Your résumé might be a better fit for a later opening, or you might apply at a time when the other applicants don’t have preferences.

5. Explore different ways of working for the federal government.

Many agencies regularly have interns, including law students, and give them substantive, interesting work. Interning for a federal government agency is a great way to enhance your résumé, gain valuable experience, and find a mentor — all good things, whether you end up working in the private or public sector.

The panelists also reminded everyone about the Presidential Management Fellows Program, which is another way for law school graduates to enter federal government service. To learn more about the PMF Program, see this earlier story.

Applying to work for the federal government can be a confusing and stressful process, but the rewards are well worth it. So familiarize yourself with the hiring process, keep an eye out for interesting opportunities, and be persistent. May the Force be with you!

David Lat is editor at large and founding editor of Above the Law, as well as the author of Supreme Ambitions: A Novel.