Career Matters

By Lily Whiteman

Take steps to move up

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If you’re a fed aiming to advance, here are your main options:

*Get a grade increase. If your job has promotion potential, you are eligible for a grade increase on the first anniversary of starting federal service or on the first anniversary of your most recent grade increase. When you receive a grade increase under the GS system, you should receive a pay increase equal to two steps above your current grade and step.

If your job doesn’t have promotion potential, your boss may give you a grade increase through an “accretion of duties” that must be approved by your agency’s human resources office. Alternatively, you could earn a promotion by winning an open competition for a job opening at your target grade level within your office.

*Earn a quality step increase (QSI). A QSI is a faster than normal step increase awarded for outstanding work; a QSI may be awarded between or during performance reviews. If you’re a deserving employee who has not received a QSI, ask your boss about his policy for awarding QSIs and, if appropriate, explain why you deserve one. If he turns down your request, ask him what you would have to do to qualify for one.

In some agencies, employees who earn the highest possible rating on tiered evaluation systems are given a choice between receiving a cash award or a step increase. If you’re given such a choice, choose the QSI. Unlike a one-time cash award, a QSI increases your basic pay — and Thrift Savings Plan contributions from your agency — for the rest of your federal career. More information about QSIs is at

*Land a new job. Look for openings by regularly checking and agency Web sites, networking and making cold calls.

Keep in mind that not all openings are listed on USAJOBS. Excepted service agencies — such as the FBI, Federal Reserve Board, Government Accountability Office and CIA — are not required to advertise openings on USAJOBS and don’t necessarily post their openings on their Web sites. Therefore, you should apply aggressive networking and cold-calling strategies to job searches in these agencies.

Many excepted service agencies pay higher salaries for comparable jobs than civil service agencies. Therefore, you may land a large pay raise just by transferring from a civil service to an excepted service agency.

If you will be moving into a newly created position and you already know the hiring manager, ask him to build promotion potential into the position so that you would be able to advance in it with minimal bureaucratic hassles.

*Join the Senior Executive Service. You’re eligible for SES jobs if you’re a GS-14 or GS-15, or the equivalent. You may land an SES job either by being selected for an SES opening and then obtaining SES certification from the Office of Personnel Management; or by obtaining SES certification through OPM’s Candidate Development Program program or an agency CDP program and then landing an SES job.

*Take a lateral position. Are you unhappy or underchallenged in your current job but unable to land a promotion? If so, consider looking for new jobs at your level that may offer experience and networking contacts that might help you ultimately land a promotion.

In many cases, feds may be moved into any equivalent position in their current agency or another agency without competition. That is, a hiring manager may be able to transfer you to his staff without considering other applicants. Unfortunately, this option is not well publicized. So if you suspect that a federal manager might be interested in hiring you, consider tactfully reminding him of it.

Another option is to land a detail assignment — a temporary assignment in another office or agency while still employed and paid by your home office. Detail assignments are rarely advertised on USAJOBS, so find them by networking and cold-calling the managers of your target organizations, including interagency task forces and commissions that may need to staff up quickly.

Once you find a detail assignment, ask an executive from the detail agency to ask your office director to approve your detail request. The more senior your requesting official is, the more likely your request is to be approved.

Lily Whiteman is a public affairs officer at the National Science Foundation and author of “How to Land a Top-Paying Federal Job.’’ Her Web site is The views expressed in this column do not necessarily represent the views of the National Science Foundation.

Give the right answers

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Some job seekers see a federal job application and fear they’ll be hit by the full force of the government’s punitive power — including armed marshals and IRS audits — if their application provides anything less than a full confession of all of their professional deficiencies and liabilities. But remember: As long as your answers to application questions are honest, you are within your rights and well advised to keep your faults to yourself and to evaluate your credentials liberally and leniently.

As I wrote in my March 30 column, your application will likely first have to impress a computer. How the computer scores your application will determine whether you are invited for an interview. So your answers should represent your highest level of experience, biggest influence, most responsibility and most seniority.

To help you claim all of the credit you deserve on the short-answer questions included on federal job applications, here are three examples of such questions with explanations of their winning answers.

*Example of a check-the-boxes question:

I have independently written, without supervision, the following:

  • Newsletters
  • Magazine articles
  • Technical and/or status reports
  • Non-technical correspondence
  • Congressional testimony
  • Fact sheets and/or brochures
  • Briefing packages
  • Position papers
  • Policy analyses
  • Press releases

I do not have or do not meet any of the choices above.

As is usually the case with check-the-boxes questions, a winning answer to this question would feature checks next to all of the boxes except the last one. Why? Because each answer to check-the-boxes questions usually describes a type of experience that is required by the opening. So to be a top contender for the position, you ideally would be able to claim to have all, or at least most, of the types of experience asked about.

When you answer, interpret the language in the question broadly. For example, consider the term “fact sheet.” Almost any type of short, pithy document you have written that contains facts may qualify as “a fact sheet.” And policy analyses you wrote in school — not just those you wrote on the job — may qualify as “policy analyses.”

*Example of a yes-no question:

Have you appraised employees’ job performance through activities such as evaluating their performance against performance standards?

You could honestly check “yes” if you supervised employees in any previous job no matter how long it was; in an acting position; in a non-federal job; in a freelance job. You could check “yes” if you supervised employees as a manager of contractors or as a team leader without serving as a first-line supervisor. Also, because of the inclusion of the phrase “such as” in the question, you may substitute other appraisal methods for the use of performance standards. These other methods may, for example, include simply observing employees’ work.

*Example of a tiered-response question:

Select the response that describes your highest level of experience analyzing operational problems or issues and recommending solutions:

1. I recommended and implemented a solution that permanently resolved the systemic operational problem or issue.

2. I have successfully implemented solutions that I recommended to resolve systemic operational problems or issues.

3. I have recommended solutions to systemic operational problems or issues.

4. I have identified and gathered information addressing an operational problem.

5. I have not performed this job function on my job.

As is usually the case with tiered-response questions, the winning answer to this question covers a larger number of high-level activities — i.e. recommending and implementing solutions to problems — that address a larger number of problems. In this case, the winning answer is No. 2.

If your answer to any short-answer question warrants explanation, include your explanation in the body of your application.

Lily Whiteman is a public affairs officer at the National Science Foundation and author of “How to Land a Top-Paying Federal Job.’’ Her Web site is The views expressed in this column do not necessarily represent the views of the National Science Foundation.