Careers in government nursing are as varied as nursing careers in the private sector. However, when many nurses hear "government nursing," they may assume that means working for a veterans hospital. But the Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) is only one of many government agencies where skilled nurses who want to work for the government can build their careers.
In fact, there are a variety of government agencies and positions where nurses can put their skills to work, including the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the Indian Health Service (IHS), the U.S. Army, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services.
Think a government career might be a good fit for you? Keep reading for stories from nurses who work for the government and tips on how you can too.
"The army's been very good to my family," says Lt. Col. Christopher Weidlich, U.S. Army, who is currently finishing his Ph.D. in nursing at the University of Miami on a U.S. Army Long-Term Health and Education Training Scholarship (scheduled to graduate in 2013). He has served in the military for 17 years. "I really enjoy taking care of people, and doing whatever I can to help them out."
When Lt. Col. Weidlich graduated from high school in 1990, his original goal was to become a doctor. "I wanted to go to medical school, but I didn't have the grades to support it," he says. "When I graduated from high school, I found out the Army was offering nursing scholarships."
He went on to graduate from the University of Miami in 1994 on an Army ROTC scholarship and decided to stay in the military after graduation. He worked as an army psychiatric nurse and a psychiatric mental health nurse in various locations, including Nebraska, Georgia, Kentucky, and North Carolina, in addition to Iraq and South Korea.
After several deployments, Lt. Col. Weidlich feels that while military life comes with unique challenges, he has enjoyed his career. "Being a military family has its ups and downs like any profession, but it's hard on my kids," says the father of four.
Despite the personal sacrifices, Lt. Col. Weidlich says his career so far has been a very rewarding experience for him and his family, and advises other nurses considering military nursing careers: "If you go into the military, take advantage of your education," he stresses. "There are a lot of schools that you could go to within the Army. I would recommend you take any educational opportunities that are there."
Nurses seeking a more stable lifestyle will find an abundance of opportunities within government agencies. Many have built their careers in the government, like Dinora Dominguez, Chief of Patient Recruitment and a public liaison in the Office of Communications at the NIH Clinical Center, Department of Health and Human Services. Dominguez has worked for the NIH since she graduated from college in 1986.
What is the best way to look for openings for nurses who are interested in working for a government agency?
You do not need to go to a third-party website to find government jobs. Your best bet is to go straight to government sites since these opportunities are posted online. All federal government agencies post job openings on USAJobs.gov. Each state has a similar job portal, but local government jobs are a bit harder to find. You need to go to each jurisdiction's website. Also, professional associations can be helpful in finding jobs at all levels.
Is applying for a government position much different than applying for jobs in the private sector?
Government hiring processes tend to be more formalized than private sector employers. However, hiring processes for nurses should be similar given the licensing requirements placed on nurses by state governments. The biggest difference applicants will see is that it takes much longer for government organizations to hire as opposed to private companies.
Any tips on résumés and cover letters?
With government organizations, the most important document is the job application form. There are even government job portals that do not allow applicants to add attachments to their applications. The application form forces applicants to tell the organization what it wants to know: résumés, cover letters, and the like allow the applicant to tell the organization what he or she wants to know.
Should applicants be prepared for a more difficult overall process in terms of background checks, qualifications, interviews, etc.?
Not really. Both companies and government organizations will do due diligence on people they intend to hire.
Dominguez always held an interest in doing research and was attracted to the NIH due to the research involved in her position. Today, she coordinates clinical trials and educates the public on the importance of participating in clinical trials—something she's passionate about.
Bruce Steakley, R.N., B.S.N., a nurse manager in pediatric and adult inpatient behavioral health at the Ambulatory Care Behavioral Health Clinic (NIH), has a career that spans 30 years. He first came to the NIH six years ago.
"After working in community-based mental health inpatient settings and one outpatient setting for all those years, I got discouraged with psychiatry and the state of mental health care delivery in the country," Steakley says. "So I left and tried other avenues of nursing, but was bored. And so I always returned to mental health and discovered my current position by word of mouth. A friend of my wife told me about this job and I decided to apply for it and now, here I am."
Clifton J. Kenon Jr., M.S.N., R.N.C.-O.B., C.-E.F.M., I.B.C.L.C., R.L.C., A.W.H.O.N.N., fetal monitoring instructor and maternal-child health nurse consultant at Indian Health Service, found his way to the IHS by posting his résumé on the USAJobs.gov website. "I was recruited to go work for the Indian Health Service as a maternal child health consultant in South Dakota in April of 2011," he recalls. "And in this role, I'm actually able to have an influence and to lead maternal health programs for the Indian Health Service for our four-state region: North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa, and Nebraska."
Steakley also applied through the USAJobs.gov website, which he says is the best place for nurses interested in a government job to go. "I occasionally have people who somehow reach me on the phone and want to apply for a job," he says. "I step way back from that and just refer them directly to USAJobs.gov. There's a structure for applying, and I follow the structure."
Steakley notes that nurses seeking to gain entry with a government agency should bring patience to their job search.
"The hiring process is longer and slower, but somewhat more professional," he says. "I was here on three different occasions, interviewing with three different sets of people. My sense was that they were looking for highly qualified people. I've since had opportunities to participate in a number of interviews with nurse manager candidates and clinical manager candidates. Over the years, I've hired a lot of people myself, and I think that although I see room for improving the process, I would nevertheless maintain it's better here than in other settings."
If you desire to make a leap from the private sector to the government sector, Kenon's advice is to actively seek out opportunities, put yourself out there, and post your résumé on the U.S. Office of Personnel Management (www.opm.gov) and USAJobs.gov websites.
"Continue searching for openings that would meet your qualifications or are willing to train, and call regional recruiters. Most government agencies have recruiters that are actively recruiting new talent to the agency," he says, adding that recruiters love to hear from those interested in public sector careers. "[They] have unique and challenging opportunities for nurses that want to serve their country."
Is working for the government much different than the private sector? Some nurses who have experience in both sectors note some differences.
Kenon was a labor and delivery nurse at Duke University Medical Center and the University of Virginia. "The difference between working in the private sector and public sector is being a public servant, as I like to see myself in working for the government. I am helping to fulfill the mission of the United States Department of Health and Human Services. And I'm helping to serve the American people with health care on a national level, as opposed to in the private sector where I was more concerned with serving a local aggregate of people or a specific community."
Steakley, who worked for various community-based facilities before joining the NIH, says that he feels more supported as a government employee, adding that he has a lot of reinforcement from the three units he manages in terms of clinical management, clinical educators, and clinical nurse specialists. "That allows me to have a slightly more elevated role," he says, which removes him from the "nitty-gritty" of direct patient care, and enables him to be more involved in management and "setting the philosophy, growth, and performance improvement plans for the unit."
For Kenon, working for the IHS has changed his whole perspective on nursing. "As an African American nurse, being a public servant and working within the United States Government, it has given me a clearer picture and a greater professional identity for the role that nursing has in leading health care on a national and global level," Kenon says. "Now, I see what an invaluable role nurses play all across the government with legislative change, translating change into practices, and actually being leaders for the health care delivery system."
If you think a career in the government is a good fit for you, Dominguez encourages other minority nurses to pursue it because there is a wide array of positions available—not just on the clinical side. She says there are many opportunities for nurses to "think outside the box." As you start researching for a job, Dominguez says to think of the specific skills that you can bring to the role, and just go for it.
Kenon says a government nursing career is all about dedication. For nurses considering these jobs, his advice is to make sure they have solidified a mission in nursing and the core values of the profession.
"Whether you're in the private sector or public sector, core values such as caring, innovation, passion, and diversity are going to need to be deeply imbedded in each individual nurse's philosophy to have a successful career in government," he says.
Most of all, Kenon believes nurses considering such a career should know that they will be dedicating their career and lives to serving the American people. "That is a calling not to be taken lightly," he adds.
Once you get your foot in the door, opportunities are abundant for growth, Steakley says. "They're all around. I think that the nursing leadership and the medical leadership in the clinical center are very supportive of intellectual growth of nurses," he says. "So I think just getting one's foot in the door is the hardest part."
Kenon sees himself building a long-term career as a government nurse. "In five to 10 years, I certainly see myself continuing to serve the American people and hopefully continuing to work within maternal child health," he says. "I love working for the Indian Health Service and I love serving the Native American and the Alaska Native people. And certainly, within 10 years, I still hope to be leading the maternal child health program within the Indian Health Service."