Updated: Aug 29, 2018
Below is a comprehensive guide on how to succeed during your internship in the United States Senate. Although I interned in the Senate, the tips, tactics, and information included here is applicable to internships in the House, too. Let's get started!
The first thing incoming interns should do is check when the Senate is in session. This will inform both how much, and what type, of clothing you bring.
When the Senate is in session, interns should dress formally. Men should wear a suit, tie, and dress shoes. Women can wear dresses, skirts, or pants, but should take care to ensure that all of their clothing is conservative (RULE OF THUMB: if you wouldn't wear it to church, don't wear it to work). The one exception here is on the first day. Even if the Senate is not in session on your first day, dress as if it were. You don't want to wear a button-down and khakis and see all the other interns in suits.
When the Senate is not in session, interns can wear business-casual. Men can wear polos, button-downs, khakis or other slacks, and loafers. Women can wear more casual dresses or skirts, and more comfortable shoes if they so desire. It's a good idea to check with your intern coordinator before showing up to work in business casual.
2. First Day
The first day of a new job is intimidating for most of us. That being said, here are a few tips to mitigate the stress and make a good first impression:
A. Plan to arrive at the office building 20 minutes prior to the scheduled time. There are several reasons for this. Firstly, if the trains are running late, you'll be glad to have that 20 minute buffer. Secondly, arriving 20 minutes early will allow you to explore the office building and the labyrinth of corridors beneath it. If you arrive with spare time, identify the location of the Senator's office, so you know where to return. After having done this, you should wander through the building and see where other offices are. For those of us political nerds, it will be a cool experience to see the offices of national figures like Marco Rubio and Bernie Sanders as you walk through the halls. If you have enough time, you should go to the basement and walk through the halls underneath the office buildings. As an intern, you will spend plenty of time navigating these halls, whether it be for tours or errands. As a result, it is a good idea to develop a working knowledge of the passageways underneath the Senate and House office buildings.
B. Make a good impression. When you enter the office and introduce yourself, smile and say your first and last name. When the staff assistant reaches to shake your hand, shake it firmly while maintaining eye contact and your smile. Introduce yourself to other interns in the reception room and make pleasant conversation. Where are you from? What school do you go to? What year are you in? These are all questions to bring up in the course of conversation. It should go without saying, don't make your conversation feel like an interrogation.
As more interns trickle in, stand up and shake their hand after they introduce themselves to the receptionist. During this period of time, try to converse with as many fellow interns as you can. There are two main reasons for this: 1) you'll eventually learn more about your fellow interns, so better to learn about them sooner rather than later, and 2) the intern coordinator/receptionist will take notice if you're the one initiating conversation and including people in it who otherwise might be too nervous to initiate conversation themselves.
C. Introduce yourself to the staffers. On my first day the intern coordinator showed us around the office and introduced us to the staffers. However, this may not be the case for all offices. If this is the case in your office, learn which staffers are responsible for policy areas that you're interested in and briefly introduce yourself to them. In the following days and weeks, this rapport will serve you well.
3. Subsequent Weeks
A. Tours. Tours are one of the main responsibilities of Congressional interns. As a result, it behooves you to become well-versed in the history of the capitol. An often-overlooked aspect of giving Capitol tours is the Capitol's confusing layout. Before you give your first tour, make sure that you know which doors and hallways to take in order to arrive at each stop on the tour. When choreographing your tour, you should also find non-historical fun facts that your constituents will find interesting (ie. The reason for the velvet ropes in the Rotunda is for the benefit of important individuals and foreign dignitaries. Constituents are often interested to learn that every week, the Vice President will walk through the Rotunda to visit lawmakers.)
***Important Tip: If you give a tour and think that you nailed it, tell the constituent that they can email the staff assistant/intern coordinator to tell them that they enjoyed the tour. This will result in your superiors receiving dozens of emails about how you are an incredible tour guide, thus elevating their perception of you.
B. Drumming up substantive work. Okay -- this is a really important aspect of interning anywhere, but especially in Congress. In most offices, staffers are busy and are not concerned with whether interns have any work to do. Thus, it's incumbent on the interns to ask staffers for assignments/projects. Yes, it can be daunting and intimidating, but successful interns don't wait for work to find them; they take the initiative and seek it out. The motto for this internship should be the following: if you don't ask, you don't get. If you're interested in foreign policy, ask the foreign policy LA or LC if there is something you can do for them. If you like communications and want to learn about press relations, approach the press secretary and/or communications director. These people are all excellent learning resources for you; make sure you take advantage of them! Now, you might be saying, "James, they're too busy and won't want to give me work." If they are busy, it's even more likely that they would give you work if you ask. Think about it: do you really think a 28 year old college graduate wants to spend her time making a powerpoint slide on a nominee. The answer is NO! Staffers would much rather outsource the work to someone who they know can do it properly (Hint Hint, that's you!) and spend their time on more important things.
C. Networking. Your number one goal in this internship should be to evaluate whether you want to work as a staffer in D.C.; your number two goal should be to build your personal network. Before you leave for D.C., you should have a list of alumni from your school who you want to meet. Create a spreadsheet monitoring your interactions with them (ie. sent introductory email on 5/12 or scheduled coffee for noon on 6/23). This will help you keep track of all your interactions. In addition to networking with your school's alumni, you should also network with staffers in the office, especially those you are working with. They, in particular, will be more eager to help you.
Before meeting for coffee, you should identify your goals. Do you want a job on Capitol Hill? Do you want to work at a think tank? Are you interested in working on campaigns? Chances are that you will gain important insights into how you can make that transition into the field of your choice.
D. Leaving. For some, leaving a Congressional internship has been long-awaited. For others, it's a sad moment. Regardless, the most important thing to do when leaving an internship is to thank the staffers you worked with. If one staffer was particularly helpful, send them a written (yes, written) thank you note a week after the internship ends. In addition thanking staffers, send an update to the alumni you met with. If you know that you're going to be pursuing another line of work, let them know. If you made a favorable impression, they may offer to make introductions for you. Also, make sure to follow the other interns on social media and to stay in touch. You never know if someday they'll become a famous politician themselves.
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