Presidential Managment Fellowship for STEM graduates
October 2, 2012 4:20 PM   Subscribe

What does the Presidential Management Fellowship entail?

I’m a PhD student looking forward to finishing my degree in Biology (Organismal Bio, also called Ecology, Evolution and Behavior). I also have a Masters degree in the same field. I’m a US citizen and all my education has been in the USA. I’m increasingly disillusioned with the academic lifestyle. Also, while I’m good at my work, it’s largely quite abstract and several degrees from real application to real lives. I believe in basic science on an intellectual and moral level, but I find myself craving more direct service.

I’ve been looking into work for Biologists in the Federal government, and have noticed a number of positions which my education at least nominally qualifies me for (usually GS 09 or GS 11 – the first seems to be, roughly, “undergrad + experience, or Masters degree” and the second is roughly “masters degree + experience, or PhD”.)

And one option I’ve noticed is the Presidential Management Fellowship. Most people entering seem to be more Political Science/MBA types, but there’s a definite minority of STEM graduates, especially biologists. It looks like the BLM, FDA, DOI, DOA, and USGS, as well as the more obvious NIH, NSF, CDC, and others all employ biologists in one way or another, and not necessarily in a research capacity.

I understand that the Presidential Management Fellowship program involves rotations, and some additional training in government leadership, but I’ve been having a hard time figuring out exactly what else it’s about, or why I should be applying for it instead of applying directly for jobs in government service. The website is full of PR fluff , but there’s lots of the kind of “you’d know what this meant if you already knew what it meant” type stuff.

I bring: exceptionally deep and broad knowledge of biology. Good brains, facility with math, some corporate experience prior to my Masters, degrees from prestigious institutions. Some teaching experience. 4.0 GPA in my PhD. Stunning GREs if anyone still gives a fig. A certain stubbornness. Personal maturity (read: I’m not 25.)

I lack: a policy/government background, specific training in conservation biology (though I have formal population genetics and population biology), strong resources in researching alternative careers (where “alternative” means “not a professor at an R1 institution.”) Bright eyed, bushy tailed youth.

So what is it? Why should I give it a shot? Have you gone through it, or known someone who has? What was the experience like?

And, heck, what are your most discouraging observations? What kind of a person is most likely to fail?

Thanks! Anon because I haven’t told my advisor yet that I don’t want to continue in academic research.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (6 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
The purpose of the PFM program is "developing a cadre of potential government leaders."

My guess is that a poli sci/MBA background is not a requirement, but you'd have to somehow satisfy them that you're really serious about making a career in government, management of government policies, public health, public service, that sort of thing and that you're not just going to go back to academia after two years.
posted by RandlePatrickMcMurphy at 5:44 PM on October 2, 2012

Hi! I'm a 2011 PMF with the U.S. Forest Service. The PMF is a 2 year fellowship intended to provide a pathway into government services for recent graduates with advanced degrees (any kind of graduate degree, though in my personal experience most of them are MBAs or JDs).

It is intended to exposure potential government leaders to an array of experiences in the federal government, offer the opportunities like accelerated promotion, and hopefully recruit and retain folks to a career in government service. At the end of the two year program, if you fulfill the requirements, you are eligible to be converted into a regular government employee. As of this summer, the PMF program is now included under President Obama's new Pathways initiative, which incorporates a number of programs for current students and recent graduates under a single banner.

My experience with the PMF program has been extremely positive - I would recommend it to anyone, even folks planning to go back to academia. However, I'd caution that the PMF program differs significantly from agency to agency, and execution of the program is really dependent on what your supervisor and agency think the program should be like. For me, it has meant exposure and opportunities to involve myself with a lot of high-profile projects that have been extremely interesting to me. I've been given the chance to initiate and lead projects, and to take training that I (and my supervisor) consider relevant and useful to me. I have had the chance to participate in brief rotations doing all sorts of things, exposing me to the variety of things my agency does. My leadership hired me because they believed in the program, but after working for them for just a year they decided to keep me around - I'm now working in my "permanent" position, which requires a little juggling, but is challenging and exciting, exactly what I wanted.

I got lucky. This kind of experience is not rare, but you really need to make sure that your supervisor's idea about your PMF experience is the same as yours - and you need to make sure what the host agency thinks of the program before you accept a job with them. The Forest Service's PMF program is outstanding - and has support all the way up to the Chief and Associate Chief. There is an informal internal network within the FS PMF community - I had two mentors, a PMF alum and a 2nd year PMF. Now that I'm a 2nd year PMF, I have a mentee assigned. This is the exception, not the rule in federal agencies - a lot of PMFs that I meet tell me they don't know any other PMFs in their organization, and are confused, isolated, and often BORED because no one gives them assignments!

To answer your specific questions - if you get your Ph.D. you'll be eligible to start at a GS-11, and in extraordinary circumstances, a GS-12. However, by the time agencies are ready to hire PMFs, grade has usually been determined, and finances are tight for agencies right now. We just started the new fiscal year on a continuing resolution, and there is no end in sight. So, even if you find the perfect position which is a fit for your experience and skills, and a supervisor who wants to hire you more than anything in the world, you may find yourself being offered a GS-9. There is no harm in asking for a higher starting grade, but just realize that for many hiring managers, they simply don't have the flexibility to offer anything else.

They can, however, offer you other benefits, depending on the agency - possible repayment of student loans (I don't personally know any agencies that have pulled this off), relocation benefit (usually quite modest for incoming employees), cash award, flexibility on starting date, flexibility on possibility of extended telework schedule, early re-consideration of grade upon the next FY, and possibly even more starting vacation hours than normal. Not all hiring managers/agencies will be able to do this, either due to agency protocol or simply the tough budget times. One non-tangible benefit you could ask for if you strike out everywhere else is agreeing upon your rotations ahead of time - if you have a rotation or agency you'd really like to work with, you could come to an agreement with your supervisor about that before you are hired.

There are a lot of agencies who hire PMF finalists who are not JD/MBAs - I wouldn't exclude agencies that you're interested in. I run into a lot of people who tell me precisely where and what they want to do on their PMF, and with which agency. To be frank, that limits your options. I suggest you be as flexible as possible for your PMF primary assignment - think of it as a temporary (albeit a long-term) opportunity to learn more about a different subject area, and focus once you've started your PMF on finding opportunities to connect with folks in the area you're interested in.

So what is required? There is a minimum annual training requirement, and you have to spend at least four months on rotation (we call them "details" at my agency) doing a job that is not your primary assigned position. That is just about it.

You can apply for the PMF program and also for jobs directly in government service at the same time. The PMF application process is multi-layered and takes a while - the same can be said of getting a job with the government the regular way. The upside of the PMF program is that it is specifically designed to give you on the job experience (minimum 160 hours!) and my agency, at least, regards it as a place to develop future leaders. You also have the ability to be promoted a lot faster through the ranks than normal. PMFs can be converted as high as a GS-13, though conversion at a GS-11 is far more typical.

You sound like you might be a good fit for the PMF program. I'd consider applying (the application window will be in November this year)! I wrote a couple of blog posts about the PMF process last year (I'll be updating them sometime this fall). While I'd caution you that the application process changes dramatically from year to year, here's my experience if you find it useful.

The biggest change this year is that folks are now eligible to apply in the years after they graduate. Basically the process is: You apply on USAJobs. You do an online assessment (in my year this included a speed-essay, a personality test, and a workplace appropriateness test). Semi-finalists are selected a month or so later. In-person assessments are held in a bunch of cities around the U.S. in the late winter. Finalists are selected.

Once you become a finalist, you're eligible to apply for PMF positions. You apply for PMF positions, which for the first time in the process include your resume. You're eligible to be hired as a PMF anytime during the next year - some agencies hire fast (the Forest Service hires at lightning speed, I was on the job a week or two after commencement) and others go through their process a bit more slowly (I got an email from HUD in October asking if I wanted to interview with them, something like seven months after I'd accepted a position with the FS).

So! That about covers it for now. Feel free to get in touch with me if you have any other questions, I'm always happy to talk about the program and my agency. I'm really happy I'm in the program, and even happier that I lucked out and am working on such a great staff for an agency that is such a good fit for me.
posted by RachelSmith at 6:29 PM on October 2, 2012 [10 favorites]

Wow, that was quite a textwall...
posted by RachelSmith at 6:30 PM on October 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

Have you considered the AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellowship? Great program and it might be a good fit for you. It's a pretty diverse group - lots of young people but also a lot of more experienced professionals looking to change their careers. Just a thought!
posted by kat518 at 7:27 PM on October 2, 2012

The PMF is how that level of government work exists. When I was working in government, I was one of the very few in my department who wasn't a PMF.

Tons of people aren't polisci or MBA types. Give it a shot!
posted by k8t at 9:02 PM on October 2, 2012

I'm a PMF that started in 2007 - i've been at my agency (DOT) for about 5 years, minus about 9 months of rotations.

Go for it. You have to make it through the overall process, which is extermely competitive (usually about 8,000 people apply for 700 spots). Then you are eligible to apply for jobs within a (generally) designated pool for PMFs.

RachelSmith hit the nail on the head with most of it, but i do agree on the process being a mixed bag depending on how the agency implements it and how good of a place it generally is to work.

It's been a great experience so far. As a data point my agency did do loan repayment, but that has fallen by the wayside with concerns over budget right now.
posted by waylaid at 11:05 AM on October 3, 2012

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