If you’ve ever felt the urge to serve your country and leave the private sector behind, the government has plenty of available options for those with PhDs.  While there is always the option to join the military, it is important to remember that there are many other civilian options in one of the many governmental departments and agencies, which include:

  • National Institute of Health
  • National Science Foundation
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
  • Department of Agriculture
  • Department of Commerce
  • Department of Defense
  • Department of Education
  • Department of Energy
  • Department of Health and Human Services
  • Department of Homeland Security
  • Department of Housing and Urban Development
  • Department of Justice
  • Department of Labor
  • Department of State
  • Department of the Interior
  • Department of the Treasury
  • Department of Transportation
  • Department of Veterans Affairs
  • Executive office of the President
  • General Services Administration
  • National Aeronautics and Space Administration
  • National Foundation on the Arts and the Humanities
  • United States Patent and Trademark Office

Phew! That’s not even a comprehensive list and unless you’ve recently taken a US government class (or are getting your PhD in government) I bet you couldn’t have listed all of those departments and agencies off the cuff.  Basically, it’s guaranteed that your PhD will be useful to someone somewhere in the public sector.    

Entry Points

If you are interested in the military, most PhDs come in as officers, usually the rank of captain for the army, air force, and marines, and lieutenant for the navy and coast guard (all are equivalent O-3 pay grade).

For those with degrees in technical fields, such as engineering, computer science, or one of the life sciences, you may be interested in working with the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) as a patent examiner.  As the job title would suggest, you are primarily responsible for reviewing patent applications and determining whether or not they comply with the requirements to be granted a patent (the invention must be novel, non-obvious, have an industrial application, and be sufficiently disclosed). 

PhDs who are interested in the FBI, CIA, and NSA usually come in as analysts, but if you’re more action oriented and you are under 37 years old (yes, the have a maximum age), you may also qualify for service as a special agent if that’s your cup of tea. 

For other roles within governmental departments and agencies, your expertise will largely determine the appropriate role, but you will likely be most sought after for a position that relies heavily on research expertise (no surprise there).  It should be pretty easy to guess how your expertise might match up to the work of a particular department or agency, but it’s worth digging deeper beyond the obvious as there are often unexpected opportunities across the board.  For example, there are historian positions within the department of the army, and biologist positions within the department of the interior.    

Application Process

The application process for government positions is pretty straightforward.  The openings will be listed on the appropriate website, along with the requirements for the position (make sure your resume and application contain the proper keywords, or else you run the risk of not getting through the automated application filter.)  Depending on the position to which you apply and the security clearance required you might be subject to extensive background checks, and in some cases a polygraph test to ensure that you’ve been truthful throughout the application process.  Most of the jobs that require some physical activity will also have a fitness component in the application process, so if you have your heart set on becoming a special agent with the FBI, put down those potato chips and get to jogging.  

The websites you will need to visit include:

  • For civilian jobs, there’s basically a one-stop shop for openings at all departments and agencies at  
  • For the army there’s and
  • For the navy there’s and
  • For the air force there’s and    
  • For the marines there’s and
  • For the coast guard there’s and

Career Progression

There’s not much mystery when it comes to career progression in government positions.  Most of the time there are clear paths of promotion with increasing levels of pay and management responsibilities.  There are sometimes special qualifications required before you can be promoted, but any educational requirements will not likely be a problem for someone coming in with a PhD (although you may be required to take a few specialized courses for certifications along the way).   One fairly common gripe among government employees is that as you move up in the ranks into more senior positions, you may find that the rate of promotion slows as it becomes increasingly dependent on people above you leaving/retiring to open up a spot.    

Work Hours

If you work in a civilian position within the government, your hours are likely to be a nice and reliable 9-5.  For more physical positions that require work in the field, you may be at the whim of when you are needed, making the job more akin to being a surgeon on call who could be needed at any given time, 24/7. 


Those who join the military have a clear and concrete answer regarding expected pay, as they will most likely come in at the O-3 pay grade, which translates to $3,835/month ($46,020/year).  Although that seems like a pretty low figure, in addition to salary, the military also provides a clothing allowance, a housing allowance, and a cost of living allowance.

Government jobs on the civilian side of things are also very transparent and postings for openings show the pay range alongside the job description.  For civilian jobs, the pay range will be determined by the series and grade of the position, which is also shown next to each opening.  The civilian jobs that are looking for PhDs generally offer a pay range from ~$60K all the way up to over $100K.    

Exit Options

Government positions are pretty stable (aside from the occasional base closing) and have great retirement benefits, so you may not want to leave once you are a few years in.  If you do decide to leave, many employers look favorably on the organizational and leadership skills associated with government experience.  Most of the positions also have direct equivalents to private sector positions, making the transition a fairly easy one.