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How to Find a Job and Build a Career in Congress, the White House, or Lobbying in Washington, D.C.
Guides to Washington, D.C.
Tricks for Building a Career in Politics, News Media, and Lobbying
How to Find a Job in Washington, D.C.
I frequently speak to students at my alma mater who are visiting Washington, D.C. as part of an academic program. Students attend classes, meet a wide range of speakers who cover subjects ranging from the budget to foreign policy, and are placed in internships at news organizations, political offices, and advocacy groups around town. Some are budding politicians. Invariably, the question comes up: What does it take to work and live here full-time? I tell them that finding a job in Washington, D.C. is a bit like making it in Hollywood: You can’t do it from Ames, Iowa or Miami, Florida (with one exception, explained below). The best way to get your start in D.C. is to come to D.C. and do whatever it takes to feed yourself while you look for an opening in your field.
The good news is that the D.C. region has lower unemployment than the rest of the country. While the District of Columbia is in line with the national average, Virginia and Maryland have a more robust job market. The better news is that jobs in the D.C. region pay extremely well. The Census Bureau recently concluded the city’s surrounding counties are among the richest counties in America. Of course, the price of living reflects this reality. Housing, especially, is extraordinarily expensive, something to consider when planning a move.
Washington, D.C. is a company town and the company is the federal government. This Hub isn’t concerned with finding a federal job – there are plenty of others that do that. Rather, this job helps aspirants find jobs in the myriad political, media, lobbying, consulting and nonprofit organizations that thrive as a result of the government.
♦ Move to Washington, D.C. Most jobs in Washington develop out of networking, so it is essential to be able to connect with people in person. It is also impossible to interview for jobs from afar. Come to town and get a job, any job. Representative Paul Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican who ran unsuccessfully for Vice President of the United States, once worked as a server at Tortilla Coast restaurant on Capitol Hill before getting a job as congressional aide. To keep expenses down, live in a group house with other professionals. This has the added benefit of expanding your social circle and your professional contacts.
♦ Help Get Someone Elected . This is the only exception to the “Move to Washington, D.C.” rule. If you prove your mettle on the campaign of a victorious candidate, you may be in a position to accompany the newly-elected official to Washington. Of course, this opportunity presents itself only every two years.
♦ Choose a side . For all the lip service about bipartisanship, you’re either a Republican or a Democrat in Washington, D.C. Don’t seek work at a Republican congressman’s office if you are a Democrat, and don’t fake it either. This isn’t to say you can’t work across the aisle, but party loyalty rules in the Washington job market. Know your people and act accordingly. The exception to this rule is the news media, where nonpartisanship is still prized (although there is a burgeoning market for advocacy media, where the same rules about displaying partisan stripes apply).
♦ Network, Network, Network. Polish your people skills because you’re going to put them to work daily. Go to every happy hour you’re invited to, especially those on Capitol Hill. Accept invitations to play softball and kickball on the National Mall in the Spring, as the other players are invariably working in jobs you want or know someone who is. Got to embassy events. Attend seminars at think tanks around town such as the Brookings Institution or Cato Institute (and learn their ideologies – Cato is libertarian while Brookings is more centrist). Take a class at one of the many universities around town (George Mason University, American University, Catholic University, Georgetown, University of Maryland).
♦ Pick a Specialty. Everyone in Washington, D.C. is a wonk about something. Are you into foreign policy? Budget and economics? The environment? These are the disciplines in which you want to focus your search for a professional position. Identify which congressional committee works in your area and seek internships with it. Nearly every cause in the world has some Washington representation. Find the appropriate association and make your interest known.
♦ Volunteer. Internships abound around town. Lawmakers need interns; start with the representative for your district or a senator from your state. If their political parties don’t match yours, approach lawmakers you personally admire. Also explore internship opportunities with congressional committees. News organizations and lobbying organizations often offer internships. Think outside the box – if you want to work in news, consider opportunities at one of the many trade publications around town that will allow you to get press credentials and work alongside reporters for larger publications. Take any opportunity that will put you in the same orbit as professional people who can help you make a more permanent and financially fulfilling move.
You can also find policy-oriented jobs in out-of-the-way agencies,places like the Congressional Research Service, the Government Accountability Office, and any number inspectors general. And remember, jobs in Washington can be cyclical. The cycle, of course, is tied to every election. There are new opportunities every two years as Congress turns over.
Job Hunting Resources in D.C.:
Employment in the U.S. House of Representatives lists openings and tips for getting work.
Employment in the U.S. Senate also provides leads on job opportunities in Congress.
Federal Jobs is the official portal for getting a job in the Federal Government
Jobs in Media can be focused to find journalism jobs in the nation’s capital.
Lobbying Jobs focuses entirely on careers in the advocacy field
Finding a job isn’t easy. Finding one in Washington, D.C. isn’t either. But for those willing to make a bit of an effort, the rewards can be life-changing. Good luck!