Government Alumni Spotlight – Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)

Throughout April, Career Services hosted a series of online chats with graduate alumni working for the federal government.  On April 15th, we heard from a master’s in geosciences graduate who is currently working as a physical scientist for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).  Below is a summary of her experiences and advice for current Penn graduate students.

How she began to think about a career in industry/how she explored the interest

  • Previously studied meteorology and worked for the National Weather Service
  • In exploring interests, discovered the field of environmental consulting and decided to pursue a master’s at Penn with that goal in mind
  • Her concentration at Penn was in environmental geology with a focus on coastal communities
  • She spent a summer working for an environmental consulting company, but her experience there did not meet her expectations – it was a lot of sampling work and maintenance of pumping wells. She felt her work did not have the impact she had been hoping for.
  • She had applied for an internship with the EPA as a part of the federal government’s Pathways program. They contacted her while she was working at her summer internship and encouraged her to apply for an internship during the academic year.

How she applied/the structure of the application and interview process/Advice for interviewing/how and when to apply

  • Pathways program is designed for students who are new to the federal government and provides both full- and part-time opportunities.
  • Need to apply to the program through USA Jobs – you can select the agency that interests you, but there is a placement process which determines where you are placed within the agency. It is not strictly placement, though, as you can receive multiple offers from different agencies/departments and then choose.
  • The application timeframe for the Pathways program is very narrow; she recommended having all of your documents ready to go for when you see it open up. Create an account on USA Jobs and sign up to be alerted when positions are posted, they are sometimes only open a few days.
  • She used a traditional resume format (not federal format) for her application
  • She was first contacted by human resources, who asked her over email why she was interested in the EPA. This led to a 4-person panel interviews.
  • She applied in March, was contacted in October for interview, and started in January.
  • Pathways internships are throughout the year, not just in the summer. It is really helpful to know someone within the agency who can refer you.
  • Began her internship when she still had 2 classes to finish; worked full-time while she completed coursework at night. Managers were very understanding that she was a student.

Transitioning from graduate work to industry

  • She was placed in the air and radiation division; she likes it there, but it is very easy to move around within the agency or division.
  • The EPA is a regulatory body of the federal government, and she is the technical lead for air quality contamination; this allows her to utilize her background in meteorology as well

Work/life balance before and during COVID, salary information

  • She is very happy there and plans to stay long term with the agency
  • Opportunities exist to test out other areas; the DETAILS program is a temp agency within the EPA, and there are temp roles available that are only available to current employees. You do a short-term role elsewhere, and then return to your area at the end of the temp role.
  • Lots of opportunities to participate in training; she works closely with Pennsylvania state agencies, and she can participate in their training as well
  • Pre-COVID, she did a lot of field work, hoping to get back to this soon
  • Very good work/life balance. Lots of flexibility – she works 7:30-3:30 each day and works very much within those hours.  EPA encourages a life outside of work and there are lots of extracurricular activities to participate in
  • Virtual work has been great – recognize that they did some traveling which wasn’t really required
  • They had always integrated working from home in the past (although not 100%) – their union has negotiated that they will work in the office 3 days a week when things reopen

How she was involved as a student at Penn, and how this helped

  • 60% of her classmates in her program were part-time students who worked full-time; she networked with them a lot (which led to her summer internship with a consulting firm). Get to know your classmates!
  • She encouraged students to keep their eyes open and explore anything that seems interesting. She was very focused on one thing – environmental consulting – and when she tried it and didn’t like it, she had to regroup

Click here to see the notes from our chat with an alum working for the Food & Drug Administration (FDA)

By Dianne Hull
Dianne Hull Senior Associate Director, Graduate Students & Postdocs