When I started working in a US senator’s office personal office in DC, it was my responsibility to supervise the summer college interns. This was not hard work. The interns’ responsibilities were generally to sort mail, collate articles about the Senator, answer constituent phone calls when the receptionists were out of the office and attend and summarize hearings. The second floor of the office was full of interns coming and going and I was often surprised that many were not as present as I would have expected. There certainly were a number of students who were so excited to be there that their energy became contagious, but just as many simply came in, did what was asked and put the experience on their resume or asked if the Senator would write them a letter of recommendation. I often wondered what an interview with that student would be like later in life – “so tell me what you did on the Hill.” “Well…I opened mail and this one time got yelled at by a constituent about an amendment…” I didn’t understand why when they had access to such interesting topics and career histories many did not take advantage of the opportunity. Even when duties are dull there’s something to be learned.
So here are some things I learned over those years that could make your summer career related experience more relevant to your career development:
1. When you finish your tasks, look for other projects. If you can’t find them on your own, ask someone.
2. Be open to getting to know your co-workers and supervisors. Learn about their career paths and their connections. You’re developing your network.
3. Think about what you have to offer in this setting – are you a good writer, communicator, networker, or researcher? This will help you further develop your skill set, make you an asset to the office, and help you decide if this is something you might want to do for a job.
4. Go above and beyond – before you finish or even start a task, think about what else you could do…How can you turn in a better product?
5. Take advantage of every opportunity. If someone asks if you’re interested in attending a meeting, taking a stab at a bigger project, or meeting someone new, always try to participate. It will show your interest and you’ll probably learn something.
When I began working on the Hill, I was the office’s first graduate fellow. My supervisor wasn’t completely sure what to do with me. So when I had my weekly meeting, I created an agenda to guide the discussion. I was once given a research project to determine a senator’s voting record, but many of the votes were held in secret. Rather than say the information didn’t exist, I found a librarian at the Library of Congress and interviewed him for an hour. I included the details he game me in my report to the Senator.
On my last day of my fellowship, I had a small amount of time to speak with the Senator and get my picture taken. He was a member of the Foreign Relations Committee so I spent time talking to him about a project I was working on at the UN agencies in town. After our conversation the Senator asked the Legislative Director about me and suggested she offer me a job. So as you can see, every minute – even the last minute of your experience can count. It’s up to you to make it add up.
By Katy Mattson