The Thinker

USGS: a great place to work

For about two years now, I have been working for the U.S. Geological Survey. I work at their headquarters building in Reston, Virginia. I am a civil servant with twenty-three years of federal service. The USGS is actually the fourth federal agency where I have hung my hat. For me there is absolutely no question about it: working for the USGS is a wonderful and stimulating experience. For twenty years, I worked at agencies full of mediocrity. Sometime they bordered on being dysfunctional. Consequently, sometimes my hard work was not appreciated. Now, I look forward to coming to work. There is no reason for me to look anywhere else in Club Fed. USGS is where I will hang out until I retire. The only thing that upsets me is I had to spend twenty years wandering the federal wilderness before I found a home at USGS.

If you take the time to visit the USGS jobs site, you can read exactly why it is a great place to work. For the most part the information on the page would apply to any federal agency. Arguably, these days any one of these standard federal benefits would qualify it as a great place to work. Try getting a defined pension benefit plan as a new employee even at IBM these days.

One of the reasons I like working at USGS is that, of the four agencies for which I have worked, it feels the least like a bureaucracy. It is more than the casual dress. USGS is part of the Department of Interior, and our unofficial department motto seems to be, “We don’t need no stinking suits and ties!” Of course, since we manage federal lands many of us spend our days outdoors getting very personal with nature. However, many of us are still tied to our desks. Except for some in the Department of Interior headquarters in D.C. and various senior executives scattered across the country, few of us do the suit and tie thing. Even my Associate Director usually arrives in slacks and a button down shirt (no tie). He keeps a sports coat and some emergency ties discreetly in his office should the situation warrant. Casual Friday? I am trying to imagine how that would be different. Every day is casual day where I work. I wear jeans to work every day. I generally avoid wearing T-shirts, although many employees wear them routinely. I could wear sneakers too but I prefer wearing modest hiking shoes instead. The only time I have to play the dress up game is when I am going to an important meeting offsite. For example in December, I had to attend a meeting at the National Science Foundation. I still skipped the suit, but I felt compelled to do the dress pants, shiny shoes, long sleeve shirt and tie thing.

Of course dressing casual is more the business norm these days than dressing up. However, those of us who live and work around Washington, DC usually have to play the dress up game. The degree of dressiness is directly proportional to your distance from the White House. Particularly if you reach a certain federal grade level (generally GS-13 or above) the peer pressure to dress up can get quite strong. For more than twenty years, I did the dress up lite routine, which meant everything but the suit. In later years as I advanced to the upper grades I learned to keep a sport coat in my office for those occasions when I had to interact with people more than a grade above me. Needless to say it didn’t fit me. I always felt I was projecting the wrong image of myself when I dressed up for work. I am more of a jeans and polo shirt kind of guy.

So perhaps the casual dress culture is not that much of an asset. For me the most amazing thing about the USGS is that employees are fully empowered. There is of course a top down hierarchy; it is just that most of the time it does not matter. My associate director, for example, is a man named Bob. He expects a relative peon like me to also call him Bob. Everyone I meet feels fully vested in the agency and knows that their work matters. It matters because their work really does matter. USGS is, after all, an institution chock full of scientists. Scientists as a rule are far more concerned about science than they are about politics or hierarchies. Nothing is more precious to us than our reputation for accurate science.

In other federal agencies where I worked, many employees were clock-watchers. It’s not that they hated their jobs, it’s just that their evenings were far more enjoyable than their working hours. At USGS, most of us do not watch the clock. We are too busy happily engaged in our jobs. I trust that all of my employees will accurately account for their time and I am sure they do. Some I know will routinely work many more hours than they can charge for without authorization. They do it because they are involved with their work. They know that their contributions make a tangible difference to the quality of our science and the products that we put out. Consequently, their job becomes fun instead of a chore.

USGS is a very spread out agency. It has to be that way since ours is a big country. We need to be close to where the science is happening. Each state generally has a central office, and most have branch offices. To collaborate you have to work across geographical boundaries. Of course, this means a lot of conference calls and online Webex sessions. It also means a fair amount of travel. I am sure we have employees who never travel anywhere, but I think they are the exception. It is an unusual employee who does not have to travel somewhere on business at least once a year. Last year I was on an airplane five times for my job. I could have likely been on an airplane many more times had I elected it. Mostly I go to Denver, but last year I also visited Helena, Atlanta, San Francisco and Portland, Oregon. It is good to get out of the office during the year for a change of perspective and scenery. My job has just the right amount of business travel. Often I have the opportunity to see some unique aspects of the areas that I visit. In my other jobs, I could go years between business trips, if I went on any at all.

No matter where I go though, the people who work for USGS are uniformly friendly, professional and interesting. Despite seeing many of them only once or twice a year, it is as if they are just down the hall from me. The many conference calls between business trips fill in the gaps. We are truly one big team. The only challenging part is dealing with the time zone problems. Invariably for those of us on the East Coasts this means our many conference calls are packed into the afternoons.

As far as I can tell, the only downside to working at USGS is we cannot own certain kinds of energy stocks. Since geology is the best-known part of our business (we also do water resources, biology and cartography), those engaged in geology may have insight into areas that are profitable for oil and natural gas exploration.

I suspect there are other federal agencies that are similar to USGS, but not many. I would bet NOAA and the National Science Foundation share many of our values too. I do know that I feel very valued and engaged at USGS. I appreciate the non-hierarchical culture; it is a perfect fit for me. If you want to impress people at USGS, do better science. For the most part though we are too engaged in our science to care too much about whether our own egos are puffed up or not. We are professionals in the best sense of the word.


One Response to “USGS: a great place to work”

  1. 5:59 am on April 1 2011, E S said:

    Hi Mark!

    It is great to read about what it is like to work at the USGS in Reston–sounds wonderful. My number one career goal is to work there! Right now I’m getting some valuable experience in New Zealand (fantastic geology!), but it’s all for the goal of working exactly where you do one day. Do you mind sharing more about what skills are useful for for employment there? Particularly for those of us who do not have PhD’s but have years of experience instead. Any keys to getting the resume read? Thanks for your time.

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