The All-Important Titles

Legislative assistant. Legislative correspondent. Legislative director. Intern. Capitol Hill jargon is filled with important titles. But what if your title confuses your colleagues? And what separates an “intern” from the elusive “fellow"? Hill Navigator discusses below:

Q. After a few years in the private sector and completing an M.A. in foreign affairs, I started work in the Senate as an unpaid "Policy Fellow" with a prominent member. The experience is proving substantive, affording me the opportunity to work on policy research, committee work and speeches for the member.

However, staffers in other offices sometimes take issue at my designation as "fellow." They claim it is disingenuous if not sponsored by an agency (State, DoD, etc.) or outside organization (Brookings, CFR, etc.) and I should actually just be called an intern. My LD and chief disagree and assure me it is kosher and will back me up.

Nonetheless, as I look for a salaried, staff level position with another member or committee staff, I don't want to come across as misrepresenting myself. Especially since reputation is important.

What do you advise? Stick with the title as-is? Re-brand in some other way to be more accurate?

Traditionally, “fellows” are paid by an outside organization or agency, as your colleagues mentioned. But keep in mind that interns can also receive compensation, either through an organization that sponsors them or through college credit. Not every intern works for free.

The lack of compensation is not relevant to the work you are doing. For purposes of your current work, use the “policy fellow” designation that you and your office agreed on. If a colleague asks you to explain further, say the office provided the title because they felt it was best suited to your level of experience.

Often policy fellows like yourself take meetings with constituents and interest groups. In situations like this, titles matter; a group may feel differently meeting with an intern, rather than someone they believe to be higher up in the office hierarchy.

(Hill Navigator is not minimizing the important and valuable work of interns in congressional offices — just acknowledging that even with the deluge of staff titles, "intern" tends to indicate bottom-of-the-staffing food chain.)

Are the staffers who take issue with your title curious about your arrangement or just playing a game of “I’m more important than you?” If it is the latter, keep your explanation brief. Don’t fall for the ego-baiting. But if it’s the former, take time to explain what you’re doing and why. These could be the people who help you get your next job. Hopefully one that is paid.