A career in the federal government can be rewarding and interesting. However, if you’re considering a career in the federal government, here are a few tips to keep in mind.
They’re broad generalizations, but you’ll most likely run into at least one of them. Knowing these things in advance can help you prepare coping mechanisms and civil responses!
First, unless you’re working in a government research lab, within the federal government you are going to get a lot of respect for that Ph.D. you’ve earned! People are going to call you “Dr.”! Unless…you’re a woman and look under the age of 35 in a room of men over the age of 50.
Here’s a secret: In the federal government, people in leadership positions wear suits pretty much every day. So, whether you’re male or female, dress the part. Administrative staff and government contractors don’t really ever wear suits. Distinguish yourself. Also, if you can swing it, try to get someone to introduce you as “Dr. So-and-So.”
Good people in government will respect your academic credentials. But for the most part – and this is the second point – they won’t have a clue about your academic expertise. They’ll make assumptions about your specialty by either comparing it to something they’ve seen on TV or assuming you’re an expert in every single topic in that discipline! So try to be as general as possible when you talk about your expertise.
For example, as I’ve mentioned in a previous post, I’m the odd one out (in this forum) for being an anthropologist…my subdiscipline was archaeology. When I worked in the federal government and someone asked me about my academic expertise, I first started telling people I was an archaeologist.
Yep, you guessed it, I got asked about Indiana Jones every single time.
So then I started saying I was an anthropologist. And people immediately assumed I was a cultural anthropologist and often asked if I worked with tribes in Africa. Another huge assumption that people had was that I was an expert in anything having to do with human behavior – insider threats, terrorism, psychological profiling – I must be able to do all that in addition to studying tribes in Africa!
Finally, I just started telling people I was a social scientist. People broadly understood that I was some sort of expert related to human behavior, but the term “social scientist” was elusive enough that no one could conjure up an image of what it was I did. Worked great! So, again, the broader you are about your expertise, the better.
Third, as I mentioned above, people are going to assume you’re an expert in everything related to your discipline. If you’re put on the spot, the easy answer that everyone will understand is, “Oh, that’s not my specific area of expertise.” However, being put on the spot could be a huge opportunity for you!! How? You may be asked to oversee a project, put together a program, write up a white paper, investigate the current state-of-the art, sit on a committee – you get the picture – related to this topic that you barely know anything about.
Keep your mouth zipped up and do it! It’s the perfect way to build your knowledge base, learn something new on the job and expand your skillset. Because, fourth, people will assume that since you have a Ph.D. you can figure everything out on your own. So if you’re confused about or don’t know something, ask.
Finally, pretty much no one is going to care about your research. People will ask, “Oh, what kind of research did you do?” You need to be able to come up with something that you can say in less than 25 seconds that would be understandable and at least somewhat interesting to a ten year old child. People will love you for it!