Thinking about Working in DC? Strategies for Getting Your Foot in the Door

 March 29, 2017


Washington DC

Have you seen Office Space? That hilarious movie about traffic jams, suburban sprawl, cubicle farms, and TPS Reports? For many of us, DC is more Office Space than cherry blossoms and marble halls of justice. But the fight is worth fighting, provided you know how to get hired in the first place.

Enter Chris Simmons, Duke’s Associate Vice President for the Office of Government Relations and a registered lobbyist with an impressive DC resume. At a recent Careers Beyond Academia event aptly called “Working in DC: What to Know Before You Go to Jobs and Internships in Government, Think Tanks, Nonprofits, and More,” Simmons offered seasoned advice on how to land that first job.

Who are you? Answer this first. Who are you, where did you come from, and what do you want? These are not easy questions to answer, but you can’t formulate a game plan until you have given them serious thought – and answered them honestly.

First, know whether you are a Republican, Democrat, or other. These things matter in the nation’s capital. If you plan to work on the Hill, you may be hired based on your party affiliation (among other things). Your politics may come into play working for think tanks, non-profits, and the private sector as well.

Second, take stock of your training and qualifications. Think creatively about how to put your skills to work. Research potential careers and companies online by reading job ads, mission statements, and press releases. Do your skills match those listed in the ads? Do the jobs and workplaces look interesting to you? Can you see yourself in the field longer-term? Don’t despair if this step feels overwhelming. The Graduate School’s professional development offerings can help. Attend as many of the sponsored panels, workshops, and talks on career choice as you can.

Third, nail it down (for now). Figure out what you want and where you’re going. Narrow your target market to a few fields or sectors and a handful of entities. Zero in, network, and make it happen.

Move there. Jobs in DC can happen to you, if you’re in the right place at the right time. Someone over drinks mentions that their firm is hiring. Someone else says, “Oh, I know the perfect person. I’ll put you in touch.” You get a call at 8:30 the next morning from someone you don’t know at an entity you’re only marginally familiar with, and you’re told you have an interview inside the Beltway in 30 minutes.

What if you live in Iowa? If you ask them to fly you in, you will most likely not get the interview, much less the job. Why? Because you are one in a million or more young people just like you pounding the pavement looking for work in the greater DC area. So move to DC, crash on a couch, tend bar, and be ready when the call comes in.

Network. Then network some more. Most likely, you already know someone working in DC. Call them up. DC also has one of the largest groups of Duke alums in the country. Use the Duke pool as a valuable resource. Search their profiles on the alumni network and see if they are open to contact from current students. If not, research alums online and send them an email.

What to say if they agree to meet? Everyone knows that your awkward invitation to coffee is just another way of asking, “Do you or anyone else you’ve ever known ever have a job for me? Anything? Anything at all?” You need a plan for getting through that awkward 10-minute meet-up.

“Tell me how you got to where you are.” Ask them to tell you their own story instead of saddling them with your sad job search non-news. You’ll also get a sense for how wonky career paths in DC generally are.

“If you were in my shoes, where would you look and what would you be thinking?” This gives people a chance to wrack their brains for places that might be hiring. They may also share field, industry, company, or city insights that can help you hone your search away from certain areas.

“Can you give me the names of two people I should talk to?” Build your network. Get those names. Even if it’s one name, follow up. Follow back with a thank-you email, and follow forward with a new email inviting to meet. Repeat.

Say yes. To everything. Network in person. If someone says, “Our company is hosting an event at the ballroom of a hotel on Saturday,” go with a ready smile and firm handshake. Also agree to take a job – any job – offered, even if it’s only adjacent to your field. People move quickly up the ranks once hired in DC. An entry-level job can put you in front of the right people and let you learn the ropes.


DC cherry blossoms

Most importantly, prepare to work long hours for relatively little pay, particularly for Hill jobs, and prepare for long commutes. DC has a traffic problem. The DC metro area is huge. People commute daily from outlying cities located a full two hours (or more) by car outside of the Beltway. And government flex time can sometimes mean 3:00 am traffic jams.

You may just have to pay your dues. But the cherry trees really are beautiful.


Eliza Bourque Dandridge

Ph.D. student, Romance Studies 

Eliza Bourque Dandridge lived a former life in Falls Church, McLean, and Reston and in one of those bedroom communities way, way, way, way out. She is currently completing a doctorate in French and Francophone Studies and researches popular images and literatures during the last decades of the French empire. She mainly reads comics.