Style

A Parting Word for Capitol Hill Interns

While looking the part will help you stand out among the crowd of poorly dressed interns, it won’t be enough to land you a full-time position.  Fashion is important, but it can’t make up for work ethic, competency or professionalism.  So how does an intern turn her (his) brief stint on Capitol Hill into a paid position?  First, we need to hear from the Queen of all intern coordinators, Dr. Bailey aka The Nazi:

Be on Time.  Arrive at your office five to 10 minutes before the bell rings, and never be more than five minutes late without letting someone know that you are running behind.  We all use Metro, we will understand if the Orange Line is slow.  Just don’t make it a habit.

Think no one will notice if the unpaid intern is punctual?  Think again.  Every time that I walk into my office and one of our interns is there before me, I make a mental note of it.  The more positive mental notes in your favor the better your recommendation letter will be.

Give Good Phone.  It is amazing how many new college grads have never done secretarial work or had a job where they answered the phones.  Here are some tips on how to give good phone from a person who has been answering phones for more than a decade.

1) Greet the person with a smile on your face.  The caller has no idea that six phone lines are ringing, and that there are twenty screaming kids in the hallway, or that you need to have this memo done in 15 minutes, and nor should they.  

You are the front line between your Boss and those constituents, and it is your job to treat each one with the respect and attention that they deserve. Plus, if you screw up on the phone and one of the full-time staff has to fix the mess, they will remember.  

If you think that you’re in over your head, don’t be afraid to ask someone who gets a paycheck to help you out. We’d rather deal with an angry caller now than a letter to the editor tomorrow.

2) When someone calls write down their name, organization and reason for calling BEFORE you transfer them to a paid staffer.  Why? Because I might not know the name of the person who is supposed to call me back, so if you say “Jane Smith is on the line for you,” I won’t know who that is.  But, if you say, “Jane Smith from House Armed Services is returning your call,” I will know exactly what you mean.  

Plus, this is just proper phone etiquette from a time when people actually cared about such a thing.  

3) Sometimes callers will yell at you because they are mad at your boss.  Or they will yell at you because they are mad at the President.  Or they will yell at you because they are frustrated with the direction they country is going.  You cannot take the yelling personally.  

Yes, it is unfortunate that some callers will say things to you that they wouldn’t say to their worst enemy, but this is part of the job.  

Remain calm, try to be empathetic and offer them whatever remedies are available to you.  Sometimes, callers just need to vent and they won’t be happy until they share their anger with someone.  Don’t take it personally.

If you are polite to the callers and learn how to diffuse bad situations, someone will notice.  Also, this is a skill that will come in very handy down the road no matter where you end up working.

Hustle. Nothing ticks me off more than when I walk past an intern’s desk and see him on GChat or Facebook because he finished his daily tasks and is now just killing time until closing.  There is always work that you could be doing, always.  

If you don’t have any work to do, ask for some.  Go to each paid staffer (starting with the one whose job you want the most) and ask if there is something you could do for them.  This shows initiative, and it’s also the only way to learn how to do the work that congressional staffers do.

Write, write, write.  Don’t let my poor grammar fool you, I spend my entire day writing.  I research and write memos.  I write legislation.  I write position papers. I write speeches.  I write letters to constituents, organizations and other parts of the government.  I write eight hours out of a ten hour day.  So if you want to get a good job on the Hill, you need to spend as much time as you can writing.

Ask the paid staff if they have any letters or memos that you could write.  I always have a stack of small memos that I never get to because they’re not a priority, but they still need to get done.  If an intern asks for work, I give him a task, ten minutes of instruction on how to do it, and we see how it goes.  If he does a good job, I give him more work because I know he can be trusted not to eff it up.  

This is good for me because it crosses things off of my to do list.  It’s good for him because when he goes into a job interview he can show them his writing samples. Not many interns did anything other than mail and phones, so this will separate him from the pack.

Keep Complaints to a Minimum.  We’ve all interned, we’ve all answered phones, we’ve all done mail; we know that it can suck.  But if you need to cry (or complain) go outside and call your mother.  The only time that you should complain to your supervisor is when you really can’t handle it anymore.  Learning when to escalate a complaint and when to just deal with it is perhaps, the most important skill that an intern can learn.

We don’t want you to be miserable, but if you complain to us all the time, we won’t take any of your issues seriously.

Know When to Ask for Help.  If I give you a task, and while you’re working on it you have a question, don’t just run to me for the answer.  Try to find the answer on your own first, because this is how you learn.  If you searched and you still can’t find it, then ask me.

Bottom line, the paid staff are busy and we gave you this job to make our lives easier.  We understand that we are teachers and that you are the student, but we aren’t babysitters who will hold your hand through every task.  Show some initiative, but don’t be afraid to ask for help when you’re really in the weeds.

Thank You.  Before you leave your office, go down to the CVS and buy a pack of Thank You Notes.  Deliver said notes to all the paid staffers in your office by leaving them on their desks one morning before they come to work.  Not enough interns take the time to thank their bosses, and they should.  We spend weeks training you, and just when you can finally do the job without constant supervision you leave and we have to start all over again.  And while you may not realize it at the time, the training you got during your internship is more valuable than anything you learned in school.  So thank people.

You are interns, grunts, the bottom of the Capitol Hill food chain but that doesn’t mean that you should dress or act like it.  The second that you lose your edge and start to think that it’s okay to slack off because no one is paying you is the second that you have given up any hope of getting a job in that office or a good recommendation.  

Treat your internship like a full-time paid position and you will go far. Treat it like a tedious, thankless thing that you have to do for college credit and you might as well pack up your toys and go home. 

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  1. Erica, former Hill intern says:

    I had a great internship experience on the hill. I learned a lot; I learned things I could never learn in a university setting, but I also learned how to apply things I have learned since I started college. I must agree with Belle’s advice to go ask for something to do…staff members usually don’t know if someone has already given the intern something to do (or they just don’t think about it because they have other things going on). I found it very effective to walk around to each staffer and ask if they had anything I could help with…usually, they did, and they showed me a few tips before I got started.

    @Glad: I would agree that all entry levelers (not just interns) should abandon their hope of creative projects and groundbreaking work…at first. You have to prove yourself before others will trust you with more important tasks. I understand that some internships simply don’t do anything to help their interns, but I also urge former interns who feel they didn’t have that experience of doing more substantial types of work to consider whether or not they demonstrated the competency and work ethic to earn more important projects. It goes both ways…an office may be a terrible place to intern, but it could also be an intern who does not show their abilities early on and therefore, loses the trust of the staff.

    @Sean: I believe that something interns should learn from their experience is that trust on a professional level isn’t something that comes over night. You must demonstrate the capability to do the easy, seemingly mindless stuff before anyone will care if you can handle the more important projects. You have to be patient and diligent, and that type of behavior will eventually pay off.

    November 30, -0001/Reply
  2. Erica, former Hill intern says:

    I had a great internship experience on the hill. I learned a lot; I learned things I could never learn in a university setting, but I also learned how to apply things I have learned since I started college. I must agree with Belle’s advice to go ask for something to do…staff members usually don’t know if someone has already given the intern something to do (or they just don’t think about it because they have other things going on). I found it very effective to walk around to each staffer and ask if they had anything I could help with…usually, they did, and they showed me a few tips before I got started.

    @Glad: I would agree that all entry levelers (not just interns) should abandon their hope of creative projects and groundbreaking work…at first. You have to prove yourself before others will trust you with more important tasks. I understand that some internships simply don’t do anything to help their interns, but I also urge former interns who feel they didn’t have that experience of doing more substantial types of work to consider whether or not they demonstrated the competency and work ethic to earn more important projects. It goes both ways…an office may be a terrible place to intern, but it could also be an intern who does not show their abilities early on and therefore, loses the trust of the staff.

    @Sean: I believe that something interns should learn from their experience is that trust on a professional level isn’t something that comes over night. You must demonstrate the capability to do the easy, seemingly mindless stuff before anyone will care if you can handle the more important projects. You have to be patient and diligent, and that type of behavior will eventually pay off.

    November 30, -0001/Reply
  3. Trailblazer says:

    Good list. A lot of this is good advice for paid staff too.

    April 2, 2010/Reply
  4. Shannon says:

    I’m not on the HIll, but I totally agree with you on the thank-you notes. So few interns think to do it (especially now that the handwritten note has sadly gone out of style!). We had an intern last summer who not only dropped thank-you notes, but, in the notes, thanked each of us for the specific skills we had taught her or for the opportunities we had offered. It was professional and very gracious.

    April 2, 2010/Reply
  5. Shannon says:

    Also, as an EA – giving good phone is totally essential, and any intern who manage the phones without sounding like they’re bored or gossiping with their bff gets a gold star.

    April 2, 2010/Reply
  6. LD says:

    I wish other interns I worked with would have had this! They are certain things things like writing thank you notes and being polite on the phone that I was raised on, but I guess others don’t get taught anymore. I want to forward this to everyone I know who may be interning soon!

    April 2, 2010/Reply
  7. Laura says:

    Thank you for all of this advice Belle. I will be printing this off and promptly putting it in my intern prep folder, ready for my internship in the House this summer.

    April 2, 2010/Reply
  8. Sean says:

    Interns are the only thing between LA’s and the ground. This entire diatribe is one giant power trip. Its like a restaurant hostess telling the dishwashers that they should dress nicer. Get over yourselves. The only thing an intern needs to learn from their experience is that they had better get a damn good degree because god forbid they get stuck on the bottom rung again (letter writing anyone?) after they graduate.

    April 4, 2010/Reply
  9. Belle says:

    Yeah, that’s crap. An internship on the Hill is usually someone’s first experience in a professional office and they can learn a lot if there are people willing to teach them.

    Frankly, it sounds like Sean either had a bad internship or treats his interns badly. I had a great internship, that taught me enough to find a great job off the Hill and then set me up later to find a job I really enjoy on the Hill.

    Also, your analogy doesn’t work. Interns aren’t dishwashers because no one at a restaurant ever sees the dishwasher. Interns are usually sitting at a front desk where everyone who comes through sees them. Interns answer the phones so everyone who calls speaks with them first. Thus, interns are the face of the office.

    You’re the one who needs to get over yourself.

    April 4, 2010/Reply
  10. glad i'm not an intern says:

    This article sent chills down my spine. Welcome to the food chain, interns. You will work 10 hours a day answering phones, for free, in the company of more senior assholes that you will grow up to become, and like it. Abandon hope of finding happiness or self-worth in creative projects, travel, or relationships. All that matters is that your petty, suit-wearing, pasty-faced staffer boss knows that you are grateful for the opportunity to answer her mail and make her life easier. kill me. ugh.

    April 4, 2010/Reply
  11. Belle says:

    Glad- There are plenty of opportunities for creative, fulfilling projects. Just because being a Capitol Hill staffer may not be for you, doesn’t mean that some of us don’t love it. And just because you work on the Hill doesn’t mean you can’t travel, or have meaningful relationships or do other things with your life.

    April 4, 2010/Reply
  12. Erica, former Hill intern says:

    I had a great internship experience on the hill. I learned a lot; I learned things I could never learn in a university setting, but I also learned how to apply things I have learned since I started college. I must agree with Belle’s advice to go ask for something to do…staff members usually don’t know if someone has already given the intern something to do (or they just don’t think about it because they have other things going on). I found it very effective to walk around to each staffer and ask if they had anything I could help with…usually, they did, and they showed me a few tips before I got started.

    @Glad: I would agree that all entry levelers (not just interns) should abandon their hope of creative projects and groundbreaking work…at first. You have to prove yourself before others will trust you with more important tasks. I understand that some internships simply don’t do anything to help their interns, but I also urge former interns who feel they didn’t have that experience of doing more substantial types of work to consider whether or not they demonstrated the competency and work ethic to earn more important projects. It goes both ways…an office may be a terrible place to intern, but it could also be an intern who does not show their abilities early on and therefore, loses the trust of the staff.

    @Sean: I believe that something interns should learn from their experience is that trust on a professional level isn’t something that comes over night. You must demonstrate the capability to do the easy, seemingly mindless stuff before anyone will care if you can handle the more important projects. You have to be patient and diligent, and that type of behavior will eventually pay off.

    April 5, 2010/Reply
  13. former intern says:

    I was an intern on the Hill a while back, and I was the epitome of the ideal intern. I was always early – often outside by the door waiting for someone with a key to get in, I was friendly, efficient, never went on facebook and rarely on gchat, etc. And while I agree with your tips, I feel like this entry’s missing something. What about appreciating the intern? We pretty much have a thankless, unpaying, un-metro-subsidized job, and we have to field and answer angry phone calls. I’m not saying I don’t appreciate my time on the Hill, because I really did, but appreciation’s a two-way street. We may be the lowest rung, but we’re not scum. And would it kill the staffers to refer to us interns by our names and not by “the intern?”

    April 6, 2010/Reply
  14. Belle says:

    You’re right that appreciation is a two way street. And a lot of offices try to be as grateful as possible, especially since most of us were interns once. But even I am guilty of referring to my interns as intern. Hell, we just hired a former intern and he’s still “intern” two years later.

    That being said, many offices try to subsidize the interns any way that we can. We all wish we were allowed to pay, but the rules of the House limit the number of paid employees we can have. I keep wishing the Leg Approps Committee would give us an intern allotment, but if people are willing to do this job for free, I don’t think they see the need.

    As for our interns, we send them to events with free food, we take them with us when we go out and never expect them to buy their own food or drink (if they’re 21), we have going away parties for them when they leave, and I like to bribe them with boxes of girl scout cookies.

    But perhaps the best way we can help is trying to get them work. I try to help them find temp work on nights or weekends, and I pay for all the job listing services and let them use my accounts so they don’t have to. We call offices on their behalf and we do what we can to make them competitive hires.

    But it’s true, we could all be more appreciative of the interns.

    April 6, 2010/Reply
  15. Al says:

    And when you receive an e-mail from your supervisor or other staff members, be sure to acknowledge it with a “thank you” or whatever comment is appropriate.Even when there is no question posed to you!

    July 9, 2011/Reply
  16. B says:

    I just started interning on the Hill and the staff members in my office barely look at the interns. I was instructed to write an introduction to the staff members on the first day, and not a single one of them responded back. When I asked for more work, I was told just to do the mail. I received no instructions with regards to training, and had to hunt down the appropriate people on the Hill myself to get some.

    I know Hill interns are dime a dozen but man, I didn't expect it to be this hard to get noticed. Forget about writing memos, I feel like I'll be lucky if I get to write anything. Belle, you seem like a really great staffer for interns.

    I'm sure things will get more exciting and I'm still really eager to learn. I am so thrilled to be working for a Congressman, bottom of the food chain and all.

    October 21, 2011/Reply