Q. I graduated from college this past December and was immediately offered a position with one of the top defense contractors. While I was excited to be offered the position, I cannot deny that my desire is to work on the Hill. As a former Hill intern (three separate offices to be exact), I know that my education and experience would have gotten me a staff assistant/LC position if I had applied. But because of my loans I couldn't afford to pass up this job's very high salary offer. Simply put, it is the money that is keeping me sane. I want to begin taking graduate courses part time to work toward a master's degree because I know that that will allow for more wiggle room when it comes to salary if I were to begin to send out my résumé to offices. As someone who aspires to work as a member's legislative director and eventually chief of staff, which degree would be worth it? An MPA, MPP or JD?
A. There is no straight path that will take you to Capitol Hill. If there were, Hill Navigator would just give the formula on how to do it and then retire from advice-giving. The best way to get a job on Capitol Hill — particularly the positions of legislative director and chief of staff that you mention — is to gain experience working on Capitol Hill. Many offices want to hire people who understand the culture of Congress and have connections and know-how to get things done. This type of learning is gained on the job, not necessarily through an advanced degree. Other ways to get a job on the Hill include working on a campaign, working on a relevant legislative issue, or even working in another branch of government, such as the administration. There are other success stories of people who make the leap, but in general those are the tried-and-true paths.
If your goal is to work on the Hill, then I suggest you begin looking for inroads to Capitol Hill now. If your goal is to make a great deal of money, then I would separate that from your immediate goal of working on Capitol Hill. Hill staffers can have rewarding careers, and sometimes working on the Hill can lead to lucrative work later. But ultimately, Capitol Hill does not produce the financial draw you’re speaking of. Finances are an inherently personal decision, so you should take some time and evaluate how important this is to you and your long-term plans.
If your goal is to get an advanced degree, I say go for it. NOT because it will get you a Hill job (because it won’t) or because it will earn you more money (it won’t, at least not right away), but because education on a topic you are passionate about is usually a good investment. The trick is you must find out what you’re passionate about. What do you want to lean more about? Do you want to practice law? Learn public policy? Or better understand how government works?
Essentially, all I’ve done is turned the questions around and asked you what your priorities are. It’s up to you to pick a direction and go for it — whether that is looking for a job on the Hill, making more money, or getting more education. All I’m here to do is tell you that you won’t be able to do all three simultaneously in any sort of effective manner.