Extra Cheese: Notes from the Office of Personnel Management (OPM)

Highlights from a resumé info session

Hey, y’all! Welcome to this edition of Extra Cheese: Actually Actionable Information. At the end of June, I attended an online event from OPM on federal resumé writing. You can find future versions of this presentation, and other similar info sessions, on the USAJOBS events page. Here are four of my takeaways:

  1. Avoid disqualifying yourself through grade preferences.

    Sometimes a position is hiring at GS7-11, but the hiring manager really wants to bring in someone at GS-9. This is something over which you have no control, so you should ignore it. You might have learned that lesson on the academic job market, too.

    But, sometimes, you may be good for GS-7 but an implausible choice for GS-9, except you have an advanced degree (which, as a reader of this list, is likely). So, when it comes time to apply, you indicate that the lowest grade you’re willing to accept is GS-9. If the hiring manager looks at your application as doesn’t think it makes a plausible case for GS-9, you’ve disqualified yourself.

    Relatedly, see my conversation with a CDC analyst about starting lower on the ladder.

    The point isn’t that you shouldn’t make a case for yourself as a GS-9. The point is that you should try not to take yourself out of the running.

  2. Quantify what you can.

    It’s helpful to think about assessment here, for me. When you’re planning a class, you decide what and how you’ll assess, right? You can assess basically anything, you just have to figure out the right measure.

    Sometimes that measure is straightforward: percentage of right answers on a calculus exam. Similarly, sometimes your experience is straightforwardly quantifiable: maybe you saved the department $4000 in printer paper, which you could then reroute to give graduate students summer funding [I am aware that department budgets do not work like this; I am just imagining a better world].

    And sometimes the measure is closer to something qualitative: did a student use all the relevant passages when they wrote their paper? Did they provide enough detail?

    To this point, the OPM representative said to talk about amount of experience and level of experience. By “amount,” they meant duration of experience: “Led 6-person conference committee for 3 years. Planned 3 conferences.” By “level,” they mean something more qualitative, and (I think) a little closer to the stuff we find in questionnaires: “Routinely evaluated research proposals from field leaders.”

    The last thing to quantify is impact, effect, or, thinking back to assessment here, why anyone reading should care. Maybe giving graduate students a raise helped your department attract better students. Maybe as the conference chair you increased presenter diversity by some measurable amount.

  3. All relevant experience is relevant!

    I thought this was interesting, because it went in a direction I didn’t entirely expect. The standard USAJOBS language mentions volunteer experience - so it’s not surprising that the OPM rep would also mention that. But another thing the OPM rep mentioned was uncompensated labor, such as working in the home. If you can talk about leadership skills, budgeting, and employee management you did as a primary parent or caregiver for a relative, you should include that experience - when it’s relevant to the position. I thought it was interesting that this got called out specifically and discussed in some detail.

    Similarly, talk about things you did as a student - not just awards, but initiatives you planned or committees you worked on. Were you a union rep? Part of the student senate?

  4. Cover letters are optional, and oughta be short.

    I know some disciplines like long cover letters, but my home discipline (philosophy) has a strong preference for short ones (one page, that’s it, for real, no longer). I think the OPM may have us beat: two paragraphs, 3-5 sentences. As with an academic cover letter, the federal letter can highlight aspects of your experience for the person evaluating that experience. Keep in mind other guidelines for cover letters, too - avoid saying unfalsifiable things, for example.

I hope some of things is helpful! I may try to attend other OPM info sessions, but my schedule is not as open during the semester. If you attend one and would like to write it up, pitch me!

See you Friday.