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How to Tackle the Two-Year Staff Assistant Itch

Is there a two-year time limit to being a staff assistant on Capitol Hill? (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

What is it about staff assistants? Such a highly coveted job, but once a person is in, established and able to navigate the Cannon tunnels, then — all of a sudden — "Oh please don’t let me be a staff assistant much longer."  

Good news for you: Most staff assistants are merely a one- to two-year stopover on a long and rewarding career. But rather than wax poetic about the joys of entry-level work, Hill Navigator has some actual advice for people looking to move up and on to better things.

Q. I have been working as a staff assistant for a few months now. I have a one-year contract and am very happy to fulfill that, I really like my job and understand what a privilege it is to have. That said I do not want to become a two-year staff assistant. Many staff assistants from my office have moved up into administrative roles, I would really prefer a legislative role and I was wondering if you had advice on how to pursue the legislative ladder over the administrative one.
A. You’re already in a good place. You’re a staff assistant, and you’re working in an office with a one-year contract, so the office also believes that keeping staff assistants on for long periods of time isn’t good for either party involved.  

Since your office is keeping you on a one-year contract (unconventional on Capitol Hill, but not necessarily a bad idea), it might have some idea where you’re likely to go once that contract ends. Your question sounds like previous staff assistants have been funneled into administrative roles. But “many” is not the same as “all.” Are there legislative staffers in your office who started out in the staff assistant role? Seek them out, see how they made the transition and what advice they have for you in trying to do the same thing.  

Next, use your current role to prepare yourself as best as possible for the future role you want. If legislative issues are your passion, pick a few areas and learn as much as you can and follow the relevant issues. Offer to write constituent mail (a dreaded task but one highly conducive to learning a member’s position) or update the policy tabs on the office website (ditto). Many offices want to promote from within, but they want to see a readiness and sophisticated understanding of the Capitol Hill process before they do.  

Finally, make your goals known — wisely. As with any position, there is a proper time and place for feedback. During your evaluation, share your goals with your supervisor and see if there is additional work or training you can take on now to better prepare yourself for a legislative position. (If there is not a formal evaluation, request one.)  

If there is not an immediate opening, see if there is another opportunity that you’d find valuable. Your office might be willing to help you land someplace that is a better fit. Good staff assistants have a way of sticking around offices for the long haul. The position is designed to be entry level for a reason: Get smart people in the door, then teach and train them for bigger and better things.  

Good luck!  

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