Career Success in the Federal Government

Dionne Price is the director of the Division of Biometrics IV, Office of Biostatistics, Office of Translational Sciences, Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, U.S. Food and Drug Administration. She holds an MS in biostatistics from The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a PhD in biostatistics from Emory University.

Throughout my education, I forged ahead with the intent of becoming a professor. However, as graduation from my doctoral program neared, I listened to the advice of many who recommended I consider all options before making a final decision regarding where I would begin my career as a biostatistician. Thus, I set out on a number of interviews across all sectors, including the federal government.

I vividly remember meeting representatives from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) at the Spring Meeting of the Eastern North American Region (ENAR) of the International Biometric Society. While talking to FDA representatives, I quickly realized I had not been fully aware of the vital role of statisticians at the FDA. I was subsequently invited for an onsite interview, where I learned more about the FDA mission and talked to statisticians at various stages of their careers about their day-to-day responsibilities.

The opportunity to directly affect public health daily left an undeniable impression on me. Although I had not anticipated employment in the federal sector, the job of an FDA statistical reviewer within the Center for Drug Evaluation and Research appeared to be a great fit for me. The position allowed me to apply my training and skills in a collaborative environment while also providing me opportunities to teach and conduct research. I happily accepted the job offer, and I have never looked back.

I have remained at the FDA throughout my career. Why, you ask? The answer is rather simple. I enjoy my job and feel a sense of pride knowing the work makes a difference in the lives of countless people.

Although agencies have been proactive in promoting the meaningful, yet challenging, work of federal statisticians, there still remains less familiarity with the wealth of opportunities for statisticians within the federal workforce. I am most familiar with the FDA, but there are a number of agencies that employ statisticians, including the National Institutes of Health, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Environmental Protection Agency, Bureau of Labor Statistics, and Census Bureau, just to name a few. Statisticians at these agencies support a clearly defined mission, influence decisions, and collaborate with multidisciplinary teams regularly. I frequently field questions about attaining a job within the federal government and strategies for a successful federal career. Below, I offer a few comments on these areas.

Federal agencies are often hiring and advertise vacancies in Amstat News. Thus, a good starting point for a job search is to peruse the employment opportunities here. If the employment announcement includes an email address to send questions to, do not hesitate to make direct contact to learn more about the position. I also recommend using the placement services at professional meetings such as the ENAR Spring Meeting and Joint Statistical Meetings.

Federal jobs are unique in that many potential employees will peruse USAJOBS.gov. This is a great resource and often a required tool for applying for a federal job, but I always recommend networking and making a personal contact prior to applying.

A frequently asked question pertains to the ability of federal government agencies to hire non-citizens. A few agencies have the ability to hire non-citizens. If in doubt about hiring practices within an agency, inquire.

Another frequently asked question is the needed educational qualifications for a federal position. The answer will vary by agency. Currently, the FDA employs statisticians with MS and PhD degrees.

Once you enter the federal workforce, you undoubtedly will want to be successful. For the 2016 Women in Statistics and Data Science Conference, I presented a roadmap to success in the federal government. The key components of the roadmap are as follows:

Recognize the Mission

Initially, familiarize yourself with the mission of the agency. As an example, the mission of the FDA is to protect and promote the health of the American public through the regulation of various products. Moreover, the mission of the Office of Biostatistics within the Center for Drug Evaluation and Research is to provide internal and external stakeholders with statistical leadership, expertise, and advice to foster the expeditious development of safe and effective drugs and therapeutic biologics for the American people. The Office of Biostatistics protects the public health by applying statistical approaches for monitoring the effectiveness and safety of marketed drugs and therapeutic biologic products. My colleagues and I truly believe in the mission, and for many, this belief is what motivates us to do our jobs with excellence, to go the extra mile, and to continue to develop our skills for the greater good.

Understand the Job

When I accepted the job as a statistical reviewer at the FDA, I relied on my conversations during my onsite interview to inform me of what the job would entail. However, once I was an employee, I set out to truly understand the expectations of the position. For example, as a statistical reviewer, some of my responsibilities included reviewing the statistical aspects of the drug development process and drug applications, providing the statistical perspective on FDA policies and guidance documents, and conducting research on statistical topics pertinent to the mission.

Identify a Mentor or Mentors

Students undoubtedly are informed about the value of mentors when in school. However, mentors actually serve as valuable “guides” throughout your career. A mentor can provide advice about navigating a federal agency, the do’s and don’ts of the job, and tips to ensure your professional development. Some agencies offer formal mentorship programs. Remember, there have been others who have chartered a course to a successful government career, and their wisdom may prove invaluable.

Understand Expectations and Your Performance Evaluation

Within the federal government, performance is formally evaluated yearly. The evaluation process should serve as a mechanism to understand expectations of the position and a conduit to goal setting, performance feedback, and performance measurement.

Recognize Pathways for Development and Growth

Career development is a lifelong process. Federal agencies provide resources to assist in enhancing and expanding skills. These resources may come in the form of training classes, mentorship programs, invited speakers, or opportunities to attend and present at professional conferences. Agencies provide the resources, but employees should have a level of self-motivation to take advantage of and seek opportunities that will provide career development and advancement.

Be Open to Modifying Your Goals

In pharmaceutical drug development, there is often mention of adaptive designs. These are designs that prospectively plan to adapt some aspect of a clinical trial. Careers are like adaptive designs; there are times when it may be beneficial to adapt or modify your goals. As you develop and grow in your career, you may find that your interests change or you may be exposed to an opportunity that was not originally among your goals. Modifications of your goals can often lead to an even more rewarding career than originally planned.

Take Advantage of Opportunities

Although I can only vaguely recollect the movie Dead Poet’s Society, there is one line that has remained with me: “Carpe Diem” or “Seize the Day.” My personal translation of this has been to seize opportunities as they come along. Opportunities will often abound within federal agencies and come in various forms. Some will be exciting and others not, but, most often, there is value in the opportunity.

Network

Most sectors recognize the value of networking, and the federal government is no different. According to the Harvard Business Review (May 2016, pages 104–107), research has shown that professional networks lead to more opportunities, broader and deeper knowledge, and improved capacity to innovate. Your network will often begin while in school and expand as you go throughout your career.

I have found that becoming involved in professional organizations can serve as an enjoyable mechanism to grow your network. You may wonder how federal statisticians use networks. As an example, the FDA occasionally convenes a panel of external experts to provide advice on challenging or novel drug applications. We often use our professional network to identify statisticians to serve on these committees.

Develop and Appreciate Work/Life Balance

Federal agencies recognize that employees who have a balance between work and personal life tend to be happy and, consequently, better employees. Hence, having a balance is encouraged, and there are various programs to assist employees with achieving balance. Of course, balance is certainly desirable among many federal employees who work and reside in the Washington metropolitan area, an area rich in museums, national landmarks, noteworthy dining, sports franchises, and the list goes on.

For me, a career in the federal government has been a rewarding experience. Statisticians answer important, often life-altering, questions that affect the public. Answers to the questions may be derived from some of your favorite courses, or you may have to develop an innovative approach to move science forward. Contrary to the belief of some, statisticians within federal agencies are not simply number crunchers. They analyze and interpret complex data using state-of-the-art methodologies. If you are looking for an exciting, rewarding, impacting career, consider all your options, including the federal government. The roadmap to career success begins with you (… in the federal workforce).

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