Initial Publication Date: June 24, 2013

Doug Howard, US Geological Survey & Georgetown University

The information on this page was obtained during an interview on May 24, 2013.

Hiring Context

The USGS has positions for all degree levels - Associates through Ph.D. For example, hydrology and research technician positions are available for applicants with Associate's or Bachelor's degrees and research scientist or managerial positions for applicants with Bachelor's through Doctorate degrees in geology, hydrology, biology, and geography, as well as other disciplines.

Desirable Knowledge, Skills, and Abilities

Geoscience knowledge and skills

Geology or earth science in general is one of the core sciences used in the USGS along with Biology, Geography, Oceanography, Atmospheric science, and other physical sciences.

The type of position being applied for will determine what particular geoscience qualifications are necessary, as defined by Federal regulations. For example, to qualify for a geologist series position, one must have a Bachelors degree in geology and perhaps have taken specific courses as stipulated by the particular position. These same kinds of strictures are in place for positions in hydrology, biology, and geography. As appropriate, an applicant should have the stipulated qualifications and would not likely be considered for the position if they are not met.

Other skills and abilities

For research positions, experience writing and publishing journal articles and as a post-doctoral researcher is desired. For administrative positions, experience in program, financial, and people management skills are necessary. When applying for positions, in terms of these administrative skills, applicants are required to write short essays demonstrating their level of skill in these areas and then be able to point to previous experience on their resume where these skills were acquired and put to the test.

In many areas, technology skills are an important attribute for new applicants. Some government agencies tend to be several steps behind the private sector in terms of technology use and aptitudes so having a handle on how to use modern technologies to accomplish research and program goals can be a valuable asset. Communication skills are also very important given that many positions need to be able to interact with the public, state agencies, and academic institutions.

There appears to be more emphasis on the hard qualifications of applicants than on attitudes or soft skills. Hiring Managers may assess some of these aspects during interviews, but government human resources departments are more focused on whether an applicant has the qualifications to do the job than on how they might do their job or their people skills. This is very different from academia where one of the most important considerations for a new faculty hire is "how will this person fit in with the rest of us." The appearance is that this is given much lower priority in hiring for government positions.

Future Horizon

What do you see as future trends in your workforce?

There has been a substantial decrease in the number of young people applying for geoscience jobs and something must be done to change that. Dr. Howard is the program lead for the EdMap Program which is the only qualified STEM education program in the Department of the Interior and is very interested in increasing the amount of STEM education that the Department and the Survey do as a way of bringing the future geoscience workforce in line with the standards of the 21st century.

Recent budgetary disputes in the Federal government have left the USGS with little latitude to hire new employees. For example, usually the Survey is able to hire a number of season hydrology technicians through programs at community colleges as well as a number of interns. But due to the Congressional battles over Sequestration in 2012 and 13, most of those programs have been cut. Among the few programs to survive these cuts were the USGS/NAGT Cooperative Field Training Program for undergraduates and the Mendenhall Research Fellowship Program for postdocs. Otherwise, unless there is an institutional need, a hiring freeze is in place and seems likely to continue for some time.

What can higher education do to prepare students for these future trends?

The rate of attrition in STEM programs for University undergraduates is pretty significant. Students initially interested in STEM careers often transfer out to follow other interests. One possible way of addressing this issue is exemplified in the Science, Technology, and International Affairs program where Dr. Howard is a professor of geoscience at Georgetown University. The interdisciplinary department is a program in the Walsh School of Foreign Service. So, many of the students are interested in international environmental policy and relations and similar issues. They develop a lot of skills outside geoscience that give them options to go in a number of different directions in their careers. As far as students with aspirations to become faculty members, without retirements and with budgetary deficits, there aren't as many geology faculty positions coming open, so we have to train Ph.D. graduates in such a way that they have skills to do something besides academia. Students may find career options such as environmental law and policy or any number of other areas where geoscience is a relevant factor.