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Scientific & Senior Level Positions

Senior Level (SL) Positions

The Senior Level (SL) category of high level Federal jobs was established in 1990 to replace GS-16, 17, and 18 of the General Schedule. There are two broad types of SL positions.

Most Senior Level employees are in non-executive positions whose duties are broad and complex enough to be classified above GS 15. However, in a few agencies that are statutorily exempt from inclusion in the Senior Executive Service (SES), executive positions are staffed with SL employees. The exemption from the SES covers Government corporations and a few other small agencies; examples include the Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation (PBGC), Export-Import Bank, and Federal Election Commission.

Scientific or Professional (ST) Positions

This unique category of Federal jobs covers non-executive positions classified above the GS-15 level, and involves performance of high-level research and development in the physical, biological, medical, or engineering sciences, or a closely-related field. Many of the Federal Government's most renowned scientists and engineers serve in ST positions.


Executive agencies must be granted an SL/ST space allocation from OPM before filling an SL/ST position. There are approximately 640 SL and 470 ST positions allocated to several Executive agencies.


An SL/ST employee who receives a performance rating at the fully successful level or better may be granted a cash award of up to $25,000, but not in excess of $10,000 without the approval of OPM. (The Department of Defense and Internal Revenue Service are authorized to give awards up to $25,000 without OPM approval.) In rare circumstances, cash awards above $25,000 may be given but only with White House approval.

Superior accomplishment incentive awards for a suggestion, invention, or special act or service not linked to a performance rating may also be given. Dollar limits for these awards are the same as those based on performance rating.

Career SL/ST employees can also be nominated for Presidential Rank Awards to recognize sustained and sustained extraordinary accomplishments. Recipients of the Distinguished Rank are entitled to 35% of annual basic pay, while Meritorious Rank recipients are entitled to 20% of annual basic pay.

Job Opportunities

Vacant SL/ST positions may be advertised on OPM's website at Agencies with the largest numbers of SL positions include Agriculture, Defense, PBGC, Justice, Treasury, Homeland Security, Interior, National Archives and Records Administration, Energy and NASA. Agencies with the largest number of ST positions include Agriculture, Commerce, Defense, EPA, HHS, Interior, and NASA. Each vacancy announcement describes the application requirements for the particular position to be filled.


SL positions are in the competitive service unless excepted from the competitive service under statute or regulations. An SES member may be appointed to an SL position noncompetitively if he or she has reinstatement eligibility and is qualified for the position.

All ST positions are in the competitive civil service; however, by statute appointments may be made to ST positions without going through the competitive examination process required for most entrants into the competitive civil service. This means qualified applicants for ST positions can often be hired more quickly than applicants for other Federal positions.


SL/ST employees qualify for retirement, health and life insurance benefits generally available to Federal employees, and under the same basic eligibility requirements. Additional information can be found at Healthcare and Insurance site and the Retirement site.


Each SL/ST position has its own particular set of qualification requirements. Time in grade requirements do not apply to SL/ST positions, so applicants do not need to have spent a certain period of time at the GS-15 or equivalent level. As noted above, most SL positions are for experts classified above GS-15. They do not meet the criteria for the SES, nor do they involve the fundamental research and development responsibilities that are characteristic of the Scientific or Professional (ST) system. Examples include a high level special assistant, senior attorney, or policy advisor in a highly-specialized field who is not a manager or supervisor. SL positions in agencies exempted from the SES will typically require executive qualifications.

For each ST position, the special qualifications, stature, and contributions of the individual placed in a given position will also have a direct and major impact on the level of difficulty and responsibility of the work. Typically, applicants for ST positions are expected to have a graduate degree, significant research experience, and a national or international reputation in his/her field.


The Senior Professional Performance Act of 2008 established a pay system for SL/ST employees effective April 12, 2009. Under the law, SL/ST employees are under a pay-for-performance system. On March 5, 2014, OPM issued final regulations for setting and adjusting pay for SL/ST employees. These regulations are effective April 4, 2014. The regulations provide for an agency to set and adjust pay for SL/ST employees based on individual performance, contribution to the agency’s performance, or both, as determined through administration of the agency’s performance appraisal system. They no longer receive locality pay. Click here for information on the regulatory provisions.

The top end of the salary range an agency may pay its SL/ST employees depends on whether OPM has certified the effectiveness of the agency's performance appraisal system. The maximum rate of basic pay for SL/ST employees who are under a performance appraisal system that is not certified is Executive Level III and the aggregate compensation limit is Executive Level I. (Aggregate compensation refers to the total compensation an employee may receive in a given year, including salary, awards and other incentives.) An agency with a certified performance appraisal system may pay SL/ST employees basic pay rates up to Executive Level II and may apply a higher aggregate compensation limit (equal to the Vice President's salary). Current salary rates can be found at the Salaries & Wages webpage. 


Employees in SL/ST positions are entitled to accrue annual leave at the rate of 8 hours per biweekly pay period regardless of the length of their Federal service, and can accumulate a total of up to 90 days (720 hours) of annual leave. All Federal employees including SL/ST members earn 13 days of sick leave each year. There is no ceiling on the amount of sick leave that may be carried over from year to year.

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