The Beginners Guide to Landing a Job on Capitol Hill
Maybe against all common sense, you let your irrational obsession with House of Cards inspire you to pack up and move to Washington, DC in search of a job on Capitol Hill.
Or maybe the Congressman or Senator you work for lost a last-minute nail-biter in last week’s election.
Irrespective of your motivation, the truth is: there is no single way to get a paying job on Capitol Hill. Anyone who tells you different is lying to you. To save your job search from a dead end before it starts, be sure to steer clear of these two deadly sins: fuzzy goals and a lack of preparation.
DC Job Boards Are Great, But Personal Networks Are Better
I could direct you toward the Senate Employment or House Vacancy listings, but that’s like telling you I stashed a crocodile Birkin stuffed with $30k in cash somewhere in Foggy Bottom. Knowing it exists is only 15% of the battle.
More often than not, you need an in.
A successful Capitol Hill job hunt boils down to 3 things– who you know, asking the right questions, and giving the right answers.
Instead of wasting your time blindly emailing offices on those job lists, you need to focus on creating and leveraging personal connections. People don’t hire resumes. People hire people.
Word-of-mouth is your best friend. The best jobs are rarely listed. And even when they are, offices have their favorite candidates in mind before even posting the position. Don’t just send a mass email to everybody you know asking if they’ve heard of job openings. That’s lazy. People won’t respond– and they shouldn’t. Send your emails to specific people and have a specific request.
If you don’t know anybody yet, start reaching out. Every human being in this town– including POTUS– has an email address.
When it comes to networking in Washington, DC (or any new city for that matter), the first thing people tell you to do is reach out to your family and friends for possible connections. They oblige, of course, because they love you. But the contact always ends up being some distant cousin you've never met. To boot, they have no ‘in' for the job you actually want.
Yes. Recommend yourself.
Once you've identified the office you want to work in, and you've made contact with at least one person in that office, you can use that contact as an in with the hiring manager. Reach out to that hiring manager with an email with language along these lines:
“Hello ______, my name is _______. I know your office is looking for a media expert with press contacts in Michigan [or whatever the need may be]. I have talked to [name a person in the office who gave you permission to use their name] and they think that we should talk. Do you have 15 minutes for coffee next week?”
What you need is human intel. Prepare for these meetings like you’re pitching a new business.
Ask the right questions
Once you have a list of people you need to meet and a few meetings on the calendar, you have to prepare for your meetings. Asking the right questions can take you places. Some things you'll want to know before you connect with an actual decision-maker in an office include: Who’s still accepting resumes for open positions? Who are the leading candidates? Who’s the decision-maker in the hiring process? Who may be leaving their job soon and could recommend you for their position?
Have specific questions ready so you can make the most of your meetings and networking opportunities.
Give the right answers
What specific differentiating skills do you offer? (Note: “I’m hardworking” won’t cut it but something like “I specialize in financial services policy and have an expertise in navigating private equity-centered issues” will.)
What relationships do you have that could add value to our office? What tangible past successes can you point to that are transferable to a new opportunity? Assuming you were hired today, what new initiatives or ideas would you spearhead?
The point here is everyone else is also smart, has a great education, and is willing to put in the work. To beat out the rest you must be able to craft and verbalize your differentiating value.