Stranger in a Strange Land
Posted at 4:30 p.m. on Feb. 26, 2013
CQ Roll Call’s Hill Navigator advice column helps staffers with sticky or complicated situations they find themselves in on Capitol Hill. Each week, we take the most interesting submissions from our inbox and answer your concerns.
Q. First, the background on my question: I grew up and went to college in big East Coast cities, and that made my transition to D.C. effortless. Now I am working for a member from a very, very rural district and with a lot of other staffers who are from this district.
I think it’s important to spend time in the district and do it as much as I can. But with our downtime there, the member I work for and my co-workers like to do things that are totally new to me, like pheasant hunts.
I try my best to be a good sport, keep an open mind and participate as much as possible, but I’m clearly the odd one out. And oftentimes ridiculed for even trying.
Normally, this wouldn’t bother me (I’ve got pretty thick skin), but I’m worried it’s going to make it hard for me to be taken seriously when we are back at the office. How do you think I should handle this? Should I just stop trying?
A. You don’t like shooting pheasants? What is wrong with you?
All kidding aside, you may be an East Coast urbanite who prefers soy lattes and tofu burgers to cups of joe and buffalo wings, but you also have a role to play in your office, and it means getting to know the district where you work — even if where you work is as different or unexpected as you can imagine.
My advice is to make the best of it. Think of it as a study-abroad experience. Pick something about rural America that you find endearing and learn more about that. If you don’t like shooting birds, fine, but maybe go out of your way to appreciate some other piece of local color — whether it’s spending time at the state fair or finding aspects of the local cuisine that you can enjoy. This can go a long way toward showing your co-workers that even though you’re from a different world entirely, you still respect and care about the one they (and your boss) come from.
And the pheasants will thank you.
Q. I have been a legislative assistant for three years. There was a senior LA when I first started, but when he left, they did not replace him or “promote” anyone to senior LA. I have asked several times for that title but have been turned down. How important is the title for future job searches? Do potential employers see a distinction?
A. The good thing about title changes is that they’re free — and for cash-strapped offices facing more spending cuts, it can be easier to give a change in title than an actual pay raise.
The bad news is that title changes don’t mean that much outside your own office. Senior LA, senior policy adviser, deputy legislative director — what people tend to look for is what you do, whom you worked with and what you can bring to the table. So if you’re a top energy staffer for a member active on that issue and serving on the relevant committee, it shouldn’t matter if your title is policy adviser extraordinaire or plain old legislative assistant. If a future employer is looking for an energy expert, your cover letter and résumé can position you as such.
And as for your own office, withholding a title change is unusual, but I’ve heard of situations where they are “saving” it up to reward an accomplishment or as an end-of-year promotion. See if it’s an option down the line. Or at the very least, talk to the former senior LA and see what that person had to do to make it happen.
Q. Many Hill offices promote from within, but some do not. If I’m an intern or a staff assistant in an office that doesn’t promote from within, how do I go about getting that coveted LA job in another office when I’m competing with other applicants that are already LAs?
A. I hate to tell you this — but you’ve got to get promoted. You won’t be able to make the leap from staff assistant to LA very easily — there may be some exceptions out there, usually they involve a fellowship or master’s degree or some nontraditional role.
If your office won’t promote from within, talk to your direct supervisor and ask to take on more LA-like responsibilities and learn the skills that way. If they’re reluctant to let you do anything out of your lane, you may need to find another office or work environment that is going to help you grow. Capitol Hill can be a fantastic place to work, but if you don’t have an opportunity for growth and improvement, then you’re better off elsewhere.
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