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The Revolving Doors of D.C.’s Think Tanks

We all start somewhere. How to get from a think tank to Capitol Hill (CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Interning is considered one of the best ways to start out in D.C. — especially on Capitol Hill, where internships can often lead to paid work. But what if you are working at a think tank, albeit one with strong political and congressional ties? Hill Navigator discusses.

Q. I am currently a rising senior who will be interning at a fairly notable think tank in DC this summer. This think tank (to narrow it down) has fairly close ties to one of the major political parties, and thus it often trades employees and staffers with offices of the favorable political persuasion on the Hill. That said, since I intend to look for a position on the Hill in a year once I graduate, what would be the best strategy for using my internship to develop networks both inside and outside the Hill that could potentially increase my chances of getting a position as a staffer of some sort? Is there some "traditional" or "best-practice" method of moving from a think tank to the Hill? Thanks so much!
A. Congratulations on landing an internship that is already a talent-feeder for a major political party. This is not uncommon. Many think tanks have close affiliations on Capitol Hill and with political organizations and for good reason. If the think tank reports compelling research and data, they’ll need someone to champion it in an election platform or via legislation.  

It sounds like the “best practice” available to you is to perform outstanding work at your internship, meet as many people as possible, and observe how your colleagues move to those offices of favorable political persuasion.  

Perhaps there is an ingrained system. Someone works as an assistant for a year or two in a certain issue area, then is proffered to Capitol Hill offices for a junior-level legislative position. Or perhaps the think tank recommends its entry-level associates for other entry-level positions on Capitol Hill. Whatever the farm team setup is, the infrastructure seems to readily exist.  

So here are a few ways you can be smart and take advantage of it:  

Do good work. Be the person who takes on any assignment, doesn’t monopolize credit and completes tasks both large and small with care and precision. It is an added bonus if you can demonstrate an enthusiasm for the principles behind the organization. Want some more details on how to ace your internship? Read Roll Call’s free eBook: "Best Intern Ever."Follow the leader. Looking to make a particular move? Find someone who has come before you who has done so and speak with him or her. See the options previously available and how you might replicate that path. Follow up with a thank you note , preferably handwritten.  

Meet everyone, even the interns. It is easy to befriend interns when you are one. Keep in mind that this summer’s interns are next year’s staff assistants. By the time you’re graduating school they might be in a position to recommend you for paying work. Keep in touch. This goes beyond being Facebook friends. Find ways to connect while you are back at school.  

Don’t reinvent the wheel. You’ve landed at a think tank that has strong connections and knows how to get its people on Capitol Hill. Many Capitol Hill offices promote from within , and staffers of all stripes tend to look fondly on the first employer that gave them a shot, especially one that helped them land their current position. Hopefully a similar trajectory will be in your future as well.  

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