Government Careers for Ph.D.s in Psychology
Positions with local, state, and federal government provide opportunities for psychology professionals to contribute their knowledge and skills to the betterment of the country, while at the same time enjoying competitive salary, stability, and good benefits. Advanced degrees such as Ph.D.s are often taken into consideration in terms of pay grade and responsibility level. Outside of clinical psychology, government careers for psychology professionals can be found in a range of categories such as public health, correctional institution administration, community planning, foreign affairs, international relations, workforce research and analysis, and more.
Competition is tight for government positions, especially at the federal level. And, the application process can be confusing and lengthy. It pays to do your research well in advance. Learn about the structure of the agencies or departments for which you want to work by visiting their websites and social media sites. Read posted documents such as strategic plans, annual reports, financial statements, grant notices, program descriptions, and new initiatives or announcements. Provide intelligent responses to social media postings where appropriate. Sign up for email subscription services - some agencies and departments even provide Jobs Update subscription services to notify you by email when new positions become available. By learning the landscape, you can anticipate future hiring needs. Search for current staff biographies on websites, search engines, LinkedIn, etc. to find common ground, whether that be mutual research interests, similar career paths, memberships in the same organizations, or people you know. Think about joining the same professional organizations to network with government members. In essence, network as much as possible so that you will be better informed, better connected, and able to stand out from the crowd.
Consider it part of your research to visit government job posting sites regularly so that you can review available job openings in the months before you begin your job search. This practice will help you learn how often jobs are posted, how many jobs are posted, which jobs remain open, and what the requirements are to apply. Most federal agencies will redirect "competitive service" job seekers to the common federal jobs posting site USAJobs.gov, while "excepted service" postings are often listed directly on the agencies' website. Click here for an explanation of the difference between competitive service and excepted service. Government jobs are often described using unique terminology. Explore government job sites to learn the differences between job series and job grades, civil servant and non-civil servant, etc.
Regarding state government employment, each state typically uses their own common job posting site for all of their agencies or departments. State job search sites are often hosted by the state human resource department. Don't forget about cities, counties, and other municipalities - their human resource departments typically maintain job postings for all local government jobs.
Pay very careful attention to application instructions. Application instructions can be complex, especially when applying to the federal government. Allow plenty of time to prepare your application and supporting materials, which may include answering extensive job-related questions, providing evidence of previous experience, providing education transcripts, providing writing samples, attaching letters of recommendation, and even essay writing. I suggest setting up and saving your resume, CV, and/or profile on the job posting site before you are ready to search for a job. You can even try "mock applying" for a few positions before you search in earnest so that you can go through the motions without actually clicking the "Submit Application" button. Print what you've written before canceling your mock application, and share it with others for honest critique. This will give you a feel for what is required on an application and help you learn how others respond to what you've written.
Despite federal government hiring reforms to simplify the application process as well as the amount of effort you will put into government job applications, do not expect much feedback when you are not selected. In most cases, no details are provided to explain why your application was not selected. You can, however, ask for feedback from the contact person listed on the job posting or from your networking contact if you've networked your way to this application.
Here are some (slightly edited) sample job descriptions for government positions. Though not all require a Ph.D., it is clear that an advanced degree, research experience, and/or practical experience at a managerial level is desired. In many cases, advanced education can substitute for experience.