Scientific evaluation within the U.S. federal government

Early career experience with the panel system

My name is Christel Kern. I am a Research Forester for the USDA Forest Service, Northern Research Station. I have been working as government scientist since I received my PhD in 2011. The first few years of life as a government scientist have worked well for me so far. Before I get into why, let me share some important details.

Alternative scientific careers

A number of career paths exist for PhD recipients in ecology. Academic careers are most available and known. Success in academia is often evaluated through a tenure system. Guest bloggers will share stories and tips for tenure-track positions and success in upcoming posts. In this post, I focus on the U.S. federal government and how the evaluation system provides another, less known career path for scientists.

No tenure for federal government scientists

Federal government scientists are not tenured. They are evaluated for promotion following the Research Grade Evaluation Guide (RGEG, U.S. Office of Personnel Management 2006), often referred to as the “panel” system. RGEG positions are reviewed every 2-5 years. Over a RGEG scientists’ career, she/he may be reviewed over 6 times.  This is different than the tenure system in academia.

A panel of peer scientists reviews RGEG positions. The process highlights the recent and career-long contributions of a scientist’s impact, stature, and recognition based on a position description that is drafted and submitted by the scientist. Subsequently, the panel decides upon the appropriate classification of a scientist’s grade series (“grade” or “GS”) between GS-11 to GS-15+, a gradient of junior to senior ranks. For instance, a recent PhD graduate is classified as a GS-11 scientist.  A GS-11 scientist must develop their research program over two panel cycles (~5-7 years) to obtain a GS-13 classification, a comparable rank to a newly-tenured faculty. Thus, panel recommendations may result in an increase in grade (a promotion), but may also result in a decrease or no change in grade.

The panel system does not result in termination as it can with the tenure system. Other performance processes specified by a supervisor evaluate job performance. Thus, peers determine employment rank and a leader determines employment status.

How it works for me

I work with my supervisor at mid-year and end-of-year performance reviews to set annual goals in manuscript and proposal submissions, scientific presentation outlets, and professional outreach to maintain an achievable pace towards a ‘promotion’ outcome in my next panel. General standards for scientists are set by leaders and include annual goals such as three manuscript submissions, one proposal submission, and two presentations. The specifics are adjusted for individual scientists based on their career phase and prior performance.  The goals are always framed within the mission of my organization, my expertise, and the knowledge needs of science.

The process has worked well for me so far. A few years ago my position description was judged by a panel as a GS-12 position, as such, I was promoted from a GS-11 to a GS-12.  The panel’s review highlighted some of my strong points and areas that needed more focus to further develop my career.  I have used these comments in addition to my supervisor’s comments to guide my career over the past couple years.

I will be due for another panel this coming year. I am meeting with my supervisor this week to review where I am now and what I need to do in the coming year to be in the best position for another promotion. If a panel recommends no change or demotion for my position, then my supervisor and I would review the panel comments, make course corrections, and, again, strategize for success at the next panel a few years later.

Government career life is good for me

For me, this evaluation system has worked well so far. I appreciate regular mentoring and accountability.  I appreciate the clarity of performance expectations as outlined by the RGEG and by leaders.  I appreciate the long-term view of a career as incremental steps and not a one-shot deal.

There are many other aspects of my government scientist position that I also enjoy. These include being a part of a mission-led organization, engaging in experimental forests and long-term silviculture studies, and having flexibility to balance work and personal life. Today, I just focused on how government scientists are evaluated and how it has worked for me. In a future post, I may explain some of these other aspects of my position that may be less known and interesting to early career ecologists.

If you are also a government scientist, please share if your early career experience with the panel system is similar or different. If you are not a government scientist, please comment on how your organization’s evaluation system is similar or different.  Thanks!  Your comments and discussion are valuable to section members!



U.S. Office of Personnel Management. 2006. Research Grade Evaluation Guide. (12 November 2013).