This is the last entry of a three-part series on lessons from interning on Capitol Hill. The views expressed here are my own and do not reflect those of the office for which I worked.
So, you want to work in government. Below, I will be discussing the necessary skills for positions on The Hill or government agencies, and some of my tips on how to land these positions from my personal experience.
I recently made the move from the legislative branch to an executive agency (federal government). Currently, I serve as a Harold W. Rosenthal Fellow of International Relations at the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL), Bureau of International Affairs (ILAB), Office of Child Labor, Forced Labor, and Human Trafficking (whew, that’s a mouthful!). I support the Research & Policy Division with researching and editing the 2018 edition of one of ILAB’s flagship reports, Findings on the Worst Forms of Child Labor, which is prepared in accordance with the Trade & Development Act of 2000. I also assist with creating the graphics for the report’s magazine companion, as well as testing ILAB’s two mobile applications, Comply Chain and Sweat & Toil.
One difference that I have noted from this transition is that internships on The Hill are typically geared towards current undergraduate students or recent graduates. While not rare, “Hilltern”-ing as a graduate student has its pros and cons. On the one hand, staff members were more willing to give me more substantial projects. For instance, one legislative staff member tasked me with many research projects that culminated in a bill or an amendment that the Congresswoman introduced in Committee. Another staff member in charge of corresponding with constituents often assigned me more “difficult” letters than those assigned to my undergraduate counterparts. On the other hand, as administrative tasks were still part of my duties, I still had to run errands and do the usual “intern” things. It takes patience and humility to remember that these are equally important parts of the job.
In contrast, at DOL, interns are expected to be current graduate students. My tasks are more project-based and research-heavy, requiring attention to detail, quick turnaround, the ability to think on my feet and juggle multiple tasks and deadlines, as well as discretion and maintaining a high level of confidentiality. In order to work in this capacity, I had to undergo a Public Trust background investigation, where I completed a questionnaire asking questions about where I’ve lived, worked, went to school, and any military history or police records. (This is different than a security clearance.) It took me two months from the initial offer to the final offer for me to be cleared to work at DOL, whereas my Hill internship did not even require a background check.
If you are interested in my internships in government so far and wondering what skills may be necessary for these positions, below I’ve listed some hard and soft skills that I’ve learned and found to be essential.
Research & Analysis
In the information age, research is essentially an expected duty of any intern ever. But how much research do you actually need for your position, and what research skills do you currently have?
When reading the job posting, be sure to look for specific research skills that are needed for the position. For more general internships, your academic research is sufficient. But for positions that explicitly say “research” in the title, be sure to highlight specific projects that are relevant to the position in your resume, i.e. senior thesis, major papers, publications, etc., and familiarize yourself with the works of other experts in your field (Brookings, the Council on Foreign Relations, Congressional Research Service, and Foreign Policy are good places to start).
For an internship in government, keeping yourself updated with current news is expected. I recommend subscribing to these daily newsletters: New York Times Morning Briefing, Foreign Policy Morning Brief, Human Rights Watch Daily Brief, or at the very least, theSkimm. I also have the AP News app and follow journalists on Twitter for breaking news.
Writing & Editing
Along with research, interns are also expected to do writing and editing work. It is essential that you brush up on your writing skills and be highly attentive to detail when editing other people’s work. One of the most helpful guides in writing that I’ve come across in my academic career is The Elements of Style by Strunk and White (my two English-major-graduate best friends told me this was their Bible in college). The Kindle version is only $2.99 (the paperback and used versions run less than $10), and I swear to you–if you are still in school or contemplating going back–it will be the best $3 you will ever spend in your life.
It also helps for you to have, or at least start, a writing portfolio. It can be as simple as keeping up with a blog or as complex as a peer-reviewed article. I’m grateful that my professors at the Elliott School this past semester made me write op-eds for their classes. While writing long papers is important as an academic exercise, particularly if you are thinking of obtaining advanced degrees, I find more and more in my work that succinct writing is the way to go. On The Hill, the legislative staff members I worked with preferred their memos to be one page long. At DOL, one of my colleagues advised me that interagency emails should be “short, simple, and to the point.” Writing op-eds is a great exercise to achieve these objectives. Plus, having published work would make you an even more excellent candidate.
Web Processing & Social Media
Most offices now look for people with at least some experience with social media and web. So, if you’ve had more than the regular exposure of just casually scrolling through the ‘gram or retweeting memes, be sure to express that in your office. If you have a blog or have had one in the past, that qualifies you to be proficient in that blogging or web platform. And even if you haven’t had much exposure, just simply being enthusiastic about learning more or willing to help can go a long way (particularly if you are working with a Member who is actively trying to expand their digital presence).
On that social media note, I must stress that discretion is key. Ever wonder why people’s Twitter accounts say “RTs are not endorsements”? It’s because when you work for any government or organization, you represent your office or your organization wherever you go. Your First Amendment rights protect you from being persecuted for what you say, tweet, or publish, but it does not protect you from being fired, dismissed, or otherwise reprimanded. After two years of teaching, I’ve learned my lesson to simply keep all social media private and protected from public consumption.
Plus, if you are going to be a public servant or serve one, be mindful of what that office truly represents, and whether your thoughts and actions align with that.
Most internships I’ve had require:
- Sound judgment and ability to “read the room”
- Interpersonal skills to effectively interact with staff from all levels of the organization, including high-level officials
- Flexibility, adaptability, and being able to think on one’s feet
- Working in a fast-paced environment, both independently and as a part of a team, often juggling multiple projects and deadlines with minimal supervision, for which time management is essential
Some skills that could be beneficial in your internships:
- Public speaking skills
- Conflict resolution
- Leadership and teamwork
- Positive attitude, ability to accept criticism
- Strong work ethic and motivation for public service
The above lists are by no means exhaustive, but I hope they give an idea of what skills are necessary should you decide to pursue an internship or a job in the U.S. public sector in the future.
That’s a wrap for the Lessons for the Hill series! I hope you find the series helpful to you in your future endeavors. Until next time!
*Please note that U.S. citizenship is required for positions in the federal government. U.S. citizenship is not necessarily required for internships on Capitol Hill; paid internship opportunities are generally available for U.S. citizens only. For more information on opportunities for non-U.S. citizens, check out programs available through the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA) or the Washington Internship Institute.