Taner Z. Sen, Computational Biologist for the United States Department of Agriculture Agricultural Research Service (USDA-ARS) and Collaborator Assistant Professor in the Department of Genetics, Development and Cell Biology at Iowa State University, answers some common questions about working for the USDA-ARS and discusses some differences between being a postdoc in a government versus an academic setting. (To read more about Sen’s position at the USDA-ARS, see Biophysicist in Profile)

Where can I find information about available postdoctoral positions in the USDA-ARS?

Open positions in the Federal Government are advertised at Once there, you can enter “postdoctoral research associate” as a search keyword. The site allows you to search using specific terms in your area of interest by browsing the position advertisements, but as a rule of thumb, use general rather specific descriptions. For example, searching using “biophysicist” or “biophysics” can return zero hits, but separate searches of “biology,” “physics,” ”chemistry,” or “computational” can lead to a position you may not know you are qualified for.

Is US citizenship a requirement to work in the USDA-ARS?

Because the USDA-ARS is a federal agency, only US citizens can obtain permanent scientist positions there. However, the USDA-ARS can hire a foreign national as a postdoctoral research associate if he or she:

  • is a US citizen;
  • is lawfully admitted for permanent residence and is seeking citizenship as outlined in 8 U.S.C. 1324b(a)(3)(B);
  • is admitted as a refugee under 8 U.S.C. 1157 or is granted asylum under 8 U.S.C. 1158 and has filed a declaration of intention to become a lawful permanent resident and then a citizen when eligible; and/or
  • owes allegiance to the US (for example, natives of American Samoa and Swains Island).

What is the average salary of a postdoctoral research associate working at the USDA-ARS?

Salary is an area that makes work in the Federal Government as a postdoctoral research associate very attractive. The Federal Government uses a pay scale to pay its employees. Postdocs are usually hired by the USDA-ARS at the GS-11 grade. However, the final grade determination is based on individual experience. In some cases, even experienced postdocs start at the GS-11, Step 1 level. This placement can depend on many factors, including position description and budgetary constraints. The exact salary amount is determined by the position’s geographic location in the US. You can find 2012 salary figures on the US Office of Personnel Management website at For example, in April of 2012, the base salary and locality pay for GS-11, Step 1 level for Richmond, Virginia was $58,569. Most locations will be listed under “Rest of the United States,” which has $57,408 listed for GS-11, Step 1. The salaries for postdocs in the USDA-ARS are very competitive compared to postdoc salaries in academic positions.

How does a postdoctoral position at the USDA-ARS differ from academic postdoctoral positions?

The main difference depends on the position description. When hired at the USDA-ARS, a postdoc will become a part of a Current Research Information System (CRIS) project, five-year projects that fulfill stakeholders’ needs. Depending on the CRIS project, these stake-holders can be farmers, breeders, or scientists working with a specific species. Stakeholders’ feedback identifying their needs and peer review for scientific quality shape the aims of a CRIS project. Some CRIS projects resemble academic projects, pursuing hypothesis-driven research. Others provide services. Still others create tools for the communities they were created to serve.

For job seekers, it is of vital importance to read the position description very carefully. These federal position descriptions are written using specific language and you are expected to devote 100% of your time to your project according to the description provided in the advertisement. In contrast, your project in academia may change its course depending on the current funding situation. In the USDA-ARS, you are hired to fulfill a certain role in an already funded project, so your research is not likely to change after a few months on the job.

Flexibility of and compensation for work hours stand out as another difference between working in academia and working in the USDA-ARS. In academia, work hours are usually determined arbitrarily by the principal investigators. There can even be discrepancies between work hours required by postdocs in the same department. Not so in the USDA-ARS. Without exception, postdoctoral research associates are required to work 40 hours a week. If they attend a conference or other event that necessitates working additional hours that week, they are either financially compensated or permitted to take time off in the following weeks.

For more information about careers with the USDA-ARS, visit

May 2012 Table of Contents

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