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Career Advice

How to land a job in the federal government

The mandarin option is looking better than ever for some graduate students


It’s one thing to revel in the joy of gathering, analyzing and constructing knowledge in a field you love; it’s another thing entirely to negotiate the uncertainty of the academic job market and interdepartmental politics pulling you away from what you research. But after so many years in postgraduate programs, what options are there for stable, satisfying employment that will allow you to build on what you’ve accomplished in academe? The Government of Canada is hoping that more university graduates at all levels will consider a career in the federal public service as an attractive career option.

Marsha Moshinsky, a master’s level graduate of the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University knew early on that her passion lay in the field of development studies, not in academe. After graduating she applied for a position as a development officer with the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) through which she learned about the Management Trainee Program (MTP) offered by the federal government. She wasn’t successful in landing the CIDA position, but was offered a spot in the MTP.

She is now an assistant negotiator representing the Government of Canada through Indian and Northern Affairs (INAC) in self-government negotiations with First Nations. Her primary file currently involves negotiating a self-government agreement with the Union of Ontario Indians, a group of 41 First Nations in Ontario. She is involved in monthly negotiation tables and other related meetings, researches and helps her team provide drafting options for the governance final agreement, liaises with her First Nation counterparts and internally with various INAC sectors and other government departments in support of these files. She is also involved in reporting and communications along with a range of other internal corporate responsibilities related to the training received in the MTP.

The fact that she believes strongly in the value of what she is doing is one of the main reasons Ms. Moshinsky finds a great deal of satisfaction in her chosen career. “What I do is closely related to what I studied (governance and development work), involves research which I love, and working with people who are also committed to making a difference – both within the government and First Nations. Moreover, I regularly visit various communities, some of them remote – I’ve always enjoyed traveling and now I am discovering Ontario.”

For a long time, jobs in the government were perceived as being monotonous, unimportant, rife with union dissent and accessible only through nepotism. Facing a looming shortage of workers as the baby boomers begin to retire, the federal government has been working hard to shed this reputation. Recruitment literature in university career centres and major newspapers promotes the public service as offering a broad range of career paths that contribute to the quality of life in Canada in significant ways, with many opportunities for advancement. The introduction of strict equity guidelines and an ethics review board overseeing all hiring practices ensure that applicants are judged on fair and appropriate grounds. The federal government also recognizes the added value of higher education and will often offer increased salaries for employees with graduate-level degrees.

Here’s University Affairs’ easy guide to applying for federal government positions:

Step One – Finding Job Postings

Academic fields most directly associated with postings requiring graduate-level education are, unsurprisingly, in the sciences, social sciences and health care. However, do not hesitate to apply to any posting where you can demonstrate a good fit and meet the specifications of the “Who Can Apply,” “Language Proficiency” and “Statement of Merit” criteria included in each posting.

The lion’s share of recruitment for the federal government is funneled through the Public Service Commission website. On this site you can find not only job postings, but also information on postgraduate recruitment programs, job search tools and an overview of the benefits and compensation you can expect in a federal level job. The site also has job alerts that will keep you updated on job postings meeting the specifications you select.

Job postings and other career information can also be found on the homepages of many agencies and departments. A full list of these can be found at this Government of Canada Departments and Agencies index or at this Service Canada Careers in Public Service index page.

Browsing through the sites that seem most closely related to your area(s) of expertise will help you understand what opportunities are available for you in the public service.

There a few programs that target applicants with a graduate-level degree:

Recruitment of Policy Leaders
Provides training for people with graduate-level degrees for higher-level positions in policy analysis.

Management Trainee Program
The Management Trainee Program is a three-year training and development program geared towards highly motivated individuals who have the potential to excel as future leaders in the federal public service.

Accelerated Economist Training Program
The Accelerated Economist Training Program provides exposure to a variety of policy issues, experience in analyzing sector responsibilities, and a broad view of the role, mandate and modus operandi of various departments and agencies in the federal government.

Performance Audit Trainee Program
This is a two-year classroom and on-the-job training program leading to a career in performance audits in a range of fields from defence to the environment, from law enforcement to social programs.

Step Two – Applying for Positions

  • Only resumés for posted positions will be accepted. There is an “Apply Now” link on each posting through which you submit your application, and which will link you into the Public Service Resourcing System where you can track the status of your application, schedule any required testing and get your test results.
  • Prepare a separate resumé for each position for which you apply that carefully meets the Statement of Merit Criteria – unless you provide evidence demonstrating that you meet this criteria on your resumé, your application will be disqualified. This is one of the ways that the government ensures the best qualified candidate, not just the most well-known one, is hired. If you are a member of a designated employment equity group, this can help strengthen your application if you meet all other requirements.
  • Most positions in the public service require you to write standardized knowledge and competency tests. Generally speaking these are not tests for which you need to study. Examples of the most commonly required tests can be found here.
  • Fluent bilingualism is not required of every job advertised, but at some point in the application process, you will be required to demonstrate you meet the “Language Proficiency” requirements for official languages described in the posting.
  • Use the Statement of Merit Criteria to prepare for your interview. Guidelines on how to do this, and on what to expect during the interview itself are provided on the Public Service Commission’s website.
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  1. Kathy Mohammed / October 18, 2010 at 09:27


    Can you tell me where to find more information on the performance audit trainee program and the management trainee progra. When I click on the links above it is not valid.

    I am also desparately looking for a job however with no luck any advice you can give me will be greatly appreciated


    Kathy Mohammed

  2. Alexandra / November 20, 2010 at 06:38

    I have heard that there is actually a hiring freeze in certain entry level areas of government, such as DFAIT for example. can you shed any light on this?

  3. Elizabeth Punnett / November 23, 2010 at 12:03

    As someone with two BA degrees and an MA in political science, who has been through the incredibly convoluted and lengthy, often nonsensical, and highly restrictive government hiring process, who landed a decent position only to be threatened with a lay off at every turn of the road, and who then ultimately accepted a transfer to a low level filing job as the only means of remaining a federal employee, I would like a bit more information on how Marsha really managed to move from a Management training program to a negotiator position with INAC. THIS IS NOT THE TYPICAL CAREER PATH OR STORY. Trust me. The words and actions of the Federal government do not match when it comes to their hiring process.

  4. Dr.Doinglittle / November 30, 2010 at 14:01

    Academics who want to make the jump to government will face several shocks.

    First is that there are very, very few jobs in the public service. Since the time when this article was written. there essentially has been a hiring freeze in place.

    Second, is the realization that your degree has far less currency in the bureaucracy than in university. Govt employers want experience and demonstrated skills – they dont care about your thesis, conference talks, or brilliant insights into Derrida. In fact, some degrees are seen in a negative light in govt circles because of their political nature. I bet Marsha wouldn’t have landed her job in INAC if she wrote a thesis about nefarious colonial policies by Canada towards First Nations. Academics, in sum, are largely seen (like professors) as a partisan interest group…. the opposite of what most govt employers want.

    Three, government job applications require a different style of writing; interviews require a different style of speaking. Again, these are learned in workplaces, not the university classroom.

  5. Dr. Wilson / December 2, 2010 at 15:08

    I worked at policy think tanks for 10 years before returning for my PhD. Given my age and the fact that I have children and a mortgage I needed a job fast and took a provincial government (temporary) policy position. It is very difficult to get a permanent position in either the federal or provincial governments and as much as I thought I loved the policy sector it is very difficult to go back to writing briefing notes and coordinating conference calls after the freedom of research and writing a book. I also agree with one of the comments above that a PhD holds absolutely 0 currency in the policy sector. I have been teased by the ADMs who call me the “girl with the doctorate” and other policy analysts snicker and wonder why I am here.