Remember: DC is a Small Town
In 2018 DC, it seems like more than ever it’s difficult to break into the proverbial swamp. It’s true that positions, even internships, can be incredibly hard to come by. Even if you’re not looking to go into the political arena, there is still definitely a lot of playing politics to land your dream position here. The fact is, this is a highly competitive town where there are a lot of well-qualified candidates.
As tired as we all may be of hearing it, there is a considerable amount of truth to the adage, “it’s all about who you know here.” Jobs within the Beltway are built around relationships. Period. Much of the time, openings are not even publicly listed. They are discovered by word of mouth from those in the know, i.e. from another chief of staff or partnering law firm, trade association, etc. Networking thus is the key to finding opportunities, openings, and building those relationships. But it shouldn’t just be self-serving: the most fulfilling networking is when it’s done out of curiosity (not just to get ahead in your moment of need).
DC is ultimately a small town, despite what it may seem. Especially in the political arena. You never know who might be a 2nd or 3rd degree of separation from landing you that next great job opportunity. Here is another reason of why it is so important to focus on your network. That person you met at a happy hour a year ago just might be your next boss! So, one of the most critical rules in DC is that you must be careful not to burn bridges at any step.
Working on the Hill is invaluable to advancing your career. Even as an unpaid intern, grunt work like making copies and getting coffee may not be glamorous, but it’s a way to get your foot in the door. And effectively and cheerfully doing that seemingly menial work never goes unnoticed by superiors. In short, hard work will pay off for you.
You really need to choose your specialty. In most cases, this includes your party. When asked what they want to do in D.C., newcomers and recent graduates will often say, “I want to be a foreign policy generalist, and I don’t want to be political.” If this is you, take a moment to rethink what you want. There are many worthwhile positions in Washington for policy specialists doing political and nonpolitical work, some generalist jobs on Capitol Hill affiliated with each party, but very few genuine foreign policy generalists (outside of the State Department’s Foreign Service). Even a generalist should have some focus at some point in their career. Choose a specialty you feel passionate about and where you think you can make a difference given your skill set. Once you have proven yourself in that specialty area, you can return to being a generalist if that’s your preference. So, do not be afraid of pigeonholing yourself.
And do choose a party (unless you are aiming for a civil servant position).
Be intentional about every job you take. It should add equity to your career in terms of experience, salary, or relationships. If it's toxic or a drain on your life, don't linger. Be curious! It keeps life interesting and makes you interesting to others. But maintain focus on the long-term goals you set yourself.
Honing your writing skills. This is one skill that is absolutely essential to practically every job in Washington. You need to be able to produce documents or briefs that are dense, yet concise. No policy official will want to waste time reading through lengthy reports; instead you must be able to quickly and succinctly lay out the issues. Do the same for every job you have because writing, truly good writing, can further you so much in Washington.
Associate yourself with professional groups. Advice I give to people on a job hunt or looking to transition is to reach out and join groups and associations that are near and dear to you. Quite often this can be easily done through advocacy groups, think tanks, or one of the state societies that host numerous events throughout the year. Also, a great option is to find and subscribe to a listserv of upcoming events centered around your particular interests or issue areas. For instance, on the conservative side, there are several organizations which cater to networking and career building, such as AFF, The Heritage Foundation, and the Leadership Institute. There are certainly others on the Democratic side, though I personally cannot attest.
Never forget to pay it forward. Probably all of us who have been in this city a while can think of at least one individual who took a chance on us or served as a mentor to help foster us through the craziness which is DC That person was instrumental in helping us forge our careers. When given the opportunity, take a moment to give that back to someone.
But in summation, it really is all about relationships. So, work to establish them, cultivate them, and always work on building them further. And never be afraid to reach out to those in your network, because we’ve all been there.