Working in Congress (Part #2): Assessing fit and landing a job

by Locke_USA42 min read11th Apr 20213 comments

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United States policy and politicsPolicyCareer choice
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About this post

Working in Congress could be a highly impactful career choice for EAs who are US citizens and permanent residents, as 80,000 Hours has written about in their Congressional staffer career guide. This two-part overview complements that guide by explaining in more detail how Congress works. The goal is to allow EAs to make informed decisions about (a) whether Congress is a good place for them to work, (b) which Congressional jobs they could/should target and why, and (c) how to find and pursue opportunities.

  • Part #1 focuses on providing the necessary background about Congress. The post is structured like a funnel, moving from general information about Congress to specific information about the relevant committees and members across different EA cause areas. The cause areas that are (briefly) discussed in the post include AI, biosecurity, animal welfare, and global development.
  • Part #2 (this post) focuses on “next steps” for EAs interested in seriously exploring working in Congress, and includes resources and tactical suggestions for people across different career stages (current students, recent graduates, and people with terminal degrees and/or several years of work experience).

The posts are published anonymously for reputational reasons. The content of the posts is based on the author’s personal experience working on policy in DC for several years, background reading, and conversations with more than two dozen EAs and non-EAs with extensive Congressional experience.

If you are seriously considering working in Congress or are already looking for jobs on Capitol Hill, you can get in touch with relevant members of the DC EA community by filling in this Google Form.

Step #1: Think about whether you want to work in Congress

Post #1 reviewed several reasons why working in Congress could be highly impactful. But it also mentioned working in Congress is not for everyone. Here, we will dig a little deeper into that latter point. Several EAs have already started working in Congress for impact-related reasons. Some like it and are still there, while others have had to leave. For example, one EA who had a staff job told me:

The Hill has a very specific culture and I wish someone had warned me about it before I started working there. At best, staffers are idealistic, passionate, hard-working, and professional. At worst, they are uptight, cutthroat, not that smart, and narcissistic. Ultimately, I found it too unpleasant to work with Hill staffers and had to leave the Hill — although I did learn a lot and left for a great job, so it wasn't all the Hill's fault.

You should think hard about your “fit” for Congressional work. If you dislike your job or colleagues, you are unlikely to be an effective staffer — success on the Hill relies on taking initiative and building coalitions, things that are hard to do effectively if you are constantly miserable. Also, your mental health is important! Please take time to reflect before you invest in a Congressional career if you expect you will hate being there and risk burning out.

How, though, do you assess fit? The first step, of course, is to learn about Congress. This set of posts is designed to help you do that by collecting lots of the relevant information into a single place. Second, you can read day-in-the-life stories from Congressional staffers. However, it’s important to realize that your experience will vary greatly depending on your job; in some jobs, you will be answering lots of constituent mail every day, whereas in others, most of your weeks will not involve any constituent mail at all. Section 2 of this post will outline what categories of jobs exist, and link to resources and narratives that are specific to each of those jobs. (For a birds-eye view, this post nicely describes a day in a personal office, and the Congressional Management Foundation has survey data from 1,400+ Congressional staffers on their professional experiences: “Aligning Work and Life in the US House and Senate” and “Job Satisfaction and Engagement of House and Senate Staff”).

Even though everyone’s personal experience can vary greatly depending on their specific circumstances, some broad points on fit and life on the Hill include[1]:

  • Workdays are often hectic and unpredictable, and you might be juggling 3-4 important tasks at once. An energizing environment for some, but if you like working in structured and focused blocks, the Hill is not the place for you.
  • Hours can be long and unpredictable. When Congress is in session, staffers’ workweeks can easily run into the 50-60 hour range. Sometimes, if there is an imminent deadline or important committee/floor action, you may be working deep into the night.
  • Legislative staffers own a large portfolio of issues, almost none of which they are true experts on. This can be really exciting for generalists, but it may be frustrating if you want to build specific expertise.
  • Both because you’ll be a generalist and because policy is very complex and life on the Hill moves quickly, you need to be comfortable making judgment calls and decisions under high levels of uncertainty.
  • Hill staffers are motivated by a combination of public service, proximity to power and political gamesmanship. Congress is a very mission-oriented place, which can be really motivating — as long as you are not repelled by the mission.
  • Relatedly, much of your success as a staffer will depend on being able to work well with people you disagree with or even dislike. If you cannot build coalitions or handle interpersonal tension well, Congress will be a very tough work environment.
  • Workplace culture is relatively formal and hierarchical, with junior staffers having little autonomy or “voice.” If you hate wearing a suit to work every day, bewarned (though culture does vary by office).
  • Pay is relatively low and you do not have long-term job security.

Some of these workplace features are unique to Congress, whereas others are common across government. For example, federal agency staff often have a much narrower issue portfolio, highly expert colleagues, decent pay and long-term security, and more reasonable and predictable hours. These are some of the reasons many in DC prefer working in federal agencies over Congress. But, like Hill staffers, they also need to be good at building coalitions and quickly understanding the politics of an issue, and they (probably) still have to wear formal attire most days. Doing policy-related research at think tanks is even more different from Congressional work.[2] If you fear you are a bad fit for Congress, do not confuse that with being a bad fit for “policy” in general — there are lots of ways and places to do valuable policy work.

Ultimately, of course, you won’t know whether you’re a good fit for the Hill unless you try working there. Ideally, you could do a low-cost trial. Students or recent graduates can obviously intern, but there are trial options at the mid-career level as well: Sections 2.4 and 4.2 will describe and link to several Congressional “fellowship” programs, most of which require a graduate degree and/or several years of work experience. These fellowships are great ways to try life on the Hill without totally abandoning your current career or sacrificing optionality.

1.1 Relatively loose credential, citizenship, and security clearance requirements

Besides professional and cultural fit considerations, some EAs may also worry about whether they’re qualified or eligible to work in Congress. Fortunately, while Congress can compare unfavorably to other government work on dimensions like work-life balance, its formal requirements are generally looser. Notably:

  • Most hiring managers won’t care about your major or GPA. Many Hill jobs do not even ask for your college transcript. The skills that are most important to your success are “soft skills” like communication and emotional intelligence. Graduate training in specific fields may be a bonus but is generally not required, especially if you climb the ladder within Congress rather than applying for mid-level positions from the outside. Prior professional experience usually counts more heavily than educational credentials. Section 2 will discuss requirements and qualifications in more depth, and this CRS report has more details.
  • Permanent residents are eligible for most Congressional jobs. This is different from federal jobs for which hiring happens through the USAJobs portal. For those jobs, even those that do not require a security clearance, US citizenship is almost always a requirement. Congress writes its own employment rules, and has given itself more flexibility (some offices also hire international students as unpaid interns, and Dreamers may be eligible for some full-time jobs). This is good news for those who are not (yet) US citizens but do want to work in US policy, though getting permanent residency is, of course, still plenty challenging.
  • Only a small minority of staff positions require a security clearance. Many EAs worry whether security clearance requirements will prevent them from working in government jobs, both because getting a security clearance is generally a laborious and uncertain process and because it screens for certain behaviors (e.g., use of marijuana or other drugs). However, unlike almost every foreign policy- and national security-related position in the federal government, security clearance requirements are the exception on the Hill. About 600 Senate staff have clearances (out of more than 3,000 total); data for the House are not known. Many jobs that require clearances are committee staff positions on the Armed Services/Intelligence committees, and relevant Appropriations staff. Some personal office staff also have clearances. See this primer on Congressional staff clearances for more details.

Step #2: Explore what job(s) you are able to get

Once you have done some initial pondering on fit (and if you did not conclude that life on the Hill would be terrible for you), the next step involves thinking through specific job options.

2.1 The Congressional office org chart

First, to understand the paths into Congressional work, it is helpful to know a little more about the structure of a Congressional office. Congressional offices typically have clear hierarchies, though titles vary across offices and, especially, between personal offices and committees (see Post #1 for more on the difference between personal offices and committees). Personal offices are generally organized along something like the following structure:

Terminology can vary somewhat across offices (e.g., some offices have started calling their technology LAs “technologists,” and some senior legislative staff prefer the term “advisor”). Smaller offices, especially in the House, may consolidate certain functions (e.g., dedicated speechwriters are more common in the Senate). Office size and structure also varies based on Member seniority, size of constituency, and other factors. Around half of personal office staff work in district offices (as opposed to the “DC office” visualized above). District offices handle a lot of constituent and political work; because they mostly don’t work on policy, I won’t discuss them here.

Committee offices use different titles and terminology. The equivalent of the Chief of Staff is usually the “Staff Director” (though on Appropriations the title is “Clerk”[3]). The equivalent of the Legislative Director might be called “Chief Counsel,” “Policy Director,” or “Deputy Staff Director,” depending on the committee. Mid-level legislative staff are “Professional Staff Members” or “Counsel.” Most committees do not employ LC-equivalent junior staffers, with committee Staff Assistants and interns helping out instead. Committees also frequently employ specialists with expertise relevant to their jurisdiction, such as investigators (e.g., for oversight committees) or economists (e.g., for finance committees).

With this as background, below are some of the most common points at which you can slot in across various stages of your career, focusing mainly on the legislative professional track. (Section 4 will link to websites with job postings and further resources for each of these categories.)

2.2 Internships for undergraduate or graduate students

If you are currently doing an undergraduate or graduate degree you could do an internship. Both personal and committee offices have lots of interns. Most interns are undergraduate students, but it is not uncommon for graduate students to do Hill internships. (Recent graduates are eligible for full-time roles but might also need to do an internship to get their foot in the door; see Section 2.3.)

There are several kinds of Congressional internships. The most common internships involve general office work, and are often marketed as adjective-less “internships.” There are also more focused internships (“legislative” interns, “legal” interns or “law clerks” for law students, “press” interns for communications staff, “digital” interns for office management assistance, etc.). Responsibilities will vary by the type of internship.

  • Type of work: In a personal office, regular interns mostly answer phones and mail, give building tours to constituents, and/or attend hearings and write memos for LCs and LAs. In a committee office or in a legislative/legal internship, an intern’s work tends to be slightly more substantive, for example involving background research for hearings, investigations, or legislation. Committee internships are considered more prestigious.
  • Motivation: The main benefit of an internship is that it allows you to learn about the institution and its culture, to make connections, and to test your fit for full-time work on the Hill. Having intern experience is often a big plus for junior Congressional job applications; more than half of full-time Congressional staff are former interns.[4] (It is rare for an internship to translate directly into a full-time job offer because there are many more interns than there are jobs. But your internship will boost a later application for entry-level or even mid-level positions.)

Unfortunately, many Congressional internships are unpaid, though this has changed somewhat recently (see here). DC is an expensive city, so unpaid internships may not be an option for everyone. If this is an issue for you, consider looking into whether you can get funding from your university or sources such as EA Funds (Congress allows outside entities to pay Congressional interns, subject to certain conditions). (Some universities also have informal arrangements with specific offices for supplying interns, so contacting your university for support may be helpful even if you do have funds.)

2.3 Entry-level jobs for recent graduates

If you are newly graduated and looking for an entry-level job, you could apply to be a Staff Assistant (SA) or Legislative Correspondent (LC). Most of these entry-level roles are within personal offices; there are very few on committees, and those that exist are incredibly competitive.

  • Type of work: SAs predominantly do administrative and constituent work, such as manning the front office desk and phone. LCs, as their name suggests, spend a lot of time on constituent correspondence, e.g., writing letters articulating the office’s policy position on certain issues (Congressional offices easily get tens or even hundreds of thousands of constituent communications per year). However, many LCs (especially in the Senate) do get to do at least some legislative work while assisting LAs, and SAs sometimes do personal staffing for their Member, both which are good learning experiences.
  • Motivation: The main reason to do SA/LC work is to set yourself up for a promotion into a mid-level legislative position. Time to promotion depends on your starting point. On average, you can climb more quickly in the House (where you can also start as an LC rather than as an SA) than in the Senate (where it’s rare to start as an LC if you don’t have prior experience). On the other hand, in the Senate you do already get to do more legislative work as an LC. Going from SA to LA might take 2-3 years in the House (shorter if you start as LC), compared to 3-5 years in the Senate. But timelines can vary greatly case-by-case depending on luck and individual circumstances.

If you are fresh out of university, you may well struggle to find a position right away. Many recent graduates (including some with master’s degrees) have to start off as interns and apply for full-time jobs while interning (this is not necessarily a long-term commitment: it could take as little as 1-3 months). You could also consider starting on a campaign, though the route from campaigns to Congress is slightly more haphazard than interning. Check out this Forum post for one EA’s story of applying for entry-level jobs.

2.4 Jobs for terminal degree holders or mid-career professionals

If you have several years of experience and/or a terminal degree, you can be a mid-level staffer. It is at this level that you can really hope to have a sustained direct impact, for example by introducing new ideas and leading on policy or oversight initiatives (see Post #1). Mid-level staff roles are also where you really start accumulating career capital that is highly valued outside of Congress, for example in federal agencies or advocacy organizations.

Broadly speaking, there are two paths into roles at this level:

  • Internal: First, you can climb the Congressional ladder from SA/LC to LA (see above). Here, you’ve proven yourself through performance in past jobs, and you come in with a good understanding of Congressional process. Therefore, your formal credentials (degrees, etc.) matter less; offices will have trust you can pick up relevant new knowledge on the job. Many offices prefer promoting internally to taking a risk on an external candidate that they have not worked with before.
  • External: Second, you can come in from the outside, without having been an SA/LC. Here, the strength of your application would rely mainly on the expertise you bring. Many people who travel this path come from industry or think tank jobs that involve policy work (and possibly direct Hill engagement through briefings etc.) related to the staff role they end up in. They will typically have worked in such jobs for at least several years, and many have a relevant graduate degree. For people with advanced degrees (especially in STEM) but less policy background, there are also temporary fellowships that can help you transition into Congressional work.

Full-time legislative staff roles

Legislative staff roles differ depending on whether you work in a personal or a committee office. In a personal office, the most common mid-level role is that of Legislative Assistant (LA). Some offices also use variants of this title for positions with certain profiles, such as Military Legislative Assistant (MLA), while others use ad hoc titles (e.g., “technologist”). As a shorthand for these and other mid-level personal office positions, I will just talk about LAs here.

  • Type of work: Work as an LA in a personal office can vary widely, though it generally consists of some mix of constituent, political, and legislative work. The distribution of work depends heavily on the size of the office and the chamber. In small House offices, LAs may be tasked with tracking 5-6 issue areas and also do a little constituent-facing work, whereas in large Senate offices they mostly do legislative work on a narrower set of issues (see Post #1).
  • Motivation: Mid-level personal office staff often have opportunities for direct impact. For example, depending on the office, they may have some autonomy in focusing on particular issues, and they can pitch ideas to the LD/CoS/Member. The longer you are there, the more trusted and effective you become; many people spend several years in LA roles (potentially becoming “senior” LAs). Some personal office staff eventually jump to committee staff, especially if their Member moves up the hierarchy and becomes a (sub)committee chair.[5] Finally, LAs also have opportunities to transition into good jobs outside of the Hill, including at federal agencies, in lobbying, etc.

Legislative committee staff are typically called either Professional Staff Member(PSM) or Counsel, depending on whether you have a law degree and do legal work (lawyers are basically always called “Counsel,” even if the position they initially applied for was called PSM; there are few substantive differences between the two). Many committees also have specialist staff with expertise relevant to their jurisdiction, such as economists or investigators. Whether you are eligible to apply for those specialist roles depends on your professional and educational background, but if you are eligible, they could be good options.

  • Type of work: As a committee staffer, you would likely have a narrower portfolio than personal office staff (although the meaning of “narrow” is relative on the Hill). Committee staff work centers on legislation, oversight, and hearings, with little constituent-facing activity. However, you can still be pulled in to work on ad hoc tasks (e.g., writing last-minute press statements) for the Chair or Ranking Member (depending on whether you're majority or minority staff; see Post #1).
  • Motivation: Committee staff generally review all legislation within their portfolio that comes through their committee, and, under the right circumstances, they can play leading roles in shaping the committee’s agenda. This often involves great opportunities for impact, though those opportunities will vary depending on your committee and issue portfolio, whether you’re in the majority or minority, and how powerful and effective the Member who you work for is. As with mid-level personal office staff — and perhaps even more so due to their greater prestige and seniority — committee staff are often tapped for appointments in the White House or federal agencies. Some also transition into committee or personal office leadership positions.

Congressional fellowships

Fellowships are temporary (typically one-year) placements in a Congressional office, and they generally require several years of work experience and/or an advanced degree (though, confusingly, some offices also have short-term unpaid “fellows” who are essentially interns). Fellowship programs are run by outside organizations, who pay fellows’ salaries and help match them with Congressional offices. Specific examples of fellowship programs are listed in Section 4.3 below.

  • Type of work: Congressional fellows are supposed to do work at roughly the level of an LA (if they are in a personal office) or PSM (in a committee office). Early in the fellowship, most fellows’ time will be spent shadowing experienced staff to learn the ropes, or assisting with ad hoc tasks such as research. Later on, if a fellow manages to win their office’s trust, they will be given more responsibility. (This can be hit-or-miss: some fellows prove a poor fit and/or are not properly trained by their offices, leading them to have a bad experience.)
  • Motivation: The main reason to do a fellowship is to gain experience and a Hill network, both of which could help you land a regular Congressional role. You may also decide the Hill is not for you, or you may be unable to land a regular Hill job. But even then, Congressional experience can be very helpful for getting other policy-related jobs in or around government. Because much of your first year on the Hill will involve learning the ropes, it is rare (though not impossible) for fellows to have much counterfactual direct impact during their placement.

2.5 Senior and non-legislative jobs

The roles discussed above are a small subset of Congressional jobs, but they were the focus because they seem to be the most likely Congressional entry points for EAs.

  • More senior jobs are almost never open to people without prior work experience. For example, you could have a large impact working as a Legislative Director (LD), on leadership staff, or in a management position, but those jobs almost never go to people who haven’t worked in Congress before. It is often hard for people who are further along in their careers to transition into Congress, because the vast majority of the entry points are at the junior level; the more senior roles require extensive prior knowledge of Congressional process and politics. (One exception is expert committee roles, which can be filled by federal agency veterans or other experts with no Congressional experience, but this is not relevant to most EAs.)
  • Some jobs that are off the legislative track are worth considering if you have the right background. Most EAs are probably suited for the policy-oriented legislative track that was the focus of this section, but other jobs can also afford opportunities for impact. For example, if you have some background with media or journalism, you could consider applying to communications-oriented jobs. Rather than shaping the details of legislation or oversight, your direct impact could involve shaping how issues are framed, moving media coverage, and so forth (see Post #1 on “Amplification”). It’s difficult to pivot from communications into legislative roles within Congress, but not impossible. Outside of Congress, communications work can lead to potentially impactful jobs in federal agencies (especially in public and legislative affairs teams), lobbying and advocacy, etc.

More details on jobs not discussed above (as well as those that are discussed above) are available in the CRS report “Congressional Staff: Duties, Qualifications, and Skills Identified by Members of Congress for Selected Positions,” which synthesizes position descriptions and requirements for dozens of Congressional jobs based on hundreds of past job postings.

Step #3: Reach out to people

Now that you have a lay of the job options land, you are ready to start talking to people.

3.1 Tapping your network and doing informational interviews

If you are lucky, you might already be good friends with people who have worked on the Hill, in which case you can pepper them with questions and ask for connections. But most people are not that lucky. If you don’t already know someone, good places to start include your university alumni network and the DC EA community (reminder: you can fill out this Google Form to get in touch). Networking is crucial for getting a Hill job, so know that this part of the process might take up many dozens of hours.

Current or former staffers will be most helpful, since they have direct experience, but others who do policy work in DC should be able to provide relevant information and feedback as well. If you are early in your process, you may want to hold off before talking to current staffers. First, it’s good to be more knowledgeable when talking to staffers because you want to make a good impression on them. Second, you typically won’t get more than 15-30 minutes because staffers are very busy. Initially, you’ll probably be able to have more helpful and relaxed exploratory conversations with people who are not currently on the Hill.

Initial conversations with people adjacent to Congress

Not everyone in DC has great familiarity with Congress, but many people do. Former staffers will be most knowledgeable, but people who have worked at think tanks, advocacy or lobbying organizations, or federal agencies (especially in their legislative affairs offices) may also be able to help you.

People in DC are very used to doing quick “coffees” (which can be virtual) or informational interviews, including with friends of friends of friends or total strangers. However, you want to be respectful of people’s time, so it’s important to do your background research before talking to people. Learn what you can from the internet, and focus your coffees on (1) unique aspects of your situation and (2) things your interlocutors are uniquely situated to tell you about or help you with. Some questions you could ask them (depending on their background) include (and see here for some more general tips):

  • Here’s my CV. Are there ways I can “spin” my past jobs to be more competitive for a Congressional job?
  • I have a couple of years of professional experience. Looking at my CV, do you think I should (a) apply for an entry-level position, or (b) continue working outside of Congress for a while longer until I can try for a mid-level position?
  • I’m very interested in topics A, B, C. Do you know which specific offices or staffers are especially active in those areas?
  • I worry a little about aspects D and E of working in Congress. Is this a valid concern? What has been your experience with D and E? How do staffers usually deal with them?
  • Do you think I could get a staff job at committees F and G without prior Congressional experience / a security clearance?
  • Are there other people who you’d suggest I talk to? Could you connect me to them?

Conversations with current staffers

Once you feel sufficiently knowledgeable about Congress and Congressional jobs, you’ll want to start talking to as many current staffers as possible. Hopefully, the people you’ve chatted with previously will be able to introduce you to a few of them.

Treat these conversations as quasi-interviews. You may not have formally applied for a job, and in many cases the people you’re talking to won’t have any immediate opportunities for you — but you want to make a good impression. Remember that “soft skills” are essential in Congress, so people will look at your ability to navigate this stage of the process as indicative of how well you will perform in a Hill job. If the staffers you’re talking to were especially impressed or you really hit it off, they may help you apply to other offices and/or flag your application with their colleagues. Or they may be able to unexpectedly offer you a job in 1-2 months, for instance if one of their current staffers decides to leave on short notice.

Before you talk to people, make sure you do background research on the office. Tailor how you introduce yourself to the office’s interests. Some things you can do beforehand:

  • Look through the Member’s press appearances and statements, bills they’ve sponsored, etc., to get a sense of what they care about. Know what committees the Member serves on, and perhaps some of the caucuses they’re a part of. (See Section 3.4 of Post #1 for more on these indicators).
  • Look up the Member’s district or state and some of its salient features (e.g., urban versus rural, ethnic composition, what are the big industries, etc.). If you are talking to committee staff, research the Chair or Ranking Member as well as the committee’s recent activity (hearings, legislation, etc.) and jurisdiction.
  • Think about how your interests tie into the Member’s district or state (e.g., do they have local companies that work on vaccine-related tech, if you’re a biosecurity person?). Emphasize any local ties you have (e.g., did you grow up there, live there, study there, family ties, etc.) — most offices really value this.

During your conversations, it is okay not to know everything and ask questions, but it’s good to demonstrate that you’ve done your research. Focus on specifics: “I saw [Member] introduced a bill on X last month. I’m very interested in / have done some work on X. Is this something you’re hoping to do more on? What do you think about it?” Do not ask things that you could have easily learned by looking them up online (e.g., broad questions like “what issues is your office interested in?”). Find ways to talk up your accomplishments and skills, and do not be shy about asking for opportunities or assistance:

  • What are your office’s hiring needs in the next [amount of time]?
  • What is the application process like?
  • Is there anyone else you would recommend I talk to?

If there are specific offices you’re interested in working for and you are unable to get connected to staff there through your network, do not be afraid to cold email someone, even potentially at the Chief of Staff or Staff Director level. Describe your background and interests in 1-2 sentences, attach your CV/LinkedIn, mention any local ties to their office and anything you have in common with them personally, and ask if they could spare 15-30 minutes to talk about their career and possible job opportunities. The vast majority of your cold emails will go unanswered, but the handful that reply could still be very helpful.

You can find some staffers’ names online through Google and LinkedIn searches and guess their emails by following the standard Congressional formats (see endnote[6]). Alternatively, to save you time and improve search quality, you can pay for a subscription service to access staff directories (e.g., LegiStorm costs about $20/month). This gives you a comprehensive, up-to-date list of staff and their emails. Directories also often contain biographical information, which can help you find staff you have something in common with, like being from the same town, having gone to the same school, etc.

3.2 Whatever you do, don’t be shy

Much of this process can feel uncomfortable, especially if you are not already acquainted with DC networking culture. This is unavoidable. However, know that basically everyone you talk to also got help from distant acquaintances or strangers, and most are happy to pay it forward. Always respect people’s time, but do not feel like you are asking for something strange — everyone on and around the Hill knows this is part of the process.

It is basically impossible to succeed in a Congressional job search without extensive networking. Many jobs are not even posted publicly, with candidate recruitment happening solely through internal listservs and/or word-of-mouth. And jobs get so many applicants that you almost never even get interviewed unless someone “flags” your application with the hiring manager. So do not be shy.

Some specific things that are good to do when you’ve met someone (see also this Forum post for more details on one EA’s process of getting an entry-level Congressional position):

  • Follow up immediately after your first meeting with a thank you and mention something specific that you talked about that you found particularly interesting or helpful. (Not everybody likes sending or receiving these, do what feels good/appropriate to you in your context.)
  • If they offered to connect you to others, politely remind them of that in your follow-up email. Once you connect with that person, follow up with your initial contact to say you had a great conversation and thank them again for making the introduction.
  • Check in one or two months later (the specific thing you mentioned in your initial follow-up email will hopefully help them remember who you are), asking if they know of any new opportunities.
  • Look for ways to be helpful and follow up again. For example, if you talked about a specific policy issue and you see a great new article or policy report on the topic, shoot them an email with the material. In passing, also give them a quick status update on your search.
  • When you do get a job, send them an update and thank them again for their help.

Remember that “networking” does not need to be gross or parasitic. The best way to “build your network” is by being helpful and an eager student, identifying shared interests and goals with whoever you’re talking to (including non-EAs) and having genuine conversations about those. Don’t treat your interactions as an extractive one-way flow of information or introductions. Know that you can bring valuable questions, knowledge, and perspectives to the table. Whenever you can, pay it forward to others who are in a similar situation.

Step #4: Search and apply for jobs

Now, with all this research and “coffee” behind you, you’re finally ready to actually start applying for jobs!

4.1 Selecting which offices to apply to

Sadly, getting a job in Congress is hard. Congressional office budgets are small, so there are not that many staff positions, and many, many people are excited to work on the Hill. Getting your first job is especially difficult, because so much hiring happens internally and through word-of-mouth.

One implication of this unfortunate reality is: Don’t focus too much on the relevance of the job to the EA cause area(s) you care about — the most important thing about your first job is that it helps you get your foot in the door. This is especially true the more junior you are:

  • Interns and entry-level jobs: At this early stage, your main goals should be to build your experience and network, which you should do at whatever office is willing to take you on. Most offices try to hire interns and staff from their home district or state, so those are the best places to start looking, but it’s worth applying widely. If Members from your home district or state are not in the party that you want to work for, you’re usually better off prioritizing party affiliation over local ties. Even as an intern, the party you work for will shape your networks, references, etc., and it’s very hard to switch parties down the road.
  • Mid-level jobs: Once you reach a more advanced stage, you start developing issue-specific expertise and getting opportunities for direct impact. Ideally, then, you’d be working on issues that you care about. However, as you are trying to break in — whether you’re climbing the ladder internally as an LC or applying from the outside — you should still apply for any job that you’re qualified for. For example, if you happen to have some tax-related expertise, apply to any LA position that has tax policy in its portfolio — even if you actually want to be working on AI. It’s much easier to add new issues to your portfolio when you’re already in an office than it is to break into that office in the first place. Once you’re in, you can typically find some way to collaborate with the colleague who has AI in their portfolio. And when they get promoted or leave — as is likely, since turnover in Congressional offices is high — you’d be the logical person to take over the issue.

The one partial exception to this “just get your foot in the door” rule is fellowships. Because their salaries are paid by other organizations, fellows are free to Congressional offices, and are therefore generally in high demand. For example, on average, TechCongress fellows receive placement offers from more than 7 offices, and they pick which offer to accept. If you manage to secure a fellowship, in other words, you can often be a little more choosy. (That’s a big “if” though: most of these fellowships are highly selective.)

A second reason not to initially limit yourself to a small number of options is that you also want to weigh factors like office culture and colleagues. As one EA who worked in Congress put it:

In the short-term, personal fit and connections may play a larger role in career success than angling for the right committees. Working for and with coworkers who like you, respect you, and will be impressed by you is more important for early career building than working for the right committee. … Prioritize inside view over outside view, and pay attention to the details of a job, for example who your boss is and whether you're good at the day-to-day.

If you are faced with the choice between (1) a job that has AI in its portfolio but where your boss does not seem supportive of you or your career, and (2) a job only tangentially related to EA cause areas in an office that you really like, it’s not obvious that you should go with the AI job.

None of this means you should forget about long-term goals. If you want to eventually end up as an Armed Services or Appropriations committee staffer — prestigious places from which, as discussed in Post #1, you could plausibly have a high impact across a range of cause areas — it is good to keep that in mind. This allows you to shape your job experiences and your networking around it. For example, even if you initially get hired as an LA focused on taxes and infrastructure, you can make it a point to meet or collaborate with staffers on your “goal” committees; to add committee-relevant tasks and issues to your policy portfolio when possible; or to frequently apply to personal office jobs of senior members on those committees. But do not (initially) apply only to the select few highest expected-impact jobs. If you try only the most direct route, you may actually prevent yourself from reaching your destination.

4.2 Finding job openings

You can find job openings through a variety of channels. There are generally at least some Congressional jobs open at any point, though the volume of openings depends on the time of year and where we are in the electoral cycle. The resources below focus on jobs that are posted publicly, though many Congressional staff jobs are, as noted above, not advertised (those non-public openings you will have to learn about through your network).

Internships

Internships are managed by individual offices and either posted on Member websites only, or on both Member websites and in centralized databases. Because most interns are students, internship positions generally follow a spring/summer/fall semester cycle. Internships (even the unpaid ones) are often quite competitive; most people want to intern in the summer, so, if you have flexibility, it is somewhat easier to get accepted during the spring and fall cycles. You’ll have a leg up with Members from your district or state, so those are good places to start your search. Resources:

Full-time staff roles

Full-time staff positions (LC/LA/PSM/etc.) are often posted on the House and Senate employment bulletins. There are generally more job openings around the time a new Congress is inaugurated, especially if party control shifts and the new majority has lots of newly available staff positions to fill. When a new Presidential administration comes into office, they also typically hire a lot of Hill staff, opening up additional positions. For example, with both the Senate and the White House shifting to Democratic control, early 2021 saw lots of job openings on the Hill on the Democratic side. Resources:

Fellowships

Fellowships are run by a variety of organizations.[7] Availability, compensation, and timing depend on the specific fellowship. In the technology space (e.g., for EAs interested in AI and bio), prominent fellowships include AAAS and its partner societies (typically STEM PhD required) and TechCongress (which has programs for both mid-career technologists and recent STEM graduates). Other professional associations (e.g., APSA for political scientists, APA for psychologists) or civil society groups (e.g., APAICS for Asian Pacific Americans) also run fellowship programs. People with more than 7 years of private sector experience could do a fellowship via the WashU/Brookings LEGIS program (note: they charge tuition). Resources:

  • Sadly, there is no comprehensive list of Congressional fellowships online anywhere (edit: this CRS memo is perhaps the closest there is), but check out some of the links above to get a sense of what these programs are like and what requirements they have.
  • Look around by googling your own professional and/or demographic group(s) + “Congressional fellowship.”

4.3 Succeeding in the application process

To maximize your chances of getting an interview:

  • Apply quickly. Posted jobs are often taken offline when they get a sufficient number of applicants, and it can be helpful to be one of the first people to apply. If you do not apply within the first day or two, your chances of getting the job are significantly lower.
  • Get your resume flagged. As noted above, the Hill is network-driven, and it is very helpful to have your resume “flagged” by someone the hiring manager knows. This can be someone else in the same office, a colleague in another office, or any other mutual contact (see Section 3).
  • Submit a tailored writing sample. Many applications require writing samples. These should definitely be short (usually no more than 1-2 pages), and can be tailored. For example, if the job you’re applying for involves doing press releases, consider writing a press release especially for the application, perhaps even one focused on the specific Member’s interests (though having a couple of generic samples may save you time). This shows you made an effort and directly demonstrates relevant skills.

To maximize your chances of succeeding during the interview:

  • Know what your role will entail. The interview will focus on assessing aptitude and interest for your specific role. For example, as reviewed in Section 2, interns and SAs will spend a lot of their time interacting with constituents. The hiring manager will want to know if you’ve worked in service-oriented jobs before and how you would respond to certain constituent-interaction scenarios. SAs may manage interns, and any prior management experience is a bonus. Your part-time barista job may be a bigger asset for an SA application than a killer GPA. Many LC tasks involve writing, so for that job you may get asked about your writing skills.
  • Study up on the Member or committee. See Section 3.2 for an overview of the main things you’ll want to look into (district characteristics, bill sponsorships, etc.).
  • Study up on what’s going on in Congress. You might be asked about some big news story, or someone might make a joke that you want to be able to knowingly laugh along to. Don’t seem uninformed or detached from current events.
  • Prepare as you would for any other interview. Some questions you’ll get asked are unique to Congress, but many are not — good old interview staples such as “what are your biggest weaknesses?” could very well come up here too.

Some helpful resources include:

Hopes and dreams

I hope these two posts have given you a good sense of how Congress works, whether you might want to try working there, and how to get a job. I have tried not to downplay the potentially negative or challenging aspects of working on the Hill, because everyone who takes the leap should go in with eyes open. Some EAs will prove to be poor fits for Congressional life. But I would not have written these posts if I didn’t think there were many people out there who could thrive and succeed. Several EAs are already there, and are excited to lend a hand. The more of us there are, the easier it’ll become to support each other and the higher the chances that we accomplish good things. That’s the dream.

(Reminder: you can fill out this Google Form to get in touch.)

Notes


  1. Note that some of these points are true for mid-level staff more than for interns or entry-level staff (e.g., as an intern you will generally get to go home at a normal time even if important events are happening late at night). However, most of the expected benefits from working as an intern or entry-level staffer depends on you climbing the Hill ladder and eventually becoming a mid-level staffer. Even if you are currently looking at junior jobs, these points are still important to consider. ↩︎

  2. Jobs at the three Congressional support agencies — the Congressional Research Service (CRS), the Government Accountability Office (GAO), and the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) — are more akin to think tank work, although there are some notable differences. If you are considering think tank work, you might also consider working at one of these three Congressional agencies. ↩︎

  3. This is confusing, because in most other committees the “clerks” are administrative staff. ↩︎

  4. Furnas et al., “The Congressional Capacity Survey,” ch. 5 in LaPira et al. (eds.), Congress Overwhelmed, Table 5.2. Most junior staffers who did not previously intern either worked on their Member’s campaign or had some pre-existing personal connection to the Member. ↩︎

  5. Most people consider committee jobs more desirable, but whether you can actually have more counterfactual impact there will vary on a case-by-case basis. ↩︎

  6. House email = FirstName.LastName@mail.house.gov, Senate email = FirstName_LastName@memberlastname.senate.gov or FirstName_LastName@committeename.senate.gov (where committees are usually abbreviated, e.g., “Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee” = HSGAC) ↩︎

  7. It is also possible to raise personal funds and self-organize a fellowship position on the Hill (as long as your funding source does not violate conflict-of-interest and other ethics rules). However, there is a good reason that placement assistance and extensive training are important parts of organizational fellowship programs. Unless you have significant DC experience, trying to self-organize a fellowship is probably the wrong move. ↩︎

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Very interesting. Could you please do a similar post for working in the U.K. Government, and / or any other countries with a large EA community.

Thanks, Sandy! Unfortunately it takes quite a bit of work and research to put these kinds of posts together, and I was only able to do these about Congress because I've lived in DC for a while and work directly on US policy (and had help from 5+ EAs who have worked in/around Congress). There may be other EAs or EA orgs who could write equivalent posts about the UK government (or other), but to do that well, they would probably need help from people who have actually worked in that ecosystem for several years. Every government system works differently.

Hi Sandy, it looks like another member of the Forum ended up writing what you were looking for! https://forum.effectivealtruism.org/posts/J4LkAy9vJmzGPJqBH/working-in-parliament-how-to-get-a-job-and-have-an-impact