Extra Cheese: Sarah from the CDC

From qualitative anthropology to CDC analyst

Happy Monday! Today, we’re hearing from Sarah, an anthropologist and Presidential Management Fellowship graduate working at the CDC. Sarah’s PhD work was largely qualitative, which was part of the reason I thought readers would like to hear from her! You can read below about her experience with PMF and some of the insights she’s gathered from working inside various government agencies.

The following is a lightly edited and condensed version of our conversation and some follow-up e-mails.

Thank you so much for being here! Would you summarize your trajectory – maybe you could start by telling me about your PhD work?

Sure. I got my PhD in medical anthropology-slash-sociocultural anthropology. The medical anthropology bit was somewhat less formal, so I think my actual diploma just says “cultural,” but it was that focus. I worked in an urban Midwestern setting, looking at health inequities through the lens of breastfeeding, along the lines of both race and socio-economic class.

It turned out to be really timely. I was in St. Louis, and I think the month I finished my dissertation fieldwork, Mike Brown was killed. A lot of places I had been hanging out were thrust in the national spotlight.

Quite a time to talk about all kinds of inequities. What about your job now? What does that involve?

I work in the Public Health Informatics Office at CDC.

I work on the electronic case recording team. My title is “analyst,” but my projects are looking at tribal health and looking at our health equity work.

It sounds like there’s a strong connection to your research.

There wasn’t to start with, actually. I was working at a different agency and took this job as a detail at the beginning of the pandemic. At that time it was very public health informatics . . . so very technical. They just had this rapid scale-up to respond to COVID and someone who’s bright and willing to jump in and help, even without a lot of background knowledge, was valuable. With my wonderful supportive team, I have managed to put the health equity piece in there. Because I think that’s something they value but maybe weren’t thinking of right off, and it’s something I was thinking of – and they were like “Great! Thank you for adding that piece.”

I think that’s the sort of thing many people who like academic work but are also looking at other options are happy to hear about. Like, “hey, I have this expertise and there’s a problem we should be addressing – let’s start addressing it”

Right, but I think the flipside of that is you have to be willing to go in saying “I don’t know anything, I’m going to be at the bottom, because I don’t know what I’m doing. When I find my footing, I’ll have something to contribute.” But it does seem to me like sometimes people are like, “I have a PhD, I want to be at the top.” And sometimes that works! I know people who’ve made that work, and that’s great. But for me – not what happened.

So you came in through the PMF, although you had a more circuitous route from the PMF to your current position than many people do. But I think that’s a valuable experience to hear about. Maybe you could start by telling me what made the PMF interesting to you and what was the application process like?

So, I was at an academic conference a year before I got my degree and went to a workshop given by a health scientist at CDC, who happened to have graduated from my program, you know, ten years before I got there. She graciously put an hour aside and told me all about her job and her work and I just thought that sounded fantastic. I had already become kind of disillusioned with academia. I wanted to do something where I felt like I was making a difference, where I was actually helping make the world better. I also valued thing like life-work balance.

And I didn’t need to make a lot of money. I make a lot more money than I ever did as a graudate student, but in the grand scheme of things, I’m not getting rich. And then I started to think about how I could get into federal employment. I applied for a couple ORISE positions, directly through USAJOBS for a couple positions, and the PMF application – I saw that was opening up in a month or two, so I just did that. It was throwing things out there to see what stuck. And then once I was a finalist, people were like, “No, you need to do this! This is a great thing! Make this work.”

The PMF is very competitive. And I’ve read some people found the interview process – well, I don’t really understand the process.

Well, they’ve changed it some. The year I did it, there were no interview rounds. You were just named a finalist after the assessment: some multiple choice tests, writing a couple essays, submitting your transcript, your resume or CV. Part of [the assessment] is behavioral: are you making decisions a leader would make? If you’re in this situation, which of these four are you most likely to do? . . . The other part was basically logic skills. I think people who tend to do well on logic puzzles tend to do well on the test.

But the other part [of the process] is they select finalists based on what the agencies say they need. If the agencies say they need a lot of China specialists, then I think a lot of China specialists get picked.

Once you’re named a finalist, there’s a private jobs portal for finalists. Only finalists can apply. And then you have to interview and get one.

The PMF also involves some training opportunities, right?

Right, it’s a job – it’s sort of a hybrid. This fellowship you actually start earning credit as a federal employee, in contrast to ORISE and some of the agency-specific fellowships.

But it is a term-limited. At the end of two years, they can say, “See ya.”

I think there’s 80 hours of training you have to do, and you have to have a mentor – just a few hoops you have to jump through. Though it can be more difficult when you move to a new agency six months before the end [of your program.] . . . We made it work.

The good side is a lot of agencies treat their PMFs very well. It’s sort of a prestigious position. 

Well, PhDs do like to feel special.How was the transition to the PMF to your current job? Or agency to agency? What about from academia to federal employment?

Moving from PMF to my current job was – I did the exact same thing the next day. It just meant I was not on a two-year provisional employment, I was an actual employee.

Switching from academia to federal employment - in the beginning, that was hard. I think maybe any employment would have been like this, but I went to work at Asylum [an office in USCIS] at the end of 2018, even though they had given me the offer a year earlier. Things were busy in Asylum at the end of 2018 – it was super busy . . .

A lot of the regular job stuff – how to onboard, how to go through trainings, how to work Outlook – I had never done that! I think the federal government [involves] probably even more of this than your average corporation. There’s a whole lot of hoops to jump through and things to know. That was really stressful!

So, accessing institutional knowledge was difficult?

Yes. I think it would have been better if I’d started at CDC, because they have a much more robust program – but starting at a small agency that was extremely busy? And the PMF coordinator had started the previous week? It would have been hard anywhere, but it was harder.

I do get the impression that the last five years have not been an easy time to join the federal government.

Yes. So, we were named finalists the 10th or 11th of January 2017 – nine days before the Inauguration. Everything that everyone was like, “here’s how it’s going to work” – it didn’t work that way.

I had one position that I’d accepted and spent six months – you only get a year as a finalist – waiting to come through, and then it was finally pulled out, so I didn’t get that position. It was a messy year.

Did you apply for your current position through the USAJOBS site?

No, as a PMF you get to do rotations – you try out another job for one to six months. It can be at your agency or another agency. You’re required to do at least one, different agencies have requirements. The job I have now, I started as a rotation from my old PMF job. Rotations can be arranged informally. There’s the website where PMFs look for jobs has another section where they can look for rotations.

A lot of times it’s backfilling – a PMF will go on a rotation somewhere else and post their position for someone else to take.

It sounds like a really cool program when it functions as it’s supposed to.

It is! Our class was very helpful and there’s a lot of community, a lot of camaraderie. PMFs kind of support each other. There’s PMFs in my current office who were PMFs ten years ago and have reached out to me saying, “let me know if you need anything.”

That’s great! I ditched a question about community, but I’m glad it emerged organically. How do you talk about your academic background now, if you do? Some people don’t.

I don’t think I talk about it very much. Most of the people on my team have MAs, some also have PhDs. At work, I bring it up when it seems relevant. We were interacting with St. Louis city and county the other day and I brought it up because I worked with some of those people.

I talk about how grateful I am to be out of it. This is how I talk about it with my team, who’s great. I’ve said, “Maybe this was a waste of time” and they’ve said, “No, it wasn’t.” But I never want to go back, I’m just so much happier now. 

The takeaway is that it’s not the central part of my life anymore.

That sounds healthy.

In addition to giving a sense of people’s stories, I’m hoping to provide something actionable. I wondered if you knew what was the most helpful advice you’d received? Or what you would tell your past self about the process?

Having resources that say there’s another option is huge. For me, going to that conference and meeting someone with a PhD who was not in academia and seemed happy and fulfilled – I had never even considered this! I think maybe conferences are a place to start. Are there people going to conferences in your field that are doing things you might like to do?

I also wish I’d gotten some skills in things like SAS and R, or PowerBI, or some tech skills.

My last question is about contract positions. How??

Because the federal employment process is long . . . if an agency has a position where they need someone for six months or a year or two years and they don’t need a federal employee, they’ll fill in with contractors. [Follow-up from Sarah: “Contractors generally get paid more and they can apply to work on specific projects that interest them, so it can be a great fit.”]

All federal contracts are public knowledge, so you can go see exactly who a certain grant was awarded to – and then you go to Booz Allen Hamilton or Deloitte’s website and see who they’re hiring. There are certain contracting companies that tend to do certain kinds of work, some do more tech stuff, some do our communications work so you kind of figure which company is more likely to have the jobs that you’d be interested in and have the skills for. 

I don’t know if anyone’s made a list of which federal agencies have contracts with which contractors – I would be surprised if no one has. It’s all open access, but it’s not necessarily easy to figure out if you’re not familiar with the website.

Nearly everyone on my team started as a fellow of some sort or started as a contractor, [and was hired after applying from those positions]. Then they’re a known quantity.

Thank you, that’s really helpful! I think a lot of people know networking really matters but it’s hard to get a sense of how you network for the federal jobs if you’re not already in the government. Thinking of contract work as a way to approach networking can be helpful.

Yeah, also – the Asylum division was hiring officers in 2019. They had a huge rapid scale-up. That was the time to get your foot in the door there. Now is not the time. So, I think being aware of these currents [is important].

Thank you so much, Sarah! I’ve learned a lot and I think readers will also learn a lot.