Academic requirements for federal, state and local government careers

May 18, 2021

Timothy Botros

Government jobs come with plenty of benefits, steadily rising salaries and opportunities for long-term growth. Perhaps not surprisingly, these advantages must be earned through a careful screening process. Compared to private sector jobs, public sector positions have more stringent requirements and may even be legally bound to vet candidates on specific parameters. This post is intended to help those interested in pursuing government jobs make informed decisions when considering academic paths, navigating job portals and planning their futures.

Federal jobs

As America’s largest employer nationwide, the federal government offers some of the most promising career paths in nearly all fields of professional life with thousands of different opportunities. When applying to positions within the federal government or with international governmental bodies, a college degree is almost always required and most all majors can be applied to opportunities in the federal government. The United States Office of Personnel Management has created a document that conveniently lists federal occupations directly corresponding to each academic major.

One exception to the degree requirement are roles oriented specifically to students, recent graduates or others in transitional periods of their careers. These roles may be temp-to-hire roles, internships, externships and fellowships. Prospective employees who are a good demographic match are encouraged to pursue these roles early in their careers. These roles are also effective bridges into higher-grade positions. Moreover, it is not uncommon for entry-level job recruiters in this sector to put these initial work experiences ahead of other accomplishments when selecting talent.

While private businesses are increasingly adapting to a dynamic job market, government agencies tend to be slower. Compared to the private sector, a bachelor’s degree carries more weight in a government job and those with a graduate degree are highest on the federal ranking system. Over 70% of federal civilian job positions are ranked using the General Schedule (GS) pay scale. The GS pay scale is determined by qualifications, years of relevant work experience and academic background. Listed below are some common rankings.

  • GS-7: recent college graduates
  • GS-9: master’s degree graduates
  • GS-10: mid- to senior-level candidates with professional experience and/or graduate degrees
  • GS 1-10: transitional opportunities (vary greatly based on degree earned)

Most job postings for government positions will not appear in an internet search or on standard job sites. You can find them listed at USAJobs. The GS system is not  unchallengeable, however, as each role posted online can have varying requirements or application procedures. Government job seekers should become intimately familiar with the portal as it is the sole route for many federal recruitment managers to post jobs and receive applications.

Some federal employers do not use the USAJobs portal. Below are several portals commonly used for direct access to these jobs:

For these types of agencies, there are more entry-level positions on offer and education requirements are more relaxed. While the initial requirements may be simpler than other government jobs, these kinds of agencies require entrance exams, physical fitness tests, multiple rounds of interviews and high-level security clearances.

Those elected to political office are an exception to these norms. They manage their budgets outside of the domain of federal agencies and thus have more discretion and informality when selecting candidates. While legally considered federal, certain civilian jobs including those within the United States Congress and the Peace Corps may be interpreted as pseudo-federal positions and have varied entrance requirements.

While academic degrees significantly elevate one’s standing in the armed forces, many agencies hire recruits with a high school diploma or GED and allow them to get a college degree while in training or serving. National Guard and Reserves positions tend to have the greatest room for flexibility in this regard.

Certain jobs within the executive branch may be political appointments rather than civilian jobs. Although competitive, political appointments have their own unique set of criteria for applicants usually requiring specialized training, skill sets or favorable backgrounds. Because they are appointment-based, they are not intended for applicants looking to grow a traditional government career.

Deciding to work for the federal government is a big decision. Hiring processes can take as long as several years to complete and there is a wide range of requirements to apply. Fortunately, there are many jobs to choose from including public administration, communications, human resources, public policy, criminal justice, medicine, engineering, environmental policy, law, research and computer science. By exploring a variety of opportunities with a career professional early in college, students can make an informed decision whether a federal government job is right for them.

State and local jobs

There is a sizable state and local government job market. A four year bachelor’s degree is the gold standard for these jobs. In contrast to federal positions, which tend to draw talent from across the country, state and local positions are generally made open to residents of the municipality only. Most of these opportunities do not use formal job portals or pay grade rankings. Instead, states, cities and counties tend to design their own job listings. Skillsets and academic requirements can vary more widely than federal jobs but are usually more stringent than the private sector. Security clearances and other rigorous requirements are not as common at the state and local levels. The most common state and local jobs are clerical work, human resources, public administration, facilities management and poll working.

Civil service exam

You must pass a civil service exam to apply for many job opportunities in the local, state and federal government, including jobs like law enforcement, public safety and clerical jobs. Designated as non-military and non-political, civil service jobs are some of the most sought after government jobs. While civil service exams vary, they predominantly test verbal communication, clerical functions, basic mathematics and logical reasoning. To pass, you need at least 70 out of 100 points. Sometimes these exams are compulsory but they can be optional while offering a competitive advantage. Civil service exams do not guarantee a job and employers may ask for additional application materials and interviews.

Teaching jobs

A fulfilling line of work at the state level, teaching is typically considered a long-term career option. States and school districts usually expect prospective teachers to have a bachelor’s degree in education. However, a postgraduate degree in relevant subject areas is often sufficient. Public school teachers must also pass certain content exams and regularly renew their state’s Department of Education certification.

First responder jobs

Sharply rising amounts of healthcare and EMT professionals are seeing their jobs incorporated into the public sector. Academic requirements, however, have remained consistent. Doctors, nurses, physician assistants and similar jobs require a respective graduate degrees and certifications. Employed firefighters and EMTs require a GED or high school degree along with appropriate training. State and local police opportunities tend to require a bachelor’s degree relevant to the position, especially criminology and criminal justice degrees.

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