9 Tips on USAJOBS for MPA/MPP Students

At GovLoop, we usually have 2-3 MPA students working as fellows helping make GovLoop more awesome. Usually around this time of year is when I start getting job questions – from applying to PMF to private sector jobs to how to navigate USAJOBS.

Rather than just share my recommendations with my fellow, I thought I’d write a blog post to share with other MPA/MPP students – here are my nine top tips on navigating USAJOBS for MPA/MPP students. This is also a large part of my thinking on how we optimized our own jobs.govloop.com site (built on USAJOBS data).

1) Grade – You should look for jobs that are GS-7 or GS-9 jobs. Yes a few of you will get higher grade but realistically you qualify for a GS-9 but also shouldn’t be afraid to take a GS-7 (and get yourself in the system) – note our entry-level job section is based on this criteria. And yes, I know you all think you deserve a GS 11 or 12 based on your 2-5 years of experience before grad school – unless you were a GS employee before, you still should apply for GS 7/9 jobs

2) Type of Job – Most MPA/MPP students think they are going to write policy memos all day. Here’s a rude awakening – 99% of gov’t jobs aren’t policy jobs – policy shops are usually super small and super competitive (we only have 9 jobs in our database working at an “Office of Policy”). But good news – there’s a lot of other job types that have more openings and lots of interesting work.

My top 5 ones for MPA/MPP students (where most of the openings are & tie in to your skills):

Program Analyst – Really all this job means is “jack of all trades” – can you read/write/speak/analyze? This is the category for you – agencies hire under program analyst categories for a variety of job

Budget/Financial Analyst – Like stats/numbers? There are tons of budget/finance jobs where you help the agency plan and execute the budget. Always in need of smart people & these jobs have great career trajectory.

Acquisitions– Do you like buying stuff? Acquisition is government’s buyers. This is the most in-demand field in government and honestly one of the core skills any gov’t leader needs.

Human Resources – Some people think HR is lame. But HR is moving to less of a paperwork field and more of strategic how we manage talent management. Lots of interesting work, tons of jobs, & real need for MPA/MPP skills (lots of historical HR workers are still transactional/paperwork focused & need for strategic skills)

Information Technology– Huge need for IT workers. Honestly most of the openings are for mid-level folks but huge shortage of folks and great opportunity to fly up fast if you love tech but also can translate to talk to users and management.

3) Look for Promotion Potential

All jobs have a grade that you are hired at (see #1 – you should be looking for GS 7 or GS 9). Additionally all openings have promotional potential – this means the level this job automatically can be promoted to if the employee is successful (for example a GS 7 with promotion potential to GS 12, goes GS 7, 1 year later GS 9, 1 year later GS 11, 1 year later GS 12).

This is huge and you should look for jobs that have promotion potential to GS 12 (and you hit the jackbot if goes to 13). The top ten jobs I pick at entry-level are picked partly for this.

For example, this FBI job is awesome– they are hiring either a GS 7 or 9 with promotion potential to 13 – this means if you were hired as a GS 7 at $42k a year, 4 years later you’ll be a GS 13 at $89k if you do a good job and get the standard promotions.

4) Agency – All MPA/MPP students seem to want to go to State Dept or USAID. Please don’t narrow your search to just these agencies – they have very few openings and are by far the most competitive agencies to get hired at. Over 50% of openings each week are DOD or VA opening (and ~2% State/USAID). There’s plenty of agencies you might never think of (Agriculture/Food and Nutrition Services) but would love the work (help improve SNAP – the modern food stamps program)

5) Open to All Citizens -Make sure you only apply for jobs that are available to U.S. Cititzens. About 60% of gov’t jobs are only for current feds – don’t waste your time applying for those. This is a filter you can choose on USAJOBS & jobs.govloop

6) Multiple Vacancies

I strongly encourage you to apply for jobs with multiple vacancies (I pick the top entry level jobs with this in mind). Simply if an agency says they have 2 or few openings, they are truly hiring a lot (VS 1 opening where may have an internal candidate). Plus you will have a cohort of new hires (instead of being the 1 new hire in the last 5 years which sometimes happens)

See this FNS jobs – this is an awesome job– they are hiring “few” – which most people use as more than 3 and it has promotion potential to a GS 13. Win!

7) USAJOBS is a Numbers Game – During the spring of my 2nd year of graduate school, I applied to 40 government jobs on USAJOBS, got 4 interviews, and 2 job offers. This is a good ratio. Apply to a lot of jobs!

8) It Takes Time (and the amount Varies) – Be patient with the process as time varies a ton. Some of the jobs I applied for contacted me for interview within 30 days, the other interviews I got came 4 months later. Be flexible (and that’s why you should apply to lot of jobs). Also that’s why I encourage people to start applying in February (some people worry – what if they want me to start in March/April – you’ll be lucky if that’s your problem & they’ll adjust to work with you)
9) Answer Yes and Use Keywords – While applying for jobs, you’ll probably take a bunch of quizzes or have to write mini-essays talking about your experience and skill at something. Here’s the simple answer – “answer yes”. While I don’t want to encourage you to lie, you should be as liberal as possible with your experience in trying to check the highest possible box and answer yes.

Example – If asked what your experience is in leading large teams through troubling times, you might think – not much. But think broader, remember when you lead a campus tour of 100 people and it started pouring down rain and you got everyone to a safe spot and entertained them until it stopped raining – hmmm…might count (wink)
Also – in your mini-essays, make sure to repeat the keywords that are in the announcement under summary and duties. If it mentions strategic planning, use the word “strategic planning” 4 times in your essay. You may want to use synonyms, don’t. Use the exact words.
Remember the goal of the USAJOBS application is to get an in-person interview. Repeat – the goal is getting to an interview

That’s all I got – still got questions? Leave a comment below. Got other suggestions? Leave ’em below

**Note – My simplest advice – sign up to receive our top 10 entry-level jobs each week (they are selected based on these criteria) and apply for those***

**Caveat – Info mostly applies to most Masters students but varies according to discipline. Note – this doesn’t cover PMF/Pathways and other great fellowship programs – more on that in another post. Note – this doesn’t include my advice on networking and other tips – see other articles below***

Past Job-Related Posts
4 Stats on Federal Job Openings

3 Tips on Planning Your Federal Career Based on Openings

Unofficial Guide to Getting a Federal Job

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Ami Wazlawik

Finding and applying for jobs on the USAJobs site can be a really daunting task. This is a concise and helpful list for those of us trying to figure out the whole process. As someone who only has a few years of work experience, I found #9 to be very helpful. Skills and experience gained from volunteer experience or unpaid internships (which many students end up doing at some point) can definitely be relevant when applying for jobs, even if it takes a little thinking about how they fit in.

Curt Klun

I fully concur with Steve’s great advice. I’ve been a Program Analyst for 14 years with the Department of Justice, and I can vouch for the “jack of all trades” aspect of the job. I have a couple of additional thoughts:

  • You may also want to search for Management Analyst too.
  • On the positive, the “jack of all trades” allows you wide latitude in your projects, and the boundaries are set by the culture and the section responsibilities that you land in. On the downside, Program/Management Analysts are not core series. These roles serve as adviser, for analysis, and for program process. If your sights are for eventual significant responsibilities/authority, plan to work towards a core series. Just like in a law firm or hospital, unless you are a lawyer or a physician, you are unlikely to have significant authority. The MPA/MPP degree will be a significant leg up in your career advancement, but it won’t be your primary skillset.
  • I believe the GS-7 with competition to GS-13 is a part of the “superior academic achievement” provision, which is based upon either class standing or 3.0/3.5 or higher on a 4.0 GPA scale.

Great tips Curt.

I think it’s the same job series right? 343 – managment/program analyst – or are there separate ones for program analyst and management analyst

Julie Chase

Great idea for grads looking for jobs in DC. Outside of DC, the prognosis for any gov job is slim to none even with a degree.


I’m actually Senior in my College in the Healthcare Administration Major I would be graduating with my BS. They have a DUAL to attain my MPA as well which would be completed 2016 but looking at the jobs on indeed, monster and so forth, so much experience is required. So I hesitate and think that maybe I might not be able to get a job once I complete the MPA degree because I don’t have the experience they are looking for.

So I guess my question is: Do you think a DUAL would be beneficial or not?