In general my career in the federal government has been a good experience. Though my original career goal was to work for Big Pharma, my skill set led me to my current career as a Regulatory Scientist. Regarding my path to this career, my Agency was looking for someone with my expertise right around the time my postdoctoral fellowship was winding down, so it was a win-win for both sides. While many employers are looking to plug individuals with a specific set of skills in right away, my Agency was willing to train me in risk assessment, again a win at least on my part.
Coming from the world of academic research, some of the perks of my federal position seemed unreal at first and in some ways illegal. First we got to leave pretty much at the same time every single day (see my Pursuing a Ph.D. series). Secondly after a year, we were allowed to work from home up to twice a week (tele-working) in addition to working a compressed schedule which meant a three day weekend every other weekend. This is all in addition to celebrating most holidays.
There were all sorts of acronyms to learn. On the Human Resources/Benefits side, there were things like FEGLI, FERS, and the FEHB. Our retirement plan was something called a TSP (Thrift Savings Plan) which was three tiered savings program where the government matched the first 5% of whatever we contributed. They’ve recently given us the option for a Roth TSP. Regarding our work performance, there were our yearly PARS (Performance Appraisal Recognition System) assessments where it was determined if we met our performance benchmarks and training goals for the year.
We were paid according to something called the General Schedule (GS), something that would touch multiple coworkers in a multitude of ways. Briefly, the GS scale spans from levels 1-15, with 15 being the highest paid and most senior. The only levels higher than the GS scale are the Senior Executive Service (SES) and then becoming an elected official.
The most obvious significance of the GS scale is that it dictates one’s salary. Within the scale some promotions to the next level are automatic while others have to be competed for. My credentials for example allowed me to start at a GS-12 with the potential for an automatic promotion to the GS-13 level pending approval from my supervisor. In my division, reaching the GS-14 and 15 levels involves competition where staff members try to distinguish themselves from one another based upon technical expertise, tenure, specialized trainings taken and work on special projects. Some would say politics play a role in promotions too.
A former coworker once said that with our Ph.D.’s and experience, we could make 30% more salary in the private sector. Depending on the company and sector though, that 30% salary increase may come in exchange for lack of stability. At this point in my career, job stability rates very highly on my list. Several colleagues though have readily jumped to the private sector once gaining federal experience.
Yes a career as a federal employee is for the most part stable, that is unless there is a Government Shutdown, or the threat of having one such as when the Congress finds itself deliberating until the midnight hour over something like going over the Fiscal Cliff as was allegedly the case partway through Barack Obama’s first term. It’s these instances when government employees realize that there are circumstances when our jobs aren’t quite as stable as they seem.
While we were very fortunate to get paid our lost salary following the 2013 Shutdown, we had to endure the Budget Sequestration and furloughs earlier that year once again because of disagreements on Capitol Hill. With the continuous tenuous climate in Washington, DC, it will increasingly important for those with federal careers to remember the lessons about stability that the 2012 shutdown taught us. In closing, while any career has its pros and cons, an important lesson for everyone is that no matter what kind of career you choose, it all comes down to survival, sound money management and financial literacy, because no job/career is 100% stable.