Understanding federal pay schedules

If you’ve ever read a job announcement on USAJobs and wondered what “GS” means, you’re not alone.

With internship deadlines approaching and seniors starting to look for full-time jobs, we’ve been asked to explain the federal pay system on a regular basis. For a full explanation of the General Schedule (GS, the pay system used by most federal agencies), visit the Partnership for Public Service’sFederal Pay” page on its Making the Difference website.

Here are some summary tips:

  • The General Schedule has 15 grades and 10 steps within each grade. The more experience and education you have, the higher the grade you’ll fall into.
  • If you’re graduating with a Bachelor’s degree and have limited professional experience, you will likely enter as a GS-5.
  • If you’re graduating with a Bachelor’s degree and have superior academic achievement (see the Federal Pay page for an explanation), you can qualify at the GS-7 level.
  • Candidates with Master’s degrees typically start at a GS-9.
  • After receiving a job offer, you can negotiate your salary. It’s not likely that you’ll negotiate grade increases, but try to ask for a higher step within your grade.
  • Federal agencies take cost of living into account, so the same job will pay you more in Washington, DC than in Atlanta, for example.

It is important to understand federal pay schedules to make sure you’re applying for positions you are actually qualified for. If you’re not sure whether you’re looking at the right level, meet with an advisor at the Career Center.

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