Pathways to a Federal Government Career: USAJobs, Fellowships, Paid Internships, & More

By Flannery Amdahl, revised by CP&PD staff

Pathways to a Federal Government Career

Photo by Joshua Sukoff on Unsplash

Also check out our guide to kick-starting a career in state and local government.

As the nation’s largest employer, the U.S. federal government offers plenty of career opportunities for graduates who are looking for careers outside of academia. With employees working in 400 occupational specialties across 120 different agencies and bureaus, the federal government actively recruits master’s and doctoral students and graduates from all academic disciplines.

Please note: The majority of federal government jobs are open only to U.S. citizens or those actively pursuing U.S. citizenship.


The First Step: USAJobs

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USAJobs.gov is the clearinghouse for federal civil servant jobs. The vast majority of open positions in the federal government are listed here.

The USAJobs site—where you can search and apply for most federal civil service openings—is probably the best place to start a general search for federal employment opportunities. There are only a handful of excepted federal service agencies that are not required to post on the site (more on jobs at these agencies below).

USAJobs advertises thousands of jobs at any given time, so narrow your search by entering your desired location and keywords related to your academic discipline and skills. History PhD Ryan Reft, for example, found a job on the site by experimenting with keywords ranging from “historian,” “education,” “military,” and “housing” to “analyst,” “writer,” and “editor.” (Reft now has what sounds to me like a dream job: he’s the 20th/21st Century Historian in the Library of Congress’ Manuscript Division.) For advice on how he successfully navigated the process, check out Reft’s excellent post over at the Tropics of Meta blog. Reft encourages interested applicants to visit the site regularly:

“You have to be prepared to visit the site regularly, apply often, and hone your CV to various positions but take it from me, it can be done.”

Application tips from an American Historical Association (AHA) panel on government jobs (summarized by Colleen Flaherty at Inside Higher Ed):

“Government job applicants with PhDs need to stress their strength in communications, ability to synthesize vast amounts of information into ‘useable’ knowledge, and decision-making skills in the initial applications processes—much of which are online, administered by generalist human resources officials looking for key words and phrases.”

Improving your odds: Searching USAJobs is an incredibly useful way to gain a sense of the types of federal government jobs that are out there. As in many other fields, however, networking and “who you know” are frequently crucial to helping you secure a job within the federal government (for starters, it’s tough to get noticed amongst all the competition: there were more than 20 million applications submitted to USAJobs in 2014, reports the nonprofit organization Partnership for Public Service).


Federal Pathways Programs

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Pathways programs help students and recent graduates build the network of contacts and experience they’ll need to land permanent civil service positions.

If you’ve spent the past few years immersed in academia, you likely don’t have a wide network of contacts within the federal bureaucracy. The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) sponsors three Pathways programs—the Presidential Management Fellowship (PMF), the Recent Graduates Program, and federal Internship Program—to help students and recent graduates gain a foot in the door.

The Presidential Management Fellows Program (PMF)

The PMF is a paid, entry-level leadership development program for candidates with a professional or graduate degree.

Presidential Management Fellows receive prestigious two-year appointments that include 160 hours of training and at least one 4 to 6 month assignment at a federal agency (with the possibility of rotations at additional agencies as well). Appointments can potentially be converted into permanent positions after the fellow successfully completes the program.

Eligibility: Graduate students from any discipline expected to complete a degree during the current academic year, or who have received a degree no more than 2 years prior to the opening date of the application window, are eligible to apply. Since 2014, the program has expanded to include additional opportunities for graduates in the STEM fields.

Application deadline: Fall (typically early October; check the PMF website and USAJobs for updates)

More details: To find more information and to apply to be a PMF, visit www.pmf.gov.

The Recent Graduates Program

The OPM’s Recent Graduates Program places successful applicants in a federal agency for one year, providing them with training, professional development, and mentorship opportunities. Appointments may be converted into permanent positions after participants complete the program.

Eligibility: Recent graduates who have completed their degree within the previous two years are eligible to apply. Veterans who serve in the military during the two years after their graduation have four additional years to apply. Note that students from vocational, technical, undergraduate, graduate, and professional programs are eligible, so qualifications vary.

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The OPM’s Recent Graduates and Internship Program positions are all posted on USAJobs.

Application deadline: Varies by position.

More details: Find information about the program on the OPM website. To find open positions, visit USAJOBS and filter by the “recent graduates” appointment type.

Internships Program

Internships are another way to build the connections and experience that can help you land a permanent position. OPM’s Internship Program provides students with training and temporary positions at federal agencies.

Eligibility: Positions are open to current students who are enrolled at least half-time.

Application deadline: Varies by position.

More details: Find information about the program on the OPM website. To find open positions, visit USAJobs and filter by the “internships” appointment type.


Opportunities within Excepted Agencies

Federal AgenciesExcepted service agencies have their own hiring and evaluation procedures, and they are not required to post every open position on the USAJobs site. USAJobs does, however, provide a handy list of excepted agencies (PDF).

The following is far from exhaustive, but here are a few professional development opportunities offered by excepted agencies:

The U.S. Army

The Army sponsors a number of post-doctoral research programs in the sciences and technology, and they’re open to both U.S. citizens and non-U.S. citizens. To hear how one recent GC alum is currently building a career as an analyst at the U.S. Army Research Lab, check out our alumni profile interview with Taylor Cassidy (Linguistics PhD, 2014).

The Central Intelligence Agency

The CIA runs its own scholarship and internship programs for graduate students, with opportunities for students and graduates from a range of academic disciplines. If you have lots of teaching experience at CUNY under your belt, for example, you could become an Education and Training Specialist. Other internship programs seek applicants with backgrounds in computer science, data science, information management, and more. You can browse post-graduate positions by category on the CIA’s website.

Capitol Hill

If you’re looking to work on the Hill rather than within a federal agency, check out the “Ultimate Capitol Hill Internship Guide” from Roll Call. Note that, unfortunately, many Congressional internships are unpaid.

The U.S. Department of State

CUNY has the advantage of hosting the State Department’s Diplomat in Residence (DIR) for all of New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Connecticut. DIRs are tasked with providing guidance and advice about State Department careers. You can email the NY Metro DIR or follow them on Facebook to learn about upcoming career events.

A few notes about employment opportunities with the State Department: The department runs its own Pathways Programs, internship and fellowship programs, and Recent Graduates Program, in addition to hosting Presidential Management Fellows. If you’re currently mid-career and have professional experience in addition to your degree, you might qualify for one of the department’s several professional fellowships. Applicants who hope to become foreign service officers should first take the Foreign Service Officer Test (FSOT).

The Federal Bureau of Investigation

The FBI’s Honors Internship Program is a 10-week, paid summer internship, and is open to graduate students in any discipline (past interns have ranged from Art Historians to Social Workers). The Visiting Scientist Program seeks STEM applicants who have an interest in forensic science and developing their laboratory skills.

The Federal Reserve Board

Opportunities include the Board’s Cooperative Education Program and dissertation fellowships.


Additional Resources

About Federal Careers

The GoGovernment.org website is devoted to providing information on civil-service employment within the executive branch. Learn what it’s like to work for the government, salaries, student loan forgiveness programs, health and retirement benefits, and more.

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