Federal policy is a popular career path for students who want to be at the forefront of national change. Whether you’re motivated by politics or a more issue-specific focus, there are plenty of opportunities to establish a career in this challenging, dynamic field. Though there are some federal-level policy jobs around the country, as you would probably expect, the vast majority of these opportunities are based in Washington D.C., the nation’s Capital.
Working in Washington D.C. is like nowhere else in the world. It’s a city of immense power, diverse communities, and constant change. No matter what area of federal policy you’re interested in, it’s important to note that networking is absolutely essential to establishing your career. Your reputation and who you know in the field tend to matter more than anything else, including your skills and experience. The earlier you start to build your network, the better your position will be when the time comes to search for jobs.
Starting to build your network early on through internships, informational interviews, and connections from your professors will not only help you decide whether or not federal policy is a good fit for your interests, but ensure that you have local references and recommenders for jobs when you need them.
As a student, one of the best things you can do to gain experience in federal policy and start building your network is to take advantage of internships. Though these opportunities are highly competitive, there are plenty of them. By focusing on offices where you have a personal/professional connection (for example, a Senator from your home state) or where you can offer a unique skill set or perspective (like a second language), you can spend your time and energy where it’s most likely to pay off. The earlier you start and the more work you put into your application materials, the better your chances will be.
If you aren’t sure how to start applying for internships in D.C. or feel anxious about moving to a new city by yourself, the Wisconsin in Washington study away program is a great solution that combines the academic credit of a study abroad program with the professional development opportunities of an internship. Through the program, you have support throughout the application process, a place to live in the center of D.C., and access to an extensive alumni network to kickstart your career. Depending on your academic schedule, you can participate in summer, fall, or spring durations.
Working on “The Hill” is one of the most iconic D.C. experiences. Even if you aren’t interested in working on campaigns or in a legislative office long-term, it can be a great way to break into the field and gain insight into how policy is written and enacted. However, it’s important to know what you’re getting into with this type of work. Because Hill jobs are centered around elected officials, there’s little to no job security, and you have to be ready to find a new position at any time. Hill jobs also don’t tend to pay well, especially at the entry level, which can make it particularly challenging to live in one of the most expensive cities in the country.
Think tanks are another staple of D.C. professional life, and a good place to look for internships and entry-level jobs. Think tanks focus on research and research alone, contributing essential data and dependable recommendations to a huge variety of policy areas. If you’re considering think tanks, it’s important to find one that aligns with your personal interests and political views. This Wikipedia page gives a good overview of American think tanks, and their partisan bent. One challenge of applying for think tank opportunities is that they don’t tend to post in a consistent place. You’ll find opportunities on a variety of search resources, so it’s important to do your research and find out where the think tanks that interest you most post their jobs and internships.
Thinks tanks and policy research firms may look into the issues, but the folks who make their living lobbying are the ones who convince Congressmen to support their employer’s point of view and make (or remove) laws. This is a great career for those who have great sales skills, unshakable passion for a cause, and love talking to people. Typically, lobbyists come from the ranks of those who have spent several years working on Capitol Hill because they have a network of contacts whom they can call to set up a meeting. Advocacy work requires the same essential skills and experience but may focus on humanitarian or nonprofit issues instead of political/business initiatives. To gain relevant experience, it can be helpful to intern with a nonprofit, trade organization, or think tank that focuses on issues you care about, or for a state or federal member of Congress/State Legislature.