Overlooked Opportunities In Government | March 12, 2007 Issue - Vol. 85 Issue 11 | Chemical & Engineering News
Volume 85 Issue 11 | pp. 47-50
Issue Date: March 12, 2007

Overlooked Opportunities In Government

Attention B.S. and M.S. chemists: Uncle Sam wants you! If you haven't heard that, you're not alone
Department: Career & Employment
Help Wanted
The Patent & Trademark Office plans to hire 1,200 patent examiners a year for the next five years.
Credit: PTO
Help Wanted
The Patent & Trademark Office plans to hire 1,200 patent examiners a year for the next five years.
Credit: PTO

From inventing flame-retardant fabric (C&EN, June 7, 2004, page 41) to revealing details about comet chemistry (C&EN, Jan. 22, page 41), government chemists have made many contributions to society. The average citizen probably isn't aware of those achievements, however, because the word hasn't gotten out. As a result, civil service doesn't get the consideration it should as a career option for chemists.

Nearly 8% of respondents to the 2006 American Chemical Society Salary Survey (C&EN, Sept. 18, 2006, page 42) said they are government employees. The majority of these respondents are federal civilian workers. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the federal government is the nation's largest single employer, with 1.9 million civilian workers.

Chemists are among the ranks in many government agencies. They can be spotted at the National Institutes of Health, the Naval Research Laboratory, the National Institute of Standards & Technology, or in agencies such as the Departments of Energy and Agriculture. Other chemists work as program officers, who, among other things, administer government science funding through the National Science Foundation.

A 2005 issue paper from the Partnership for Public Service (PPS) asserts that the federal government is vulnerable to "brain drain" both because baby boomers are retiring and because their potential replacements, most notably graduate students, often don't view the government as their first choice of employer. PPS estimates that 44% of all federal workers employed in 2005 will become eligible to retire by the end of fiscal 2010. In addition, more than 200,000 federal employees are expected to resign during that same period, bringing the potential loss to nearly 900,000 workers.

Federal management officials already are concerned about competing for talent with the private sector. Their concerns are reasonable: In a survey released by the Gallup Organization in December 2006, people gave the government high marks for benefits and job security, but they don't perceive the government as being as creative, competitive, or innovative as the private sector.

The Patent & Trademark Office (PTO) is one agency that is competing with the private sector to hire workers with specialized skills. Among such workers are engineers, chemists, and physicists. PTO, which is part of the Department of Commerce, plans to hire 1,200 patent examiners per year for the next five years, says John J. Doll, commissioner for patents. Doll has B.S. degrees in chemistry and physics and an M.S. in physical chemistry.

Right now, PTO has a backlog of more than 700,000 patent cases, and Doll expects it to grow to more than 800,000 by year's end. Even hiring 1,200 people per year won't solve the problem. "For example, in fiscal 2006, there were 419,000 patent applications filed, but we only examined 320,000 new applications. This year, fiscal 2007, we expect to fall behind another 100,000," Doll says.

"There's been tremendous growth and demands on the patent system," Doll adds. That's why PTO is looking for new hires with "just about every science and engineering major," he says. PTO's goal in fiscal 2007 is to hire 224 new patent examiners in chemistry and chemical engineering plus about 200 more in biotechnology.

Doll believes that working for the government is a great opportunity for someone with a bachelor's degree. Patent examiners with a B.S. degree can start as a General Schedule (GS) 7, step 10 ($61,833)—the special pay rate for patent examiners, which is above the normal GS-7 salary. The General Schedule is the job and pay classification system for most federal employees. In an additional effort to close the gap between federal and private-sector jobs, there also are locality pay adjustments that take into account the cost of living in different regions.

"Hiring is competitive. But once on board, all examiners can advance up the career ladder if they do a good job. They don't have to compete for a limited number of promotions," Doll says. "We tell you exactly what you need to do to get that next promotion. The goal is to keep people moving up the ladder to become primary examiners, who can independently grant or reject patents."

To help orient new hires, PTO established a training academy to produce a more informed class of examiners. New examiners spend eight months in the program, which is designed to teach them the fundamentals of patent law, practice, and examination procedure in a college-style environment. The training is mandatory for first-year examiners. Primary examiners, which are GS-14 ($102,850) positions with the special pay rate, are considered experts in a particular area. They also have a lot of say over which cases they work on, and they manage their own workloads. According to Doll, the average time spent on one case is 20 hours, which includes reading, researching, and corresponding with attorneys. More complex cases may take as much as 30 hours.

In addition to teaching examiners the patent law they need to know, PTO will also pick up the tab for examiners who want to add a law degree to their credentials. A law degree can open up other career opportunities, such as working in the solicitor's office or becoming an administrative patent judge.

Government chemists came up with THPC, a compound that prevents cotton textiles from catching fire.
Credit: Scott Bauer/Agricultural Research Service
Government chemists came up with THPC, a compound that prevents cotton textiles from catching fire.
Credit: Scott Bauer/Agricultural Research Service

Right now, examiners work at the agency's headquarters in Alexandria, Va., so anyone working for PTO must live in the Washington, D.C., region. That may change in the future as the agency examines options for remote work.

PTO supports work-life balance goals by giving examiners some flexibility over their workday, provided they meet their productivity goals. "The agency's vision," Doll says, "is to hire the best people, give them the best training, and allow them to work where they want. For some people, this really is a dream job with a good salary, lots of independence, flexibility, and job satisfaction."

Job satisfaction is what moved Dean Kirby into a government position with the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in Vista, Calif. Kirby, who has B.S. degrees in biology and chemistry, began his research career in peptide chemistry at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, Calif.

"My short-term plan was to work for a few years then go to graduate school," Kirby recalls. "There were a lot of opportunities and good projects at Salk. Two years turned into 14, largely because the person I worked for was generous with work assignments. There are a lot of postdocs and some staff scientists who do the bulk of the work, while the Ph.D.s write the papers and give presentations. Luckily for me, I was given the same opportunities as the Ph.D.s in my group," he says.

Kirby says he didn't have to leave Salk but realized it was time to move on. "I enjoyed much success there and was one of the most secure people there. However, I had reached the top of my career ladder."

For Kirby, forensics was an outside interest that he had maintained as a hobby. He took a few classes in the subject so that when he decided to leave Salk, he would be in a better position to find a job in that arena. "Salk was a good stepping-stone, and I wanted an interesting job with some security," Kirby says.

In 2002, Kirby joined the DEA Southwest Laboratory. His job duties include forensic chemistry, analyzing evidence brought into the lab, determining quantifications that are needed for court, and even going to court as an expert witness, which he says makes the work particularly interesting. He also works with law enforcement officers and on different drug investigations. Sometimes this involves going to crime scenes where, for example, he has collected evidence from and identified hazards inside a methamphetamine lab. Because his DEA lab covers a sizable region of the country, he also travels occasionally.

One of the perks of the job is the equipment. "We are mandated to have new equipment every five years because of the legal implications of our work," Kirby says. "It's cutting-edge, great stuff, and there's enough to go around that we don't have to wait long for results. Even my building is brand new. I feel well-treated here."

Kirby still does some teaching, training, and research in his job. He keeps current by reading journals and going to meetings. "We also get legal training at DEA because we are dealing with criminal law and interacting with police officers and attorneys," Kirby notes, adding that he went back to school for an associate's degree in criminal justice.

Kirby thinks he has the best of both worlds because he can still publish and do research. "I really didn't think of government work when I was in college, and a B.S. is all you need to get in," he says. "The pay isn't bad, and once you're in the federal system, you can move around and still keep your years of service for retirement. There are many well-paying and interesting jobs available in government that don't have the glass ceilings of industry and academe for non-Ph.D. scientists."

Like Kirby, Deana Crumbling also found her way into the government. In her case, it was the Environmental Protection Agency. Crumbling, who has a B.S. in biochemistry and an M.S. in environmental science, initially planned to earn an M.D./Ph.D. When the program she got into was not what she expected, however, she returned to her home state of Pennsylvania and took a variety of temporary jobs in chemistry. Living in Harrisburg, she thought she could get a job in the state forensics lab. "I took the civil service exam, and they wanted to hire me because of my high scores," she says. "But there was low turnover in the state forensics lab, so I took an opening in the state Superfund program cleaning up toxic sites. I liked it, so I decided to go to graduate school."

It was while she was in graduate school, Crumbling says, that she knew she wanted to make a difference. And when she "fell into a job at EPA," she says, it "was right up my alley." The job was in the agency's Technology Innovation Program, which tracks information about treatment technologies for the hazardous waste remediation community. The program also advocates for more effective and cost-efficient solutions to assess and clean up contaminated waste sites, soil, and groundwater. "I like to say I'm paid to annoy the bureaucracy," she jokes. "In reality, we're trying to motivate change using better science and technology that's available."

Not having a Ph.D. hasn't been an obstacle for Crumbling. "I was happy to get the master's," she says, "and by then, I realized that within state cleanup—and by extension, federal cleanup—programs, it's more about the work you do and whether you've established respect and demonstrated your knowledge and ability to do the job. It's nice if you have a Ph.D., but it doesn't matter within the government. You may come in at a higher pay grade initially, but it evens out after a few years."

The federal government is very good at providing funds for staff training and skills development, Crumbling says. She is taking a weeklong risk assessment course in April at Harvard University. "I did risk assessment 10 years ago, but the field has progressed since then, and my job duties frequently overlap with risk assessment." Her tuition and travel are paid with government training funds aimed at keeping her abreast of current practices and science. "It's easy to get 'stale' in a government job, and too few people take advantage of opportunities for continuing education," Crumbling notes.

She also has the opportunity to attend conferences to network with other government scientists and academics or to give a talk or lead a training class.

In the past, the main obstacles to getting a federal job have been the onerous process of completing a job application and the wait for a job offer. According to Kirby, it will take about a year from the time a job application is filed with DEA to be given a start date. "There are several interviews, a medical exam, and a long background check that are part of the process," he says. "Receiving a security clearance also adds to the time, so you have to be prepared to wait."

The federal government is pursuing other ways of generating interest in civil service jobs and speeding up hiring. Last May, for example, the Office of Personnel Management launched a series of television ads aimed at recruiting new workers into the civil service. The ads featured government employees on the job and directed viewers to www.usajobs.gov, the government's one-stop jobs website.

Another program, the Federal Career Intern Program, is a two-year internship designed to be used at grades GS-5 through GS-9. It is open to all individuals. Also, agencies are exempt from traditional competitive hiring procedures, such as posting vacancies. Many interns in the program have reported they want to stay in their jobs with the federal government, according to a 2005 study by the Merit Systems Protection Board. The average age of the program participants is 30.

The prestigious Presidential Management Fellowship program is a leadership development fellowship designed to attract outstanding master's or doctoral-level students to federal careers. Students must be nominated by their school's dean, and they must undergo a competitive screening process. Successful applicants participate in the annual job fair held in Washington, where they can access an online job bank of opportunities with federal agencies. Fellows receive a two-year appointment. Upon completion, they are eligible to transition to a permanent career.

The federal government is actively seeking talented, enthusiastic individuals. As you contemplate your career path, consider the words of John F. Kennedy, who inspired a generation to pursue civil service careers: "Let the public service be a proud and lively career. And let every man and woman who works in any area of our national government, in any branch, at any level, be able to say with pride and with honor in future years: 'I served the United States government in that hour of our nation's need.' "


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