Like many Veterans, I had decided a while before I got out that I would take a shot at getting a federal job. There were a few reasons, and I’m sure they were the same ones that make federal employment attractive to most Veterans. First and foremost, there’s credit for military service toward retirement. I also thought about job security, and the desire to do meaningful work. But like many of us, I found out it wasn’t as easy as I thought would be. In reality, the process was stressful and confusing and filled with disappointment. That’s the bad news. But the good news is I’m here to share my mistakes with all of you, in the hopes of making it easier for those of you hoping to land a government gig.

I left the Marine Corps in 2003 not exactly sure what I wanted to do. I realized early on that my lack of planning had been my first mistake. I hadn’t completed any transitional job counseling, and I don’t remember now if it was even offered. Fortunately I found out I was eligible for unemployment benefits to make ends meet while I looked for work. During one of my visits to the employment office I was put in touch with a Veteran employment specialist. She determined I was eligible for Chapter 31 vocational rehabilitation. This program put me through college and paid a monthly benefit much like today’s Post-9/11 G.I. Bill. That was all the push I needed. Fast forward four years: With my degree in communications I was ready to start my federal career. Or so I thought. What I was really beginning was three years of hair-pulling frustration.

I started at the logical place – USAJOBS. I filled out literally hundreds of applications in a variety of career fields. The result was always the same. I would get an e-mail back containing some arrangement of the following phrases: Not Eligible. Minimum Qualifications Not Met. Not Selected. Stop me if these sound familiar. I felt like I was qualified for these positions, but without an interview, how was I going to convince anyone else? I had to do something to get myself in the door.

Determined, I got in touch with someone in HR who had reviewed my resume. I found out that my resume wasn’t being considered because, well, it wasn’t worth considering. I had always been told that a resume should just be a short synopsis of my best qualities and qualifications. The federal resume is a whole different thing. The HR pro told me I should be more specific. List all of my skills, how much experience I had with each, and at what level. Don’t bother uploading a pre-baked resume. Take the time to fill out all the fields on the custom USAJOBS resume. It made a huge difference. Over the next few months, I actually got a few interviews. They went well enough but I still wasn’t getting hired.  Now that I had a foot in the door, it felt like I was in this great big crowd of applicants, struggling to stand out. Turns out that’s exactly what it was.

There was one other factor I hadn’t considered in my search: the competition. Of course my status as a disabled Veteran meant I would have preference. On the other hand, there were a lot of other Veterans who would be competing with me for the same position. Many with more direct experience and most probably also had a four-year degree. How could I get noticed in such a talented group? For me the answer was getting a master’s degree. I hated the idea of going back to school but I knew it would give me an edge in the job market. So even though I was working full time, I decided to take the plunge. I busted my hump for a year and a half and got my master’s degree in May of 2011. I started my career with VA in September. It’s a great job and I’m proud to work for my brothers and sisters who served. For me it was all worth it.

If you’re thinking about a federal position, I have a little advice based on my own experience. Get all the training you have time for. Make sure it all shows on your resume. Be willing to relocate if at all possible. Be patient. And most importantly, if it something you really want, don’t give up. Good luck.

Phil Walls served in the Marine Corps from 1999 to 2003. He is currently a Public Affairs Specialist in VA’s Technical Career Field Program.

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Published on Jun. 25, 2012

Estimated reading time is 4 min.

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  1. william July 16, 2012 at 1:30 am

    Like ever organization and business race is a factor in the hiring process; even in the federal workforce. I have been applying for federal jobs for a very long time; for many years. I have been able to get a job with the U.S. Small Business Administration but only with an intermittent position, and have not had any assignments since getting the job. I have a Masters Degree and many years of work experience. I had a few phone interviews, and receive ratings all the way up to 98% before I received a 10% disability rating from the VA. Since receiving a 10% rating in 2011 I applied to at least 30-40 jobs since 2011. I’ve gotten cancelation notifications letters, I received the highest rating yet of 112%, but no phone calls. Also, there are jobs I have applied for since 2009 and have not heard or seen anything about the status of some of my applications. I’ve called the phone numbers listed and left messages and received no returned phone calls.

    Now since 2011 I have received more injuries; some serious than others. Waiting for VBA to give me a rating on my new claims is not a joke nether. I singed up for The VA Vocational Rehabilitation program; now I want to see if that can help me get a federal government full time position. The federal government has been a more friendlier employer for African Americans, women and other minorities.

  2. C.K. Dias July 12, 2012 at 1:54 pm

    Thanks for the sharing of experiences. Am a Vietnam Era Vet and having some problems getting an RN position with the VA and, though have felt discouraged at times, am praying that I find something soon.

  3. Jenny July 9, 2012 at 3:40 pm

    There is one factor that is has not been brought up yet and may be a huge stumbling block for some applicants. Many times there are up to hundreds of applicants for one position. In most cases these applications are run through a computer program that looks for key words and phrases usually tied to the wording of the Job Announcement and scores your “words.” Only the top percentage then get viewed by human eyes. The Resume and documents that you submit are literally going to make or break your shot at getting an interview. I agree that the Resume you submit should not be a cookie-cutter resume, it should be geared towards the wording of the announcement and your experience/education in order to get your best-possible score. The rest is the impression you make on your interviewers. They want to know you will be a good fit-not just that you are qualified. You need to make a good impression. Let the interviewer do most of the talking! Be pleasant, and try to show your knowledge to the best advantage when you are answering questions.

  4. Al July 5, 2012 at 10:31 am

    Phil’s story while inspiring is not representative of what most veterans experience in attempting to land a federal job. I agree with YoungChae as the best qualified are not always hired. It should not take any veteran 8 years and several hundred applications to get in the system when there have been thousands of applicants such as family members and friends with no prior service nor direct work experience whom were hired after just one application. If some of these agencies also stop canceling then reposting job announcements with qualified veterans already on referral lists then we wouldn’t have so many veterans struggling to get hired. But no one wants to talk about those facts because criticism of the veteran’s resume has now become a standard.

    • Phil Walls July 6, 2012 at 2:34 pm

      Believe me I understand your frustration. In my case I was after a very specific job, and I had limited experience in that field. So for me education was the only way to go. With a bachelor’s degree I think I was still at a disadvantage to another Veteran who might have had a degree plus more experience. That’s why I went to grad school. I understand for some people that’s not an easy option but there are other career fields with different requirements. As far as relatives or friends getting hired, I don’t think that’s the case. For me the job search was tough but I always believed it was fair. I wish you the best of luck in whatever you pursue.

    • Henry July 6, 2012 at 3:55 pm

      I overcame the resume issue by paying $400.00 to have a resume written by a professional. The investment has more than paid off, I have been a VA employee for more than a year. In fact I landed a job at a VA call center about 60 days after I retired. I’m really sorry to hear about veterans not getting hired. But I’m also shocked. I didn’t have any special connections or “friends on the inside”. I didn’t have to relocate from the city I retired in either. After I landed the job, I figured they would hire anybody if they hired me! Maybe I just happened to be at the right place at the right time…

  5. Brian W June 29, 2012 at 7:49 pm


    You’re article is inspiring. I spent 11 years in the Navy, got out in 2000 and went to work for Northrop for 4 years (under a SPAWAR contract doing IT stuff for deployed Navy ships). I couldn’t get a TS and was let go. I went back to school for networking/telecommunications and now finishing up my BS degree in Applied Technology. The VA TCF program was announced and now I am just waiting for something to open up on the West Coast. I took a couple of stabs at places in the Bay area but my application was returned with the same reasons you mentioned. Although the BS degree might help, I believe more and more that IT certs are the real ticket just to get past HR. Although I am on disability, I’m tired of it and want to go back working for the people I have so much in common with.

    Vancouver, WA

    • Phil Walls July 6, 2012 at 2:15 pm


      Congratulations on your degree. I believe all training and education helps. The TCF program is a great way to get your career started. Another place to look is VA for Vets . At last months hiring fair in Detroit, there was a clear need for IT people across the country. Here’s the press relase with more info. . I wish you the best of luck.

  6. Mrbruce June 27, 2012 at 7:33 am

    A Masters? What? So I’ve been told to go get my bachelors to overcome my combat MOS. This is as I watch support MOS’s get “certification” assistance from the administration while combatants are told to attend school for seven or eight years. And now an intern, that I can reasonably assume is in a lower pay bracket, is telling me I need a masters. Really? Who is going to pay for that? Uncle Sam? Nope. This is disgusting and a prime example of the continued systemic flaws in our gubbement and the structures that fail to properly support their Veterans. No, I think four years of school is enough. I think that multiple combat tours is enough. I thought being wounded for your country was enough? Apparently not. I guess a masters is much more important than my purple heart. I applaud you landing a job. I applaud your masters. But you and I earned a job the minute we swore our oath, engaged in combat and took fire. Unfortunately this brings up a sore spot. How is a troop with anTBI supposed to get into a graduate program? GPA will be too low and no allowances are made for cognitive handicaps. GRE is virtually mandatory which prevents fair access to cognitively disabled troops. I think your message of grad school is narrow minded and sends a very wrong message and brings us full circle. The “fighters are never rewarded, except with more battles to fight, while the fobbits get everything in the PX.” Tell me that my grad school is payed for and i am in. Tell me health insurance will be provided and i am in. Tell me that I will actually get a SCEP/STEP and i am in. Nope, not in this country and certainly not for those who have the highest likliehood of being wounded. I should have listened to Ron Kovic, he warned me of this. Sincerely, Mourning for the death of both the Queen and King of battle.

  7. Young Chae June 25, 2012 at 9:06 pm

    Yes, as a veteran with a total of 23 years of Active and Reserve honoralbe service including a recent combat tour in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom, have followed all recommendations in your testimony while seeking a position as Mandarin Chinese Counsular Adjudicator in China. The job announcement clearly and precisely mentioned there will be no age limit for these positions who are veterans. Well, I was 58 years old when the job application was submitted. Making a long story short, I didn’t get the job although I have thought that I was fully qualified for the position. By the way, I have a BS in Math. and Comp. Sci. (23 years of technical and tectical experience in the areas of Software Engineering), and two MA’s. In addition to my educational background, I speak fluent Mandarin Chinese and Korean with the knowledge of its history and culture as well as understand its body language. Well, it has been my “personal experience” with the federal, state and local government employment practices that they don’t hire the best qualified people for the positions. However, they closely follow the existing leadership’s priorities for hiring regulation, policy and guidance in order to cover their backs. Therefore, Mr. Walls, you are one of those few luckiest ones who got hired by federal government, VA, in this case. My strong recommendation to those who are applying for governmental positions, please don’t hold your breath after submitting your application because it’s going to take a long, I mean, a long time for the results to come back to you and there will be no gurantee for the job. Once again, wish you all the best for your job searching efforts here in America!

  8. Apachecheynne June 25, 2012 at 4:43 pm

    So delightful you could share what most vets do run into. the problem with our resume’s become personal and yet, impractical. For the job at hand, posting all our skills and what knowledge we have learned manages what they want us to observe.

    What if working for such a specific job, you find security checks are not managed about ruth in what others write that were political games of left and right. Ever ben coaught in the middle of stateman who will make statements that are in denial of their errors and wrongs they have committed against us who stand up against Injustices?

    To have a security clearnace is what is important. Self-disclosure is professional truth in how You stood the test of such distinctive bosses who tried to get rid of you because you learned the ropes of what they do to hurt those who could be the best for serving this giant we call America. Government is suppose to be truthful. I expect even the worst to be honest in order to reach supporting ethical concerns without lawless interns. States have problems that aren’t being fixed. Working for the government must be for honest endeavor as you seek a job in favor of work. What do you tell us now?

  9. John Roane June 25, 2012 at 4:27 pm

    Not too worry the private sector is doing fine according to our President Obama and so must have lots of job openings. Remember to put your faith in your government and they will take good care of you.

    • Phil Walls June 27, 2012 at 9:07 am

      Thank you for your comment Mr. Roane. But I’m not sure what you mean about the government taking care of me. I served my country, including you, in the Marine Corps for four years. Now I help Veterans. Happy to be doing it.

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