Ask a staffer how she or he got that first job on Capitol Hill, and most have a colorful story to tell.
Some started as interns, which led to full-time work. Some pounded the pavement handing out résumés until they landed an interview. And some went about it the old-fashioned job-bank route.
For those still looking, the wait for a job can seem endless. Here are some tips on how to make the job-searching process work the best for you.
"I have been eyeing a job on the Hill because I want the opportunity to see our government function and the legislative process.
I’ve been having coffee/beer dates with the coms director and counsel to this senator frequently and they’ve been passing around my résumé. The last time I met with them, the counsel [said], “Something may open up.”
Do you think that being crystal clear with my intentions and the fact that he mentioned that “something may open up” means anything?
In addition, [an organization] sends out their “job bank list,” which shows vacancies on the Hill, and [I] frequently apply for the ones that make sense to me and then let my insiders know that I’ve applied for a position and to keep their ears open.
Do you think that I am overdoing it with my insiders? Do elected officials actually pull from these advertisements or do most of the jobs get filled by people already on the Hill?"
I think your approach is the right way to go about it. Network on the Hill, be clear about what you’re looking for and don’t give up.
But searching for a job can have its discouraging moments, especially as it seems that despite all of your hard work, “something” has still not come up.
Some things to keep in mind in your job search:
1. Very few people get a Hill job easily. Sure, there are people plucked from college for an entry-level job in D.C., but most had to pound the pavement to get where they are. The same aides who are meeting you for coffee once had their résumés passed around, tossed in the trash, resurrected and were given unpaid intern positions before they landed the coveted full-time job. If Capitol Hill is where you want to work, you should keep doing what you are doing. Be gracious and patient, all the while staying focused on your goal.
2. The chance of getting a job through the job banks is likely less than landing a job through regular informational interviews or an internship. I, too, was skeptical of job banks, or the anonymous “WESTERN SENATOR SEEKS STAFF ASSISTANT” job postings that float around Capitol Hill. But that does not mean you should give up. On the contrary, the job banks and job postings exist because offices are still interested in outside talent. And while I wouldn’t rely solely on the job boards, I wouldn’t ignore them, either. Even landing an interview is good practice and movement toward networking further. And keep in mind the golden rule of Washington, D.C.: Even if you don’t get the exact job you’re interviewing for, it doesn’t mean there won’t be another job for you in that same office that is a better fit.
3. “Something may open up,” is maddeningly vague, yes, yet it is entirely true. A job opening could sprout up. Someone could be just days away from giving two weeks’ notice, and you might be the ideal candidate. So while that is not giving you any promises — and it is certainly not enough for you to hang your hat on and slow your own job search down — it’s accurate. What you can do is stay in touch with those contacts, reiterate your own interest and keep them up to date on your job search. Your motivation and drive can leave a strong impression — so when something does open up, they’re more likely to remember you.
Hill Job 411
"I moved to the District a year ago (about two years out of school) with the hopes of landing an internship or entry-level position in a Hill office. I ended up taking a job at a large organization to pay the bills. I was only able to develop a couple of minor contacts in a senator’s office from my home state, and they didn’t yield much. I don’t have any other contacts on the Hill. What can I do to meet staffers, or get my résumé in Hill offices (more effectively than mailing it or using the online job banks)? And should I mainly target my home state’s representatives and senators?"
Smart first move. Home-state senators and representatives are the best place to begin your job search. Even if they don’t have a job opening, a staffer from their offices should be able to provide an informational interview for you. You should have contacts in each of your home-state offices — particularly from the party you’d prefer to work for.
And these minor contacts you refer to — why are they minor? Follow up with them. Ask them for additional people you can talk to about the Hill. Even if they meet you for a surly coffee and give you a name of one person who doesn’t email you back, still be gracious and send a friendly thank-you note .
But let’s assume you’ve visited your home-state offices, met people for countless coffees and your handwritten thank-you notes have already been delivered — yet you’re still running dry on contacts. Try talking to former staffers. People who work off the Hill often still have connections and can help arrange more informational interviews. Former staffers sometimes have an even greater motivation to help you — once you land a position on the Hill, it’s one more contact in their coffer.
And don’t despair when contacts don’t initially “yield much.” Landing a job on Capitol Hill can be a long, cumbersome process — but keep at it. Just think, the government shut down and staffers nearly lost their paychecks and health insurance, yet people still are clamoring to work there.
For the New Graduate
Plenty of people will arrive in Washington, D.C. with a diploma in hand and starry gaze toward the Capitol Dome. But wanting a job in public service isn’t enough. How do you find one? And then, how do you find a place to live? Here’s how to spin your credentials into a job on Capitol Hill and move here permanently. It starts — like many things in life — with lots of coffee.
"I am a college senior about to graduate and make my way into the real world. I have no idea where to begin finding an apartment in D.C., especially one on a beginning Hill staffer’s salary. Any tips or tricks that you can offer a newcomer into the D.C. professional world?"
Get ready for the group house. Before you wince, let me give you a few selling points on why living in a house with a few other people — otherwise known as your new friends — is a great idea and will save you money, too.
Group houses are cheaper. You’re sharing everything from the cable bill to the dishwasher and probably a bathroom, so your rent is going to be lower than in a studio apartment.
You’re also in a house, so you’re less likely to pay for a doorman and concierge service. And if you live in a neighborhood like Capitol Hill — where you can walk to work! — you can likely find street parking and avoid paying for a space.
If living in Dupont Circle or the U Street area strikes your fancy, you can ask your office to give you a parking space in lieu of a Metro subsidy and leave your car permanently parked in Lot 7. Or leave the car at home and take the Metro like the rest of your cohorts.
Group houses come in all varieties; you can find one that is all guys, all girls or mixed. Rooms are usually pro-rated on size and desirability, so you can opt for the master bed with adjoining bath or take the super cheap spot in the basement.
So where can you find this group house? Craigslist. The Rayburn bulletin board. Friends. Word of mouth. Post a message on Facebook. People are always looking for roommates and — similar to hunting for a job — they prefer people they know or who have been recommended.
Roommates make your dollars go further, and if you are new to Washington, they’ll be an asset to your social life as well. By the time you’re sick of them, hopefully you’ll have a promotion and raise to pay for a place of your own.
"I am originally from the D.C. area and moved to the Midwest a few years ago with my wife. I have a year and a half of my bachelor’s degree to complete and may stay in the Midwest just long enough to finish a master’s program. Immediately following my education, we are moving back to D.C. to be back near my family. When should I start trying to network and communicate with people who may help me land a position on the Hill? I know these people are exceptionally busy. Am I bothering them wasting their time by trying to make contact from across the country and a year and a half (or more) out?"
Start now. Start the minute you think you want to move to Washington and get a job on Capitol Hill.
The job process is long and cumbersome, and face-to-face informational interviews remain among the best ways to get your résumé noticed. People want to hire people they have met before or who have been referred to their office. These are small offices, so personalities matter a great deal in finding someone who will be a good fit for an already crowded space.
In a stack of 100 résumés for a job opening (I don’t exaggerate; I’ve heard of piles several times that large), most of the applicants are qualified. More are over-qualified than under-qualified. Master’s degrees, law degrees, fellowships abound. How will you stand out? By putting a face with your name. And it’s hard to do when you’re far away. This means you need to start as soon as you can.
People in Washington are busy. People on Capitol Hill are even busier and will love to tell you that. But they can usually find time for a quick cup of coffee when you’re in town to meet and chat. Be willing to come to them. Set up multiple coffee meetings in one day if you can schedule it. Follow up with thank-you notes, both handwritten and email. (Handwritten because everyone loves to get mail and it shows you’re classy; email because they need to know where to forward job openings.)
Use your existing network to branch out. Since you’re from the D.C. area, use those connections to set up meetings. If you have a degree, you’ll also have an alumni network, so give alumni a call and see if they know people who work on Capitol Hill. With each meeting, or at least the ones that seem to go well, ask if the person can give you additional names. Slowly you’ll build a network and mound of business cards, so when you move back to the D.C. area full time you’ll be in great shape to keep going with your job search.
Watch Out for Poison Pills
Internships can lead to great things. But what if you’re interning with an organization that you’d rather not attach your name to? Here’s how to evaluate just how damaging might a Google search be for your future prospects.
"As a recent college graduate, I’m recently on the hunt for a full-time job, but in the meanwhile I plan on continuing to intern. I have an offer on the table to work for an unnamed advocacy group that works with privacy/censorship issues. Without getting too specific, they’re very much of the anti-NSA surveillance, pro-Edward Snowden persuasion. This position would entail writing public pieces that my name would be attached to.
While I don’t disagree with most of their positions, I wonder if this job would be a poison pill, given that my primary interest is national security. If I try to get a position later on, say with the House Committee on Homeland Security or a governmental agency, would I get blackballed based on my association with this group?"
Blackballed, no. But any prospective employer is likely to ask about your previous work, and if you’re attaching your name to something that any Google search can turn up, you want to make sure it’s representing you well.
Likely a future employer in the same field would have some understanding of this group’s policies and positions. Civil policy disagreements are part of the nature of working in Washington. But if it’s a fringe or extreme organization, you’re correct that a governmental agency might raise eyebrows at your association. If you want to take the temperature of such a group, ask people currently in the field how the group is regarded. They can give you an answer as to how your future employers might view this line on your résumé.
Given the language of your question (“poison pill” and “blackballed”), I’m inclined to think this group might not be the best fit for you. But ultimately that is for you to decide. Part of the internship experience is finding out what suits you best. If it’s not the right fit for you, learn what you can and move on. One internship need not define the rest of your career.
The Intern Rerun
Even the best of internships have their limits. Here’s how you know when you’ve reached the end of the intern trail.
"I’m a college senior who will be graduating in May. I have interned in two congressional offices and my ultimate goal is to be back on the Hill. I have a couple of questions. Firstly, when is it appropriate to start applying to staff assistant positions such as those listed on job banks? Secondly, I know that both of the offices I have interned for would consider me if they had a staff assistant opening, but that doesn’t seem likely at the moment. I know there are many ways to get to a job on the Hill, but do you think I should cut to the chase and intern again in an office in hopes of it turning into a paid position? If so, is it best to wait until the fall?"
Interning on Capitol Hill is one of the best ways to find a paid position. But you know this, which explains why you’ve interned twice already, putting yourself in a strong position to be hired. You have Hill experience and you have some foresight to start applying soon.
But Capitol Hill will not fit neatly into many timelines, and even the strongest powers of prognostication cannot tell you how long until you find a paid position. What Hill Navigator can tell you is how to maximize your opportunities to do so.
Stay in Touch: Those offices that you interned for are your best resource for additional informational interviews, recommendations for offices to contact and potential future employment. They should know that you are looking and it’s your job to keep them informed of your progress. If you are applying somewhere, let them know. If you are looking for an introduction to a particular office (perhaps your home-state senator or member from a nearby district), then see if they can help arrange one. Be gracious, be patient and follow up with a thank-you note each time they help you. Staff members are less likely to turn away an applicant who has been recommended to them by another office. You might not get the job, but you’re more likely to land an interview.
Evaluate Your Prospects: What does a third internship get you? Are you angling to work on a particular committee or in a particular chamber, but lack the requisite experience? If so, a third internship homing in on your interests could help. But if you’re just adding another office experience that is largely indistinguishable from the previous two, you may be better off finding temporary paid work while focusing on your Hill search.
Seek Selective Guidance: Hill Navigator thinks you’re great, though we haven’t actually met so I can’t give you the personal assessment you need on how long your job search might take. Seek out one or two trusted individuals for their input; they may have insight on how long you’ll be waiting for a job. Perhaps you’re from a region that is likely to be hiring someone local, or people are getting ready to depart for midterm election campaign trails. Or, perhaps you’re angling for a position that could take months (or a blue moon) to become available. Not all resumes and job opportunities are created equal, and someone who is closer to you and the process can give you a more realistic assessment of how long your wait might be.
The Staff Assistant
Best way to end your internship? With a staff assistant job.
Hill Navigator was once a staff assistant — answering phones, ordering sandwiches from the Rayburn Special Orders deli (old timers may remember that one) and greeting every visitor with a big smile and an offer to make fresh coffee. Such skills may be deemed entry-level, but they have served me well in every job I’ve had since. By the time I’d become weary with the job, a promotion — to the coveted back office — was in the wings.
And so it goes, a tale common for many Hill staffers. The lesson? Don’t overlook what the staff assistant does. It’s important. It’s necessary. It keeps the offices functioning and smiling. And — I’ll put this in bold — it’s a great job to have. Just not for too long a stretch of time.
"I will [soon be a] graduate of a small liberal arts college, and I will be working as the campaign manager for a congressman during the 2014 cycle. I do not have any direct Hill experience, but I will have three election cycles under my belt (including the 2014 cycle). I do not want to be stuck as the campaign junkie and my short term goal is to work on the Hill. When is a good time to start looking for jobs on the Hill? What level of positions should I be looking to apply for? Am I stuck at the staff assistant level because of the lack of experience?"
“Stuck at the staff assistant level?” Stuck?
It sounds like you are a promising, eager, college-graduate-to-be who wants to work on Capitol Hill. And you’ve got campaign experience, so you’re likely someone who knows how to work hard for little pay. The one hitch in your question? The idea that you’d be “stuck at the staff assistant level.”
The staff assistant job is not quicksand. It is a launching pad. A caterpillar. Insert any metaphor for things that start small before getting big.
Staff assistant is the common point of entry for Capitol Hill jobs for recent graduates. According to the 2010 House Compensation Study, the D.C. staff assistant position has an average tenure of less than two years. Less than two years. And where do these staff assistants go? They get promoted. Or they get a better job. And wherever they go, they take that Hill experience with them.
So I’ll take the liberty of reframing your question: When is a good time to start looking for a job and what level should you seek out?
If you know you want to work on the Hill, start now. You don’t have to be a college grad to go on informational interviews. Start with your local and state delegations and any offices that are closely connected to the campaign you are working on. Meet with them in earnest. Say that you’re hoping you can join a congressional office once the campaign ends. Be willing to take any position, though given your lack of Hill experience and your recent college degree, you’d be wise to look for entry-level spots and then work your way up. Let your campaign know your future goals; many campaign aides end up on the hill, so you might already work for your future boss. And your campaign experience isn’t all for naught. The same work ethic and political smarts that serve you well on the campaign trail will translate to a congressional office. Even at the staff assistant level.
Making the Intern-to-Staffer Leap
"I have been interning for a representative for a few months and was recently hired as a full-time staffer. I am beyond excited for my new job, but a little worried about the transition (both for myself and for other staffers) from intern to full time. What can I do to differentiate myself from my past role?"
Congratulations on the new job. Presumably you’ve been promoted because you did outstanding work as an intern. So keep in mind that the skills and work ethic you exhibited initially are the same ones your office is likely hoping will continue. If you weren’t “too big” to make coffee as an intern, don’t be too big for it as a staffer. And if you excelled at a particular area — be it sorting mail or answering phones — keep doing that now. The new title and responsibilities are a strong testament to your previous success, so be careful not to change your ways too much.
One thing you’ll learn about Capitol Hill is that staffers respond to success. Show that you’re a willing and capable member of the team and they will start to treat you as such. And you’re already starting ahead of the gate — they saw your work and thought you’d be a great fit. Sounds like there is not too much changing you’ll need to do.
Looking for a Mentor?
A good mentor can change your world. At their fingertips are advice, connections, all for your benefit. But for most of us, finding a great mentor isn’t like buying a sofa on Craigslist.
There are a lot of superstars to-be on Capitol Hill, many of whom have advice to offer. Here’s how to turn their goodwill into a mentorship.
"How do you turn a key relationship into a mentorship? Thanks!"
Good news for you: You already have.
If you have a “key relationship” with someone who gives you feedback and insight, therein lies your mentorship. You do not need to bestow the “mentor” title upon them; all you need to do is reiterate how much you appreciate their time and advice and soak up as much of their wisdom as possible.
And here are a few ways to continue to do that:
Take their advice. Are you bemoaning your lack of promotion options, but then refusing to go on the handful of informational interviews that your mentor suggests? If you can’t take her advice, don’t take up too much of her time. Hill Navigator acknowledges there are times to agree to disagree, but if you want this to be a relationship that lasts through your next job, make sure it’s someone who is simpatico with your worldview. From her end, it is much more gratifying to spend time with someone who values the advice she doles out.
Give the good news and the bad. Don’t just seek the mentor out when you need help. Be sure to keep him apprised of the good in your world, especially if you can do so as a credit to his help. Even if all he did was refer to you read Hill Navigator, thank him for the advice and say how much it helped.
Give thanks. Most key relationships don’t need a Starbucks gift card, but she will appreciate a hand-written thank-you note. Particularly if she goes above and beyond in giving you time and consideration, put pen to paper and say “thanks.” Then put a stamp on it. Don’t take the easy way out with email.
Help the mentor, too. He might not need your words of wisdom, but might need a Capitol Tour for a family friend, or an informational interview for an aspiring intern. The more receptive you are to requests, the more incentive there is to to keep advising you to reach your goals.
Don’t be a cheater. Once you pick your mentor, don’t start shopping around for another one. Yes, you can have more than one confidante and adviser, but your inner circle should be small, without many overlaps. One of the greatest gifts you can give another colleague is respect for her time; if you can do so for your mentor, then you are likely to have a productive relationship for years to come.
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