Whether you're just starting your career, or are thinking of switching after putting in your time in another field, there's a way to break into political work for you.
If you're a young college student or recent graduate, you'll want to go the traditional route. It involves seeking internships, applying for entry-level positions, and working your way up. But for an older adult who has established himself or herself in another career, a different approach is required. In order for you to achieve a political position, you'll need to cash in on expertise in your primary field and translate those skills into a consulting or senior staff position.
For the new entrants into the job market, here are some tips that can help you get ahead in the political game:
- Know your stuff. This point can't be overemphasized. Understand the nuances of the political process - the two party system, the bicameral nature of Congress, the three branches of government, how a bill becomes law. These details are important. If you're not fully familiar with them, educate yourself before you take the first step.
- Volunteer at your local party headquarters. Let people know you're looking for a career in politics; those who engage in party politics on a part-time basis generally love to provide full-time help to the state and national party groups and campaigns - it makes them look good.
- Seek political internships. Ask your political science professors for referrals. Check with the local party leaders. Internships can be paid or entirely volunteer positions, and can be associated with political bodies, agencies, or parties. Explore all available options and pick the highest profile group that meshes well with your goals.
- Also explore think tanks, unions, nongovernmental organizations, law firms, educational institutions and other similar groups that are players in the political realm but may not be "political" in nature, strictly speaking. Positions with these groups can translate into paid internships with the government or political parties.
- Take on "grunt work," willingly and enthusiastically. Those who take this approach up the ladder must be willing to pay their dues. The people who hired you did the same, and when it's you hiring the interns, you can make them fetch the coffee and lick envelopes all night. Until then, plaster a smile on your face and practice these words: "Cream and sugar or black?"
For the older worker who will market herself as an expert, try these steps to gain traction in the political field:
- Write articles in your field. Aim for higher-end publications and scholarly journals, but whatever you do, get published.
- Consider starting a blog. This is an excellent way to communicate your expertise and create a "name" for yourself.
- Cultivate press contacts and present yourself as a great source of unbiased information. When the decision-makers repeatedly see your name in the newspaper speaking on a particular subject, they begin to associate you with that field. That's exactly what you want, because when an appointment or position opens in a field that's related to yours, your name will be at the top of the shortlist.
- Volunteering with local political parties and campaigns is important for you, too. This is a good way to meet the people who may one day be in a position to put your name up for appointment. Seek to be named as a delegate to the state and national conventions. By all means, donate to the campaigns of candidates you particularly like, but be careful with this approach, because it can backfire in a heartbeat. When it looks like quid pro quo, it really doesn't matter that your appointment was completely above-board. All that matters is the headline - unfortunate, but unfortunately true.
Some general tips, applicable to both types of prospective political staffers:
- Don't overlook state and local political positions. If you distinguish yourself and align yourself with the appropriate elected officials (who have designs on office beyond the local Board of Commissioners, for instance), you can find yourself ascending the ladder with that person as she seeks higher office.
- To find state and local positions, check the official website of each governing entity. Most states will have some sort of centralized personnel site, which will list all jobs. Other states may require you to visit each agency independently.
- Consider working for campaigns. This is incredibly valuable experience and often translates into permanent positions in the successful candidate's office.
- Keep your resume up to date and polished at all times. Always have a few copies on hand. You never know when you'll run into a good contact who's looking for an appointee or senior staff advisor.
- Never apologize for your politics. The nature of the political game requires people to choose sides in this country, if they want to play. People respect others who have the conviction of their beliefs and principles.
- However, don't be too antagonistic. Despite the partisanship, the political process requires cooperation between members of different parties in order to accomplish legislation (or the agency's mission, or the execution of the laws). The enemy you make today may be the leader of the administration tomorrow, so act accordingly and don't take things too personally. Politics is definitely not for the thin-skinned.