Applying to Federal Government Research Institutions

Alexandrov 2

by Natalia Alexandrov, PhD, NASA Langley Research Center

We all came to mathematics and stayed because of its beauty and wonder and the astonishing power to model the world, right? Absolutely. But then at some point, we must think of making a living. Undergraduate and graduate training in mathematics gives students a sound foundation in approaching a wide variety of problems, which, in turn, allows for quick adaptation to numerous research areas in industry, universities, and government laboratories.

There are two main types of government research laboratories. Federally Funded Research and Development Centers (FFRDCs) form a class of institutions that are owned by the Federal Government but operated by contactors, including universities and industrial firms. Department of Energy labs, e.g., Sandia National Laboratories, are examples of FFRDC. Such institutions have their own application sites, easily found via any Internet search engine. You may also see some of FFRDC positions related to mathematics advertised on the SIAM Careers page.

Other government research institutions, such as NASA (except for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which is an FFRDC), are both owned and operated by the Federal Government. Civil servants make up a large part of the workforce at such institutions. This article will give you some advice on how to apply to this type of government institutions for a civil servant position in general, as well as opportunities specific to NASA.

Applying for Civil Service Positions

All Federal Government positions with authority to hire externally appear on USAJOBS.

To apply online, you must create a USAJOBS account and profile. At the site, you can search for jobs without creating an account, but the search will be more productive when you are logged into your account because the information in your profile will improve the search results. Filters, such as location and agency, can help you narrow your search.

Once you have an account, you can manage all information needed to apply for a job, such as several versions of your CV or resume, as well as other documentation required by the hiring agency. You can save jobs, automate job searches, and check on the status of your application.

The USAJOBS site is simple to navigate and has clear, easy to follow instructions at every step, from creating your profile to submitting your application. Rather than repeat the general instructions here, I will call your attention to several important points.

Once you apply for a job, the hiring agency will start the review process when the job announcement closes. Specific review methods change over time and may differ among agencies, but a likely mechanism is some combination of human and machine reviewers.

Initial review stages determine basic eligibility for the job and partition applicants into several categories, according to how well their qualifications meet the job requirements. This initial review may use software for matching and filtering, combined with review by human resources specialists. The list of applicants in the highest category is sent to the hiring official. The hiring official reviews the highest qualified applications and selects applicants for interview. The agency contacts applicants directly to schedule an interview.

A common misconception, likely due to early versions of software-based reviews, is that all an applicant needs to do to be invited to an interview is to make sure the resume contains keywords matching the job announcement. This is not true. Mere duplication of keywords and portions of the announcement text is easily detectable and is not likely to yield an invitation to an interview.

Instead, make sure to read the announcements of interest completely and thoroughly, to understand the qualifications you must have. I participated in an in-person interview of an applicant who had made it through the initial review for a position in numerical optimization only to reveal that he worked in compiler optimization. The mismatch hidden from the initial review resulted in a waste of time, both for the applicant and for the agency.

While you shouldn’t simply copy qualification keywords in your resume, if the keywords apply to your education and experience, use them in your descriptions.

In addition, I would highly recommend tailoring your resume for each job announcement of interest. If a specific required qualification is a good fit for your education or experience, make sure that you describe it using the terms relevant to the domain of the agency to which you are applying. For instance, “nonlinear optimization” and “nonlinear programming” refer to the same technical area, but you may be used to only one of these terms. If a job announcement of interest to you uses the other, do adjust your vocabulary to make sure that your valid educational or work experience in this area counts toward your qualifications.

Tailoring your resume helps to emphasize the aspects of your experience most relevant to a specific job announcement. For instance, course work and research heavy in theorem proving will catch a prospective employer’s attention if you are applying for a job in assuring safety-critical software systems, while general problem solving will appear more relevant to engineering organizations. As a mathematician, you have and should note education and experience in both, but it will be useful to emphasize one or the other based on the job to which you are applying, in this example.

USAJOBS site allows for storing several resumes. It’s a good idea not to discard any resumes, as you may be interested in applying for various positions over time.

Interviews can take place on the phone, video or in person, either individually or with a panel. Usual interview advice applies. Be frank in your answers. Ask questions. It’s important for the job to be a good fit for both sides.

Never Too Early to Start

One of the best ways to explore employment in a Federal Government laboratory is engaging in an internship while you are still a student. At NASA, internships are competitive awards. Both undergraduate and graduate students are eligible. During an internship, students work with NASA mentors on problems of interest to NASA missions.

The benefits are manifold. You will get a good idea of whether work in a laboratory is right for you before you apply for a permanent position. You will get to work on an interesting problem. You will usually receive a stipend. Finally, an internship is a good way to establish and grow your professional network, with your fellow interns, as well as with researchers and your mentors at the laboratory.

Internship opportunities for various Federal Government agencies are easily found via the Internet. The NASA internship site can be found at

The Pathways Program is a special type of internship that offers current students paid work experience and recent graduates a career development program. In both cases, upon successful completion, Pathways interns have a chance for permanent employment at the agency. The NASA Pathways Program is accessible here. Other agencies offer Pathways programs as well.

Other Opportunities

Various external research institutions may be associated with Federal Government laboratories, offering employment opportunities to mathematicians. For instance, the National Institute of Aerospace (NIA) is a nonprofit research, graduate education, and outreach institute created in 2002 by NASA’s Langley Research Center (LaRC). NIA collaborates with NASA, other government agencies and laboratories, universities, and industry to conduct research in space exploration, aeronautics, and science. NIA and similar institutions offer opportunities for collaborations with Federal Government laboratories. Working closely with colleagues at the labs may lead to prospects for eventual transition to Civil Service as mission needs arise.

Update: readers might also find useful the article Opening the Black Box: Applying for Government Jobs by Jennifer Pearl, which appeared in the AMS Notices (April 2020).

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