PhDs—Are you interested in a career in the federal government as well as developing your leadership skills? Consider applying for the Presidential Management Fellowship (PMF), a program aimed at developing the next generation of government leaders. To be eligible to apply, you must have an advanced degree in any discipline (M.A., J.D. Ph.D). Fellows work in an agency of the federal government for two years, and have opportunities to conduct work rotations in other federal agencies of interest. Many fellows convert into permanent federal employees at the end of the fellowship, while others go on to forge careers in the private sector and the nonprofit world. Beyond Academia discussed the opportunity with Patricia A. Soler, a Latin American Literature and Cultural Studies PhD and current PMF working at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) in Washington, D.C.
As a PMF, you can complete one required rotation and additional optional rotations during your two-year tenure. These rotations can be internal to the federal agency with which you started or you can rotate externally to another federal agency. Right now, I’m in my fifth week of rotation, working for the Deputy Secretary at HUD, Nani Coloretti. It’s a very small and dynamic team, and I was brought in specifically to work on internal communications.
Federal agencies sometimes focus quite a bit on external communications—like, whatever story hit the Washington Post that day. It is important, nevertheless, to not lose sight of internal communications, especially in such a large organization with so many different programs. HUD is somewhat unique in that approximately one-third of the employees are located in Washington, D.C. and the remaining two-thirds are located throughout the country, including places like Guam, the Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico. It is a challenging task to both effectively and efficiently communicate internally when the United States has nine standard time zones. As a result, strategic communications and messaging are absolutely critical. And it’s additionally important right now due to the upcoming presidential administrative turnover!
BA: The PMF describes its own application process as “arduous.” What exactly does it entail?
First, you apply online, and write a number of essays. Then there are behavioral interviews in the Fall if you make semi-finalist. You interview for approximately seven hours, as you would for the Foreign Service interview (Note to Readers: The Foreign Service interview is a rigorous screening process for hopeful Foreign Service Officers, or diplomats, that typically work in American Embassies abroad) There’s a one-on-one component, a written exercise, and a group project where you’re assessed collectively. You’re in one room in a stereotypical federal building, and there are a number of hoops to jump through. It is intended and designed to be arduous — there’s never enough time to finish any given task. But, the assessors want to see that you’re paying attention, and the process is meant to be stressful. They want to see if you can be effective in a crisis situation and still be able to work collaboratively.
On top of the difficulty of the process, you’re applying with a bunch of stressed-out applicants, including a lot of Master’s students that spent two years earning their degree with dreams of getting the PMF. Especially in the D.C. universities, the students have done prep sessions, know about the assessment process, how the points are awarded – everything. Due to the prestige of the program, people really care about it, and put a lot of energy into it.
If you successfully advance through all of these steps, then you find out in March that you’re a finalist and have that designation for an entire year. There are approximately 500-600 finalists every year out of over 9,000 applicants. In the Spring you attend a job fair exclusively for PMF finalists in the same non-federal building where the semi-finalist interviews were conducted. You apply with individual federal agencies to actually get a position through USA Jobs (a federal job listing website). This part is critical. It’s not over until you get an offer letter from the agency. Not everyone gets a federal job, even if you are a finalist.
But for those that do get positions, it’s a wonderful two-year experience. And at a lot of agencies, you can stay and convert to a permanent employee after two years.
BA: Why do you think you succeeded in the process? Do you have any tips?
For starters, I did not pin all my hopes on the PMF. I knew the acceptance rate. I also wasn’t one of the students that had prepared for this for years – I didn’t know all of the assessment measures like many of the Master’s students. In the end, I don’t think that mattered for me personally but I wouldn’t recommend blindly applying for this. It is a very thoroughly-designed and rigorous assessment process and it is worth the time learning what is being assessed and to practice for it.
What they’re looking for are people that can collaborate. There’s no winning. Take the group activity. In my case, it was a problem about nuclear terrorism. We were given a budget and asked to come to a compromise with five other people on my team about how to develop a common solution. You’re assessed as a group. The applicants that do poorly are the ones that try to win, or try to be rockstars, instead of the people that take a step back and try to work together. That’s what they’re looking for—there’s no right answer and its fast paced. That being said, your group does need an answer on how to divide that budget before the clock runs out!
This part might be difficult for academics. We’re used to convincing people: “I am the best, no one has done a project like mine before, only I can do this.” And, we spend a lot of time working alone. So, you have to think about working together for the common good which is what public service really is about.
Also – be strategic. If you become a finalist, apply quickly and apply broadly. Many people covet the few positions available in the Department of State or Department of Defense, maybe in the Department of Homeland Security. But some positions aren’t there every year because of funding. So, if you wait on your dream job, you may not get anything. Remember, working in federal government is about working on a budget. If an agency has money, they want to bring you on immediately. PMFs are viewed as the one of last remaining government hiring processes that work effectively and relatively quickly so they want you on as soon as possible
At the job fair, I made sure to talk to everybody and to be honest. Several agencies told me directly that I wasn’t a good fit and I greatly appreciated their directness. The night of the job fair, I sent out 26 applications. At the time, I knew I was in no position to be picky about what I wanted to do. For instance, I didn’t really know what HUD was, but I did an on-site interview with them. They asked about public housing, and I responded based on my research and travels in Latin America, particularly Brazil.
BA: How many humanities and social science PhDs are in the program?
Not many, but I’m convinced it’s a question of awareness. Before Barack Obama was President, there was a different nomination process; the school had to nominate you. Some thought the PMF drew too many East Coast university alum, and too many lawyers. At some point, President Obama opened it up to everybody and did away with the nomination process. Now you can apply directly and it really has diversified the talent pool.
I am actively trying to seek out other Humanities people, but few PhDs know this program exists or that the federal government is a viable option for a long-term career path. PhDs are just starting to talk about alternate career paths.
BA: What’s the best part about the PMF?
There are so many networking opportunities that you get through the rotations. In the federal space, it really is about who you know. I was recommended to my second rotation because of networking and because of previous tasks that I had worked on – these opportunities are invaluable to grow as a leader and develop your skill sets.
Above all, my supervisors were extremely flexible with letting me pursue my interests and they have been amazingly supportive of my career development. I think because I’m a humanist in a technical organization (my home office – the Real Estate Assessment Center – is probably the most technical part of HUD), they are letting me decide how I can be effective. I’m willing to do the work and not complain, even when I don’t entirely understand my role at the outset. I appreciate every opportunity, I’m willing to learn new things, and I’m willing to be a team player. But, I’m often rewarded when I do want certain opportunities – like asking to tag along on a trip to meet tenants, HUD’s grantees, in order to garner more exposure to the people that we serve. It is an important way to never lose sight of the agency’s mission.
I’ve had the dream PMF experience in that I’ve had very, very supportive leadership. I’ve built good relationships, and that’s gone a long way. I’ve met many people. Most of all, it’s fun, and I want a job that is fun. I don’t think that you can always fall into that by accident; you have to make your own experiences. And the PMF has allowed me to do that.
Learn more from Patricia and her work at HUD in our upcoming blog post on “Careers in Government for Humanities and Social Science PhDs”.