The Hill Life: Belle's Advice for College Grads

Jun 1, 2011

When I graduated from college in 2004, everyone, from my professors to my family, was telling me how lucky I was to have this opportunity to go chase my dreams.  They were all enamored by the possibilities and choices that lay before me, and urged me to keep my options open and follow my heart.  They painted rosy pictures of my future life and talked about all the dreams that I would be able to live now that my life had officially begun. 

Perhaps their own desires to be in my shoes and “do it all again” is why most of them gave me such lackluster advice.  Because while they were indulging my hopeful fantasies, what I really need was a good shot of reality.

I’m a big believer that we subject our college graduates to a dangerous duality.  On the one hand, we expect them to decide the first, critical steps of their professional futures at 22-years-old when most of them don’t have the tools to do so.  And on the other hand, we protect their dreams and aspirations like they are precious jewels, refusing to subject their potential to any kind of real world caveats. 

Telling a college student that their dreamy, dewy master plan may not work out, and that they need to prepare for failure just as they prepare for success, is like telling a kindergartner that there is no Santa Claus.  (Sorry kids.) 

We tell recent grads that they are the exception to the rule because we want to believe it.  Also, many parents and professors place too much value on education because we want to believe that the degree and their potential is enough. As a result, most new college grads come out of school well-educated but with little knowledge about how a person advances in their chosen field.  And in my experience, professional knowledge and familiarity with the industry is just as important as a good education and will actually make you more competitive in the professional market.

I’m not here to burst anyone’s bubble.  I’ve made a career out of following my passion, but in my younger years, I didn’t balance that passion with reality, and it cost me.  And every year, I see millions of college graduates doing the same thing.  This blog is supposed to be a resource for young people who want to be staffers, work in government, or are just looking for some straight talk from young professionals who want to lift the veil on the post-grad vaudeville show.

My advice to new or soon-to-be graduates is to sit down, do some research, find a mentor (or twelve), ask questions and confront the reality of your life’s aspirations.  The most dangerous thing that you can do is shoot from the hip on a dream, because if you don’t know the possible pitfalls, you will be less prepared to absorb the inevitable failures of life and prosper in their wake. 

The dream is still achievable, but it is more achievable if you aren’t looking at it through rose-colored glasses.  Few people find their passion in their early twenties or are successful by 25 or 30, careers take time to build and desires and plans change, so don’t anchor yourself and don’t get too comfortable in the gossamer hold of a pure dream.

I’m often accused by my one of my co-workers of bursting people’s balloon, but I believe that balloons are for toddlers and that terra firma is always the best policy.  As Lauryn Hill once said, “Fantasy is what we want, but reality is what we need.” 

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  1. Daniela says:

    As someone who just graduated, I really appreciate your honesty. I was wondering if you could post some advice on how to ask someone you know professionally to be your mentor?

  2. R says:

    Hi Belle,
    Maybe I'm not reading this correctly, but what is the advice here? To go about fulfilling your dreams realistically? I understand what you're getting at, but it seems pretty remote…could you give us something a bit more concrete to go on?

  3. KLo says:

    I really have to second the mentor suggestion. They might not know how to get a job in this economy, but they can often help you get your foot in the door. And help you figure out how to do it right.

  4. Belle says:

    R- Here's an example of what I'm trying to prevent. Don't call a Hill Staffer and say, “I can't get a Legislative Assistant job, help me,” if you are a fresh out of college grad with no Hill experience. Don't spend $250k on law school with all the bells and whistles, and then graduate and say, it's the school's fault that I have these loans and can't find a job that pays six figures. I see a lot of grads diving into what they think they should do without actually knowing what they should do.

    I want people to investigate what it takes to pursue a career in their chosen field before they graduate or before they commit a huge amount of money to moving to a big city or pursuing a graduate degree that they may never use.

    I think the career mentoring, interning, networking aspect is not something we teach college students because Professors and Ed people think the piece of paper is the biggest component. It's not. At best, it's half the battle.

    So what I am saying is don't believe all the hype of being a new grad. The piece of paper is great, but you have to do the work, choose wisely and be prepared to switch your plan if it doesn't work out. Unfortunately, the only advice anyone gave me was, “You're so lucky. Chase your dreams.” Not helpful.

  5. Elle says:

    Belle, I very much agree with this post. I would also expand on what you just mentioned in your comment about grad/law school. I think many people these days are looking at grad school as a great option because they can't find a job that “pays enough” in this tough economy. I would just say to them before they decide to jump in: Are you going to get a good return on your investment?

    In law school, for example, unless you are going to one of the top 25 schools in the nation, or in the top 10 percent of the your class at the other schools, you might be hard pressed these days to find a job that is going to pay off that law school debt in a timely fasion. And I think the outlook for other graduate degrees is even more grim.

    If it is your absolute dream to be a lawyer (for example), then great, go for it. And don't worry about all the other stuff. But, if you are just going to graduate school because you think it will get you a one way ticket to a six figure job after graduation, think again. I would just echo Belle's advice and absolutely do your research. And find someone who is 5-10 years ahead of you in the game that could give you advice about what steps you need to take or what the market is like currently for someone with a JD/MBA/Masters from XYZ school. While I think persuing dreams is absolutely admirable, I think a good dose of reality is also helpful.

  6. BB says:

    As a fresh college graduate, I spent nearly six months looking for a job. My mom and I had multiple screaming, crying fights about why I was still unemployed. It wasn't that I was unemployable, it was that my elite liberal arts college led me to believe that a) I was better than every other college grad out there because I had a degree from [Elite Liberal Arts College] and b) I was above entry level work. And despite the much ballyhooed “critical thinking skills” I learned in said college, I bought into the BS. As soon as I swallowed my pride and applied for (gasp!) an assistant-level job, I was hired.

    Was the work intellectually stimulating? Most of the time, no. Was it demeaning? At times, a little. But I was promoted in a year (and then promoted again, and then again) and finally at 30, I realize that no job is ever going to be as stimulating/glamorous/powerful as the job I thought I was entitled to on graduation day.

    A few additions to your post (inspired by people I have met recently):

    1) Delaying getting a job does not replace experience. Just because you have now been out of college for eight years does not mean you can skip over that pesky entry-level job. Especially if you have spent the past eight years doing absolutely nothing of discernible value. Your failed attempts to create “Twitter for Bars” do not count.

    1b) For the most part, this counts for graduate degrees. Even for jobs that require a graduate/professional degree (law, medicine), you are still going to start out at the bottom of the pyramid. Class of 2011, think long and hard about spending money (borrowed or not) on a graduate degree immediately out of college.

    2) No one likes working for “the man”. Everyone dreams of “being able to work from anywhere” as they travel the world. The jobs that offer this and the people actually capable of performing those jobs are few and far between. And no, I don't think you or your “website of workout tips for ugly chicks” fit into this category.

  7. Belle says:


    I think whether you find a job out of law school depends on where you're looking for a job. In DC/NYC top 25 seems very important. But in Wyoming, going to MT or WY or a Denver school is fine. But I get upset when people who had the Cadillac of law educations, with summers abroad, law review, and 200k in debt complain that they were tricked. You spent the money. You were the one who didn't get a clerkship because you went to Florence instead, spare me the pity party.

    That being said, I went to grad school, and looking back, I wouldn't have done it because I didn't need it to work on the Hill. But I didn't know that at the time. So I try to be a cautionary tale for others: research and then decide and have no regrets.

  8. Belle says:



    I was unemployed for six months in 2006. I had three bachelor's degrees, a master's degree and two years of work experience, and nothing hit. YOu know what I did to make money? I worked at a tanning salon during the day and hostessed at night. Did I love it…not one minute. But did it pay the bills, yes.

    Then to get onto the Hill, I took a Staff Asst. job that was a 46% pay cut to rebuild my career. I've never regretted it.

    But while I was looking, I ran into so many people who said, “That's beneath you, don't do that.” Guess what? Nothing is beneath you, it's just not what you want to do right now. You have to think short term as well as long term.

    You make a great point.

  9. Cam says:

    I am in complete support of your post. I had heard similar advice out of undergrad and thought I was being logical and applying it by working 1 year in DC…..Because obviously you know everything about every career after 1 year in the workforce. I applied and got in to law school…. and deferred a year because of a career opportunity. When I attempted to defer a second year I had to sTop and say “wait a minute – is this really what I want or what I think I should do?” I decided no and stayed on the career path and now a few years later I still made it to 6 figures and have decided my real interest is in the business side of things and am planning an MBA. I hadn't even considered that early on because no one talked about MBAs relative to Washington. It w all law school, law school, law school (maybe a little MPP or MPA).had over time I met people, and engaged people I respected and who offered to mentor me (I affectionately refer to them as my “Board of Advisors” and still talk to them and plan to continue throughout my career) to recognize the balance of my interests, my real life strengths, and marketability of any care move or degree.

  10. S says:

    I am a recent grad and I love this discussion.
    I do want say I completed a Master's degree. I have to admit that I did go with it because I wanted to skip out on the job hunt. I graduated as an undergrad in 2009 so the economy was crap. But I also decided to do a Masters because after doing four internships in college, I knew I found my passion. And I wanted an in-depth study of it. I wanted to know all there is to know about it. I don't regret my decision to do a Masters. No, my M.A degree is not bringing any offers at the moment. I do see what Belle and everyone is saying on the board. However, I do believe when a suitable job rolls around-combined with my internship experience, my M.A. degree will set me apart. Even for an entry-level position. I think it also shows how committed I am and how far I am willing to go to show my future boss-“this is the kinda of job I want to be doing for a long time”

  11. Alanna says:

    I think a judgment of the value of an education depends on what you personally define as “valuable.” For example, personally I would like a well-paying job and to be able to live comfortably while still buying everything that Belle features on this blog. However, I also love learning for learning's sake. If it were financially feasible, there is a very real possibility that I would become a permanent student. So, in that case, for me an education would always be valuable. However, I don't think that my approach is necessarily better than a career-oriented approach, just different. In fact, I think that in many ways a more career-oriented approach is infinitely more practical (and probably comfortable).

  12. Belle says:

    S- If you want a master's I say wait a year or two. That way, you can assess what area of study will be most beneficial to you. If I had taken a break for a year, I would have realized that I was in the wrong program for my career path.

    As for getting a master's to get an entry level job, no one I applied with when I was just starting out ever asked me about my MA. It was irrelevant to the Hill offices and mostly irrelevant to the K Streeters. The one valuable thing it did was allow me to network with some of the older students who were in my program and already working.

    Also, if you wait to get your master's a year or two, there's a chance your boss might pay for it. The gov't and a lot of businesses offer partial or full tuition assistance if you're willing to sign a work contract.

    I'm not saying a master's is bad. I think it can be great for your career. But it's better to wait 1 or 2 years and decide a) do I need this? and b) which kind do I need?.

  13. DHL says:

    There is an alternative to being a lawyer with $250k in student loans–go to a less expensive school or someplace you can get a scholarship. Of course there are benefits to an Ivy League degree, however I found that there are also serious benefits to having a law degree from a less-prestigious school and zero debt even though I don't work on the Hill. Two of my classmates started a Legislative Aid and a Legislative Correspondent after law school, and I think they found that $40,000 a year isn't nearly so bad when you aren't using any of it to make student loan payments.

  14. prosecutordc says:

    I wanted to add something about law schools. Belle, I partially agree with you that people should be held accountable for their own decisions. That said. There are many, many law schools (even top 25 law schools) that are drastically fudging their employment numbers. It is hard for someone to properly assess their career opportunities from a law program when they have to battle blatant lies. There is a movement afoot to change this and have law schools be more transparent about where their graduates end up and how long it takes them to get a job. I went to a top 10 law school and I will tell you everyone in my class was accomplished. Still, 40 people still don't have jobs post-graduation. Not only are law schools exaggerating I'm sure but people are still burying their heads in the sand regarding the legal market. Too many law schools now = too many law graduates everywhere. A shrinking law market (permanently) on top of that means fierce competition for every legal job (no joke). If you want to be a lawyer, great…but make sure you are in willing to fight for it big time. Top ten admittance no longer equals big law job. I'd highly recommend prospective legal students consider something else unless they truly know the law is for them.

  15. Belle says:

    Prosecutor-I do agree that there is some fudging going on, as has been described in the NYT and other papers, and I take no issue with people who were truly conned.

    However, I've spoken with a couple of people who got the law school education with every imaginable bell and whistle–study abroad, semester's in DC, lived in pricey condos on loans, etc.–and wonder why they own a quarter mil. Those are the folks who really annoy.

    But I COMPLETELY agree with your last sentence, unless you know the law is for you, try something else for a bit. The practice of law is NOT what you see on TV, and when I was fresh out of college, I wasn't sure that I wanted to take on the stress and workload that my Father (an atty of 30 years) suffered under. But after a few years out, I decided that the law was where I wanted to be. But I am not going to the best/most expensive school that I got into, I am going to work while I;m in school to limit the debt, and I have realistic expectations about what I will be making post-grad because I talked to dozens of grads from this school before I accepted. (Facebook is your friend, as is LinkedIn).

    Also, any law school that won't give you a list of graduates to talk to should be dismissed off hand. And you should still talk to people beyond the list to make sure you're getting the straight story.

  16. Belle says:

    DHL-I agree, depending on where you want to practice, the cheaper school can be the best option. Btu a lot of the articles touting the death of law school (NYT is making it a hobby) always seem to feature people who spent like drunken sailors on shore leave. I think there is an attitude among young grads (and schools encourage it) that no matter how much you spend you'll make it back.

    As someone who has been paying her loans for awhile, I can tell you that that is not always true. Loans don't seem like so much money until the bill comes. But 80k in loans is $600 a month in payments, so think about it before you sign the prom note.

  17. Anna says:

    Although I am not in law, I am coming to the end of my PhD and I can agree: think long and hard about grad school. While I am very happy (actual happiness still sort of depending on the job market next fall), many people get 3-4 years into a PhD without thinking about what they will be doing – both the get the degree and then afterwards. Its all very fine if you like music or history or your college government class, but a job is, I think, much more about what you DO everyday. As an academic, I read and write papers, with very vague timelines, mostly by myself. In other jobs, across many fields, one might work with people or check-in with a team multiple times per day, or have a strict schedule (like a high school teacher).

    Belle, and Elle, I think your advice is great for all grads, not just those interesting in working on the Hill. I'll be forwarding this to a couple of undergrads that I mentor.

    And regarding mentoring, a 'cold' email is often fine – especially if you can ask for a piece of broad advice and one specific advise (so the mentor knows what to address) and if you are NOT asking for favors, like internships or jobs. It is best, when possible, to ask for advice before putting oneself on the job market, so that your intentions are not overlapping. I have been both the mentor and mentee and have had mostly positive experiences as both.

  18. prosecutordc says:

    Belle- The NYTimes does like to pick extreme examples like a guy spent an absurd amount of money, naively thinking he'd land some extremely lucrative position. Even if he had a big law job, paying $3000 a month in loans because of his excessive spending would be a challenge. He spent $15,000 over the three months before his bar exam. That's extravagant and irresponsible. Ultimately, you gotta be your own best advocate…no law school is going to save you from yourself!

    But others beside lawyers incur alot of debt too trying to figure out what they want to do…doctors, MBAs, etc. The payoff is unclear here too here (unless they work in a certain field, their salaries will be low for a very long time). I think you are right to have waited and weighed your options carefully. I know many now who wished they had never gone to law school but feel forced to practice at a big law firm to repay their debt…and are miserable.

  19. Belle says:

    Prosecutor-I agree, any grad program is a risk. Politics and law are just the ones I am best acquainted with.

  20. southernerinlondon says:

    Excellent post!!

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