Working or interning in Washington, DC, may seem like a stretch goal for many students. But according to Dr. Yuval Levin, Vice President and Hertog Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, Washington is an exceptionally open place for people who are willing to work hard. Dr. Levin spoke recently to a group of University of Dallas students about securing work and internships in the nation’s capital.
“The world of congressional staffers is quite young,” Levin said. “The typical congressional staff will consist of 7 or 8 people in their twenties who are each assigned a specific set of issues. They’re very involved in the work of legislation.” According to Levin, working on a congressional staff is the best way to learn how Washington really works. “Congress is driven by process,” he said. “Working on a congressional staff teaches you about powerful personalities and about the scheduling and tempo of legislation.”
Working for a congressional committee or for a senior member of a committee is another way to get solid policy experience. “The substantive policy work is done in committee,” he said. Many staffers working on these committees are very young as well. Levin recalled his own experience as a young staffer: “I remember sitting on the budget committee and negotiating health care issues and thinking, ‘Do they realize I’m 21?’”
Levin said that although Executive Branch staffers are generally more experienced than Hill staffers, there are many lower-level departmental positions that offer a good start for young staffers. He emphasized that a recent graduate’s willingness to work is the most important factor in securing work in Washington. “Don’t limit yourself to one office or one area of government. If you’re willing to be paid pretty poorly, there’s work out there,” he said. Outside of working on the Hill or in the Executive Branch, Levin said that the organizations that support the policy apparatus–think tanks, party committees, and PACs–are also great places for recent college graduates to gain experience that could lead to other positions.
Levin recommends that interns or recent grads think first about working as a congressional staffer. First, it’s the easiest way to get in, and, second, working on the Hill provides the kind of experience that students can use as leverage to get other positions. “You can’t pretend to understand how government works if you haven’t seen it first hand,” Levin said.
The first step to getting a job on the Hill is to contact your local congressional representatives. “Call the offices of your two state senators and your local congressional representative,” Levin said, “and offer yourself up to opening letters, doing research, whatever they need.” This approach can work whether you’re looking for an internship or a job after graduation. “DC has a low barrier to entry,” he said, “if you’re willing to do the work.”
For more information about internships and employment in Washington, DC, or anywhere else, contact the Office of Personal Career Development for an appointment.