Analysis & Opinions - The Washington Post

Tips for graduates who want to work in Washington, Part III

| June 8, 2016

Last year Natalie Portman was tapped to give Harvard’s commencement address, and this year, the university obviously decided to stick with the Hollywood theme and have Steven Spielberg deliver the address, thereby disqualifying me as the commencement speaker. Hmm. Undeterred, I am using this space for the third year in a row to dispense some mostly retread, gratuitous insight to recent graduates anywhere — but particularly geared toward those who have decided to move to our nation’s capital to try to launch their careers.

Getting your start in Washington often has more to do with persistence and discipline than with raw intellect or any particular expertise. I have watched a lot of young people come to Washington and establish successful careers for themselves, and with good application of common sense, plenty of determination and some luck, you can do the same.

  1. Decide where you want to work and pursue opportunities there as soon as possible. You are better off picking a specific office or individual job and going after it rather than just wandering around town asking people what you should do. If you don’t get what you want, proceed to your second choice. As I always tell people, “Fail in a hurry, and move on to Plan B!”
  2. Be able to state your capabilities and how much money you need to make. Be able to instantly tell a potential boss what you think you can do and how much money you need. You would be surprised at how many people I meet with who can’t answer either question. It’s okay to do some surveying of the marketplace and ask for advice, but try to limit that and start asking people for a job. Be direct: Here’s what I would like to do, and here’s how much I would like to get paid. And don’t let your eyes cut to the ground while you speak.
  3. See anyone in town who will see you. Even if a person, office, agency or company says there are no openings at the moment, that could change tomorrow. Courtesy visits can open doors you didn’t even know were there. And, if you want to work in Washington, move to Washington immediately. Don’t just sit behind your computer and fire out generic resumes. When you get out, things happen. Your competition is in Washington pounding the sidewalks even as you read this. You could bump into someone at any moment, at any event, who says he or she is looking or knows someone who is looking to fill a job with someone just like you.
  4. Prepare yourself.Before you walk into any interview, know who you are meeting with. Google their biography, their business and anything else you can find. You would be surprised at the number of people who come visit me who haven’t bothered to read about our firm or who haven’t even quickly studied our website. Doing so will not only give you something to talk about but also will help you assess how you might fit into or be an asset to the organization. Certainly don’t pretend you know too much, and don’t be afraid to ask questions, but don’t walk in blind.
  5. Quickly assess the room where you have a meeting.When you walk into an office to meet with someone, quickly take note of your surroundings. Does the person you are meeting with have a lot of pictures of themselves and certificates lining the walls? Well, those are there to be noticed by others. Don’t be shy about mentioning how impressive the displays are. You are more likely to make a positive impression and be remembered if you take notice of something the person you are talking to is proud of and wants others to notice. As Benjamin Disraeli said, “Everyone likes flattery.” Side note: If you don’t know who Benjamin Disraeli is, that alone says something about your college education.  But don’t worry — it’s not too late; google Disraeli.
  6. Take almost any job. If you are any good, responsibility and authority will flow your way. In Washington, once you have gotten your foot in the door, other opportunities will present themselves.
  7. Think of your first two jobs as more school. Take it on faith that you have a lot to learn. You are never more vulnerable than when you don’t know what you don’t know. Work to learn. Figure out how to get by without much money. Just about everybody in Washington spent some time sleeping on someone else’s couch when they first came to town. After 18 months in your first job, be on the lookout for a better one.
  8. Be the first one at work every day. You probably won’t be the smartest, luckiest or the most well-connected at your job, but you can be the first one there; the one who is never late. Bosses will notice. It is totally in your hands.
  9. Be thorough and detail-oriented. Success is mostly a product of discipline and thoroughness, not a function of IQ. Honesty, reliability and dependability are more important than brilliance in most jobs.
  10. Dress better and be neater than your peers. Malcolm X said, “In order to get something you had to look as though you already had something.” First impressions matter — if for no other reason than because most bosses don’t have time to act on much else.
    • Special bonus corollary: You are never dressed nicer than your shoes. This seems to be lost on young men. If you are given a crisp shirt, suit and tie for graduation, it’s almost for naught if your shoes aren’t properly shaped and shined.
  11. Read the news.Be an avid reader of the news.  You should aim to read more than what your bosses read, but at a minimum, know what is in The Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, the Financial Times and Bloomberg every day. If you are a Republican, always check out Fox News and Drudge. If you are a Democrat, read BuzzFeed and Salon. If you don’t have much time and you can only read one site, go to RealClearPolitics.
  12. Ask for more work. If you are any good, you will get it. Money and better opportunities will follow. This is also a way to attract mentors who will give you more responsibility and promote you around town. Regarding mentors: Remember, you need to recruit them; don’t count on them finding you.
  13. The important thing to remember is to pursue a job in a field where you have a sincere intellectual interest or emotional connection. This may sound like a vapid generality, but it’s important for marketing yourself. The enthusiastic and sincerely interested always beat out the synthetic, contrived resume-padders.

That’s it for this year. Good luck.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Rogers, Ed.“Tips for graduates who want to work in Washington, Part III.” The Washington Post, June 8, 2016.

The Author