So, you want a job in policy?

by on 2013-09-11 in Duck- 11 Comments

I haven’t worked a “real job” since being an undergrad. However, I often get asked by undergrads for advice about preparations for real world policy jobs.  I recently asked my former PhD student, Kate Kidder, a research associate at the Center for a New American Security, to provide some advice for an undergrad wanting to get into the policy world.   Kate’s response was awesome.  So awesome, in fact, that I asked her to share it with the Duck community:

My question to Kate:

I’m advising a really wonderful undergrad who would like a career like you have.  Could you give her some advice as to how to break in to the security policy community?  I think she is really interested in trade-offs between law school, PhD programs, and MA programs.

Kate’s response: 

1. I would say that the number one thing that ensures a “way in” to this town/field is an internship- which are typically unpaid and last about 6 months. Of course, that was my experience, so I also admit that my sample size is skewed :). I can add a few things about my experience, both as a former intern and now as the manager of an intern:

A) you don’t just interview for an internship; your whole internship is an interview (a lot of people make the mistake of becoming poor team players as soon as they’ve “secured” an internship, which is a bad move. While internships aren’t exactly paid in cash, they are paid in networks, and those networks are worth more than money.).

B) Recognize that the foreign policy and Defense communities are really tiny, and then refer back to point #1. Recognize the confluence of three things: tiny community+tinier points of entry+bad economy= the majority of interns are essentially overqualified. The key is not to act like it (I know, it seems fairly intuitive, but you would be surprised). Also, don’t let it get you down. It’s worth it. (There should be an “it gets better” campaign for interns).

C) All interns in this city are smart. Really. All of them. So there is a lot of competition about “who’s smarter than who” or “who produces more.” A little secret: one of the ways to get ahead is to take some of that energy and just be kind and helpful. Cleaning coffee mugs with a good attitude gets you noticed. Then people realize you are smart and read your stuff.

D) Building off of that: recognize that your 40-hours-a-week is simply the cost of entry. If you really want to leverage your internship, expect to work a lot more (though no one will tell you that, because I’m pretty sure that legally they can’t). So your 40 hours of stuffing envelopes, answering phones, cleaning coffee mugs, setting up for events, etc. buys you the credibility to then turn in a piece–op-ed, blog post, what-have-you– that you stayed up all night writing before heading back into the office to stuff folders all over again. I was fortunate enough that I could incur the cost of not earning an income for 6 months; some of my fellow interns ended up doing all of that and then waiting tables until 2am…crazy, I know! Just think of it as if you’re Andrea Sachs in The Devil Wears Prada, except hopefully your boss is much nicer (mine certainly was!) and your shoes probably shouldn’t cost as much (though if you are in the market, here’s some worth investing in if you are going to be running around this city and want to look uber professional:

As far as educational paths, some thoughts:

1) First things first: Go with your passion. It will all work itself out in the end. If you are more passionate about the law, go that way. If that is your path, recognize that a law degree opens a lot of doors- and a lot of lawyers in this town don’t actually practice law (and prefer it that way!). Just think, Samantha Power never took the bar.  If grad school in a specific program is more up your alley, go that route.

2) In all reality, you don’t need a Ph.D at this town at first- though an M.A. is a near-must. I’m fortunate to work in a think tank that runs like a start-up and thus is willing to be flexible- I kind of threw a wrench in the existing system by being a doctoral candidate at 29. The people who need Ph.Ds are at the fellow level- and these are people who also have about a decade of government experience. Coming in with a Ph.D and no government experience means you price yourself out of the Research Associate market without the value added of experience. But I’ve also seen that internships-turned-jobs tend to go to the interns who started with a masters. If you start the job with a masters and really want a Ph.D., work there for a few years and then pursue the Ph.D portion- and there’s a likely chance that your employer will pitch in. Alternatively, with a few years of work experience, even if you opt completely out of the workforce to pursue your Ph.D, you still have something on your resume.

Some last pieces of advice:

  • Whichever way you go with grad school/law school/experience, start to carve out your own voice. Have a “thing” that you want to claim as your little slice of expertise. The strange thing about this town is that what you claim to be an expert on, your are perceived to be an expert on until proven otherwise (which can be a really good thing or a dangerously bad thing!) Read up on it- academically, in the news, on blogs, in its industry. Sign up for Google news alerts on it. Figure out who the players are, what the arguments are, etc. (For me, it’s defense personnel policy). The policy world needs people who are simultaneously flexible enough and educated enough on research methods that they can research any topic thrown their way, while also offering their unique perspective on a very specific topic.
  • Just as in Academia, publications carry a lot of weight. But the difference in Washington is that volume kind of counts for more than quality (I know…it makes me shudder). So start getting your name out there with smaller pieces- op-eds, pieces in smaller publications, etc. Of course, it never hurts to have a piece placed in or Foreign Affairs- but when in doubt, get something out there. And this is a great way to get an edge on your “expertise.”

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  • Dan Nexon

    “you don’t need a Ph.D at this town at first- though an M.A. is a near-must. ”

    There’s a real irony of timing here…..

  • Amanda Murdie

    Yeah, Dan, you are right about that. Good grief.

  • Beau

    A little Twitter conversation has broken out about this piece. “Is this a parody criticism? To become DC wonk, wear $300 pumps while cheerily stuffing envelopes for 6 mo w/out pay?”

  • Sydney Calkin

    I appreciate that this piece is written with good intentions, but I think it really exposes all the problems with the unpaid intern scheme. If policy jobs are occupied only by those who can afford a 6 month unpaid 40+ hours per week internship in DC/ NYC/ London, this is an immensely discouraging prospect! Perhaps this author shouldn’t so enthusiastically encourage others to ‘play the game’ of the unpaid internship….

  • EP

    Though it is true these unpaid internships can help, they are not a requirement to work in policy! Some people just cannot afford to work full-time for free (they have bills to pay and student loans to deal with). What WILL help in securing a policy job is hard work, dedication, and a miserable amount of networking. Also, DSW has fantastic prices on very comfy, chic professional footwear. If you don’t have a strong network, forge one yourself by going to industry events, talking to people, and not acting self-important. Something will pop, it is just a matter of when.

  • AramZS

    If you don’t value your own work as having worth, than who the hell will? That’s why unpaid internships are BS.

  • Lesley Anne Warner

    The essence of this post is good, but it has a few points that are not quite grounded in reality. I say this with the caveat that everyone’s career path is different and what worked for me or for the author won’t necessarily work for everyone.

    Internships are not the key to making it in this city – Networks, Mentors, and Personal Branding are. Like many recent undergrads arriving in DC, I was unable to afford to work for free, so I got a job as a temp admin, which became a permanent admin position for some pretty well-connected policy wonks. The post is correct in mentioning that pitching in and doing grunt work with a smile lets people know you’re a quality employee – but at the end of the day, some may just typecast you as someone who’s really good at making copies and fetching coffee. This is actually why I was prevented from becoming research staff there, and why I eventually left.

    However, I was not typecast by all researchers at that organization. I focused on developing a cadre of mentors who involved me in their research, made me lead author of one of the pubs, and gave me some crucial project management responsibilities. These were all instrumental skills to demonstrate when I moved from being a type of project associate to getting one of those coveted research positions at another organization 3 years after arriving in DC.

    Unfortunately, I had been in DC 6.5 years before realizing the impact that twitter and blogging could have on building your personal brand and your network. However, in the past year and a half of my engagement on social media, I’ve been able to market my analysis more effectively and establish relationships with fellow analysts at both senior and junior levels.

    But as one of the previous commenters mentioned, there are other ways to build your network such as meeting people at the gazillion events that are held at area think tanks every day, undergrad/grad alumni networks, professional associations, connecting friends-of-friends with similar insights, asking mentors to connect you with other potential mentors, etc.

    So in sum, I’ve found my network, my mentors, and my efforts to brand my analysis as crucial to navigating DC – and this was without working a single day for free.

  • Jon M

    I’m torn on this piece. On the one hand I find it kind of horrifying that very smart people are being told to play nice and do menial work for 6 months with a smile on their face as they outlast the other (also very smart) people whose parents don’t have as deep pockets.

    On the other hand if this is how the policy scene works in DC, then I guess the piece is giving useful advice about a really unpleasant system.

  • EnoughStupidAlready

    Yeah, six month unpaid internships in which you prove your intelligence by cheerfully cleaning coffee mugs (but don’t worry, you’ll be networking, which will win you invaluable friend* points!) are clearly a sign of a thriving meritocratic society.

    *Friend Points! Not a vaguely nepotistic system in which the family and friends of the rich and powerful are hereditary handed the reigns of power so long as they prove themselves to be cheery in a cushy office environment.

  • Cheryl Rofer

    I think there are gender issues here as well. I’ll just bet that the male interns get seen as “having a good attitude” in ways other than cleaning coffee mugs and stuffing envelopes.

    I could be wrong on that, but it would certainly be consistent with a lot of other exploitative practices listed here.

  • CM

    “…this is an immensely discouraging prospect!” That’s quite an understatement. The scheme undermines any notion of meritocracy or equal opportunity and goes a long way to explaining why certain policy options remain on the table and others do not. All of this moot however, if the policy world consciously used methods other than the current intern scheme to regenerate itself, to keep the spark and inquiry of youth, to stay in step with the world which it aims to govern.