Friday, November 07, 2008

Geoff LeGrand '10: Reflections on a summer in DC

Students, worth reading if you're considering spending time in DC. I didn't know that here in PG we teach students to write in a biased format, as opposed to DC...I think his point is that we emphasize argument over neutral statements of policy--

For many students in the Politics and Government department, an internship in a congressman's D.C. office seems the ideal summer internship. This past summer, I had the honor of interning for Congressman Adam Smith (D-WA) in his Washington, D.C. office. However, having gone through this experience, I would like to take an opportunity to analyze the elements that, in reflection, I feel other students should consider before accepting their own internships.

One of the biggest challenges of hunting for internships often seems to be uncovering exactly what they entail. Often, internship duties are discussed in vague language. When considering a Capitol internship, these duties vary widely by office. However, they generally consist of data input – taking constituents concerns or comments via email, phone, fax, or mail and putting them into a computer database. This is generally the central duty of most Capitol interns. Other than that, the second most common duty is usually giving tours of the Capitol complex to constituents. Otherwise, interns essentially act as receptionists – taking care of whatever menial office duties are required.

With that said, I feel there are a number of misconceptions surrounding life as a Capitol intern. First, it must be emphasized that being a Capitol intern has little, if anything, to do with that which we learn here as students. Rarely does knowing the difference between open and closed list proportional representation electoral systems prove useful in one's life as an intern. Rather, being a Capitol intern is more similar to being a politician than a student of politics. The skills required are generally not taught in schools – the ability to write effective memos or carry a political motif. Most troublesome may be the ability to write without expressing the slightest bias on a given issue – the antithesis of what most Politics and Government students are taught to do. Most students will have to learn some or all of the requisite skills on the job. This transition from the ivory tower can be a stressful experience as many academic norms are ill suited to the Capitol environment.

The other common misconception is that being a Capitol intern is somehow a glamorous job. It is not. Interns are a dime-a-dozen in the Capitol. This is not to say that interns are disrespected – in fact there are strong norms against disrespecting interns. However, it is almost important to accept a Capitol internship with a clear sense of modesty. In academic life, future Capitol interns receive a lot of respect for having received a widely sought and prestigious internship. In D.C., however, interns unsurprisingly sit towards the bottom of the Capitol hierarchy. Their day-to-day role in the office will reflect this.

With that said, there are certainly numerous wonderful aspects of D.C. internship. The opportunities for networking are unlimited and many Capitol interns use their experience as a launching pad for their later careers. Furthermore, the educational experiences are also wonderful – both on and off the hill there are frequent intern-oriented lectures or briefings hosted by D.C. elites in their respective fields. Finally, the social aspects of a D.C. internship are wildly fun. Because so many interns from so many different places descend on D.C. during the summer – there is lots of friendship to be made, and lots of social events offered to interns. These range from a massive network of intramurals sports leagues (kick-ball, bocce ball and flip-cup leagues were some of many when I was in the city) to citywide scavenger hunts to other more traditional events.

The purpose of this reflection is certainly not to discourage anyone from accepting a Capitol internship. As I have said, it looks wonderful on a résumé, and can offer a wide variety of amazing experiences. In many cases you may never know where you want to take your career until you try out a variety of different options. Even if you do not like your Capitol internship, you will probably still walk away with a better idea of what you want to do in the future, and having had a lot of fun along the way.

With that said though, it's important to remember that Capitol internships are not the only game in town. There is a whole assortment of different internships available to Politics and Government students and many of these are of equal or higher caliber to a Capitol internship. A Capitol internship is not necessarily for everyone. If you are not oriented towards working in domestic politics or are looking for a laid back summer internship – this may not be the right experience for you. Choosing a Capitol internship because it seems the most glamorous is unwise. Rather, I would suggest one take the 'glamour' factor out of the equation and assess internships based on their own career desires and how they wish to spend their summers. This may still lead you back to the Capitol, but at least you will be there for the right reasons.