I recently got this question and am sorry to tell you that the only possible answer is, “It depends.”

I have seen both extremes in the government hiring process (when I was a career counselor at a major university). The stereotype we hear is “about six months….” and it’s as good an answer as any – in general.

One extreme case I remember was a grad student in International Affairs, who was focusing on Eastern European Studies. He waited nearly three years for his state department job to come through. (That is, he was on the list of approved hires for that long, before a position actually came open!)  This was the longest waiting period I have heard of.

I also remember getting a call from a government agency hiring manager who was about to attend a campus career fair the next day, who wanted to me to alert the students in a particular discipline that her local agency office had just received a budget increase and they had to be able to hire three people within the next ten days, or they would lose the money.  That was the shortest government hiring period I ever heard of.

Here’s another situation I heard of occasionally (which is more common for entry-level jobs, especially those at bachelor degree levels). You can recognize these when you see a job listed as open, but there’s no application deadline. It usually means that an agency is simply collecting applications in anticipation of hiring a large number of people at the same time, with the same job title, but at different locations across the country. (I’ve seen them for the Forest Service and National Park Service, but many other agencies have multiple openings, too.)  Again, the actual date of hiring may depend on that agency’s budget, and they want to have a number of applicants in reserve when the budget increases, or in case the money comes through at the last minute. (Think congressional approval …..)

In some ways, you can look at the patience you may need while waiting for a government job as part of the criteria for being able to work happily in government – it is a bureaucracy, after all, with all the pros and cons that come along with it.