Let's just say it's a weird time to be job hunting in DC.
Like many of my friends, it took me all of five minutes to decide on November 9 that I wasn't going to let the results of the Presidential election deter me from a career in public service. But that's where the clarity ended. As graduation grows visible on the horizon (hallelujah!) a question has started gaining speed and volume in the back of my mind, somehow thunderous and yet also meek.
I've spent the past week cris-crossing our nation's capitol, taking as many meetings as I can with interesting people in-the-know. I've mostly been listening and asking their advice on fun places to work when I graduate. I came here with a vague list of impressions, not so much questions, and a lot of anxiety about what my post-May future might look like. I've also had a lot of coffee and taken even more notes, and as I'm flipping through my notebook I have a few thoughts I want to pass on from those on the inside.
1) Working in the federal government under this administration will not pin a red "A" to your resume ... as long as you mostly stay away from the Executive Branch.
2) 10 years ago, senior staffers may have advised you to work for a moderate of the opposite party, especially if that party held the majority in Congress. They would tell you to find a member whose moral compass aligned with yours, but with whom you might have disagreed on some substantive policy issues. This is no longer the case. The current opinion is that in order to survive (read get hired in the future), you need to pick a side of the street and stay on it. Either that or camp out in the median by working for a congressional committee. This advice is given in the spirit of pointing out to a neighbor the best location in their house to ride out a tornado.
3) The hardest commodity in the Legislative Branch is a decision. Don't pin any amount of your self worth to whether it "goes your way" - that's the fastest way to burn out on the Hill.
4) There are some career paths here that are unidirectional - make sure that once you head down one of them, you do it in full knowledge of how difficult it is to double back.
5) There is a deep state, but it doesn't look the way people think it does. There's an entire subterranean layer of functionality beneath all the turbulence at the surface, insulated by layers of red tape and institutional momentum. This is a good thing. There is no room here for a maverick, because nothing substantive is done without the combined force of a small army. The people in this layer are deeply committed to the continuance of the federal government, and show up to work every day determined to do their best for their colleagues and the people who depend on them. I spent the week with these kinds of people, and they're the reason I have hope for us.
5a) For example, some of the people who used to work in offices which are now effectively shuttered continue to meet on their own time to brainstorm and think about how to do the hard work of setting future us up for success. Just because they don't have the same job titles doesn't mean they're not still doing good work.
6) All the substantive policy decisions are made in the budget. Science is not exempt, nor is it inherently more deserving of resources than any other concern or interest group.
7) Just do the next right thing. If an opportunity comes your way that looks fun, exciting, and like nothing else on your resume, go for it. Gone are the days of looking askance at people who spent two years in a job and then left for something else - especially in this town.
8) Put yourself in the path of lightning. If you find someone good, someone you could work for without ever questioning whether your conscience would object, and this person has a shot to actually be in a position to make a difference - do it. Support her, lift her up as best you can. Even if you don't quite make it to the finish line, that experience will never be wasted. It's easy to recover when you're young and full of fire, much more so now than it ever will be in your career.
This whole week I've had Sarah Palin's campaign quip lodged in my sub-conscious (remember when she was the most absurd force in our national politics? those were the days). How is that hopey-changey stuff working out for ya? Well, I think we can either hope for a change or do what we can to bring it about ourselves. It may seem from the outside that "nothing is getting done in Washington," especially to those of us who follow the news. But especially at the end of a week like this one, I still have hope that we can effect change. In fact, now more than ever. So I'd say that hopey-changey stuff is working pretty great for me so far, Sarah - I'm glad you asked.