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2011 PMF Job Fair: To Go or Not to Go. Plus Planning Tips

[Also posted here]

Now that the 2011 Presidential Management Fellows finalist list is out, the 850 of you who made it will be wondering whether or not to attend the upcoming PMF job fair, currently scheduled for April 19-21 (the venue is still undecided, but in the past it’s been hosted at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center).

So, should you attend or not? I always say it depends on where you are, what your background is, and what you’re interested in. I think I speak for most current and former PMFs when I say that the value of the job fair isn’t exactly measurable, but almost everyone I’ve talked to about it thought it was a good idea to have gone; many of us got our jobs at the PMF job fair, and many more of us got our jobs as a result of having made connections there. Plus you will get to meet people from all over the federal government, including current and former PMFs who are excited to be welcoming in the next class (if we weren’t, we wouldn’t be working at the job fair; I plan to work it this year myself). In short, this is an excellent opportunity that, while it may not result in an on-the-spot job offer, nevertheless provides access to many agencies. And one other thing: just because you talk with the agency of your dreams and they don’t hire you, that doesn’t mean you can’t eventually work with them, perhaps on your developmental assignment or a short rotation. These things are immeasurably valuable.

Now, will every agency be there? No, certainly not. There are agencies who, for whatever reason, either don’t know about PMF or the fair, or don’t participate in the fair. Also, if you are looking for something outside the DC area, the opportunities are not quite as broad (but they do exist; some agencies headquarter themselves away from DC).

Let’s say you’ve decided to attend. Got your plane ticket and hotel reservation in hand, and are ready to go. Now what? Do you start contacting agencies? If so, who at those agencies? And should you load up your schedule with interviews over the three days? In general, I think these are all good ideas. Don’t overload yourself too much, because you will want some time to breathe, but do remember that the more people you can talk to, the better your chances of snagging a job. This is your time to learn as much about the various federal agencies as possible, while trying to make an impression yourself.

Next, I think we should talk about something that people continually bring up. What if you don’t really know what you can do or want to do in federal service, or the thing you really want to do isn’t available? Do you take the first thing that comes along? In this case you really only have a few options. If you take a job you know you will not like, you are definitely setting yourself and your employer up for disappointment. However, if you approach this process with an open mind, you may be surprised at the kinds of opportunities that you find available. Keep in mind that two years is both a long time and a short time. It is a long time in that over the length of your fellowship, you could work on a variety of projects and assignments (of course, you could also only work on one; seek the variety level that appeals to you), so just because you are hired to do one thing does not mean that you will always be doing that (good or bad). It is a short time in that, once you’ve started, it seems like there almost isn’t enough time to learn everything you need to do your job, get all your training hours, and fit in a 4-6 month developmental assignment. I hope I have conveyed a sense of the variety that is available in this program. Hackneyed platitudes about our “future leaders” aside, this program really does have the potential to provide you access to the kinds of situations people spend a good deal of a career aspiring to.

And finally plenty of people have asked about how to get to DC, where to stay, and how to get around in a cost-conscious manner. I’ve detailed some of my recommendations in a similar post from last year (linked at the end of the article), but I will reiterate some of them here:

  • Plan Ahead: Most of your last minute and underplanned decisions come with extra cost. Learn everything you can about the airport you’re flying into, the hotel you’re staying at, the Convention Center, and how to move between them effectively and cheaply. Also, this may or may not apply, but if you’re arriving from a warmer part of the country, bring a jacket! It was cold (45 degrees) last year and raining half the time.
  • Fly Southwest: Most of the time (but not always), their fares are the lowest you’ll find. Consider flying into BWI instead of Reagan. Southwest had some great direct flights into BWI, which saved me time and money. Also, it’s not very difficult to get back to DC by train: the MARC train, when I took it last year, was $6 each way, and the Amtrak was $12 each way. It takes planning to pull it off, but it beats catching cabs everywhere
  • Walk Everywhere: If you managed to snag decent accommodations close enough to the Convention Center, try walking. It’s free. Of course, if it’s raining, this may be less desirable unless you’re only going a few blocks.
  • …Or Learn the Bus Routes: Sure, the subway is fast, and sometimes it’s convenient too. But not always. The buses cover large areas that are not well served by the metro trains, and in many cases you can plan door to door, minimizing your walk time. Learn to use the WMATA Trip Planner to find good bus routes, and supplement that with the Next Bus tool (also mobile formatted so you can check it from your web-enabled phone). If you need another reason to consider buses: they are $0.40 cheaper per ride than the trains, and you can transfer for free within 3 hours if you…
  • …Get a SmarTrip Card: Paying cash costs more (ten cents, which I know isn’t much) per ride than paying with a SmarTrip Card. It’s a $10 minimum investment ($5 for the card and a $5 initial balance), but you can easily rack up more than that in transit costs over the course of the job fair. Also, if you are going to eventually move to DC, you’ll want one anyway. The other benefit of the SmarTrip Card is that it enables the free bus transfers mentioned above, since Metro no longer issues the paper kind. This can save you money.
  • Consider Hosteling: Hotels are nice, but that comes with a pretty steep markup. I don’t know of any hotels in the DC area that are both nice and cost less than $75 a night (as listed on Kayak; this rate was for a room in College Park, Maryland). Most will be significantly higher. Consider this alternative: Hosteling International runs a hostel within walking distance of the Convention Center. Their rates run well below hotel rates: $25-$45 a night for dorm style rooms. Admittedly, it can be tough to get good quality sleep, but you’re only going to be there for like three nights. One other note: if you aren’t a member of Hosteling International, you’ll have to pay an extra $3 per night as a temporary membership fee. It’s still worth it, in my opinion, since the location is so good. Also, it’s a great way to meet other people from all over the world.

And now I would like to solicit your ideas, things you’ve observed and, especially from readers of this blog who are themselves current or former PMFs (I’m grateful that you’ve stopped by to share your wisdom).

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It’s official

The PMF Class of 2011 Finalists Job Fair (April 19-21, 2011) and PMF Class of 2008 Graduation Ceremony (April 20, 2011) will take place at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center, in Washington, DC. We are in the process of updating all event files and content on the PMF website. The 2011 Finalists have until Noon (EST) Friday, to RSVP, and 2008 Fellows have until Noon (EST), Wednesday to RSVP.