Global Environmental Politics

Master's Degree Programs in Global Environmental Policy and in Natural Resources and Sustainable Development

Kristine Smith (GEP '15)

Getting a job in the Federal Government: A Q&A with GEP Grad Kristine Smith

Graduates of the Global Environmental Politics Program work in the government, nonprofit, and private sectors. While the path to a job can vary immensely for all three sectors, there are ways to improve your chances of landing a full time job with the federal government after graduation. Recent Global Environmental Policy (GEP) (’15) grad Kristine Smith worked for two years in the private sector before arriving at American University with an eye towards employment with the federal government. Kristine held two internships with the State Department during her degree, including a Pathways internship, which she recommends for any student who is interested in working for the federal government. Kristine is now a full time employee in the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Reclamation, working in the Native American and International Affairs Office. Kristine volunteered to give advice to current and future students in the Global Environmental Politics Program on how to get a job in the federal government. David Gross (NRSD ’16) sat down with Kristine for a Q&A to discuss her path to a full-time job with the federal government, including the Pathways program:

David Gross (DG): What was your first position with the federal government?

Kristine Smith (KS): I started as an unpaid intern at the State Department’s Bureau of Energy Resources in the Office of Alternative and Renewable Energy. I was researching the potential for renewable energy in Africa and looking at energy distribution in various power pools using an industry database.

DG: How did you get that position?

KS: I applied via I just searched for positions in at the State Department in Washington D.C. using the keyword “internship.” I applied for the internship around February 2013, before I had been accepted into AU, anticipating that I would be in DC that fall. I only applied to DC area schools because I wanted an internship with the federal government. It’s important for students to be aware that many federal agencies require various security clearances for their jobs and internships, so it’s a really long process. My internship didn’t start until August. For the State Department, internships are generally posted up to nine months before the start date since the security clearance process alone can take three to four months for internships and usually takes longer for full time employees.

DG: What’s the advantage of having a security clearance as an intern? (Editor’s Note: Learn about State Department Security Clearances at this link, and check out this link for an FAQ)

KS: If you have a security clearance you have an advantage for employment with most government agencies and other organizations that work closely with them. If you don’t have to get your clearance renewed you can be hired almost immediately, which is important since security clearances are a lengthy and expensive process for the federal government. Getting clearances revalidated takes only about a month, as opposed to a new clearance which can take anywhere from a couple of months to almost a year, in my experience. You can put a security clearance on your resume even if you don’t work for the federal government because employees of federal contractors, such as consulting firms, often need security clearance as well. Plus federal agencies and  contracting organizations might be more likely to hire someone who has had security clearance in the past because they are more likely to get it again, while an agency doesn’t know if someone who never had clearance will be able to get it.

DG: So how long was your internship with the Bureau of Energy Resources?

KS: It was a 10 week internship that I was able to extend to 12 weeks. I finished that internship in December 2013.

DG: Since your first internship ended in December, did you start your Pathways internship at the beginning of the Spring Semester?

KS: No, I actually found out about Pathways during my first internship. In the past, and it seems like they may be changing their recruitment methods now so I’m not sure, but there were two different one week periods when the government would release the vacancies for positions at midnight. Pathways is not just for State Department, there are positions across the Federal government in a variety of subject-matter posts (Foreign Affairs, Program Analyst, Budget, etc.). I signed up for Pathways internship email alerts at so I got notified about when the periods were. I believe they were around March and then again in October for State, but Pathways vacancies open at various times for different agencies. So during the period I stayed up until after midnight for the full week with my application ready. Some positions don’t need a cover letter, mine didn’t, but you could have a generic one ready just in case. There are usually only 50-100 slots per Pathways position opening, so it’s very important that you apply at 12:00 AM exactly for the positions, otherwise you won’t make it into the limited pool of applicants they look at. Even if a position still looks like it’s open, if it’s after 12:15 am it probably actually is closed and just hasn’t changed status yet.

Picture of Kristine Smith at the United Nations Geneva Office.

Kristine Smith (GEP ’15) visited the United Nations Geneva Office after the conclusion of the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris, which she attended with other American University Students.

DG: Before we talk more about Pathways, I want to make sure I have the timeline correct. Did you start Pathways right after your first internship at State, and if not did you do anything else instead?

KS: No, not right after. My first internship ended in December 2013. During my second semester (Spring 2014) I was a research assistant on campus, and during the summer I had an internship at the United Nations in New York. I returned to the State Department in the Fall of 2014 as a Pathways intern.

DG: What is the Pathways Internship Program? (Editor’s Note: There are multiple programs broadly classified as Pathways Programs, including programs for recent graduates. Links for more information are provided after the Q&A)

KS: The goal of the Pathways program is essentially to get students to build a career in federal service. It’s a paid internship with an agency of the federal government, and it’s sort of like a fellowship. You can keep your Pathways internship as long as you have part-time status in a degree seeking program. You are considered a civil servant and on the GS pay scale, although sometimes there are only positions available at lower pay grades than what you qualify for, but you can still take those positions.

There are Pathways programs at a lot of federal agencies, not just at State. For the State Department you apply to a track, not to a specific office. There are a few tracks you can apply to. I recommend that AU students apply to the foreign affairs trainee and program analyst tracks, although there are a few others as well. Apply to every vacancy that you would want to do. Once you’re in Pathways you’re assigned to an office, but you can transfer your Pathways assignment to another office that may be a better fit for your interests; so a lot of people apply to everything, including administrative and H.R. positions, and take what they can so they can transfer later, which is unfortunate for those offices because it takes a lot of staff time to bring someone into that office, but it’s very common to move around.

Pathways is a full time position but you can negotiate to part time depending on the office and what they’re willing to do. I took two classes rather than three to manage, and negotiated a ceiling of 30 hours a week (I was paid hourly instead of on salary). In addition to giving me more time for work this also helped strategically since I could stay in the Pathways program longer.

DG: What’s the biggest advantage to doing pathways?

KS: Starting the day you graduate, you have a four month period where you have a non-competitive special hiring authority. This means you can be hired within the federal government without facing competition from all the applications on In addition to competing with all U.S. citizens looking for federal jobs, there are a lot of groups with special hiring authorities, such as Veterans and returning Peace Corps volunteers, so it’s really hard to get a position without one, especially for younger applicants. Six months before my four month period began I started having conversations and informational interviews with people in various offices and agencies. I probably talked to close to 80 people and had coffee with around 50 of them during my job search. I never had someone say no to meet with me, and I would let them know I was interested in talking even if there was no opening. I would tell people that I had a special hiring authority that was coming up and ask them to let me know if their office had a need or if an opening was coming up. A major benefit to this more informal method of job searching is that you have a lot of control where you end up since you are the one who makes the connections with people. Pathways is a perfect example of how networking—who you can connect with and how proactive you are with those connections—can lead to jobs.

DG: What did you do during your Pathways internship?

KS: I was in the State Department’s Office of Conservation and Water as a Foreign Affairs Trainee. I generally focused on inter-agency coordination between about 15 different Federal agencies that work on water. The State Department facilitates meetings and coordinates messaging internationally because even domestic agencies like the Department of the Interior have international activities. I also did a lot of conference planning and engagement. This allowed me to travel to South Korea for the World Water Forum, and Sweden for World Water Week. Finally, my favorite area of work I did was on international drought engagement, which is tied to a broader White House interagency initiative on drought resilience. I really enjoyed the interagency coordination work that I did at State, which is a valuable skill that can be translated into many sectors.

DG: Thanks so much for taking the time to chat with me. Last question: Do most people switch agencies if they get a full time job after Pathways?

KS: Most of the Pathways interns that I know ended up taking full time positions within the same office as their internship, or at least within the same agency. My challenge was that there wasn’t a full time position available in my office, and there were limited opportunities at the time of my conversion period to work in environment or water at State Department. It was very important to me to maintain a focus on water, so ultimately I was able to find a position that fits very well with my interests at the Department of the Interior in the Bureau of Reclamation’s international office.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity in an effort to highlight key points.

Links to more information about the Pathways program:

A basic overview of the program is available from USAJobs and The Office of Personnel Management (OPM). Follow this link for the USAJobs FAQ, and click here for the OPM FAQ. The Presidential Management Fellows (PMF) Program is for recent advanced degree graduates (including Masters degrees) and is part of the Pathways Program. Click here for an overview of the PMF program, and click here for a PMF FAQ.

The Global Environmental Politics program in the School of International Service at American University is a diverse and inclusive community. The program does not necessarily endorse the ideas contained in this or any other guest post. Please understand that our aim is to provide a space for the expression of a range of perspectives on global environmental concerns.

Author: sisgep

The Global Environmental Politics program in the School of International Service at American University offers a unique, specialized, and world-leading graduate environmental studies education. We have two degree tracks: Global Environmental Policy (GEP), and our dual-degree Natural Resources and Sustainable Development (NRSD) option with the UN-mandated University for Peace in Costa Rica. Join us!

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