Transcript: Friday, April 14, 2006 at Noon ET

Career Advice

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Lily Whiteman
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Friday, April 14, 2006; 12:00 PM

Lily Whiteman is a career coach and writer for the U.S. Treasury Department, where she has helped hundreds of professionals of all levels -- from students to executives -- get better jobs. She has worked at five federal agencies, including the White House Conference on Aging and the Vice-President's National Partnership for Reinventing Government. She is also the author of "Get Hired! How to Land the Ideal Federal Job and Negotiate a Top Salary."

She's been featured in several publications such as the Federal Times, The Baltimore Sun and the Legal Times.

To learn more about Lily, visit her Web site .

This discussion is part of a series created for The Post's Grad Guide , an interactive collection of stories, resources and information aimed at easing the transition of the Class of 2006.

The transcript follows below.

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Lily Whiteman: Good afternoon and thanks for joining the chat today. Please send me any questions that you have on how to land an interesting, well-paying federal job, and how to move up in the system.

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Muskegon, Mich.: Hello, Ms. Whiteman. I am having a long-awaited job interview on April 24. Can you please give me any pointers on how to impress my interviewers, something that will make me stand out from the competition?

Lily Whiteman: Congrats on landing a juicy interview, and I hope you blow them away! Here are some tips to help you:

1.Bring to your interview a glowing written recommendation AND tangible academic or work products -- even though your interviewer didn't request them. Potential work products include your papers, and print-outs of PowerPoint presentations and websites you've helped create. (This technique has helped many applicants I've coached land jobs.)

2.Before your interview, review your target agency's website - including its mission statement, annual report and press releases. Also check whether your agency is praised at bestplacestowork.org. (Remember: interviewers look for applicants who are knowledgeable and excited about their agencies -- not applicants who act like "if it's Tuesday, it must be the Transportation Department.")

3.Prepare concise answers to common questions like "Tell me about yourself." and "What are your strengths?" and "Why do you want to work here?" Emphasize what you offer employers-not what you want from them; and provide specific examples of relevant successes. Your explanation of why you're leaving your current job should emphasize your enthusiasm for what you want to go towards -- not your resentment for what you're leaving behind (no matter how justified your resentment may be).

4.Practice. Mark Twain said, "It usually takes more than three weeks to prepare a good impromptu speech." Although your interview prep won't take three weeks, the more you prepare, the better you will do,

5.During your interview, stay upbeat; don't criticize anyone -- including yourself, your schools, jobs or bosses. (Going negative is among the top turn-offs to interviewers.)

6.Immediately after your interview, overnight a thank-you letter to your interviewer.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Those KSA questions are brutal. Do you have any suggestions on how to respond to them?

Lily Whiteman: Yes, most people would rather eat ground glass than write jobs application essays -- called KSAs. But KSAs are usually the most important part of federal applications. So tempting though it may be to ignore your KSAs, please answer them!

I have interviewed hundreds of hiring managers about what they look for in job applications, and almost 100% of them say that the most impressive applicants include in their written applications and interviews specific examples of how they have previously successfully demonstrated the skills required by the opening.

So one way to craft a winning KSA is to build it around relevant success stories from your academic or work history. For example, if an essay question asks you to describe your communication skills, describe the reports, papers or articles you wrote in school or at work and/or oral presentations and trainings you've given. The more your examples substantively address the issues covered by your target organization, the better.

Also, crown descriptions of your achievements with objective validation by:

1.Describing your high grades, honors, awards, promotions and repeated requests for your services.

2.Quoting written and oral praise from professors, supervisors, managers, colleagues, and clients from e-mails, performance evaluations, bonuses, and positive evaluations from attendees of your trainings or other presentations.

3.Mentioning recognition that you helped you employer or other organizations earn -- including awards, positive press coverage, and improvements in survey results or audits.

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Greenwood, Va.: Does it take forever to land a federal job? And are there any short cuts for getting around the long process?

Lily Whiteman: Unfortunately, the federal government has never been accused of processing job applications too quickly! But it's getting faster. Some jobs are filled within 45 days, which is comparable to the private sector. And I have worked with people who've been snatched up within three weeks of applying. Nevertheless, hiring speed is one of those things that varies greatly among agencies. One little-known way to get around the hiring process is to land a contract job or a temp job in a federal agency. These types of jobs frequently segue seamlessly into permanent jobs. Plus, they're a great way to make connections, get experience working on federal projects, and earn money while you job search. Also, be aware that temp agencies place professionals of all levels, and professionals in all types of fields .Temp firms in DC that help federal agencies staff up include PoliTemps, Adecco and Hire Standard Staffing. Also, the State Dept. lists its temp firms, and other agencies use those firms as well on its site.

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Washington, D.C.: Hi, Lilly. I am a recent graduate from DeVry University. I have just been accepted into University of Maryland for my MBA program. While at DeVry I worked full-time as a reporting coordinator, now that I am out of school and focusing on grad school, I want to land a job with the Federal Government. I know how challenging that can be. Any tips?

Lily Whiteman: Here are some ideas for landing jobs that match your business background:1. If you enjoy negotiating and wheeling/dealing on big business transactions, consider procurement jobs. Because of the retirement wave, the federal government has a huge shortage of procurement specialists -- so you would have prime opportunities to quickly advance.

1. NASA and the Interior Dept. run special hiring/training programs in procurement.

2. Search USAJOBS using keywords, such as "business" and "financial manager" and "budget analyst."

3. Scope out recruitment and internship programs for MBAs and budget specialists -- including the Labor Dept's MBA Fellows Program; Health and Human Service's Emerging Leaders Program; the Federal Highway Career Intern Program, and programs run by the Office of Management and Budget, the Congressional Budget Office, the Commerce Dept, the Federal Reserve Board, the Comptroller of the Currency and the Postal Service.

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Baltimore, Md.: My daughter is about to graduate from George Washington University with no marketable skills. She is a Psychology major with about a 3.7 GPA and has decided not to pursue a Masters Degree/PH.D in that field.

We have discussed the possibility of working in the environmental field. My daughter seems to like the idea of working toward improving the environment.

Having done some research in the area, I know that the Environmental Protection Agency has a very large staff. Much of what they do seems to be directed toward policy and oversight. My questions to you are as follows: Is there any way that my daughter could land a job at EPA? If so, how would she go about doing this? What position would she even apply for?

Lily Whiteman: Yes, your daughter has an excellent chance of landing an EPA job. In fact, I recently coached a new graduate who, like your daughter, had no environmental background but wanted to work at EPA. She landed her EPA job by emphasizing the knowledge she gained about natural resources in an international "semester at sea" program, and her overall excellent academic background.

As a former EPA employee myself, I assure you that many entry-level EPA jobs require no technical background and are filled by liberal arts majors. These jobs include budget analysts, public affairs specialists, program managers, writers and Congressional liaisons .To start the job search, scope out the jobs section of EPA's website -- particularly programs for recent grads, including the Outstanding Scholars Program. Also search USAJOBS for EPA jobs with the words "analyst" or "specialist" in the job title -- such as policy analyst or program analyst or communications specialist.

Also be aware that many agencies besides EPA address environmental/public health issues. Here's a hot tip: The Federal Highway Administration's Career Intern Program offers hiring bonuses of up to $3,500. Also check out jobs at the Energy Dept; the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; the Smithsonian; the Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board; the Congressional Research Service; the Labor Dept; Health and Human Services; the Interior Dept.; NASA; and the Environmental Careers Organization.

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Alexandria, Va.: I am a not yet a U.S. citizen but am interested in working for the U.S. government. What Web sites should I be looking on for jobs that would consider green card holders?

Lily Whiteman: I'm very sorry, but U.S. citizenship is a requirement for almost all federal jobs. So I think you will have better luck by targeting the private sector or nonprofits.

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Milford, Ct.: I always dread that interview question: "What are your weaknesses?" Can you give me a good answer for that?

Lily Whiteman: Yes, that it is a loathsome but very common question! Remember: Your interviewer wants to hire a problem-solver not a problem. So don't say anything that will peg you as a potential problem. After all, it's the interviewer's job to identify the pitfalls of hiring you.

Don't make it easy for him/her; you won't get points for candor!Many job-hunting books suggest saying something like: "My weakness is that I work too hard." But I think that type of answer is, by now, a little cliched and transparent. So here are two alternative ways to answer the weaknesses question:

something like: "I have never worked for this organization before so I know I have a lot to learn about it. But I offer a fresh perspective, lots of energy and knowledge of the latest techniques in my field." This answer recently helped an IT specialist land a job at the White House. The beauty of this answer is that it doesn't reveal a weakness that the interviewer doesn't already know about, and it emphasizes initiative -- a prized quality and that you are committed to staying current in your field by saying something like: "I would like to take a class in Intranet programming so that I will be able to post announcements on the web myself without going through Technical Support."

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Sonoma, Calif.: What's the best way to get a job on Capitol Hill?

Lily Whiteman: First, for readers who might want info on the difference between Capitol Hill jobs and jobs in federal agencies, let me explain some of the relative advantages and disadvantages. If you're a political junkie, then Capitol Hill is for you.

Capitol Hill jobs are basically front row seats to the workings of power. As one Senate staffer told me, "I don't have to watch the news after work, because I live it all day.

Some tips on Capitol Hill jobs: Entry-level jobs for new college grads tend to be heavy on grunt work, at least initially before you work your way up. Typical entry-level jobs are Front Desk Staffer/Receptionist, Staff Assistant and Legislative Correspondent. Also, the Senate tends to pay better than the House, and Congressional committees pay better than Congressional staff jobs. Openings for Capitol Hill jobs are posted at senate.gov, and house.gov, and the Senate and House placement offices help place job seekers too. Also, Politemps provides temp jobs on Capitol Hill that can lead to permanent jobs. And in general, networking is extremely important on Capitol Hill, so do whatever you can to expand and work your Rolodex!

Alternatively, if you want to contribute to public policy but you don't care about your proximity to politics and power, then you might be better suited to jobs in federal agencies -- where you will make significantly more money; have a lot more job security; work a straight 40 hour week as opposed to potentially endless hours on Capitol Hill; and probably find entry-level jobs that involve more substantive work than on Capitol Hill.

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Chicago, Ill.:: Is it hard to find housing for short-term internships in D.C. and other cities?

Lily Whiteman: In D.C. and other cities, lots of housing opens up in the summer as students and other residents leave town, and then again in the fall as summer interns return to school .The first place to check for housing leads is your internship coordinator. But here are some other resources that should also help you find safe, affordable housing:

1) The housing offices of local colleges. (I found college housing offices extremely helpful myself, during my post-college gypsy days.)

2) Web searches on keywords like "housing" and "internships" and the name of your city. One final tip: like most things in life, the sooner your start looking, the easier time you will have.

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Alexandria, Va.: My son will graduate from high school soon, and he is interested in science and technology. Can you recommend any summer internships for him when he is in college? Also do summer internships lead to permanent jobs?Thank you.

Lily Whiteman: Yes, yes, yes. Dozens and dozens of laboratories across the nation offer well paying, dynamic internships for college and grad students in the sciences and IT. In these programs, interns work shoulder to shoulder with leading researchers and participate in lectures, networking events and mentoring. Labs offering these types of opportunities include:

1. The National Institutes for Health near DC NIH

2. National Laboratories in California and New Mexico.

3. Dept. of Energy labs

4. Labs operated by the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education http://see.orau.org/.

5. The Volpe National Transportation Systems Center near Boston http://www.volpe.dot.gov/.

IT interns are also hired by just about every federal agency, including the Transportation Dept, the CIA, the FBI, and the Dept. of Health and Human Services. Also, students and recent grads interested in science policy should consider the National Academy of Sciences, the National Science Foundation and the Congressional Research Service.

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Washington, D.C.: I have a TS clearance. What's the best agency for clearance jobs?

Lily Whiteman: Security clearances are a very hot commodity now in the federal government and among federal contractors. Although almost every federal agency hires people with security clearances, Homeland Security and the Defense Department certainly have a large concentration of staffers with security clearances.

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Washington, D.C.: I have a BA in English, and I applied for an opening as a public affairs specialist with the federal government. But I was rejected. Do you think it's worthwhile for me to apply again?

Lily Whiteman: Absolutely!

Although I have worked with many people whose first application landed them a job, I have also worked with many accomplished people who applied for numerous jobs before they hit pay-dirt.

Winston Churchill described success as "the ability to go from failure to failure without losing your enthusiasm." And that principle certainly sometimes applies to job hunting .The important thing is that your standing in one federal selection has absolutely no bearing on your standing in another selection -- just like in the private sector. So keep on keeping on.

To some degree, hiring decisions depend on chance. So keep applying to jobs that fit your interests and qualifications; keep as many logs on the fire as possible -- so that even if some burn out, others may ignite.

Another good way to improve your chances is to get friendly fire on your application from trusted friends and relatives -- and to use their feedback to keep improving it.

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Ithaca, N.Y.: I will be graduating this year with a PhD in physics. I am interested in working with people and on real-world issues, but within the context of science. I am thinking that the government would be an excellent place to do this, like working for the DOE, NSF, or Rewound you agree with this assessment? Any suggestions on how to get into such a job?

Lily Whiteman: A scientist with good communication skills is a hot, hot property. So if your applications and interviews highlight your communication skills, you should be very successful in the policy world. Here are some employers to check out -- in addition to the ones that you mentioned:

1. Congressional committees addressing science policy. A list of Congressional committees is accessible from: gpoaccess.gov.

2. The Office of Science and Technology Policy

3. The National Academy of Sciences; this is a quasi-governmental organization at NAS.edu.

4. The Library of Congress

5.The Government Accountability Office

6.NASA

In addition, various fellowships place scientists in federal agencies and Congress to analyze science policy issues; write legislation; and manage research projects. These include the American Institute of Physics State Dept. Science Fellowships; the AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellowships; American Geophysical Union Fellowships; and the American Physical Society's Fellowships Congressional Science Fellowships.

Also, the White House Fellows Program is a prestigious program that places accomplished professionals in the White House. More info about these fellowships is posted on each sponsoring organization's website.

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Maryland: Does the State Department have any internships for high school freshmen interested in foreign affairs?

Lily Whiteman: Yes...The State Dept. has many internship programs. Some of them are volunteer and some of them pay. Check the State Dept's website at state.gov.

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Bowie, Md.: I manage a federal intern program for inner city high school students. I would like to direct my graduating interns to federal internships so that they can work during their summers in college. So can you tell me if there are any federal internship programs that target minority and women college students?

Lily Whiteman: Many new career-boosting internship programs target minority and women undergrads and grad students. These programs offer excellent salaries, and many of them even cover travel and housing costs. Some also offer academic credit.

One of my favorite programs is the Significant Opportunities in Atmospheric Research and Science (SOARS) program in Boulder Colorado -- which interns compare to MTV's "The Real World." While housed together in rent-free townhouses, SOARS interns work shoulder-to-shoulder with leading scientists in slick labs and participate in networking and mentoring opportunities. SOARS even trains and pays for interns to publish papers and give presentations at professional conferences. (An all-expenses-paid summer in the Rockies: does it get better that that?)

Here are some other fantastic opportunities:

1. The Congressional Black Caucus and Congressional Hispanic Caucus place interns in the offices of minority members of Congress.

2. The FBI Honors Program Internship trains budding crime busters, and the CIA Undergraduate Internship Program trains budding intelligence specialists.

3. Other policy and science programs are sponsored by the Global Change Education Program; the Mickey Leland Energy Fellowship Program; the Smithsonian; EPA; the Energy Dept., the Transportation Dept., and the Library of Congress.

In addition, many non-governmental organizations place interns in federal jobs -- including NAFEO; the Diversity Leadership Internship Program; the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities; Minority Access, Inc.; and the Washington Center's Diversity in Congress Program. Note that some only operate during the summer, but some operate year-round.

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Midlothian, Va.: How do you get an employer to get excited about hiring you when you're 50 years-old and have changed jobs several times about every three years?

Lily Whiteman: In this era of frequent layoffs, most employers don't expect professionals to have 100-year-long runs with the same employer anymore; they understand that the working world now resembles a game of musical chairs.

So instead of regarding your work history as a liability, emphasize to employers your diverse experience .Plus, your chances of landing a mid-level or senior position are steadily improving because federal agencies are about to be hit by a huge retirement wave (50% of feds will be eligible to retire by 2010). And so hiring from the outside is increasing.

A few tips:

1. Describe in your application how you're staying current in your field.

2. If you focus on your age; you may unconsciously turn off employers. Instead express enthusiasm for the opening and your energetic approach.

3. Dress in contemporary styles, and reassure interviewers of your flexibility and cooperativeness.

4. At any age, it's wise to keep improving your application by getting feedback on it from friends or a professional coach, and to practice for interviews. Also, consider consulting an employment agency that specializes in the 50+ population. (More and more of those types of agencies are opening up, and I know there are some in Virginia.)

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Silver Spring, Md.: A hint from a non-beginner who got into Club Fed late in my career: Be prepared for highly structured interviews where the interviewer basically asks you go repeat, question by question, what you wrote in the KSAs. The night before the interview, re-read what you wrote. It's extremely hard in these structured interviews (sometimes by a committee -- the dreaded team interview), it's hard to make a personal connection. But try anyhow -- inject your personality and find a way to ask your questions.

Lily Whiteman: Thanks so much for your valuable suggestion!

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Chinatown: I currently work in a very small federal office. I'm planning to negotiate for a major raise in a couple of months, at which point I plan to emphasize that I have taken on significant new responsibilities that save money for our office. When I'm negotiating, I will have just passed the one-year mark for full-time professional employment. Any other tips for bumping myself up within the GS system? I'm hoping to be moved from Grade 7 to Grade 8 or 9 -- ambitious, I know!

Lily Whiteman: I suggest submitting to your boss a bulleted list of your recent achievements that defines how your responsibilities have increased. Try to estimate how much money your activities have saved the office....how much time or red-tape your suggestions have saved...and how many people accessed your work (did you produce, for example, a document that was distributed to Congress or read by many members of the public or stakeholders?)

Also mention the senior officials and colleagues who have used/benefited or complemented your work. Try to quote them if you can. Finally, always save flattering emails you received and include them with your request -- along with any other tangible documents that validate your contributions. Good luck!

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Washington, D.C.: I've heard that there are a lot of new federal recruitment programs for college grads, but I don't know anything about them and my counselors are not a lot of help. Some recruiters have been on campus, but nothing I'm interested in. Can you tell me some government opportunities and how to find them? I would really appreciate it! Thanking you in advance, Ms. Whiteman.

Lily Whiteman: Yes, there are dozens and dozens of new, well-paying summer internship programs and hiring programs for students/recent grads. In fact, these programs have been popping up across the U.S. almost as fast as new Starbucks have been opening up.

These programs are a great way to jump-start careers because they provide real-world experience on substantive projects -- not busy work. They also provide training, mentoring and opportunities to schmooze with major muckety mucks.

I recently interviewed many current and past federal interns. Here are some example projects they worked on:

An intern at the National Center for Atmospheric Research analyzed real-time data on hurricanes -- an experience that inspired her to become a federal hurricane hunter.

An intern at the Government Accounting Office wrote parts of a published report on flood control. An engineering student interning at the Transportation Dept. designed new safety devices for trains that improve passenger protections during crashes

An artist interning at the National Gallery of Art single-handedly designed a large exhibit at the famed Dada exhibit.

It's important to know that because 50% of the federal workforce will be eligible to retire by 2010, the federal government now offers unprecedented opportunities to move up quickly. Also note that some federal agencies pay up to $60,000 in student loan repayments. (More info on loan repayments is posted here

Federal organizations that sponsor great programs include the Government Accountability Office; the Interior Dept.; the Dept of Health and Human Services; the FBI; EPA, the Labor Dept., laboratories located all over the U.S., and museums like the Smithsonian. But there are many others as well.

Unfortunately, most internship programs and special hiring programs are not listed on USAJOBS. But you can find them by surfing the careers sections of agency websites -- which are accessible from accessamerica.gov. Also look on students.gov, studentjobs.gov, and house.gov/watt/Services/internships.htm.

In addition, my book, "Get Hired! How to Land the Ideal Federal Job and Negotiate a Top Salary" features a comprehensive list of federal internships and hiring programs, and advice from hiring managers on how to prepare impressive applications.

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Arlington, Va.: Are there specialized employment agencies that would you suggest that a job seeker contact for government job positions? Thanks!

Lily Whiteman: Yes. One of the experts who regularly hosts chats on "The Washington Post" jobs page, Derrick Dortch runs one of these agencies. So please check the Experts section of the jobs page to find him.

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Edgewood, Maryland: I have been trying to get into the government for the past three years. Is there a secret to getting an interview?

Lily Whiteman: What a shame that you're having such a tough time! I know from personal experience and from coaching others how exasperating a job search can be. You may be able to fast-track your job search by attending federal career fairs -- which sometimes feature on-the-spot hiring. They also offer opportunities to make immediate contacts and to impress hiring managers in person instead of on paper. Look for announcements of federal career fairs at http:/www.usajobs.gov.

It's a good idea to treat career fairs like job interviews; remember to bring many copies of your resume.

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Washington, D.C.: My boyfriend and I graduated last year, but while I got a job here in the government, he wasn't quite as lucky and has been working job to job to make rent. He's always wanted to work for the government (while I really just stumbled into it) in some sort of international affairs capacity. He has the background for it, but just hasn't found the right job yet. Do you have any pointers for how he can make his way "in?"

Lily Whiteman: First, I suggest that your BF research domestic and overseas opportunities discussed on the State Dept's website at state.gov, and research other agencies that address international issues.

Some of the big ones are the Agency for International Development; the Agriculture Dept; the Commerce Dept.; EPA; the US International Trade Administration; the Bureau of International Labor Affairs; the Overseas Investment Corp, the Congressional Research Service, and the CIA.

If your BF can get his foot in the door of any of these agencies, he might eventually sashay into an international job, even if he doesn't start out in an international job. To find openings, he should regularly check agency websites and USAJOBS.

He could also get his foot in the door by landing a federal temp job, which may segue into a permanent job. The State Dept. lists its temp firms here , and other agencies use those firms as well. For overseas jobs, your BF should check out:

1. The Foreign Service, which is discussed on the State Dept's website.

2. Federal international jobs that are filled on a contract basis; openings are posted at fedbizopps.gov.

3. AID's International Development Intern Program and its New Entry Development Program.

4. Recruitment programs run by the World Bank and UN Development Fund.

5. Overseas teaching positions, which are discussed at here.

And if your boyfriend is really brave, he could research jobs devoted to rebuilding Iraq and Afghanistan at usajobs and here.

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Washington, D.C.: I noticed from your website that you have served as a hiring manager. What are some of the mistakes that applicants make -- so that I can avoid them?

Lily Whiteman: First, 50% of federal applications are rejected because they miss the deadline or are missing required documents. So be careful to follow all application directions.

Here are some other ways to avoid common mistakes:

Target your application to the opening: Identify the education and project work you've done that aligns with the demands of the opening, and express excitement about the agency's mission.

Most employers devote less than a minute to each resume. So format your degrees; schools; employers' names; and job titles to leap off the page. (Hint: If your degree and zip code are equally as prominent on your resume, keep working on it.)

Also, confine each job description to a concise list of quick-read, achievement-oriented bullets. Write in short paragraphs in your cover letter and essays. Proofread your application again, and again and again.

Another way to stand out from the pack: If you're applying for an internship or hiring program for new grads, ask the program director to refer you to previous participants; contact these people; and incorporate the results of your research into your application.

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Laurel, Md.: I'm a government employee now. I'm about to graduate from law school (I've been going in the evenings for four years). I earn more in my current role than the starting attorneys do on the GS-scale. What kind of negotiating power do I have as someone who's already worked for the government would be competing for an entry-level lawyer position?

Lily Whiteman: You have a lot of negotiating power because the federal government usually -- within reason -- matches the salaries of new hires. So when you get an offer, make sure that the hiring agency knows what your current salary is, and ask them to match it. Don't negotiate with the human resources person. Negotiate with your interviewer after you receive an offer.

Also, salaries for feds can vary greatly from agency to agency. So make sure you research your options. Many of the agencies in the Treasury Dept that do financial management pay particularly well because they have to compete with the salaries offered by private financial institutions, which we all know, can be very high.

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Syracuse, N.Y. : Lily,

Thanks for having this discussion. I am a graduate student in the Maxwell School and after graduation in June I am looking to join the Federal government ranks in D.C. I have been endlessly networking and applying and I just feel stuck. USAjobs.gov seems like a black hole and everyone I talk is nice, but they aren't doing the hiring. What advice can you give someone who feels like everything is ending in a dead end?

Lily Whiteman: Congrats on your impending graduation. Here are a few job-searching ideas:

You say you're networking, but I'm not sure exactly what you're networking involves. So let me suggest that you try to systematically set up some informational interviews at offices where you would like to work. (You can find staff directories on most agency websites, or ask the agency's public affairs office for a staff directory.) Most people are happy to talk about what they and their offices do. You can then directly ask what qualifications they might be looking for in new hires; and what openings they're anticipating -- so that you can replace that mysterious "black hole" with concrete info that you can work with.

Also, many departments have special recruitment programs for new graduates. These programs hire every year -- so they're guaranteed to have openings; you won't run into the "we're not hiring" problem with them. And if you're earning a Masters in Public Administration, you will be well qualified for programs that address various environmental, civil rights, workers' rights, public health, planning and budget issues.

These programs include the Health and Human Service's Emerging Leaders Program; the Federal Highway Administration's Career Intern Program; the Labor Dept's internship programs, and the Government Accountability's Professional Development Program. In addition, look for openings at the Office of Management and Budget and Congressional Budget Office, and search USAJOBS for "policy analyst", "program analyst", "budget analyst" and "budget specialist" positions.

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Washington, D.C.: I'm a Democrat. So I'm wondering what it's like to work for the government during a republican administration.

Lily Whiteman: Most federal jobs (with some exceptions like Defense and State Dept jobs) are not majorly impacted by changing administrations. Why not? Because the missions of federal agencies are written into laws, which remain unchanged even when the administration changes. This means that the business of running the country and enforcing important regulations continues no matter who is in the White House. If this weren't the case, seven-year-old children would be working in factories (like they used to); no one would get Social Security checks (as in the days of ol'); rivers would be so polluted they would burst into flames (as they did before the Clean Water Act) etc.

Here's an example from my own experience: I used to work at the Mine Safety and Health Administration. Even in a bad year, about 100 U.S. miners die annually in accidents -- compared to China, where 10,000 miners die annually (no, that wasn't a typo) U.S. mines are safer in the because mine safety is regulated here whether the republicans or democrats are in power.

So if you believe in government, there will always be plenty of opportunities for you to do important work -- no matter which way the political pendulum is swinging. Moreover, if you're in an entry-level position, you'll be particularly insulated from political changes, which tend to impact senior managers most. This doesn't mean that you will always agree with everything your agency does. But even when your party is in power, you will sometimes disagree with your agency -- as you would sometimes disagree with any private sector organization you worked for .But if you work for the federal government, you are guaranteed to have many opportunities to positively impact large populations -- and the important thing is to maximize those opportunities.

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Fairfax, Va.: Can you tell me what steps a 38 year old male who has never worked for the government should take to find a job with the federal government in our local metropolitan Washington area. Are there overall qualifying tests involved and is there one central place where positions can be viewed? Thanks.

Lily Whiteman: It is a common myth that the federal government requires job applicants to pass a civil service exam. So thanks for giving me a chance to debunk that myth.

The civil service exam went the way of the Dodo bird. It no longer exists (thankfully). Only a very few types of jobs require tests. Tested jobs include TSA screeners and Foreign Service positions .I'm not sure what your field is, so I can only give you general advice. USAJOBS.gov is the federal government's centralized clearing house for job openings. It features over 15,000 openings every day for positions all across the U.S.

But USJOBS doesn't post all listings. For example, agencies that are part of the Excepted Service -- which includes the State Dept., the FBI and many other large organizations -- are not required to post all their listings on USAJOBS. So it's a good idea to also check the websites of agencies.

In addition, Excepted Service agencies can circumvent the long, laborious competitive hiring process required by civil service laws. So these agencies can frequently hire more quickly. Also, they can frequently hire whoever they want. This means that it is much more potentially fruitful to cold call and network within those agencies than within civil service agencies. To obtain a list of Excepted Service agencies, do a google search on EXCEPTED SERVICE and OPM.

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Sonoma, Calif.: My niece is graduating soon from college with a liberal arts degree. Can you tell me if there are appealing federal opportunities for liberal arts majors?

Lily Whiteman: Hello Sonoma!

I hope you're not sending your question from a life raft in flooded waters!

Yes, liberal arts majors are frequently hired by the federal government. The analytical, critical-thinking skills and writing skills that liberal arts majors offer are extremely useful for jobs as communication specialists, writers, Congressional liaisons, special assistants to muckety mucks, and many other types of positions.

Please suggest to your niece that she check out some of the internship programs I have described in some of my other answers as well as jobs announced on USAJOBS.

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Washington, D.C.: I have wondered why it seems so hard to laterally move from one agency to another. Are all the jobs on usajobs.opm.gov prewired?

Lily Whiteman: Unfortunately, some federal jobs are wired. But many of them are not. I know this because I landed my first federal job (at EPA) without any connections, and I have coached dozens and dozens of feds and non-feds who landed new jobs without any connections. But sometimes it does take quite a bit of persistence to get where you want to go.

A couple of suggestions:

1) Try to arrange a temporary detail for yourself in another agency where you would like to work.

2) Make connections by participating in conferences, and government-wide groups composed of people in your field or of your demographic.

3) Seize every opportunity you have on your current job to work with other offices in your agency and with staffers from other agencies. Also, tell your boss of your desire to work with other organizations.

4) Read the Washington Post's Federal Page, Government Executive and Federal Times; if you read about new federal organizations or offices that are opening up, call them and volunteer your services.

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Washington, D.C.: I am a high school graduate, and graduated from the Baltimore School of Massage after high school. It's hardly a sought after federal skill. I am looking for employment with the federal government throughout the D.C. area. I submitted my first application to an agency in Arlington. I am finding as I look at agencies "e-recruit" systems that there are very few entry-level positions for someone like me.

Let me restate that. So far, there are no entry-level positions for someone like me. My father is a retired Fed, and my mother is a federal employee. She is helping with the application process, but the fact is if I am completely honest on my resume then I am not going to make the "qualified," much less the "highly qualified" list of applicants to be interviewed.

I just want to get my foot in the door, and once I'm in I believe that my work ethic and my persistence enable me to move into more challenging rolls. My parents tell me that they both had help when they got federal jobs, but that the requirements today are far more extreme than when they were looking. Can you offer any suggestions to me for getting an entry-level position?

Lily Whiteman: I'd say that your best would be to call the employment offices of federal facilities that offer physical therapy -- such as Veterans Administration hospitals and military bases. If they don't hire massage therapists, ask them for additional leads.

Also, some federal offices have onsite work-out centers that may hire massage therapists. So I recommend calling some of the large federal offices in DC and asking about possibilities. (Try, for example, calling the huge Ronald Reagan building in DC, which houses many agencies.) If they do hire massage therapists, ask for an informational interview -- which would provide an opportunity for you to make a personal contact and impress them with your shining personality in person.

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Fairfax, Va.: I currently work for the Defense Department and will graduate next spring with a Master's degree. Do you think it would be worth it for me to apply to the Presidential Management Fellows program this fall even though I'll be at a higher grade than what the PMF program will start at?

Lily Whiteman: The PMF program -- a prestigious entry level program which offers training and rotational assignments -- was recently retooled so that employers can hire people into it at higher grades. So check the program's website for the latest info. Also consider that the networking contacts you will make as a Presidential Management Fellow and the resume-stuff experience you'll gain make this program a very worthy investment of your time.

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Washington, D.C.: : I am a Class of 2006 undergraduate student and have extensive experience on the Hill and other government related fields. However, I want to go into government consulting (more money to support my family) but don't know how to market myself for these higher paying jobs. Any ideas on how I can do this?

Lily Whiteman: My first suggestion is to research whether you actually would make more money with a contractor. Many people assume that federal salaries are low. But in fact, most federal salaries meet or beat their private sector counterparts -- even for entry level jobs. And I've coached many professionals who landed big salary increases by moving from the private to the public sector. Some of them were even in high-demand fields like IT.

Plus, many agencies pay up to $60,000 in tuition reimbursements, and some jobs pay hefty signing bonuses. And the job security, pensions and benefits of federal jobs are unparalleled during this era of downsizing and pension scandals.

If you're sure that you would to go into contracting, here are some resources to help you find federal contractors that are good job-hunting targets:

1)The Sunday classifieds of "The Washington Post", which sometimes even features a special section on federal contractors.

2) A list of the biggest federal contractors, which is posted at washingtontechnology.com/top-100/2005.

3) "The Washington Post's" listings of current job openings for government contractors, which is posted at washingtontechnology.com/top-100/2005. (Look for the "Quick Search" box in the lower right corner of the page.)

4) "The Washington Post's" weekly lists of companies that have just won multi-million dollar federal contracts, which is posted here (Federal Contracts).

One more thing: Many of the same principles that apply to job-hunting in the government apply to the private sector as well. These include thoroughly researching the employer and targeting your application to the opening -- instead of submitting a form letter type application that would get about as much attention as the form letters/junk mail you receive in the mail.

Generally, the more targeted your application is, the broader its appeal will be. In your cover letter, express your enthusiasm and zest, and very concisely describe your most important and relevant credentials.

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Silver Spring, Md.: I will graduate in May and I am using my education as my qualification for a federal job. How can I make my educational attainments stand out on my resume? What type of information should I include?

Lily Whiteman: Since you're a new grad, the EDUCATION section of your resume should be at the top of the page. Make sure that the name of your school and your major are prominently formatted. Also, if you have a good GPA or a good GPA in your major (whatever makes your look best) and any honors, make that sing out loud and clear too. Also list the names of any courses that are relate to your target job. And include leadership positions you held and extracurriculars that reflect good selling points -- like positions in student government, captain of a team or contributor to the school paper.

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Denver, Colo.: Do federal internships pay, or are they all still mostly volunteer jobs?

Lily Whiteman: Hello Denver!

I used to live in Denver and miss it very much. You're very lucky to live there. But I digress...Here is my response to your question:

I firmly believe that even if you're just starting your career, you shouldn't have to slave for free!

Many people wrongly believe that all federal internships are volunteer jobs. But, in fact, most federal agencies offer dynamic, well paying internships. (By contrast, most White House and Congressional internships are volunteer positions.) But be aware that salaries for internships can vary greatly -- depending on the program and the intern's experience-level.

Also, some programs cover travel costs to the internship city; some cover housing expenses; and some offer academic credit. So it is important to shop around. Some internships are only available during the summer, but some are available year-round.

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Washington, D.C.: I notice that some positions are only open for seven days. Rumor has it that these positions are pre-filled and that the agency is just going through the motions by advertising the position. What are your thoughts on this situation?

Lily Whiteman: I think that is a red herring. Believe it or not, some agencies just want to fill the openings quickly! I don't think you can tell from the length of the opening if a job is wired. In fact, there is no way to tell. The best way to maximize your chances is to apply to as many jobs as fit your interests and skills.

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RIF!: My agency is going through a RIF. How can I target accomplishments in job applications when I'm basically a grant manager? We don't really have many accomplishments, in the usual sense. Also, this is my second federal job and at my first one, I felt the same way. It's pretty structured: you do what your boss says and you're stuck by the confines of a budget being passed, funds being allocated, etc., so there's not much opportunity to go "above and beyond." Of course, that's not to say that I don't care about my job or strive to do my best.

Lily Whiteman: Emphasize the high-dollar amounts of the grants you manage; and your ability to meet tight deadlines and your communication skills.

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Lily Whiteman: There is saying that says, "The best way to predict your future is to create it." And I wish you all luck in creating a happy and successful future!

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