RM: My decisions regarding my ultimate career path were shaped by my academic interests, life’s experiences prior to entering university, circumstances, timing, opportunity (or not) and having been brought up to be flexible and adaptable (having been a military dependent and lived in many places and all that goes with that).
I had been very interested in the sciences, national security and international relations from a very young age.
In my sophomore year at UPS, I switched majors from political science to biology because my passion for the sciences outstripped that for political science. I knew very soon after the decision to switch to biology, that to achieve what I wanted to in the sciences, I would have to obtain at least a Master’s degree, if not the PhD. I made the commitment to work very hard and focus on excelling in order to best position myself for graduate school.
I also began to realize that my interests in science were more focused on applied problem-solving than basic research. Plant sciences were of greater interest than human or animal sciences; my interest in microbiology, plant pathology and physiology and biochemistry were triggered by the courses I took at UPS.
My career objective from my junior year was to either end up in academia, the Federal Government or industry, not knowing what the future might hold and what the job market might be when I was seeking permanent employment.
I did everything legitimately possible to position myself for acceptance into graduate school while at UPS, and was accepted into the University of Hawai’i (Master of Science in Botanical Sciences completed in 1976) and then the University of Illinois (PhD in Plant Pathology completed in 1979). The attitude and commitment to excellence which was taken to a new level at UPS continued through graduate school.
While at the University of Illinois (1976 – 1979) and fully engaged in coursework, research and teaching, I also decided to enter Army ROTC in order to serve in the Reserves while pursuing an academic or other position upon graduation. As I approached graduation at a time when the economy was perhaps in worse shape than it is now and the kind of positions I was interested were scarce and I could not effectively compete unless I were to undertake several years as a postdoctoral fellow, I realized that I should diversify my job search and look at the Federal Government.
It was actually a fellow Army ROTC cadet (law school student) who pointed me towards the FBI as he was interested in them as well. He had heard from them they were interested in candidates with science and engineering backgrounds. (By that time, I had also applied for a couple of positions at the US Department of Agriculture, as well.)
I applied to the FBI in May, 1979, and went through testing, interviews and the background investigation throughout the rest of that year. I was accepted into the FBI in December 1979 and entered the FBI Academy for New Agents Training in January 1980. In retrospect (even soon after being accepted) my diverse background and interests, science degrees, (even brief) military and overall personal and academic performance positioned me very well for acceptance into the FBI, which turned out was a very good fit for me."
Interestingly, both my M.S. and PhD advisors observed (two years apart at the two different schools) that I was more suited to applied problem-solving than I was to pure, theoretical and basic scientific pursuits. They were right, though I didn’t fully realize or appreciate it at the time.
It turns out that my FBI career choices and assignments were also shaped and determined by personality traits, including the passion for problem-solving (particularly complex, multidimensional problems), intellectual interests, education, life’s experiences, timing, opportunity (or not) and my flexibility and adaptability, as well as other traits and capabilities I developed along the way including leadership, organizational and interpersonal skills, and strong oral and written communication skills.
For me, (my career path) began before UPS, but was greatly enriched and well-prepared in many areas by my education and experiences at UPS.
RM: UPS was a wonderful, rapidly evolutionary, enriching and shaping period for me. The quality and diversity of the educational experience had a major impact on how I acquired, tested and used knowledge, and still does.
While those who experience UPS go on in many fields and walks of life, for me, having the strong foundation across many disciplines has served me well in the career path I ended up with, not only in the FBI and in other U.S. Government positions but beyond--now in academia. I am unfazed by the challenges, scale and diversity of the problems I have been asked to solve, whether as part of my past or current positions or through pro bono work I do for the National Academies on boards or committees or the U.S Government in advisory role.
UPS provided the foundation for me to investigate, pursue, learn and apply knowledge in a deeper, more thorough, rigorous and multidisciplinary manner than I had known previously and provided the foundation that everything else has been built upon.
RM: Realize and investigate the considerable diversity of positions and careers in science, engineering, mathematics and related fields in the Federal Government, across many agencies, programs and disciplines.
While basic science and engineering positions may be the most “romantic” and “ideal”, these are relatively few and far-between, and very competitive. Most of the positions are “mission-focused” on applied research, development, test, evaluation, technology transition and program management. Look at those agencies that are involved in defense, intelligence and national security, not only basic science, health, agriculture and environment. For example, the Department of Defense and Intelligence Community (16 agencies) have many positions in science, engineering, mathematics and computer science.
Advanced degrees will make one more competitive; job experience with the advanced degree even more so.
Competition can be very intense for the most desirable and better paying positions. Entry level positions are not going to be in the most desirable locations, with high rank and significant authority, and with the most desired pay level. Be realistic and manage your expectations. Be flexible, even if your first position is not exactly your first priority, do well and use that experience to move on at the appropriate time to one more to your liking.
Once you are “inside” the Federal Government, it is easier to move within and between agencies. The experience likely won’t be wasted if you invest your time, energy and performance well.
Also, in the Federal Government, know that it is “not about you”. It is about “doing the people’s business” in the context of the department or agency you work for, its mission, priorities, tasks and contingencies, meeting the requirements, demands and expectations of sponsors, customers and stakeholders on many levels and in many ways and circumstances, and being held accountable and good stewardship of public resources. This is public service, whether in the sciences or in any other career path.
CES: Do you have any tips or resources for students seeking entry-level positions with the Federal Government?
RM: For the Federal Government, just about all available positions are posted and updated at www.usajobs.opm.gov, which is managed by the Office of Personnel Management.
Securing a summer internship is a great opportunity to understanding what Federal departments and agencies are about, what opportunities exist and what the requirements are for career positions in the future, as well as building up relevant experience and relationships that might help down the line. Many agencies in the Federal Government have such programs, and are usually very competitive. Searching specific agencies’ websites should provide the information need to investigate or pursue such opportunities.