Tina Fanetti currently works as a Survey Specialist for the National Agricultural Statistics Service, part of the United States Department of Agriculture. In this post she explains the Pathways Program, created by Obama to ease the transition into federal service. Dr. Fanetti graduated from the University of Missouri –St. Louis in 2011 with a Ph. D. in Education, Teaching and Learning Processes, with an emphasis in science education. She also has Masters’ degrees in Physics and Astrophysics. Email Tina at email@example.com
by Tina Fanetti
Once upon a time, I used to count sheep to fall asleep. Now I don’t count just sheep, but goats, fish, horses, cows, and turkeys, especially turkeys. I don’t count them to fall asleep anymore either; I count them every day at my job. I am a survey specialist with the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) National Agricultural Statistics Service. I’m a government bean counter. Seriously. My job entails conducting surveys to count and estimate all of the different agricultural products (including beans!) that the United States produces. Technically my job title is survey analyst/specialist (it keeps changing). As soon as my Pathways year is up, I will apply to become a mathematical statistician.
I have an MS in physics and in astrophysics and a Ph.D. in Education, Teaching and Learning Processes, with an emphasis in science education. I’ve worked as full-time community college instructor, an adjunct professor and as a science educator. I graduated with my Ph. D. in 2011 and have been unable to secure an academic job and have only had 2 interviews. Although I’m still hopeful that I will find that elusive post-doc, I can’t survive on dreams and had to make a living.
As a survey analyst/specialist, I use many of the same analytical skills I used working on my dissertation as well as some of the people skills I developed as a teacher. I analyze data, looking for anything that might require further investigation. Further investigation can simply mean calling the farmer or rancher and talking to them or it could involve exploring historical data or even industry trends. I also look for trends and cycles within the data. For example, I would expect more turkeys to be hatched 6-7 months before Thanksgiving than are hatched in January. Finally, I need to be able to communicate my findings to others. At my current level, I’m explaining information to my team lead and to HQ commodity statisticians. As I progress, I will be speaking with different agricultural organizations and businesses. I’m really excited right now because I’ve mentioned to one of my supervisors that infographics might be an excellent way to present some of the data NASS has and he is allowing me to put one together as a trial run.
Currently, I am responsible for the turkey surveys for my regional office. I’m learning more about turkeys than I ever knew was possible. (Did you know that domestic turkeys look more like really, really large chickens and not like their wild cousins?) I have a responsibility at every step of the process. Some of the things I do are very similar to the work I did for my dissertation. Headquarters sends out a survey draft and I review it to make sure there are no errors. I then contact everyone in my sample that has been pulled by HQ. Once that data comes in from my farmers and ranchers, I enter it into a program and begin examining the data. Does it make sense? Is it entered correctly? Was the math done correctly? Once the data is collected, I then compile the data to come up with a total turkey number for my region. I look at the number of turkeys my region has had and some of the trends in the turkey industry. I then decide how many turkeys there are in my region and write comments justifying my estimate.
It can be incredibly difficult to enter service with the United States Government. I’m at a slight disadvantage because veterans, people with certain disabilities, and current/displaced federal employees get preference. President Obama started a program known as the Pathways Program. It’s a program to introduce college graduates (within 2 years of the degree but there is a specific exception for veterans) into government service. There’s a mentoring component as well as a training component. Most Pathways programs are a year, but there are some two-year programs. It’s basically a trial period. If everything goes well and the agency and your superiors like you, you will likely be kept on (but it is not guaranteed).
There are Pathways programs in every government agency. This means that there are all kinds of positions with all kinds of skills needed. I have seen many jobs for working with the Veterans’ Administration to working with the one of the banking divisions. All government jobs are listed on www.usajobs.gov and it is the only way to apply for government jobs. The Pathways jobs and more information about them are placed here: https://www.usajobs.gov/StudentsAndGrads That site has a link that can help you line up your major with a federal occupation. Each job announcement will have what skills are required and what will need to be submitted with then application. You will need a resume/work history at the least and most likely your transcripts. I don’t believe I actually submitted a cover letter and many times they are optional. Your resume will need to reflect that you have whatever skills they are looking for. You can upload a resume but you will also be typing it in. Even if you don’t believe that you have the educational background for a position, it doesn’t hurt to read what the job specifically requires. To be a mathematical statistician with NASS, you need a combination of 24 credit hours in mathematics and statistics, with at least 6 being in statistics. I had no problem satisfying the math requirement with a physics degree and NASS counted my quantitative research classes from the College of Education as fulfilling the statistics requirement. Even though I don’t have a math or a statistics degree, I qualified.
Whatever position you apply for, you need to be able to relate your experience to what skills they are specifically looking for in an employee, especially during the interview. I gave many examples from my work as a graduate student and from my dissertation. When asked how I handled multiple deadlines, I mentioned graduate school deadlines and meeting them as well as meeting grading deadlines as an instructor. I was also asked about my analytical skills and this is where I really brought forth my dissertation experience. I talked about how I analyzed all of the data and how I drew conclusions. I also tried to bring in some non-academic experience I possessed to balance out my skills. This came up when I was asked about project management. The example I used, so as to give the interviewers a break from hearing about my dissertation, was how I was the photography assistant for a friend who had a short-term book contract. I helped research what to photograph, did all of the scheduling, kept track of what had been photographed and kept him motivated. This was a great example of project management from beginning to end.
Like with any job, it is what you make of it. There have been some rough parts as NASS has implemented the Pathways program. I’m hopeful I’ll be able to advance and work in either the training group or with the survey methodology section designing and researching the surveys.