10 Insider Tips and Tricks for Navigating the Federal System

Michelle Clark, SCA Alumna and Park Ranger, on her first day in uniform

A career in the National Park Service or Forestry Service is an exciting proposition: what could be better than putting your skills and passion to work in the preservation and protection of America’s parks, forests, memorials, and historic areas? Unfortunately, many otherwise outstanding candidates are discouraged from applying due to a federal hiring process that can be both challenging and confusing. But we’re here to help!

In this post, we offer ten tips to navigate that process, with the help of four SCA alumni who have successfully landed federal jobs in the park system: Jason Cangelosi, park ranger at the National Mall and Memorial Parks in Washington, D.C.; Sarah Spragg, ranger at the Bureau of Land Management in Marina, California; Ian Harvey, ranger at the Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum; and Michelle Clark, seasonal interpretive ranger at the Manassas National Battlefield Park in Virginia.

  1. Get experience in your chosen field. Rather than expecting to jump straight from college into your dream job, taking a series of smaller steps makes it much more likely you will land that job once it opens up. And an internship is a wise step to take. “You might not get paid a lot, but you’re going to have free housing and a great experience attached with it that will set the tone for the rest of your career,” says Ian Harvey.
  2. Ian Harvey, SCA Alumnus and Park Ranger

  3. Develop the internship in a way that’s best for you. Internships are what you make of them, and can be a great opportunity to try out new ideas and learn skills that will help you down the road. Although Ian Harvey’s primary role at his SCA internship at Mount Rainier National Park was to engage with park visitors under the aegis of the National Park Centennial celebrations, he also trained in search-and-rescue and created interpretive programming that he was then allowed to lead – two activities that were not part of the original internship description.
  4. Get Your Foot in the Door. “Don’t be afraid of taking the job you don’t want to get the job you do want,” says Sarah Spragg. Although this may sound contradictory, the logic is sound: accepting any job within your agency of choice grows your experience and resume, builds your contacts, keeps you up to date with changes in the hiring process and, most importantly, makes you eligible for the multitude of federal positions that are only advertised internally – sometimes only within the agency itself.
  5. Be Open to State and Local Positions. “If you can’t get into the federal system right away, start with the state parks or something else in the environmental field that will transfer,” says Jason Cangelosi. And with more than 10,000 state parks in the United States logging over 700 million visits annually, there’s a lot to choose from. State and local park work has the added advantage of being less specialized, as a rule, than federal park positions, allowing you to acquire a more varied palette of experience.
  6. Be willing to relocate. Odds are, your dream job or internship won’t open up right around the corner. If you’re willing to relocate, you’ll be opening yourself up to an exponentially wider range of possibilities. Ian Harvey, for example, drove cross-country from New York to take an SCA position at Mount Rainier National Park, while Michelle Clark performed annual SCA internships at locations from Virginia to Utah, experience that proved vital for subsequent job applications. “You can move around from park to park and move up through the ranks much quicker if you’re willing to relocate,” adds Jason Cangelosi. “It’s perfect for someone just getting out of college.”
  7. Find Your Niche. If being a ranger isn’t for you, don’t worry: there are many more ways to contribute to America’s park and forest system. “Whatever your path is, there is something in the national parks for you. If you want to be an accountant, you can still wear a uniform for the park service,” says Cangelosi.
  8. Ian Harvey, SCA Alumnus and Park Ranger, with Junior Rangers

  9. Know how to apply. The federal hiring process is far different than the private sector. Although most employment opportunities are centrally listed at USA Jobs, it is important to learn how to filter by job, grade, agency, and promotion potential, as well as deciphering the codes and language used. “Working with the SCA, surrounded by people who know how to apply and interview for those positions, was a great asset,” notes Harvey.
  10. Master the Résumé. Unlike private-sector résumés, which aim for concision, federal résumés are much more detailed. “My federal resume is currently about twelve pages long, and that’s pretty typical,” says Michelle Clark. “You have to very specifically support all of your experience, so it’s important to do your research.”
  11. Find a Mentor. If all of this is starting to sound like a lot, look for a mentor – a trusted advisor who can help you navigate applications, hiring, internships, and the like. This may take the form of a college professor, an SCA internship coordinator, or someone else who has successfully navigated the federal system.
  12. Don’t Give Up. If at first you don’t succeed, apply, apply again. “I probably hammered away at USA Jobs for two years before I got my first position with the Corporation for National and Community Service,” says Cangelosi. “From there, it took seven more years to get to where I really wanted to be.”

*BONUS TIP: The Facebook group National Park Service Employees offers great advice on the intricacies of federal hiring, especially for those just entering the system. Although it is a closed group, those who have volunteered for the park service are also eligible to join.

Daunting as it can feel to outsiders, the federal hiring system is a process that can be learned and mastered by those who are willing to put in the time. Be patient, build your experience with SCA internships and other seasonal programs, and get your foot in the door with a lesser job at the start. Soon you’ll be earning a living at what you love doing – while helping preserve our national parks at the same time.

Need more inspiration? For more stories of SCA students who represent the future of our park service, click here.