[Seminar Blog] Serving the Public as a Government Scientist: Career tracks and opportunities
written by: Amanda Brucchieri and Robert Salerno
Have you ever thought of pursuing a career within the federal government? Do you know what opportunities exist for research, extension, and policy/regulation? During this week’s colloquium talk, Dr. Chris Peterson, an International Food Security, and Pest Management Professional working for the USDA Foreign Agriculture Service, passed on his knowledge and wisdom about career paths within the federal government. He wanted to bring a personal perspective to the field of government employment and help students navigate their next steps as future scientists so he came on his own time and was not speaking as a representative of the USDA. Dr. Peterson holds a Ph.D. in Entomology and Toxicology from Iowa State University and has held several positions within the Forest Service, Peace Corps, and currently, the Foreign Agricultural Service.
If you are interested in a research career (whether in academia or government) there are many aspects that you should consider. Dr. Peterson began his career in government as a research entomologist with the Forest Service. There he learned that research is different within government and academia with regard to its purpose and stakeholders, associated intellectual property, intellectual freedom, and funding. In academia, research is used to generate new knowledge/questions (knowledge for knowledge) whereas government research aims to gain knowledge that can be used by the government for the public. In terms of intellectual property and freedom, academic research is owned by the university and there is rarely a limit to the questions researchers may ask. In government, the research one conducts is usually in the public domain and the questions you can ask are often focused on issues of immediate concern. The majority of the funding for academic research comes from grants whereas funding for government research is usually appropriated through administrative budgets and sometimes through legislation. Before applying for a research position you should try to determine which research setting best fits your style based on these aspects.
Pursuing a government career in designing outreach programs may also be of interest to you. There are many different routes one could take including conducting research, compiling data, developing products/product services, improving communication and outreach, and diplomacy. Dr. Peterson gained experience in programs and outreach when he joined the Peace Corps in Uganda as an Agribusiness Advisor and later as an International Program Specialist with the USDA. This is where science goes out into the real world and there is such a diversity of job titles within programs and outreach that there is a place for everyone to get involved!
If we have piqued your interest but you're still not sure there are so many ways to get involved and see if a government job is a good fit for you. Fellowship programs are an excellent way to try different fields. The American Association for the Advancement of Science, Entomological Society of America, and the Federation of American Scientists are just a few that offer opportunities to see what government work is like. If you try this and find it is what you are looking for then understanding how to get a job in government is an important next step. Dr. Peterson, having had the opportunity to try different fields, took the time to deliver some pointers on developing the best application you can. First, you will need a USAJobs profile. This is how you will see job postings and apply for the positions that fit your interest. When looking at the available positions make sure to take note of the “specialized experience” section. This will give you a lot of information about the experience a qualified candidate should possess. Make sure that you meet all the requirements and never underestimate the value of a cover letter. When you get to the interview Dr. Peterson stressed the fact one should know as much as possible about the branch, field, and topic you applied for. You made it through the application process so now is the time to prove you know what you are talking about. When the interview is over, for government jobs, it is important to know that contacting the interview committee will not benefit you. If you have any questions make sure to reach out to the HR department. Keep the process professional and respectful.
Dr. Peterson made an excellent point that the career you start now does not have to be the one you retire from. Times have changed and if you work for the government there are many ways to change up your career path. The position postings will tell you what opportunity there is for advancement. However, there are also opportunities to move into different branches. Over time you may change and you can make it so your career changes with you. When asked Dr. Peterson’s #1 piece of advice was: “Be brave”!
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