Government Employee Career Paths
Starting at the bottom: Entry-level positions
Of course, entry-level positions vary depending on the agency. Names for entry-level positions can vary, ranging from titles like research analyst and accounts specialist to administrative clerk or auditor. Don’t let the position title deter you from applying. In many cases, even though the titles will vary from agency to agency, the real grunt work you are doing as an entry-level worker is going to be the same.
Beginning on the bottom rung of any organization means you will likely be asked to complete a wide variety of research and potentially technical tasks. While this may seem daunting in the beginning, take heart in the fact that you will learn the key facets of your position within the first few months. Once you have learned the procedural and technical ins and outs of the job, you can then focus on building a career through networking, contributing to planning and ultimately improving your skill set.
Try it and see
A common agency trend has been to create two- or three-year programs for fresh graduates. In this sort of situation you promise to commit to a set tenure before you leave for another position. The jobs are designed to give individuals a look at what the agency does, but set a future termination date so that those that are not gung ho about staying can easily be moved aside for a fresh batch of graduates. In many respects this is a great way to start your career. If you don’t end up enjoying the work you were doing, you don’t need to explain to future employers why you left agency X.
It also allows you to be honest about keeping your options open and to think about what you might want to do. At the end of the period, you may decide that you want to proceed with an MPA or PhD program—or leave the public sector all together.
Building a career in a government agency
For those that decide to build a career, as you gain seniority at the agency you have chosen to work at, you’ll find that the work becomes more satisfying in many respects. Instead of doing the basic research for a report, you can now ask a lower-level researcher or intern to do the work for you. This way you can focus more on the actual drafting of policy or a regulation that the agency is dealing with.
There also comes a point where completing a graduate degree is necessary to move up in the agency. Advanced degrees are all but required for some leadership positions. Furthermore, a graduate education will pay off in the long run because of the federal government’s pay scale, which rewards workers for their graduate education. Therefore, if you are planning on a long-term career in the government, you should consider finding a part-time graduate program (or a full-time program if you can afford it) to expand your skill set. That way, when an opportunity for promotion comes along you will be in the best position possible to take advantage of it.
Practice what they preach
Because agencies are part of the executive branch of the federal government, their top leadership positions are normally filled with political appointees, a majority of which tend to leave these positions once a new administration takes hold. This can cause some career agency workers to have personal dilemmas. During the run up to the invasion of Iraq in 2002 to 2003, many longtime career diplomats resigned their positions in protest of the Bush administration’s diplomatic policies concerning other countries, including the Iraq invasion. These diplomats cited deep-seated differences in the manner that the administration was pursuing its foreign policy goals, such as the philosophical stance of using pre-emptive strikes against other countries in cases where the United States felt threatened. Another example involves the Department of Defense during the Clinton Administration in the 1990s. Many civilian employers were at odds with President Clinton over his alleged draft dodging and his view on gays in the military. The point is that as an agency worker your ultimate boss is the president of the United States. Though you may disagree with the president’s policies or political goals, as an agency employee your job is to carry out those policies that emanate from the White House as long as they are legally within the scope of the agency’s Congressionally-outlined mandate.