Career Dynamics in the U.S. Civil Service

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This dissertation examines how knowledge is developed and deployed among employees inside one of the largest internal labor markets in the United States: the federal civil service. Each chapter lays out the theoretical background behind career- and capabilities-based processes, discusses the application to the federal employment context, and tests hypotheses derived from theoretical review, extension, and development. This dissertation uses data from two similar but distinct datasets, which come from the US Office of Personnel Management’s administrative records database. These datasets cover different periods of time (either 1974-2014 or 1989-2011), but both contain core information on civil servants and their employment.

The dissertation begins with a short introduction to organizational theory and sociological research on bureaucracies. The first chapter shows, contrary to standard economic and sociological theory, generalists in the federal civil service experience higher downstream pay than specialists. Several competing mechanisms are discussed, laying the groundwork for the next chapter. The second chapter explores the mechanism of coordinative capability as a key component of civil servants’ career success, finding that integration with the skillsets of co-workers positively predicts later salaries and levels of authority. This effect is most pronounced in larger divisions of the government, where the need to coordinate among employees with diverse capabilities is greatest. Thethird chapter moves from individual processes to organizational aggregates, demonstrating the influence of public-sector personnel capabilities on private-sector research and development (R&D). This final chapter evaluates the impact of the government’s geographically-bounded scientific capabilities on private R&D funding mechanisms and the downstream likelihood of patenting by federally-funded firms.

As a whole, this dissertation traces the historical dynamics of career progression for hundreds of thousands of individuals over multiple decades, elucidating both the career dynamics experienced by civil servants as well as the external influence of those collective dynamics as allocative processes that influence non-governmental outcomes.






Bruce, Joshua R. (2019). Career Dynamics in the U.S. Civil Service. Dissertation, Duke University. Retrieved from


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