It might sound cliché, but there is only one way to land a job on Capitol Hill: networking. With congressional offices receiving hundreds if not thousands of resumes a month, you need to be able to distinguish yourself from the rest of the pile. The best way to get your resume noticed is to know a staffer or a similar contact who can recommend you for a position. This post contains several important networking tips and other time-tested strategies that will help improve your chances of success.
Be Ready to Start at The Bottom: Capitol Hill is all about paying your dues. Before you start your job hunt, it is important to have this mindset. Don’t believe me? Just ask the Harvard Law grads who are answering phones as unpaid interns. Remember, your primary goal is to get your foot in the door—that is your biggest obstacle. It doesn’t matter what job you get as long as you have one in the first place. Once you’ve accomplished that, upward mobility can happen very quickly.
Build a Target List: What is your home state? Where have you previously lived? Where did you go to school? Where do you have family? Think of literally every state and district you've spent time in and know something about and build a list of target offices. For example, I grew up in Chicago, live in Virginia, went to college in Massachusetts and have a lot of family in Connecticut and Maryland. My initial target list consisted of Representatives and Senators from all of these states. I focused my networking on senior staffers (Chiefs of Staff, Legislative Directors) in these offices and branched out from there.
Start Your Outreach: If you live in DC, you’re already a step ahead. If you don’t, consider moving. Living in DC gives you the distinct advantage of being able to meet with staffers in person. If moving or couch-surfing are out of the picture, informational phone calls are your next best bet. Regardless of your living situation, try to set up as many 15-minute informational interviews or phone calls as possible— aim for five or more a week. Direct your outreach towards senior staff as they have the most sway in the hiring process. Besides Hill staff, you should look for any family, alumni or previous job connections you have in the legal, lobbying or advocacy fields. These professions are closely associated with the Hill.
Contact Hill Staff: Now you can contact the offices on your target list and ask for quick informational interviews. If they can’t meet in person, be flexible and ask for a phone call instead. Keep in mind that Hill staff are very busy, so adapt your outreach to the congressional schedule and be judicious about the frequency of your outreach. Be flexible with staffers’ schedule and be very courteous with their time.
The Meeting (or Phone Call):
- Have talking points – 1) Your connection to the office. 2) Your relevant work and educational experience. 3) Three policy areas you are interested in. 4) Emphasize that you don’t mind answering phones and getting coffee as long as it means you get your foot in the door. The latter is the most important; it shows you understand the hierarchy of the Hill and are willing to start small to get ahead.
- Ask questions – 1) How did you get your start on the Hill? 2) What advice do you have for someone looking for work here? 3) Do you know of any openings in this or other offices? 4) Do you know 2-3 other Hill staffers you recommend I get in contact with? The latter point is the most important question of the meeting as it allows you to expand your network.
- Thank them! Not only should you thank the staffer during the meeting or phone call for taking the time to talk with you, but you should also follow up with an email or written note thanking them again. This step is critical and should not be skipped, especially if you’re interested in working in their office or if you’ve asked them for networking assistance.
What to Apply For: Limit your focus to Staff Assistant and Legislative Correspondent openings. Unless you have a master’s degree or several years of intensive policy work experience, you will not get a job as a Legislative Assistant. Don’t rule out internships as they are a great way to land a full time position. Working as an intern gives you the opportunity to get to know Hill staff personally and show them you can work hard—it’s a free letter of recommendation!
Must-Have Job Resources: Networking is critical but you still need to apply for jobs the old-fashioned way. If you’re looking for work on the Hill, subscribing to these listings are a must:
- Tom Manatos (http://www.tommanatosjobs.com)
- Brad Traverse (http://www.bradtraverse.com)
- House Employment Bulletin (http://www.house.gov/content/jobs/hvaps_subscribe.php)
- Senate Employment Bulletin (http://www.senate.gov/employment/po/positions.htm)
These resources post dozens of new jobs every day—you can sort them by Capitol Hill, internships, non-profit, government relations, etc. Apply for every internship, Staff Assistant and Legislative Correspondent position. Numbers are the key— the more applications you send out, the better chance you have of hearing back from someone.