Working for the Man?! Turning Your PhD into a Meaningful Job with the Federal Government

When I entered graduate school at the University of California San Diego in the fall of 2008, I knew I was taking a chance. Previous to my enrollment, I had taught for nearly 10 years in the New York City public high schools. Had I continued doing so that Autumn, I would have received a healthy pay bump for a decade of service and been one more tantalizing step closer to being a vested member of the union, the United Federation of Teachers (UFT). Instead, I moved to Southern California and walked into a PhD program in U.S. history with my fingers crossed.

Then again, I also knew the nation’s public schools, especially in urban areas, nearly always need teachers. As a recent story in the New York Times attests, once again the public schools find themselves devoid of the required number of educators. Funny, how years of rhetorical public whippings by politicians on both the left and the right along with hiring freezes and municipal cutbacks will do that.

In other words, if worse came to worst, I’d go back to the high school classroom and pick up where I left off, if not in NYC then any other number of the nation’s cities. Most of my fellow classmates didn’t have that kind of fallback; after all, I already had a master’s degree in education (NYU) and a nebulous American Studies MA from Columbia University, both attained at night after my work day ended—the latter for half off due to a generous program from CU that gave city teachers at public schools reduced tuition.

Still, entering graduate school at 32 differs in so many ways from doing the same in one’s mid-twenties. I had a better awareness of how to exploit my time and direct my studies in order to expand my opportunities after graduation. From the jump, while I greatly desired a faculty position at a research-level institution, I knew the likelihood of such a job was if not a long shot, then at the very least unlikely. Americanists are a dime a dozen, we grow on trees, by the bunch; plenty of really good historians in US history get passed over every year only to slug it out as adjuncts at colleges, universities, and community colleges across the country.

Policy, Policy, Policy

What can one do to expand the possibility of employment in a post-PhD world? Obviously, no answer fits everyone, but for me, I made sure policy occupied a central place my studies. My general area of interest entering graduate school had been urban history, in particular housing policy, and even more specifically the effects of HOPE VI housing reforms on Chicago. Fortunately for affordable housing advocates, this is territory that a great number of exceptionally bright people already cover; unfortunately for me, this is territory that a great number of exceptionally bright people already cover. I wasn’t about to out Lawrence Vale Lawrence Vale; I knew that unless I came up with some unique angle on the subject, I had to find some other aspect of housing to explore. Luckily, a chance conversation with a former adviser and my location in San Diego enabled me to do so.

top-gun-tom-cruise-spot-the-anomaly2_t620 Maverick, not your typical government employee

If you’ve ever seen Top Gun (please tell me you’ve seen Top Gun), you know San Diego has a significant military presence; Mike Davis will tell you it’s the most “militarized” city in America. However, most members of the armed services there are not Maverickesque high flyers but rather nose-to-the-grindstone service personnel with families. As it stands, San Diego has one of the largest concentrations of military personnel and military families in the nation and as result, a great deal of military housing. A former adviser noted off-handedly that when the military tried to build Navy family housing in her San Diego community, her neighbors and fellow community members reacted with a great deal of resistance, some of it quite surprising. With that, my dissertation topic was born: a policy-based social history of military housing and families in Sunbelt communities like San Diego and Hampton Roads, VA.

As part of my research, I made sure to use every opportunity to explore the city’s schools and housing, both central aspects of my dissertation. I worked with UCSD’s interdisciplinary collaborative the Center for Community Well-Being (CCW), where I conducted housing research and learned the basics of GIS mapping techniques, which I used to produce studies for area non-profits, mostly in low-income Southeastern San Diego (SESD), focusing on crime, healthcare, housing, and a safe schools initiative. Through CCW, I was able to spend time exploring SESD’s high schools, furthering my experience with urban education. Though I was a member of the school’s History department, my advisers helped me secure teaching assistantships with UCSD’s Urban, Studies and Planning program.

At the same time, I started this blog with Alex Sayf Cummings as a means to expand my research interests and improve my writing. The blog proved invaluable not only in terms of making my writing sharper and more engaging but also leading to more networking—we covered the goings-on at conferences and got to know the scholars whose books we reviewed on the site. I turned blog posts into lectures for classes or used them as reference points when I got stumped on research questions.

Eventually, I worked as a lecturer at UCSD, where I taught the opening USP course on urban communities for two years. Through luck, I found a position online for the University of Colorado Denver, where I have conducted classes on international relations and the World Wars spanning the periods 1900-1963 for several years.   Later, a grad school friend who had decided not to pursue a PhD and decamped for work at KCET in Los Angeles, contacted me about writing a column for the website. After speaking with the editor, I accepted; it didn’t pay much but again it enabled me to further my research interests in a variety of directions and helped me make broader connections. In general, I took every opportunity to expand my knowledge of and experience with policy issues and more empirical ways to research them.

Even before I defended in June 2014, I was already writing for ToM and KCET, adjuncting at Northern Virginia Community Colleges, the University of Maryland University College (UMUC), and online at UCD. In addition, I was applying for jobs through, the Chronicle of Higher Education‘s job board, and my most fascinating “discovery,” USAJOBS.



A couple of years earlier, I had been grabbing drinks with some friends in D.C. A friend of a friend who had just graduated with a poli sci degree from Johns Hopkins had found work with the National Defense University (NDU) and had hyped conducting job searches at USAJOBS. Within a couple of years, he had climbed the ranks at NDU before leaving for a more traditional academic gig at Portland State University in Oregon. Still, he along with a friend of mine who now works for the Pentagon gave me tips on how to apply for positions through the website and how to tailor my CV to various positions.

So what is USAJOBS? More or less, it operates as a clearing house for federal jobs across the nation. You give its search engine your location and a keyword or two and it provides all the jobs that remotely relate to your inputs. For example, I plugged in my zip code and the search term “historian” and various jobs came up. You’d be surprised how many departments of the U.S. government need historians or people trained in the discipline. USAJOBS includes the Smithsonian, the armed forces, Congress and every other branch of the federal government. Granted, plenty of positions that came up when I used the term historian would be a challenge for me to qualify for, but for several others I had a shot. Other search terms I used with varying levels of success included “analyst,” “editor,” and “writer.” Needless to say, the government needs analysts in more areas than you can shake a misogynist Donald Trump insult at. That said, the D.C. area remains the best place to search for this kind of employment, but jobs exist all over the nation. For example, NARA has presidential libraries and branches all over the U.S. as does the military, the Department of Agriculture, HUD, and so forth. Long story short, more options exist than might appear at first blush.

Megan Doherty and John Southard rightly point out that most jobs are secured through informal networks and that reaching out to others in your chosen field remains one of the best ways to find a job. Undoubtedly, this is true. However, I can attest that one can find employment, even good employment via USAJOBS without a single connect. 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. What follows is a guide to navigating the bureaucratic morass that is USAJOBS.

“Know Your Shooter”

When I was in college, my friends and I watched and played a lot of pick up basketball. The C+ I earned in Astrophysics sophomore year can be directly attributed to this fact—that and well, it was Astrophysics. Anyway, we used to throw around the phrase “Know your shooter” all the time, which basically meant, know what everyone on your team does well and let them focus on it. Most importantly, recognize who the player with the best shooting hand is and lean on them when needed. In the same way, you want to know what areas of policy you might be best qualified for and what skills exemplify your talents best. So for example, due to my teaching experience (at the high school and college levels, including online) and my research I identified the following areas as my strongest fields: education, housing, and the military. My sharpest skills included analysis, editing, presentations, and writing.

Don’t get overly technical with this part. If you wrote a history of Los Angeles highways, you are a transit/transportation specialist; if you explored nutritional manuals during WWII, you have FDA or Department of Agriculture written all over you. Most dissertations have a policy angle, you just have to identify it in the right way.

When I reviewed the results of my search terms, I ignored almost anything not associated with military, housing, or education. In addition, I did not bother to apply for any positions in which the call is only open for a week. In general when this happens, they already have someone in mind for the position and have only posted it on the site because they are required to by law. The job search is hard enough without setting yourself up for failure or wasting time on a position that will never come to fruition. Two weeks is more reasonable and if it’s a month, go to town.

Read the Call Closely

The nasty trick of USAJOBS is that before your application ever gets viewed by a living, breathing person, it goes through a computer algorithm that weeds out candidates that the program deems unqualified. You need to craft a CV/resume that can get through this algorithm but then appeals to an actual human upon review. The people most in the know about the position you are applying for don’t even see your application until its passes through the algorithm and a job manager with HR.

I know this sounds daunting but EVERYONE who applies is subject to it, which means the playing field is level. Even if it lacks grass, only goes uphill, and seems laden with shards of bureaucratic broken glass, you know Johnny or Jenny Hot Shot has to pass through the same inane hoops as you do. That said, if you have military service in your background, definitely include it; it will boost your chances. Keep in mind, however, exempted positions, like the one I currently occupy, do not give preference to military service. If you haven’t served in the armed services these jobs are especially good to focus on.

First, the kind of CV you create for USAJOBS differs from jobs in the private sector. They resemble an amalgam of your traditional resume and an academic CV more than anything. I would suggest keeping it under six pages, though it’s not necessarily required. The main issue with your USAJOBS resume is that you have to provide a description of what you did at your places of employment, not just bullet points; you need to be somewhat descriptive.

When you begin laying it out, look at the job call first and pay particular attention to the kind of verbs used in the job summary and duties section. Try to use the same verbs or variations on them in your CV. So if the job asks for the ability to communicate information to audiences or analyze documents, use those terms or versions of them in the CV. Why, you ask? The aforementioned algorithm searches for these terms when it reviews your application. The key is to use the same terminology without parroting it so that if you make it through step one you can still appeal to a human with a real personality, which is step two in the review process.

In addition to the CV, you will also be asked to answer a number of questions related to the job. This can vary from a simple multiple-choice questionnaire to a longer, more intensive written-response section. For my job, it was the latter. In either case, you can preview these questions; usually a link is provided at the bottom of the section with the heading “how you will be evaluated.” Some jobs will give what amounts to a personality test, but this really depends on the position to which you applying.

My advice here is to again look at the duties and summary section, but also the required qualifications (referred to as “knowledge, skills, and abilities,” more commonly known as KSAs). Take your time with the written responses. I gave myself weeks to edit and reedit my answers. I thought about the best way to present myself in the context of the job call and related to all the categories listed above (but especially the KSAs). I still tried to use verbs similar to those in the summary and duties sections, but not nearly as much as I did with the CV. In terms of your strengths and weaknesses, don’t oversell yourself, but don’t undersell your skills either. When having to choose between one of these two poles go with a positive lean rather than a conservative one. Hell, if you can’t hype yourself, no one can.

Of course, you still need to translate the skills you’ve developed in graduate school into the kind of abilities that government employers desire. Think about how writing a dissertation or thesis has sharpened your talents as an editor; lecturing or TAing amounts to conducting presentations to large groups; presenting conference papers equals instructing or consulting experts in your chosen field. If you’ve appeared in the media, any form of it mind you including podcasts to discuss a subject related to your research, you are considered an expert. Highlight these sorts of things. You probably know all this already, but just don’t forget to execute it in your CV and the responses to the questionnaire.

Often no cover letter is required: you can write one, and there will be an option when you complete your application to include one. Honestly, I never did but it’s probably not a bad idea. What I did include was my written work, and I recommend doing the same. When you finally hand in the application there will be a chance to upload additional documents. About two years ago I spoke with an administrator who was in part responsible for hires in the National Park Service, and he encouraged me to include writing samples. They never ask for any, but if you include them they will read them. Even if they don’t, the worst they will do is toss them and you won’t lose anything; but if they do read them and they are good, it will give you a leg up.

The next step is to wait. This could take months. Currently, I am the Modern U.S. historian in the Library of Congress’s Manuscript Division. I have a number of duties including curating library exhibits related to 20th century subjects, responding to patron requests, contacting and managing donors and potential donors, finding new collections, and generally overseeing the nearly 1,500 20th and 21st century collections that the division holds. Sometimes I even deal with members of Congress in varying capacities. Several other job responsibilities fall under my purview but that’s basically the gig.

For a history buff, the job is a dream, but compared to most positions one pursues it took forever. I applied in September 2014; was “referred” sometime around November (which means my application made it through the algorithm and was then deemed suitable by the HR project manager); was interviewed in January 2015; and then was notified I had received the job in February. I didn’t start until mid-May. So yeah, it’s a slow process. Here’s the thing: I plugged away at USAJOBS and the other job sites mentioned earlier. If you can let go of visions of Goodbye Mr. Chips and embrace a different application of your skills, you will find a job you enjoy.

Keep in mind, academia treats its workers pretty poorly. I’d say the field is no better than corporations, except that businesses pay better and are actually held accountable for their decisions in some way or another. I need not tell any of you how tough adjuncting is, and it’s only proliferating. Universities and community colleges drape themselves in a certain noblesse oblige or at least argue that they are serving America’s future. In some cases, yes this is true, but it would seem with rising college tuition that they are on the student loan gravy train much as big business sucks at the tit of corporate welfare. Ask working class residents in most cities of what they think of neighboring universities, and you are likely to hear a story that does not reflect well on institutions of higher learning. Hoping for a gig at a research one university? Chances are somewhere on the campus some funding toward a goal or end you’ll find dubious at best and immoral at worst is going on. Granted not everything is an equivalent, but adulthood is full of vague gray borders, not bright lined markers between right and wrong.

I guess my larger point is that some of you reading this will say, “I’d never work for the government,” but in the end the wall that we’ve erected to differentiate “the man” from idealistic intellectual types has crumbled in the 21st century. Figure out how you feel about these issues and adjust accordingly. The older one gets, the grayer all these lines of demarcation become. It’s not about working for the government, but rather working in government to better serve your career and, yes, the public at large.