An online journal of politics, policy, and society with a special focus on Maryland -- Contact: on_background at yahoo.com.

Tuesday, August 12, 2003

Don't Bother

Okay, so you've been watching too many episodes of West Wing, or you've been in the policy/political trenches for a while doing work in your state, or you were really a talented political science student, debater, lawyer, businessperson, nonprofit professional, etc. You want to go to Washington, D.C. to make your mark, play the game, craft policy, or pursue your dream.

Don't bother.

Seriously, West Wing is a lie, Roll Call is incredibly interestingly written, and nothing compares to your fantasies or the people you've been talking to. Let me warn you ahead of time that while there are lots of interesting jobs here, successes and marks are made, policy is crafted, political games are won, and dreams are fulfilled, far more often they are not. If I sound a bit bitter, its because I am. But that doesn't mean I'm wrong.

First, you should know that while DC looks like a great place to work for a pol, a nonprofit, a lobbying/pr/law firm, or otherwise get into the game, there are way too many job seekers and too few jobs. Where do you think that all of the talented political science students, debaters, lawyers, businesspeople, nonprofit professionals, organizers, pr mavens, and political/policy hacks from around the country come? Prepare to be the statistic that you were warned about being when considering good but big schools -- a tiny speck in a big ocean of people.

The scary thing is, there just are not enough jobs for all of those people, particularly if the economy is bad or your party isn't in power. I know, I know, you're a go-getter, bright, hardworking, good experience, and used to winning. Whether its your SATs, your high school something-or-other team, or your past success at something that you think is great preparation for your dream job, let me assure you that there are 20 million of you in DC. Let's add to that that the job market is fragmented, with no centralized hiring process.

If, for instance, you are interested in becoming an aide to a Member of Congress, you are up for a real challenge. While there are human resources offices in both the House and the Senate, and online sites like www.rcjobs.com, www.hillnews.com, www.cq.com, www.hillzoo.com and others offer listings, you will find that the hiring process is really controlled by more than 550 hiring centers (every Member and Committee does it separately), is incredibly competitive and yet hiring is not done logically.

The nonprofit, lobbying, political or policy fields outdide of Congress are just as challenging to break into. If you, after reading this, are still determined to give DC your best shot, then here are a few resources to get you started: ww.idealist.org, www.leadershipinstitute.org, www.politicalresources.com, , www.politixgroup.com, and, of course, www.washingtonpost.com. Go into the Longworth House Office Building or the Senate Hart Office Building, visit Common Cause or the Heritage Institute, or otherwise avail yourself of free job postings. Most importantly, network your butt off and intern (at least part-time).

That said, people still hire their friends or friends of friends. They hire people just like them. They hire all manner of people. But not you. Its a zoo, and if you don't run out of money or give up in the months it will take, you will probably end up being paid little, worked very hard, and treated badly. But we keep coming.

The writer of On_Background has served on the staff of Members of Congress, worked in nonprofits and campaigns, and played around in a number of policy and political roles.