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How to land a job in the federal government

The mandarin option is looking better than ever for some graduate students

by Carolyn Steele

How to land a job in the federal government

It's one thing to revel in the joy of gathering, analyzing and constructing knowledge in a field you love; it's another thing entirely to negotiate the uncertainty of the academic job market and interdepartmental politics pulling you away from what you research. But after so many years in postgraduate programs, what options are there for stable, satisfying employment that will allow you to build on what you've accomplished in academe? The Government of Canada is hoping that more university graduates at all levels will consider a career in the federal public service as an attractive career option.

Marsha Moshinsky, a master's level graduate of the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University knew early on that her passion lay in the field of development studies, not in academe. After graduating she applied for a position as a development officer with the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) through which she learned about the Management Trainee Program (MTP) offered by the federal government. She wasn't successful in landing the CIDA position, but was offered a spot in the MTP.

She is now an assistant negotiator representing the Government of Canada through Indian and Northern Affairs (INAC) in self-government negotiations with First Nations. Her primary file currently involves negotiating a self-government agreement with the Union of Ontario Indians, a group of 41 First Nations in Ontario. She is involved in monthly negotiation tables and other related meetings, researches and helps her team provide drafting options for the governance final agreement, liaises with her First Nation counterparts and internally with various INAC sectors and other government departments in support of these files. She is also involved in reporting and communications along with a range of other internal corporate responsibilities related to the training received in the MTP.

The fact that she believes strongly in the value of what she is doing is one of the main reasons Ms. Moshinsky finds a great deal of satisfaction in her chosen career. "What I do is closely related to what I studied (governance and development work), involves research which I love, and working with people who are also committed to making a difference - both within the government and First Nations. Moreover, I regularly visit various communities, some of them remote - I've always enjoyed traveling and now I am discovering Ontario."

For a long time, jobs in the government were perceived as being monotonous, unimportant, rife with union dissent and accessible only through nepotism. Facing a looming shortage of workers as the baby boomers begin to retire, the federal government has been working hard to shed this reputation. Recruitment literature in university career centres and major newspapers promotes the public service as offering a broad range of career paths that contribute to the quality of life in Canada in significant ways, with many opportunities for advancement. The introduction of strict equity guidelines and an ethics review board overseeing all hiring practices ensure that applicants are judged on fair and appropriate grounds. The federal government also recognizes the added value of higher education and will often offer increased salaries for employees with graduate-level degrees.

Here's University Affairs' easy guide to applying for federal government positions:

Step One - Finding Job Postings

Academic fields most directly associated with postings requiring graduate-level education are, unsurprisingly, in the sciences, social sciences and health care. However, do not hesitate to apply to any posting where you can demonstrate a good fit and meet the specifications of the "Who Can Apply," "Language Proficiency" and "Statement of Merit" criteria included in each posting.

The lion's share of recruitment for the federal government is funneled through the Public Service Commission website. On this site you can find not only job postings, but also information on postgraduate recruitment programs, job search tools and an overview of the benefits and compensation you can expect in a federal level job. The site also has an RSS feed that will keep you updated on job postings meeting the specifications you select.

Job postings and other career information can also be found on the homepages of many agencies and departments. A full list of these can be found at this Government of Canada Departments and Agencies index or at this Service Canada Careers in Public Service index page.

Browsing through the sites that seem most closely related to your area(s) of expertise will help you understand what opportunities are available for you in the public service.

There a few programs that target applicants with a graduate-level degree:

Recruitment of Policy Leaders
Provides training for people with graduate-level degrees for higher-level positions in policy analysis.

Management Trainee Program
The Management Trainee Program is a three-year training and development program geared towards highly motivated individuals who have the potential to excel as future leaders in the federal public service.

Accelerated Economist Training Program
The Accelerated Economist Training Program provides exposure to a variety of policy issues, experience in analyzing sector responsibilities, and a broad view of the role, mandate and modus operandi of various departments and agencies in the federal government.

Performance Audit Trainee Program
This is a two-year classroom and on-the-job training program leading to a career in performance audits in a range of fields from defence to the environment, from law enforcement to social programs.

Step Two - Applying for Positions

  • Only resumés for posted positions will be accepted. There is an "Apply Now" link on each posting through which you submit your application, and which will link you into the Public Service Resourcing System where you can track the status of your application, schedule any required testing and get your test results.
  • Prepare a separate resumé for each position for which you apply that carefully meets the Statement of Merit Criteria - unless you provide evidence demonstrating that you meet this criteria on your resumé, your application will be disqualified. This is one of the ways that the government ensures the best qualified candidate, not just the most well-known one, is hired. If you are a member of a designated employment equity group (see definitions here), this can help strengthen your application if you meet all other requirements.
  • Most positions in the public service require you to write standardized knowledge and competency tests. Generally speaking these are not tests for which you need to study. Examples of the most commonly required tests can be found here.
  • Fluent bilingualism is not required of every job advertised, but at some point in the application process, you will be required to demonstrate you meet the "Language Proficiency" requirements for official languages described in the posting. You can learn more about official languages requirements here.
  • Use the Statement of Merit Criteria to prepare for your interview. Guidelines on how to do this, and on what to expect during the interview itself are provided on the Public Service Commission's website here.

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Comments on this Article

I work with Marsha and the reason she has a career not a job is because she is firmly tri-lingual, intensely smart and the best policy analyst/negotiator I've ever met. She brings specific skills, aptitudes and experiences with her to the job that a battery of standardized tests wouldn't have necessarily highlighted.

And more tellingly, although this article is 3 years old, she is still a public servant working in negotiations. I think that speaks to both her commitment to her clients and her aptitude in that role.

Posted by AR, Jul 10, 2011 8:37 PM

This is a really useful and accurate article. It's too bad that the MTP no longer exists. However, in addition to the programs listed above, there are numerous internships and recruitment programs that are run by individual departments. I maintain a list of these, as well as their deadlines, on my website at www.canfor-hr.com. Also, applying is only the first step. Exams and interviews are a little different than in the private sector. If you want help preparing for these, please don't hesitate to e-mail me.

Also, with regards to hiring freezes in the government, these come and go and are department specific. It doesn't necessarily mean that no hiring is taking place, but that the amount of money being spent on salary won't go up. Very often, as people retire or change jobs, new people will still be hired to replace them. Rumors of a hiring freeze usually last a lot longer than the freeze itself.

Cheers and a Happy New Year to all.

Posted by Scott, Dec 26, 2010 10:44 AM

I think how well one fares in a government position really depends on one's attitude going into it. If you think it'll be like university, where one gets to do whatever they like and wear their politics on their sleeve, you'll be bound to hate it. However, if you keep an open mind, you can learn a lot of things in the public service, as well as positively impact peoples' lives in ways not possible in university. Also, it is important to note that government work is about the best line of permanent work an academic can hope for. It pays much more than any non-tenure track job, and can lead to management positions well in excess of tenured pay scales.

Posted by Dr.Doinglittle@gmail.com, Dec 23, 2010 12:32 PM

My advice to people considering work in the government: please don't waste your time. My two experiences have not been pleasant. The very reputation the the government is trying to shed (according to this article) is exactly what I have encountered. It is more than just a reputation. My experience has involved monotonous, unrewarding work. I understand there will always be some of that; however, in my experience, there really were better solutions to it. No one wants to hear my opinion though. I also get snickered at for my academic background. My values (lifelong learning, evidence-based practice) do not jive with the values of the government and I am leaving because of it. I wish I hadn't wasted my time though I suppose I have learned some important lessons as a result of the attempt at working with the GofC.

Posted by Nicole, Dec 20, 2010 3:18 PM

With a Ph.D. and two years academic experience including 6 publications in top peer reviewed journals in my field, i entered the Ontario Public Service as an Intern. I showed my worth and in 6 months got a full time senior permanent position just on par with an equivalent Assistant Professor/ Research Associate at an average university. Note that Ontario like many other jurisdictions and unlike the federal government do not consider graduate degrees for higher pay. In fact i am told that Ontario moved severly against "credentialism" a decdae and more ago. This is terrible in my mind but my point is, go in there and evidently with your Ph.D. training you will be able to show your worth and excel. It takes a little eating humble pie at the beginning.

Posted by Kal, Dec 6, 2010 1:17 PM

I worked at policy think tanks for 10 years before returning for my PhD. Given my age and the fact that I have children and a mortgage I needed a job fast and took a provincial government (temporary) policy position. It is very difficult to get a permanent position in either the federal or provincial governments and as much as I thought I loved the policy sector it is very difficult to go back to writing briefing notes and coordinating conference calls after the freedom of research and writing a book. I also agree with one of the comments above that a PhD holds absolutely 0 currency in the policy sector. I have been teased by the ADMs who call me the "girl with the doctorate" and other policy analysts snicker and wonder why I am here.

Posted by Dr. Wilson, Dec 2, 2010 3:08 PM

Academics who want to make the jump to government will face several shocks.

First is that there are very, very few jobs in the public service. Since the time when this article was written. there essentially has been a hiring freeze in place.

Second, is the realization that your degree has far less currency in the bureaucracy than in university. Govt employers want experience and demonstrated skills - they dont care about your thesis, conference talks, or brilliant insights into Derrida. In fact, some degrees are seen in a negative light in govt circles because of their political nature. I bet Marsha wouldn't have landed her job in INAC if she wrote a thesis about nefarious colonial policies by Canada towards First Nations. Academics, in sum, are largely seen (like professors) as a partisan interest group.... the opposite of what most govt employers want.

Three, government job applications require a different style of writing; interviews require a different style of speaking. Again, these are learned in workplaces, not the university classroom.



Posted by Dr.Doinglittle, Nov 30, 2010 2:01 PM

As someone with two BA degrees and an MA in political science, who has been through the incredibly convoluted and lengthy, often nonsensical, and highly restrictive government hiring process, who landed a decent position only to be threatened with a lay off at every turn of the road, and who then ultimately accepted a transfer to a low level filing job as the only means of remaining a federal employee, I would like a bit more information on how Marsha really managed to move from a Management training program to a negotiator position with INAC. THIS IS NOT THE TYPICAL CAREER PATH OR STORY. Trust me. The words and actions of the Federal government do not match when it comes to their hiring process.

Posted by Elizabeth Punnett, Nov 23, 2010 12:03 PM

I have heard that there is actually a hiring freeze in certain entry level areas of government, such as DFAIT for example. can you shed any light on this?

Posted by Alexandra, Nov 20, 2010 6:38 AM

Hi Kathy,

I have updated the links in this article. For more information on the Performance Audit Trainee Program, follow this link: http://www.oag-bvg.gc.ca/internet/English/au_fs_e_14879.html

For more information on the Management trainee program: http://www.tbs-sct.gc.ca/prg/mtpsg-eng.asp

Hope this helps!

Tara

Posted by Tara Fraser, UA web editor, Oct 18, 2010 10:14 AM

Hello

Can you tell me where to find more information on the performance audit trainee program and the management trainee progra. When I click on the links above it is not valid.

I am also desparately looking for a job however with no luck any advice you can give me will be greatly appreciated

Thanks

Kathy Mohammed

Posted by Kathy Mohammed, Oct 18, 2010 9:27 AM


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