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Got ambition? Plenty of high-ranking Capitol Hill staffers once started answering the phones and answering mail (even before there was email … back when dinosaurs roamed the earth). But take a look at any resume stack and graduate school comes up quite a bit. So just how helpful is that graduate degree on Capitol Hill? Hill Navigator discusses:
Q. I am currently a staff assistant, a post at which I’ve been at for 5 months and I’m looking for ways to advance my career for the long term, I’m considering going to grad school. I’ve looked at various DC area masters programs like [Graduate School of Political Management] and [Johns Hopkins University] and they offer great opportunities, but they’re very expensive and I will probably have to take a student loan out; is graduate school really gonna give me a major leg up on the Hill? Also what’s your opinion on graduate certificates and are they valued on the Hill?
Graduate school is a common career trajectory for Capitol Hill staff, many of whom are fresh out of college and sit, at least at this point of their lives, at the tip of their careers.
Understanding the legislative process can pique an interest in law or public policy, but what about those for whom a master’s in business administration is most appealing? How does Capitol Hill experience look on MBA applications? Hill Navigator spoke to two admissions officers at competitive business schools to find out.
One of the more generous benefits for congressional staffers might be on the chopping block in this year’s budget. The House and Senate budgets include cuts for education, employment and training, including the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program. The program forgives all federally backed student loans for those working for 10 cumulative years in public service — including time spent on Capitol Hill.
Both the House and Senate budgets would cut the subsidy that allows people to not pay interest while they’re in undergraduate studies and for six months after. The Student Loan Repayment Program, which authorizes the House and Senate and select federal agencies to pay back student loans, would not be affected. The budget conference committee started meetings this week to work out the differences between the chambers’ two versions. Full story
Have student loans and want a $10,000 raise? The Student Loan Repayment Program, offered through both the House and Senate, can shoulder the student loan burden for up to $10,000 per staff member per year.
The funds come from a central account administered by the House Chief Administrative Officer and the secretary of the Senate — not from the participating office or committee budget. So a member of Congress looking to give staffers a financial boost without dipping deeper into their Members’ Representational Allowance can easily take advantage. Full story
Among all the hard-working, necktie-to-the-grindstone staffers out there, you’ll notice common themes: All are smart; all are well-connected, and all claim to be “experts.” Sure, the expertise might be in constituent mail merges or flag requests, but such mundane knowledge is valuable. So how can you tell if you’re truly an “expert” in Capitol Hill parlance? Hill Navigator discusses.
Q. I am a former Hill intern (three different offices) who has worked in the private sector since graduating college three years ago. I am looking to transition back to the Hill and I am wondering how an office might define one’s “expertise” in a subject. For example, the past three years have been spent at a defense contractor, I am a certified Homeland Protection Associate (NDPC), and have a graduate certification in HS and Terrorism from a large, state school. Would this make me a viable candidate for a Legislative Assistant position?
A. That term “expert.” So tricky, so slippery, isn’t it?
Hill Navigator recently spoke with a House chief of staff who cited a conversation with a masters candidate bemoaning his prospects for a Capitol Hill job. Despite the grad student’s policy expertise, he had trouble landing a Hill job without Capitol Hill experience. At the same time, the chief was losing one of his top legislative assistants — to graduate school! It seems neither had the desired expertise of their choosing and this illustrates why “experts” are defined differently on Capitol Hill.
Most legislative assistants have Hill experience or a strong familiarity with the legislative process. If you are tracking legislation for a foreign affairs think tank and regularly watch or attend committee hearings, you’d have a good shot at presenting yourself for a legislative assistant position, especially for an office that works closely with your organization. Offices want to hire candidates with an understanding of the way Capitol Hill works, especially people with expertise closely tied to legislation and/or the workings of the state and district.
At the committee level, experts come in all shapes and sizes. Based on your background, begin your job search with the House Committee on Homeland Security and the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. Ask for an informational interview, see if your experience matches up with the “experts” they employ. If not, see if there is a committee or jurisdiction that might be looking for someone with your knowledge and background.
But just in case you find that your know-how isn’t valued on Capitol Hill, don’t think it was all for naught. A diverse work experience is valuable, and skills that seem easily transferable now could be obsolete in a few years. If working on Capitol Hill is one of your goals, keep building up a portfolio and understanding of the legislative process. It is likely to pay off well into the future.
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Think being a congressional staffer can lead to bigger and better things? What about public office? You’re in good company: 75 of the current House and Senate members previously served as congressional staff, according to CQ Roll Call Member Information and Research. Hill Navigator discusses what aspects of the job may serve you well.
Q. How do you wisely use intern or Hill experience if you want to be in public office? I would be happy working on the Hill as a staffer or a similar role, but my real passion would be to actually be a government representative. (I intend on going to law school and practicing law for a few years if that helps as well). I realize there are so many unique stories that there isn’t a single answer, but I would appreciate your insight.
A. A Hill staffer with greater ambitions?
Welcome to the best candidate boot camp there is: Being a congressional staffer.
Hill staffers do run for office. They’re well prepared for it: They understand constituent service, the hours it takes to fundraise and the grueling schedule that comes with a campaign.
And while you’re correct there is no single answer or pathway, here are a few good guidelines on how to maximize your Hill experience to boost your political aspirations down the road. Full story
For some of us, that answer is “yes.” It’s a reporter’s life’s for you.
And who can blame you? You can spend your day writing. You have readers. You can break news. You can write about issues you care about. It can be incredibly rewarding. So much so, that we all keep coming back every day to do it — Hill Navigator included.
Part of maintaining an effective advice column is knowing when someone else can provide the better answer; so when a question on cub reporting came in, Hill Navigator sought counsel from one of Roll Call’s own experts: Politics Editor Shira T. Center.
Each of us has a short list tucked away someplace: the handful of people who say nice things about us and are willing to serve as recommendations. By their very nature, recommendations are favorably biased–we’re more likely to provide the names of the people who view us as successes, rather than failures, so this is a less a scientific examination and more of a praise-a-thon. But what if you want to use your member of Congress’ office on your short list, even if your internship was back in the days of Speaker Dennis Hastert? Hill Navigator discusses.
Q. I used to intern on the Hill. What is proper etiquette on using my recommendation letter from the Member’s office once he or she is out of office?
A. Hmm, Hill Navigator is not sure if you mean a “recommendation” — like having a former co-worker attest to your stellar interpersonal skills — or an actual letter, which once upon a time people would produce as validations of their good character. Full story
Public service isn’t easy. Once upon a time it was lauded as a job with cushy benefits and easy hours, but talk to anyone who works on Capitol Hill or for a government agency, and you’ll find their experience indicates the opposite. In every branch of government there are smart, motivated, hard-working, high-achieving staffers who could be doubling their salary in the private sector. And yet they choose to stay.*
Programs including the Presidential Management Fellowship serve as a pathway for would-be staffers with graduate degrees to enter public service. The process is competitive (about 600 of 12,000 applicants win the opportunity), time-consuming (finalists can take up to a year to find placement) and expensive (travel expenses for the interviews are your own).
So why do people do it? The PMF finalists I spoke to were excited for they opportunity. They wanted to be in public service. There was an overarching shared goal of wanting to make a difference. Unfortunately, many PMF finalists from the class of 2013 won’t find jobs. The government shutdown, sequestration, hiring freezes and agency budget cuts have provided far fewer available positions than in recent years.
As the final deadline of April 8 looms, the PMF class of 2013 is asking for an extension so they may have more time to secure a placement. They aren’t asking for jobs they aren’t qualified for, nor are they asking for positions they haven’t earned. On the contrary, they’re asking for a chance to make a difference. Which is what much of public service is about.
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Thinking about graduate school? Sure, you could join the ranks of the JDs seeking employment, but what if you want something less traditional for government, like an MBA? Hill Navigator discusses below.
Q. I am a former campaign staffer who is going back to school for my MBA. Will this help me secure employment on the Hill or other institutions in DC?
A. Short answer: No. Pursuing an MBA will provide lots of things: a valuable education, an expanded network, a better chance at landing a business-related job. It won’t hurt your chances of getting a job on Capitol Hill — where there are a handful of MBAs — but it’s not the straightest route to Capitol Hill.
(For that path, the campaign experience you mentioned might help, as would an internship or fellowship on the Hill).
But if you’re pursuing your MBA, presumably it’s because of your interest in business, not government. Perhaps both are your passions; perhaps you want to put your MBA to great work on Capitol Hill. Start networking now. See if your graduate program offers opportunities to connect with government offices in D.C. If you worked on a winning campaign and have some friends in Congress, reach out to them and see what opportunities you can take on while in school, so that when you graduate you’ll have a better understanding of the job landscape.
Hill Navigator is a strong proponent of grad school: you can learn a great deal, you can expand your network and you can increase your professional qualifications. You cannot, however, go to grad school as a means to guarantee a Hill job. There is no such guarantee. Not now, not ever.
Legislative assistant. Legislative correspondent. Legislative director. Intern. Capitol Hill jargon is filled with important titles. But what if your title confuses your colleagues? And what separates an “intern” from the elusive “fellow”? Hill Navigator discusses below:
Q. After a few years in the private sector and completing an M.A. in foreign affairs, I started work in the Senate as an unpaid “Policy Fellow” with a prominent member. The experience is proving substantive, affording me the opportunity to work on policy research, committee work and speeches for the member.
However, staffers in other offices sometimes take issue at my designation as “fellow.” They claim it is disingenuous if not sponsored by an agency (State, DoD, etc.) or outside organization (Brookings, CFR, etc.) and I should actually just be called an intern. My LD and chief disagree and assure me it is kosher and will back me up.
Nonetheless, as I look for a salaried, staff level position with another member or committee staff, I don’t want to come across as misrepresenting myself. Especially since reputation is important.
What do you advise? Stick with the title as-is? Re-brand in some other way to be more accurate?
A. Titles are super important. Not important in an “I’m more valuable than you are” sort of way, but important because it tells your work story on your résumé. And often you need that to be compelling to land an interview.
Traditionally, “fellows” are paid by an outside organization or agency, as your colleagues mentioned. But keep in mind that interns can also receive compensation, either through an organization that sponsors them or through college credit. Not every intern works for free.
The lack of compensation is not relevant to the work you are doing. For purposes of your current work, use the “policy fellow” designation that you and your office agreed on. If a colleague asks you to explain further, say the office provided the title because they felt it was best suited to your level of experience.
Often policy fellows like yourself take meetings with constituents and interest groups. In situations like this, titles matter; a group may feel differently meeting with an intern, rather than someone they believe to be higher up in the office hierarchy.
(Hill Navigator is not minimizing the important and valuable work of interns in congressional offices — just acknowledging that even with the deluge of staff titles, “intern” tends to indicate bottom-of-the-staffing food chain.)
Are the staffers who take issue with your title curious about your arrangement or just playing a game of “I’m more important than you?” If it is the latter, keep your explanation brief. Don’t fall for the ego-baiting. But if it’s the former, take time to explain what you’re doing and why. These could be the people who help you get your next job. Hopefully one that is paid.