Getting Ahead in a Federal Government Job

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By on November 1, 2011 in Current Events, Human Resources with 38 Comments

Most professionals’ goals include career advancement, but when you’re a federal employee, your get-ahead strategy may be slightly different than it is for workers in the private sector. This comprehensive guide will help you identify your career goals and work toward making them happen.

Get the Lay of the Land

It’s never too early to start thinking about where you want to be in five or 10 years—or even next year. While others are celebrating their success in becoming a new federal employee, you can begin plotting your course to the next grade level. It’s true that most jobs require workers to spend at least one year in their positions before being considered for promotion, but that year should be spent constructively, rather than just treading water.


  • Ask about what’s next. It seems obvious, but employees rarely talk directly with their supervisors about advancement opportunities. Unlike private companies, the next rung in the government ladder isn’t always clear. Sit down with your boss early on and discuss what jobs you’ll be eligible for next. Not only will you get the information you need, but the boss will know you’re serious about your career.
  • Consider strengths and weaknesses. Look over the job descriptions of the positions for which you may be eligible to apply in the future. Of the skills and areas of knowledge needed, where are you already strong? In which areas are you weak? These are the areas where you should concentrate your attention. Create a list of the skills, knowledge and experience you need to gain before you would be considered a highly qualified candidate.
  • Make a plan. Once you’ve identified areas of weakness, put together a timeline of how and when you can fill in those gaps on your resume. Just like with writing a business plan, be realistic so you don’t set yourself up for failure.


Take Concrete Steps

The first part of your promotion plan was mostly about organization; this next portion involves action. You have a plan in place, so scrounge up some motivation and begin checking things off your to-do list.


  • Get the knowledge. Whether it’s tangible skills you have to acquire or information about processes or procedures, sometimes you have to go back to school in order to demonstrate your readiness for the next pay level. With online courses becoming the norm, it’s easier than ever to get formal training.
  • Get the experience. Often, it’s hands-on experience in essential areas that cements a promotion. Many people believe it’s impossible to get experience in, say, management if it isn’t part of their current job description. But asking for additional responsibilities—for no more pay—is rarely something a boss will turn down. Offer to supervise the summer interns or mentor the newest team member. And if you need experience in something that really isn’t possible in your current position, get it outside of work. If you need to demonstrate exceptional written communication skills, for example, and you deal with numbers all day at work, volunteer to write the monthly newsletter for your child’s class.
  • Make networking a priority. In the midst of gathering the necessary skills and experience you need, don’t forget about the other crucial aspect of getting ahead: relationship-building. People want to help individuals they know and like, so be sure you maintain existing contacts and cultivate new ones. Also, it pays to talk to employees currently doing the job(s) in which you’re interested. They can give you the inside scoop on everything from what their superiors look for in a candidate to how management reacts to failures.


Massage Your Reputation

If colleagues or superiors were listing the go-getters in your office, would your name make the cut? Would they even know your name? Whatever your reputation is now, you need to give it a boost.


  • Be the “no mistakes” person. There’s a danger in getting too comfortable in your current position. You feel safe missing deadlines by a day or two or maybe failing to proof read memos because, after all, you’re unlikely to get fired for such minor offenses. The problem is that you’re also unlikely to move up as fast—or at all. Stand out in a crowd of mediocre performers by always meeting deadlines, getting assignments done right the first time, and eliminating silly mistakes from your work.
  • Step up to the plate. In federal jobs, like most private sector jobs, few people want to take on more work because their plates are already overflowing. Bite the bullet and cheerfully volunteer for projects at least once in a while. You don’t want to become the office doormat, but you do want to make it known that you’re a team player who regularly goes above and beyond.
  • Get the credit you deserve. Between obnoxiously shouting “I did this—it was all me!” and allowing others to claim credit for your projects is the happy medium of ensuring that your name is attached to everything you have a hand in, while also generously doling out praise for others who contribute to your successes. You’ll come across as confident, competent and gracious.


Seal the Deal

You’ve put in months of work to acquire necessary skills and experience, solidify a sterling reputation and meet the right people. The final step is to ace the application and interview process once a promotional opportunity comes along. When writing your resume, don’t forget to update it with all of your latest accomplishments. And during the written portion (if applicable) and interview process, align your knowledge and experience with each point of the job description to make it as easy as possible for the decision-maker to see that you’re the best person for the job.

© 2018 Jason Kay. All rights reserved. This article may not be reproduced without express written consent from Jason Kay.

About the Author

Jason Kay is a professional resume writer and regular contributor to, a professional federal resume service and repository of sample KSA statements.