Commissioned Corps of the U.S. Public Health Service

Nurse Professional Advisory Committee

Career Development & Career Tracks


Begin your career development efforts with an honest assessment of yourself and your career goals.  While interests, values, and skills change with time, it is important that you begin to put both your life and your career in perspective in order to be able to recognize opportunities, which would be most rewarding and fulfilling for you.  Ask yourself the following questions, both now, and as you move through your career.

  • Why did I choose nursing as a profession?
    • Your values form the core of your life.  You chose nursing because; at least at some point in your life, you felt that it reflected those values.  You need to know what it is that you find important.  What type of activities do you like?  What type of work setting; alone or with others?  Where do family and outside interests fit in?  A successful career begins with a job, which is compatible with the rest of your life.
  • What skills do I bring to nursing and to the Commissioned Corps?
    • Skills are of both a professional and personal nature.  Professional skills are those competencies, which you have developed through training and practice.  These may be very specific, e.g. inserting a catheter or programming a computer, or they may be of a more general nature, such as communicating with a variety of people or coordinating a complex set of activities.  These types of skills are often useable in a wide variety of settings.  Personal skills are more fundamental and include such things as leadership.  What do I find rewarding about my current position and what else would I like to experience?

The ideal assignment would be one that reflects your values and allows you to utilize your skills to the fullest while at the same time acquiring new ones.  Even if you found such an assignment today, life is not static and growth requires change.  Hold up both the good and the bad for examination and learn from the experience.

Is there any direction to my career and I am directing it – a clinical role or another career path?

Be honest. Write the answers down, take them out, and review them from time-to-time throughout your career.  Note how they change and think about the directions in which they move. 

Once you have begun the assessment process, it is time to begin to make conscious career decisions and to set career development goals.  This is the planning phase of career development.  What actions can you take now and in the future to optimize your career?  Most people reach a point in their career when they feel that the satisfaction and excitement, which initially attracted them to a particular assignment, begins to fade.  Officers may want to consider the following advice:   Expand your present position.

Perhaps your current position might be restructured to give you greater scope to utilize your talents or to develop new ones.  Analyze your branch or division and try to identify new areas of responsibility, which would benefit both you and the organization.

Change how you relate to your work:

  • Reevaluate how you deal with stress, both on and off the job.  Often it is not the work that has gotten stale, but rather how you approach it.  Activities outside of work also have a major impact on how you view your job.

Increase your skills and knowledge:

  • Explore the opportunities that additional training might make available to you.  Do not focus only on the area of nursing in which you might currently be working.  Be open to new ideas, perhaps even outside of nursing.

Consider a new assignment:

  • One of the most attractive features about the Commissioned Corps is the tremendous variety of assignments available.  Often a new job will bring with it new challenges, opportunities, experiences, credentials and perhaps even a new locale.

When considering new assignments, whether within your current agency or outside your current program, officers are encouraged to meet with mentors to map out their careers.  Each future assignment should build upon the officer’s education and professional experiences, and follow in line with their professional category, functional group, as well as deployment role.

Each Commissioned Corps nurse will fall into one of four functional groups (Clinical, Applied Public Health, Research, and Mental Health).  The functional groups are a means of identifying the overall focus of an officer’s work activities and career path.  The functional group is determined by an officer’s billet.  Each officer will have three designations: professional category, functional group, and deployment role(s).  The functional group serves as a means to organize career tracks that span all professional categories.

Professional categories include physicians, nurses, pharmacists, dentists, dieticians, engineers, environmental health, health services, scientists, therapists and veterinarians.  More than 6,000 officers serve the Corps on extended active duty in a wide range of specialties in Federal agencies and selected assignments outside the government.  The officer’s professional category defines their skills set and professional/academic background.

The functional groups identify and help focus the officer’s overall work activities and career paths, supplementing an officer’s identification with his/her profession and associated Nursing Professional Advisory Committee (N-PAC).  There are four functional groups, clinical, applied public health, research and mental health.   An officer belongs to a functional group based on their billet and the career track to which their billet belongs.  For example, an officer may be in the nurse professional category, occupy a clinical nurse billet and have a clinical deployment role.

The four functional groups form a matrix with the 11 professional categories.  Based on grouping, the officers can effectively plan and coordinate their career tracks.




The Clinical Functional Group is composed of Commissioned Corps officers in billets that provide examination and interdisciplinary treatment to prevent disease, maintain, promote and/or restore health, and educate patients and providers in a safe environment.

Career fields within the Clinical Functional Group include:

Clinical/Clinical Management

Many HHS and non-HHS agencies offer opportunities for career growth within the clinical arena. This area encompasses professional activi­ties that relate to patient treatment ranging from direct care to consultation and/or guidance of other patient care staff.

Examples of agencies with clinical billets include but are not limited to, the National Institutes of Health, Federal Bureau of Prisons, Indian Health Service, Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and U.S. Marshal Service.


The Applied Public Health Functional Group is comprised of Commissioned Corps officers in billets that involve the organized application of scientific, administrative, medical and other health-related principles and practices to protect and improve the health and quality of life of individuals, communities, and populations.  Officers support and advance public health through activities such as providing health education, applying an evidence-based approach to promoting healthy behaviors, lifestyles, accessibility to quality healthcare and health services, safe environments and products that impact health, and detecting, monitoring and preventing diseases and adverse health conditions.

Career fields within Applied Public Health include the following:

Epidemiology/Public Health Practice

Epidemiology and public health practice involve the study, analysis, and/or recommendation of health measures based upon the incidence, distribution, and control of disease in a population.

International Health

Commissioned Corps officers engaged in international health activities focus on the influence of the global health environment on the HHS domestic mission.

Program Management

Program management/administration encompasses the control of the day-to-day operation of Agency programs requiring planning, development, budgeting, assessment, supervision, and/or coordination.

Regulatory Affairs

Corps nurses assigned to regulatory Operating Divisions within the Department participates in activities related to implementing, enforcing, controlling, directing, evaluating/inspecting, developing policy and/or regulations designed to safeguard public health.

Examples of agencies with applied public health billets include, but are not limited to, Federal Bureau of Prisons, Centers for Medicare and Medicaid, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Food and Drug Administration, Department of Homeland Security, Indian Health Service and National Institutes of Health.


The Research Functional Group is comprised of Corps officers in billets that involve conducting, managing, or supporting basic, clinical, applied, or population-based investigations designed to expand scientific knowledge.

Officers conduct and support research activities concerning public health or medicine.  They manage research activities concerning public health or medicine.  Officers also provide research-related advice, training, or assistance as a consultant, advisor, mentor, preceptor, or collaborator to health care providers, public health workers, students, governmental agencies, academia, scientific committees, tasks forces, and other groups as appropriate.

Examples of agencies with research billets include, but are not limited to, Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, Food and Drug Administration, and the National Institutes of Health.

The Mental Health Functional Group is comprised of Corps officers in billets that reflect the training, licensure, and/or appropriate qualifications required for the practice of mental health and related professions and the principal focus of whose activities is to foster optimal mental health functioning at the individual, group, and/or population level.

The mental health functional group was identified as a fourth functional group, mainly because of difficulty in meeting the deployment needs for mental health workers past public health emergency responses.  The mental health group promotes the professional identify and career growth of mental health professionals, establishes the professional and training standards for deployment as a disaster mental health specialist for officers, and creates the incentive and training to maintain a cadre of trained mental health specialists that can be deployed.  Deployment roles within the mental health functional group include mental health prescribers, disaster mental health clinicians, mental health crisis counselors, mental health outreach workers, clinical mental health team leaders, and more.

The mental health functional group has several career pathways stretching across billets in many federal agencies.   Examples of agencies with mental health billets include, but are not limited to, Substance Abuse & Mental Health Services Administration, Department of Homeland Security, Indian Health Service, and Program Support Center.

Several formal and informal means are available to you for investigating various types of positions and career tracks within your professional category and functional group. You should spend some time familiarizing yourself with these sources and with the information and guidance they can provide to you.  Given the extremely wide range of health related activities that Commissioned Corps officer’s are involved in, it is unlikely that you will be able to determine the scope of career opportunities without substantial research.  The following formal sources are a good place to start:

Information on nursing positions is available from Operating Division and regional personnel offices throughout the country.  Most PHS civil service personnel offices also have a Commissioned Corps representative who can assist officers with information on nursing program activities and assignments.

For commissioned nurse officers, the Office of Commissioned Corps Operations (OCCO) web page is available, to answer questions about commissioned corps policies and procedures available training opportunities, job vacancies and secure access to your own electronic official personnel file (eOPF).

The Nursing Professional Advisory Committee (N-PAC) meets regularly to discuss issues of significance to HHS nurses and to make recommendations to the Chief Nurse Officer. The N-PAC is comprised of civil service, tribal and commissioned corps nurses, representing each PHS agency with a significant number of nurses.  The N-PAC representative from your agency can be an excellent source for current information.  Minutes from the N-PAC meetings are available to all PHS nurses through their N-PAC representative and on line in the About N-PAC section of this web site.

The Career Development Sub-Committee of the N-PAC is also available to assist you with planning your career.

As an advocate for all HHS nurses, the Chief Nurse Officer routinely advises the Surgeon General and others on issues affecting HHS nurses.

In addition to the formal sources of information listed above, one of the most effective ways of expanding your career opportunities is through networking with other Commissioned Corps nurses.  Joining organizations and attending their meetings can provide officers and civilians an opportunity to meet program managers and nurses from throughout the Commissioned Corps and the Uniformed Services.  Some of the organizations include the Commissioned Officers Association (COA), the Association of Military Surgeons of the United States (AMSUS), the Reserve Officers Association (ROA), or nursing professional associations (See Appendix C).  Recruitment booths from several agencies are at national nursing meetings; volunteering to staff these booths is a good method of information gathering while supporting your profession.

After identifying specific career goals and developing a plan for achieving them based on your professional category, functional group and deployment role, you are ready to evaluate positions that contribute to your professional development.  Seeking new assignments in the PHS can be a challenging experience.  Particularly as one moves into more senior positions it is also very competitive.  Although credentials are useful, the candidate with the most credentials is not always the one who gets the job.  The candidate who has planned well, outlined and implemented a strategy, and remained flexible will frequently be the one selected.

How often you might consider changing assignments will be determined, in part, on your current career stage.  Generally, initial positions are of shorter duration, perhaps 2 to 3 years.  Assignments in several program areas provide enough time for you to learn the fundamentals and gain a general knowledge of the mission and function of the program.  Entry-level nurses can usually make changes easily; however, it becomes harder to identify suitable positions if the job change is delayed too long.

As you move further into your career and more complex positions, assignments may last for 5 years or more. Typically, individuals are considered too advanced for most entry-level positions after 6 years. However, they are generally not advanced enough to go directly into a senior level position in another program, especially an established one.  It may be easier to advance in a new and growing program.  Should you later decide on a career goal with a specific agency, one or two positions in related program areas of other agencies would be valuable to broaden your knowledge base and interagency understanding.

Once you have identified the position you are interested in, be prepared to work hard to get it.  Again, prior planning is the key element to success.  If you have already studied the requirements for the position and thoroughly familiarized yourself with the agency and/or program, you will be able to act quickly and decisively.  Often positions may not be widely advertised or may be open for only a brief time.

If you are a commissioned officer, have an up to date résumé ready at all times (See Appendix A).  For civil service professionals, a current résumé is also very valuable as a variety of formats are now acceptable for a civil service application.  If you are unfamiliar with how to write an effective résumé take a course, call or visit your career development center or consult your personnel specialist.  After all, this will be the first impression of you the hiring program will see.

It is most advantageous to be able to deal directly with the individual who will be making the selection.  Make yourself available for necessary interviews, but do not badger the selecting official during the selection process.

The interview is often the most important aspect of the selection process.  You should prepare and practice for the interview.  If your planning has been thorough, you will have a great deal of information on the organization and the specific position available.  You should review this information before interviewing.  During the interview, it is important to ask questions about what your responsibilities will be and how your position fits into the overall program mission.  Give honest answers to questions about your skills, abilities, and career interests.

After the interview, you should contact the person who interviewed you to thank them for the opportunity to interview.  You should also inquire as to when a decision will be made.  This shows interest and professionalism.


Once a goal has been established and plans for reaching it implemented it is necessary to evaluate your progress towards attaining it.  There are many ways that progress might be measured and the following list is provided only as a sample of the types of benchmarks that you might consider.  It is important that you review your career progress on a regular basis to determine if your goals remain realistic or if you might need to adjust them.  The list is not in any particular order and the relative importance of the benchmarks will vary from person to person.  Your career progression should include some or all of the following:

  • Progressively more responsible assignments within PHS
  • Professional publications and presentations
  • Graduate training at the masters, doctoral or post-doctoral level
  • Awards or other professional recognition for achievements
  • Advanced professional certification in a specialty area, e.g. NP, CRNA, CNS, CNM, CNAA, etc.
  • Assignments in supervisory positions or other positions of authority
  • Increased responsibility and participation in professional organizations as an officer, committee chairperson, seminar director, etc.
  • Assignments in advisory or consultant positions as a recognized authority on program areas or in highly specialized areas of considerable importance
  • Recognition as a research specialist in areas of national or international importance
  • Assignment to top-level positions involving responsibility for entire programs or important segments of extensive program activities

Identifying and obtaining the right position within your career track and functional group requires knowledge, experience, flexibility, perseverance and self-advocacy.  Not only must an officer have the appropriate credentials and experience, but it is crucial that he or she have access to the appropriate resources to get the important information necessary to take advantage of career opportunities that present themselves.  While there are many resources available to help you in the process, it is ultimately up to you to achieve your goals.  The Corps offers nurses an incredible diversity of professional opportunities in literally all areas of health care.  There is no magic formula for success and it is incumbent upon the officer to take responsibility for his or her own career development and advancement in the Corps.  With a coherent strategy and some hard work, you can realize a fulfilling and awarding career.

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Page Last Modified on 5/15/2023

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