How to work for the US Government- the Presidential Management Fellowship

By Matthew Bond, SEB At-large Student Committee Member, Botany PhD from the University of Hawai’i.

~3,000 words, 20 minute reading time.

Are you interested in career opportunities outside of academia? SEB Member Grady Zuiderveen is currently working for the U.S. Forest Service while completing a prestigious Presidential Management Fellowship (PMF). To learn more about PMF, we interviewed him:

Dr. Zuiderveen goes to Washington! SEB member Grady Zuiderveen is currently completing his Presidential Management Fellowship in Washington DC

Could you describe the Presidential Management Fellowship (PMF) in one or two sentences?

PMF is a two year program within the federal government that provides leadership training and a pathway for people with advanced degrees to get into mid to upper level federal roles within numerous United States government agencies. It can be hard to get those kinds of positions without having already had a job in the federal government, so PMF really opens the door for someone who is new to working for the government.

Many federal agencies participate in the PMF program- I work for the US Forest Service but there’s other plant-based agencies such as the USDA and the Natural Resources Conservation Service. The State Department actually has many opportunities- for example they hire foresters to deal with illegal logging internationally. The Department of the Interior hires as well, which includes the National Park Service, the Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Bureau of Land Management. All different agencies that are land-based as well as not so you could even work in the Justice Department or the Pentagon!

What does a typical day look like for you as a PMF?

In the 13 months that I’ve been a PMF I don’t really have a typical day at that has actually been the beauty of it and something that I thought I would lose when I was leaving academia. I was really concerned about losing that flexibility and freedom to decide what my day looks like but I find it’s still a great mix.

I still spend quite a bit of time at my computer screen whether it’s working on a national native plant policy, reforestation, or plans for national nursery system, but another part of the PMF program is you need 80 hours of leadership training every year. For example, I took a course where I was at the House of Representatives office building for a week learning how to brief Congress as a federal employee. I also took a course at American University in DC on how to be a public leader.

As a PMF you have a primary assignment and mine is in DC. But in addition to that and the leadership training hours you also need to do a developmental assignment that’s 4-6 months long. So I elected to do 2 developmental assignments- I spent 10 weeks in Michigan as a botanist working on American Ginseng restoration in the Huron Manistee National Forests. Now I’m spending 4 months at the Six Rivers National Forest in Northern California as the deputy district ranger so that I can get some experience of personnel management. And then after that I will return to my primary assignment in DC. Other PMFs do have a different mix of activities- because I accepted a position in Washington DC my work is more office based than a PMF that accepted a position at a forest level role. 

So you can accept PMF and be outside of Washington DC?

Correct, there are 15 PMFs in my 2019 cohort and only two of us are in the DC office

Wow, that’s very surprising because I thought it only provided positions in DC!

To me it seems like the vast majority of PMFs are in DC but that’s because there are so many non land-based agencies where the vast majority of their staff are in DC. Within the land management agencies it is not skewed that way- we have nine regional offices around the country, so there are PMFs in offices like Atlanta, Georgia; Colorado; or Portland, Oregon. We also have some that are at National Forests in Montana, Minnesota and California, so there really are opportunities across the country

Are you aware if other fellows have such a varied schedule or is that more specific to you? Can you choose how varied your schedule is?

That varies from one PMF to the next. Some positions are for a very specific role, like a soil scientist working at a specific forest, so they have very laid out duties. But if you come into DC there’s a lot more leeway and there’s a quite frankly quite a bit more funding to be able to travel to other locations and opportunities to be involved with initiatives and policy. So a lot of flexibility is determined by your role but at the same time every PMF gets quite a bit of diversity because it’s not cheap for an agency to bring on a PMF, so they want to develop them into leaders, and one way to do that is to provide fellows with plenty of opportunity. 

That’s a great description! So what is your favorite thing about being a PMF?

My favorite thing is the opportunity that kind of I was just talking about. I think for so much of life you’re looking for an open door to go through. When you become a PMF it feels like every door is open and you need to decide which doors to close because there’s just too many options. I grew up thinking that I should never pass on an opportunity but now there’s so many opportunities I just can’t do them all! To me is the most remarkable thing. When I first got to DC I remember thinking that everybody here looks like they are older than 50- most people worked for years before they had an opportunity to come to DC, but here I was being placed right there at the gate! It’s really something I certainly haven’t taken for granted.

Interacting with people in different agencies has been really remarkable part of the PMF program, such as your PMF cohort.  My cohort meets each month, and the first meeting was 3 days at Mount Vernon George Washington’s estate and the federal library there learning about leadership. Then we spent a day at the White House and met with senior leaders there. I have people in my cohort from the Department of Defense, Department of Education, and Department of Health and Human Services, and each month we rotate whose office we meet at. So I got to tour the Pentagon and all the other offices, which I otherwise would never have visited! Each time I’m walking past the towards my building which is right next to the Washington Monument I think, “how did this boy from small town Michigan get to be here and have these opportunities?” 

Also, all federal employees can have flexible schedules if our jobs allow- I can work whenever I want to get in my hours. The thing I thought I would miss the most leaving academia is that freedom in my schedule but now I find I have just as much freedom but I’m capped at 40 hours instead of having freedom but working 50 or 60 hours a week as a grad student or as a young faculty member. 

What has been the hardest thing about PMF?

As a graduate student you nail down one specific thing and you became the best at it, but now so often I find I am in situations where I don’t know anything. I feel like I spent so much time in graduate school learning my one specific thing and if I’m not in that lane it feels like I’m not necessarily taking as much advantage of my particular skill set. That can be a really great opportunity to grow but it does have its frustration.

So you’re saying that in PMF you’re taken out of the single specialty that you developed in grad school, which gives you a chance to grow but takes you out of your comfort zone.

Yeah absolutely! In my current post I have to manage personnel, such as an archaeologist, but I don’t know anything about archaeology! I also supervise the administrative staff at the visitor center, the Coronavirus response for the district, and the district forest fire response- I’m a botanist and here I am doing very un-botany things!

That’s a great example of how varied your tasks are! Have you heard about any other PMF projects that are relevant for ethnobotany?

Yes, one example is a PMF here in California that is a tribal liaison for the forest. That position is a “general natural resource professional” which anybody in ethnobotany would qualify for. There’s also a PMF working on the Chesapeake Bay program. A lot of people in ethnobotany would fit in that type of role where you’re working with a lot of stakeholders on issues around environmental quality, land use, boating, plant cover, etc. So much working for the feds combines natural resources (for me that’s plants) and people. I would say a strict biologist lacks that human component, and if you are working for the federal government humans are such a big part of what you do!

If you could do PMF twice, is there a different project or agency that you would choose?

I do not. Some PMFs would probably say yes, but my primary assignment could not have been a better fit for my expertise and my interest. I spend half my time in the National Botany Program, and I’m a botanist by training. But the other half of my assignment is working in reforestation and national nursery systems. My master’s degree is in plant breeding and genetics so this position feels like it could have been written for me and I’m certainly very blessed with that one. I would consider trying out the National Park Service some time though, much as I like working for the Forest Service. I think the Park Service has a cool mission as well.

What is an example of an accomplishment you already have in the one year that you’ve been in the program?

The most notable accomplishment so far is probably the 10 weeks of work I did as a botanist on the Huron Manistee National Forests. I identified the Ginseng that’s left in the state of Michigan and develop protocols using genetic analysis so that we can identify seed sources for restoration. That just felt like a really tangible “I came, I saw, I conquered!”

Grady completing fieldwork to understand conservation of native medicinal plants that grow in the forest understory, like Goldenseal and American Ginseng

What are you looking forward to achieving before you finish PMF?

In DC one of my primary assignments is working on a Native Plant Restoration Strategy. That will likely be the crown jewel of my PMF time once it is ready to go out to other regions. Another project I’m hoping to get engaged with when I get back is revising a native plant nursery manual that was released by the Forest Service.

What kinds of people does PMF want to apply?

I feel like they’re looking for is someone that’s willing to be uncomfortable and be humble enough to continue to ask questions even though maybe you’re the only Ph.D. in the room where you know you have some expertise but certainly not in what you’re meeting about so being willing to accept that and being willing to learn goes a long ways. It’s also important to be a resilient person- that’s one of the personality traits that make me really enjoy being a PMF that isn’t necessarily education-based.

Could you describe your academic background before you started PMF?

Back in my undergraduate I got a dual degree in plant biology and biomedical science with a chemistry minor. I had read Tales of a Shaman’s Apprentice which many of the SEB blog readers probably have, but if you haven’t you should read it! That’s what really got me towards ethnobotany but at the time I couldn’t find an ethnobotany mentor or academic advisor. I felt like I didn’t know the right search terms so I ended up in a crop and soil science department doing plant breeding and genetics for my Master’s degree. Eventually I found the term I was looking for- non timber forest products. Using that, I ended up at Penn State where I got a PhD in forest resources. My research there was on Goldenseal and American Ginseng restoration and forest cultivation.

Did you have any leadership experience before starting PMF? Do you think that’s something that they’re looking for in the application process?

That’s a good question! I was on the student committee for SEB and I was president of the graduate student organization for ecosystem science and management at Penn State. Being on the SEB student committee really pays dividends even if it doesn’t help you enter programs like PMF or a postdoc. The opportunity to get to know students and faculty more than sitting next to them for an hour listening to presentations is just invaluable. I can still reach out to anyone I worked with and they go “oh yes, I still remember Grady and the interactions we had” and those would not have taken place if I didn’t get more invested in SEB. 

What advice would you give to current grad students who would like to prepare themselves for something like PMF? Are there classes or activities that you think would be good preparation or look good on an application?

The thing that convinced me to apply for the PMF was a workshop called CASE (Catalyzing Advocacy in Science and Engineering). I had on a whim decided to apply for that and got accepted went to DC for a long weekend of training and meeting with congresspeople. That program helped me realize that I really enjoyed government- I had never thought of it before but I saw a lot of really invested and determined people within federal agencies and within Congress that from the outside you just don’t see. I thought, “wow this it is an engaging place to work with a lot of committed individuals” so I decided to apply for PMF. If you don’t have any exposure or experience with federal government maybe apply for that CASE workshop- it’s a great way to dip your toes in the water and see what government work might be like. Or reach out to me!

Could you describe the PMF application process in one or two sentences?

Yeah the application process starts with a multiple-choice exam and essay. There are thousands of people that apply for the PMF but only about 10% become finalists. Of those finalists, roughly 70% get placed at government agencies. Finalists get access to a private job board and essentially apply for these positions like a normal job. The difference is that if you become a finalist and you find the job you want on the job board you are basically guaranteed to get an interview because you’re only competing against a very small pool at that point of fellow finalists. They’ll interview any finalist that put their names in the hat. 

Is there any advice you wish you’d had to prepare your application?

On the assessment you’ll see so many of the questions have two good answers so you’re trying to determine which one to pick, and it’s tough. My advice is to answer questions truthfully-there’s gonna be some where you’ll think I’d want to do this but I probably would actually do this and just go with what you would really do, not what you think they wanna hear. That is how I treated the test.

And after the test you need to find a position that’s a good match for you if you don’t find a match then you’re out?

I think those that don’t get positions are the ones that decide to hold out hope in some dream job that never happens comes along. The positions just roll out as the year goes on you have one year from being named a finalist to landing an appointment. And they just continue to wait and let go some opportunities that might be a good enough fit. By the time you do the 80 hours a year of leadership training and 4 to 6 months of your developmental assignment it really does not leave much time for your primary assignment anyway. And 2 years then you can hopefully you know convert into what that position was you were looking for. 

That’s great that you found such a good match for you on the job board! You’ve mentioned the developmental assignment a few times- do you get to pick that yourself?

That really depends on your supervisor- some supervisors have very specific goals for your developmental assignment, but I would say a most PMF supervisors let you take the chance to do what you want. For example right now I am the Acting Deputy District Ranger for the Smith River National Recreation Area- that means I’m the second in command. I’m here learning about tribal relations and fuels and timber while getting administrative experience, which is exactly what I was looking for!

I heard about PMF last year but I found their website hard to navigate- do you have any advice?

I mentioned early on these webinars leading up to the application deadline- that’s a great opportunity to learn about the application process, what the opportunities are, and ask questions. That’s a good opportunity to learn more about the program more broadly than my experience as a Forest Service PMF. 

What is the best way to reach you?

Email is by far the best way to reach me and from there we can set up a phone call to have a real conversation:

We also have a forest service PMF alumni listserv. So if you are interested in with specific expertise I could easily forward an email out to the entire listserv instead of putting you in touch with somebody directly and that would access hundreds alumni.

The 2020 PMF application will open from Sept. 30 – Oct. 14. Informational webinars are scheduled Sept. 15, 22, and 29. To learn more, email Grady, sign up for a webinar, or go to the PMF website. Good luck!

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