KSAs: a Realistic Response to a Ridiculous Question

Anyone who’s had to respond to KSAs (that’s “Knowledge, Skills, and Abilities” to those of you fortunate enough to have avoided them) knows how ridiculous they can be. And if you are in the Forest Service, you’ve seen an increase in this ridiculousness in our post-ASC world.

(ASC is the FS’s consolidated HR office. All HR functions now go through this mythical “service” center in Albuquerque. The removal of HR from the field-level has resulted in a highly unpersonal system).

The idea of this consolidation of HR functions was to create greater consistency in HR practices. A nice concept in theory, but it doesn’t quite work. One notable side effect is that vacancy announcements (and their attendant KSAs) have become increasingly generic.

Case in point: I recently began preparing an application to a position for which I am highly qualified. It was, strangely, lumped into an “open continuous” vacancy announcement for multiple positions — the most generic of all possible worlds! There were the standard “ability to communicate in writing” and “ability to communicate other than in writing”; in fact, I could copy/paste 6 of 8 KSAs from previous applications.

There was, however, one gem of a KSA. One that is so narrow, so specific, that it had nothing to do with 99% of the jobs that will be hired off this vacancy roster. It clearly has nothing to do with my job. So I decided to have fun with it. For your Friday morning enjoyment, here it is:

Knowledge of microbiological science principles, theories, concepts, methods, and techniques.

I possess a degree in biology, which included the basic instruction in microbiology. I am familiar with the concepts of growing samples in petri dishes, and in fact, am quite knowledgeable in conducting such experiments in my refrigerator. I have determined the length of time required for certain microorganisms to grow and which media they prefer to colonize (yogurt, cheese, sauces, etc). I recently have discovered a previously unknown organism, which had an unusual red color instead of the standard green and white. I also routinely conduct “dry” experiments, such as on bread in a cupboard.

In addition to simple growth experiments, I am also familiar with common sample collection techniques, such as skimming or cutting from the surface. This allows one to salvage the remainder of the growth medium for consumption or for future experiments.

I also possess experience in the field of breaking down organic materials into various types of gasses, such as occurs in my in-kitchen compost bin. I have developed and implemented plan to monitor the olfactory cues emanating from the bin, which signify the need to transfer the contents to the main bin outside for the next stage of decomposition.

While I possess a “book learning” understanding of similar experiments conducted in other parts of the house, I prefer to limit my work to the kitchen. I have done minor work with tile-grout microbiology, but I have an intense aversion to the field of toilet zoology and so typically delegate such projects to other staff.


Have a great weekend!

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Spencer W. Clark

All this time I thought that the domain wasn’t my forté, when in fact I now realize that I possess greater (non-Social) Science credentials than I thought! Awesome.

KSA Win!

Tamara Lamb-Ghenee

Point well made about the “generic” vacancy announcement. This is not, however, the intended use of KSAs. HR and hiring managers do need to know if applicants have the right set of skills and knowledge to do the job for which they are being considered. HR does no one any favors when they take short cuts and lump all jobs into one big announcement and hiring managers make the same type of mistake when they “cast the widest net” in hiring rather than targeting vacancy announcements at a population of applicants who they would actually consider hiring.

Its easy and entertaining to make fun of the KSA questions in some announcements, it’s harder to get hiring managers and HR to work together to fix them.


Savi, if you read them very critically, you will see that they don’t really ask the same thing. In HR’s mind anyway. For example: “Knowledge of natural resource science to plan, conduct, and evaluate natural resource management studies and to develop work plans and project plan” and “Ability to perform natural resources program management and oversight functions.” Seemingly the same, yet not. The first is asking if I know how to create the project, the second is asking if I know how to sit back and manage the big picture. Yes, on the ground these are all the same thing, because chances are we do both — but if you look very closely at the wording, you will develop the “KSA” to discern the differences, and thus craft your answers accordingly.

Carol Davison

As Performance, Development and Recruiting Professional I believe that well written KSAs screen in the highly qualified, and screen out the unqualified. In an economic environment where HR receives 80 applications for each vacancy you want that to happen. Yes they ask generic questions like oral and written communications ability. In HR we require those competencies. What is the complaint if you only have to cut and paste KSAs from previous applications? (The ability of the applicant to realize this and save their applications for repeat use is indicative of their thinking ability, strategic planning, systems thinking, etc.) It seems to me that if KSAs are well written they would be somewhat repetitive because they would reflect the actual competencies of job series.
I find it too easy to just fake a resume. Applicants who put lids on ice cream containers believe they are qualified for GS-15 Security Director positions. KSAs demonstrate whether they are. On the other hand I have seen KSAs where they wanted GS-15 Training Directors to be specialists in security (we are not) or knowledgeable of DIA strategic plans (were they only interested in hiring insiders? No they hired some outsiders.) and couldn’t believe they were a bone fined job qualifications. Yes organizational knowledge is a bonus to generic knowledge, but I don’t believe it is appropriate to screen out those who don’t have it. It’s the hiring manager’s job to weigh it against technical competency. But I can’t help but wonder how breaking the application and KSA submission process into two steps will impact HR’s timeliness, and ability to satisfy the hiring managers and applicants they serve.


Carol, I have no complaint re: KSAs, even if generic — as long as they are applicable to the job at hand. But I challenge anyone to show me how knowledge of microbiology is related to a job managing outfitter/guide permits and a ski area. Or why experience in scientific monitoring methods is related to an appeals coordinator position. Or why a degree in biology (for series 401) is at all appropriate for a NEPA coordinator. This is the kind of thing I’m talking about. I don’t mind the copy/pasting at all — although I don’t think it’s very efficient for the gov’t to be paying me a whole days’ worth of time to polish KSAs up each time. Frankly, they just duplicate the information in my resume.