How to Find a Career With Uncle Sam

Originally published in The Washington Monthly for their September/October 2014 issue
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Juny Canenguez was just beginning her junior year at Virginia’s George Mason University in 2012 when she heard that the Obama administration was offering paid internships in the federal government through a new initiative called the Pathways Programs. Eager for what she calls “real-life experience” and interested in foreign affairs, she went to the State Department’s career website and applied for a Pathways internship. She was accepted, and for the next two years she worked two days a week at State while finishing her degree in business management. One of the highlights of her internship, Canenguez says, was getting to meet foreign and civil service officers, hear about their experiences, and take in their advice. Now out of college, she’s in the process of being converted to a formal federal employee, thanks to her time as an intern. “It was amazing,” says Canenguez. “I’m now being recruited to Civil Service, and my long-term plan will be to join the Foreign Service,” which, if she succeeds, will allow her to be posted as a diplomat overseas.

Working for the government can be a great career choice—maybe not as remunerative as a job on Wall Street, but potentially far more rewarding and socially useful. There are federal jobs available for almost every interest and skill, whether that’s politics, physics, art, or even event planning. And, contrary to popular conception, 84 percent of federal government jobs are outside of the Washington, D.C., area, so you can tailor your employment opportunities around where you most want to live. (Fifty thousand federal government employees work abroad, in more than 140 foreign countries.)

President Obama signed an executive order in 2010 creating the Pathways Programs with the expressed aim of attracting greater numbers of talented and diverse young adults into government work. The Pathways Programs are comprised of three divisions.

The Internship Program, designed for current students, provides paid work opportunities in federal agencies for a limited period of time. Interns can work either on a part-time or full-time basis.

Next there is the Recent Graduates Program, which is open to individuals who have completed, within the previous two years, an associate’s, bachelor’s, master’s, professional, doctorate, vocational, or technical degree or certificate from a qualifying educational institution. These recent graduates can work in federal agencies while also taking advantage of substantial career training and mentorship opportunities.

Lastly, the Presidential Management Fellows Program is a leadership and career-development program for those with newly minted graduate degrees.

In all three divisions of the Pathways Programs, if you successfully complete the term of service you can receive what is known as “noncompetitive eligibility” when applying for federal jobs. This means that your employer can convert you straight from a Pathways participant into a permanent employee or you can apply for other federal positions without having to go through the standard, and highly competitive, USAJOBS application process.

Channing Martin, a former Pathways intern in the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), was hired immediately after her internship ended into a permanent, full-time position at the OPM; she now works as a program and management analyst. “As a high schooler I was always really interested in diversity and inclusion issues,” Channing said, “and when I realized this intern program existed, I was really attracted to that.” Channing spent her yearlong internship on a rotation between different departments within the OPM, having the chance to get her feet wet in a broad range of governmental duties and responsibilities, experimenting with tasks ranging from understanding the role of performance management to supporting efforts to expand equal pay to learning how to write requirements for database systems. Channing did all this while balancing her time as a full-time student; she spent her second year at Carnegie Mellon’s public policy graduate school living in D.C., interning during the day and taking classes by night.

“Interning for the federal government allows you to check out exactly what kind of work they do and decide if it resonates with you,” said Tim McManus, vice president for education and outreach at the Partnership for Public Service, a nonprofit that advocates for the reinvigoration of the civil service workforce. “If you go and do an internship at the EPA or the Department of Energy, you’ll be exposed to not just the mission but the way the agency works. Is the culture one that is good for you? Is it fast-paced? Is it too slow? You have the ability to see for yourself.”

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