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“Good Enough for Government Work”
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Volume 15, Issue 4 (April 2017)

Karen Elkins


For most of my years as a research scientist in various U.S. government positions, I’ve heard the phrase “good enough for government work” used derisively to describe the supposedly half-baked efforts of government employees. Only recently did I learn that the expression originated during World War II to boast about work that was of the highest quality, and thus “good enough” to be accepted by Uncle Sam. Needless to say, I like the original concept a whole lot better, in part because it tracks with my experience. I’ve worked at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, and for many years, the Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research (CBER) of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). I can say without hesitation that the vast majority of my colleagues have been exceptionally smart and creative and have ridiculously high standards. If that sounds like you, there are plenty of opportunities for both postdoctoral scholars and for those ready to transition from their postdoc days into more permanent positions—even in these tough times.


What are these jobs?


The alphabet soup of agencies that hire PhD-level people with research training includes NIH, FDA, Centers for Disease Control (CDC), Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), and many sections of the Department of Defense. Quite a few of these positions revolve around bench or field research. Day-to-day life as a government researcher can be similar to that in university labs, but the goals and purposes of the work are often subtly different from the knowledge-generating (and grant-generating) perspective of universities. For example, the core mission of CBER is to regulate new biological products being evaluated through clinical trials, including blood and gene therapy products, stem cells, and new vaccines. As an immunologist and microbiologist, and now a principal investigator, the latter are my stock in trade. My lab facilitates the regulation of new vaccines by investigating mechanisms of vaccine action, looking for measurements that predict successful vaccination, and developing vaccine quality control assays. We hire principal investigators, postdocs, staff scientists, and technicians to accomplish the research that supports FDA’s mission, and most other agencies do the same.


Beyond the bench, a whole host of other science-based government positions need PhDs. These involve areas such as determining agency research programs, reviewing products or patents, advising Congress and the White House, administering science programs and grants, writing science-based materials for the public, and developing science policies. Most commonly, these kinds of positions go to people with substantial postdoctoral experience.


So how do I figure out if government work might be a good fit for me?


Like most jobs, it pays to talk to people who currently occupy jobs that appeal to you. In general, the talents needed to enjoy federal positions and do well should be familiar and hopefully developed during graduate school or a postdoc. These include:


  • Being an excellent overall scientist with deep subject matter expertise, with corresponding accomplishments (yes, including publications)
  • Being sincerely interested in applying that knowledge to public service
  • Having the ability to provide well-reasoned, thoughtful critiques
  • Having excellent communication skills, particularly strong writing for different audiences
  • Being able to work independently as well as within teams, and within a hierarchy
  • Tolerance for the vagaries of bureaucracies

In return for that tolerance, and admittedly for usually less pay than in the private sector, government positions offer the satisfaction of serving your fellow citizens, stability, flexibility, and pretty good benefits in a family-friendly environment.


I’m intrigued. How do I find government jobs?


I wish the answer to that question was a simple one, but it is often not. All available permanent positions are eventually advertised on the great clearinghouse website called USAJOBS, and it’s worth scouring that often for possibilities. Unfortunately, some ads are general and not linked to any particular position (an “open continuous announcement”), or are placed only after another strong candidate has already been identified. More confusingly, promotions for existing people also have to be advertised. There is no surefire way to tell the difference between real and not-for-you jobs, except that open continuous ads typically have very long end dates and those related to promotions are usually only open briefly (about 7-10 days).


USAJOBS usually does not list non-permanent jobs, including postdocs, and the process for advertising the latter varies from agency to agency. At CBER, we search for postdocs via our section of the FDA website, pay for ads in journals like Science, and list openings with relevant professional societies. Realistically, good old-fashioned networking and contact with people within agencies remains the most effective way to learn about currently available positions.


Tell me the truth. Is doing a postdoc in a government agency a stepping-stone to a permanent job?


Hands down, this is the question I hear most often. The answer, in my opinion, is no and yes. No, most postdoc positions cannot lead directly to a permanent job. With one rare exception, postdoc hiring mechanisms are completely different from those used to employ permanent people, and thus there’s not a process to shift directly from a temporary position to a permanent one. But yes, postdocs can use their time with a government agency very effectively to learn about the nature of permanent jobs both in their immediate orbits and elsewhere. Most importantly, you can do great work that gets you noticed, while networking with people who make hiring decisions—and be well prepared when the right opportunity opens up.


Karen Elkins, PhD, has been a principal investigator at the Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research of the FDA for over 20 years and is an appointee to the Senior Biomedical Research Service.


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