10 Tips for Your First Year in Federal Government

Congratulations! Whether working for the federal government has been a lifelong dream of yours, or you’re here because you needed a job and your new agency was hiring, you’re embarking on a wonderful adventure. Working in the public sector is most often wholly different than the private sector: In government, you are impacting not just the mission of your organization, but citizens across the country. It will be fun, fulfilling, and frustrating all at the same time. To get you started in your new career, here are 10 tips for your first year:

1. Understand the Terms of Your Employment

This can be said about any job, but it is particularly important as a federal at-will employee with a probationary period. You need to find out how long your probationary period is (most likely, it’s one year), how your performance will be reviewed, how you are classified, where you will be placed on the pay scale, the conditions for advancement or demotion, when you get paid, what the sick and annual leave policies are, whether you are able to earn a bonus or annual pay increase, whether a flexible work schedule is possible, and what opportunities are available for advancement. When you begin your career, it is also a good idea to find out any restrictions your agency places on your personal activities. For example, as a federal employee, you are restricted from giving a public speech in favor of a candidate running in a partisan election.

2. Take Advantage of All the Benefits Offered

Throughout the hiring and onboarding process, take note of what benefits are offered by your agency and be sure to take advantage of them. This includes signing up for health insurance and the Thrift Savings Plan, attending trainings and seminars, and even student loan repayment (if you have a Direct Loan, you may be eligible to have your loan debt paid off through the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program after you complete 10 years of public service).

3. Respect the Probationary Period

In your new position, you’ll be on probation for at least a year (and longer in some instances). While you should be doing your best work at all times, just remember that your employer will be using this first year to determine whether you are the right person for the position. Everything you do will help your employer understand your work style and how that fits with the agency, your skill set and how that may differ from what’s on your resume, your willingness to take direction, your ability to manage stress, how you contribute to the group, etc. Be mindful of this and put your best foot forward.

4. Get the Lay of the Land

Sure, you need to know where the bathrooms are and where you can find food. But learning about your new agency also involves learning about the key players—who does what, how people interact, and whose interests align with yours. Not only will you be working with many of the people in your organization, they will also be there to answer your questions, support your ideas, and help your career grow.

5. Be Ready to Work in a Team

Almost everyone wants to be recognized for their effort, and if you do good work, you will be. But the most significant work in government is collaborative. Other people will be relying on you, and you’ll rely on them to get work done. Take direction when necessary, and be a leader when you see fit. Don’t attempt to make yourself look good at the expense of others, or you risk alienating your co-workers and perhaps even losing your job before the end of your probationary period.

6. Understand that Government Can Work

Sure, bureaucracy is real, and you’ll encounter it on a daily basis. You’ll also encounter elected officials who degrade the work you’re doing, and perhaps you’ll even meet everyday Americans who can’t understand why you’d work for such a “broken” employer. But remember that the work you are doing is important, and although it may take time for your projects to be approved or your ideas to be recognized, your effort will almost have an impact, even if it’s small.

7. Remember the Hierarchy

The classification and pay grade systems of the federal government means that there is a defined hierarchy within each team and organization. Respect it. Even if you disagree with your boss, or feel like he/she is not giving your work or ideas appropriate consideration, don’t go over your boss’ head. Doing that can make you look like less of a team player, and it will make your boss less likely to help you advance through the organization.

8. Always Look for Opportunities to Learn

You’ll have plenty of mandatory trainings to attend, but don’t let that be the extent of your learning. Seek out other trainings (check out GovLoop’s in-person and online events), conferences, and brown bag lunches. Ask questions of those whose work you admire or whose position you might like to move into one day. Network, join a professional association (like Young Government Leaders)—there are hundreds of ways to learn new things and gain experience and skills that will help you advance in your career. Start learning on day one, and never stop.

9. Develop a Support Network

Government work can be overwhelming and frustrating. The work is demanding and high pressure, so it’s worthwhile to build a colleague network that can offer perspective and act as a sounding board. Surround yourself with people who have been in their jobs longer than you who can act as a mentor or offer advice when you are facing a problem.

10. Challenge Yourself

Remember that government is a marathon, not a sprint. Sometimes, you can do great work that, because of the bureaucratic hurdles, doesn’t get put into action for months, or years, or ever. But don’t let that discourage you. Constantly look for new projects to tackle that can help you gain new skills or meet new people in your organization. Take risks, and don’t be afraid to fail, because you’ll ultimately learn more from those failures than you do from your successes. When you work hard, take risks, and produce exceptional results, your colleagues, your boss, everyone around you will notice. And that’s a great way to advance your career.

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