Wading through the red tape to get a government job

Now that I work for the county, I’m getting questions about how to apply for jobs here. Government job applications play by different rules than the rest of the world, so most of the advice you find out there on resumes and cover letters don’t quite apply. I’d like to expand this further (with collaborative input) to cover the whole job application process, but here are some tips for now:

The first round of screening is a “minimum qualifications” round where anyone who doesn’t meet each and every one of the listed qualifications will get excluded. It can be brutal.

To help pass the qualifications screening, HR recommends copying the list of qualifications verbatim from the job posting and answering each one. I do this in the cover letter. I write a normal one-page cover letter, and then on the next page(s) I address the qualifications.

If you’re applying for a job that requires X years of experience, address that with a table that lists each position title, years in the position, and totals them up. Either include a statement that all jobs were full-time, or include an hours-per-week column and a full-time-equivalent column. Also, on your resume put the hours-per-week for each position. (It’s in the online application, but most people will use either the online or the paper copy, not both.)

For resumes, the usual “short and sweet” approach that works everywhere else is counterproductive when applying for government jobs. Your resume has to stand alone to prove that you’re well qualified for the job (if you’re hired, it actually gets submitted to the state for oversight). That means that it needs a fair bit of detail to show that you do indeed have all the skills, knowledge, and experience you need for the job. Yes, your resume will get long in the process.

The advice I was given by HR when I was applying is to make sure that all the keywords in the job description and qualifications are addressed in your resume. You don’t necessarily need to use the exact words, but you do need to make it very clear – the first screener may be an HR person who doesn’t understand the field well enough to understand specific terms — and in any case the screener will be working bleary-eyed through a stack of ~150 applications.


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One response to “Wading through the red tape to get a government job

  1. I’ve been screening applications lately, and I’m surprised by how often it was a struggle to figure out whether an applicant met the minimum qualifications or not. It seems common for scientists to want to tell us all about the project topics — but for a job application, what’s most important is *your* roles in the projects. Don’t leave that part out! For example, if the position requires you to have experience managing scientific projects (scope, schedule, budget) either your cover letter or resume had better mention that you did the project management. Otherwise I don’t know whether someone else handled all those aspects (like your graduate advisor).

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