The Hill Life: Don't Blow Your Internship
Jul 18, 2012
The final days of July are ticking away, and the summer interns are counting down to the end of their servitude. But it never ceases to amaze me–beyond words, really–how many interns come so close to the finish line, only to blow it in the final meters.
Interns are usually on their best behavior in the early weeks of their internships. They’re desperate to do well, to make a good impression, to learn something (well, at least most of them are). But as the summer days wane, they get comfortable, sometimes too comfortable, and start making mistakes. And at the most inopportune time, too.
You see, with the election approaching, the paid staffers are thinking about changing jobs, getting promoted or heading out on the campaign trail. This staffing shake-up can open up temporary or permanent entry-level positions for interns looking to move up. If ever there was a time to focus on the brass ring, it’s now.
Even if you’re not looking to move up on the Hill, you’re probably hoping for a good recommendation. A glowing endorsement of your work ethic, character and competency on congressional letterhead certainly never hurt anyone. But if you choose this moment to drop the ball, you’ll likely end up with a tepid form letter and a reference who will barely remember your name six months or a year from now.
Recently a number of my friends and readers have relayed tales of intern woe. There is the intern who chews tobacco at his desk despite the Member’s anti-tobacco positions. And my favorite, the intern who broke up with her boyfriend via text message while giving a tour to a group of constituents. Luckily, the visitors were understanding about it and waited patiently while another intern was sent to finish their tour.
I sincerely want every intern on Capitol Hill to have a positive, productive intern experience, and I firmly believe that you are as responsible for the success of your internship as your Boss is. So let’s chat for a minute about some of the last minute mistakes that can sink your internship.
Don’t get too big for your britches. The worst mistake an intern can make is forgetting their place in the professional hierarchy. Sure, we’ve let you into the inner sanctum and you’ve gotten a good look at the emperor without his clothes, but you are still just the intern.
Earlier this week, I heard a horrifying story about an intern telling his supervisor that the task he’d been assigned wasn’t “a good use of his time.” Guess what, my pretty, you don’t decide what’s a good use of your time, I do.
If I need you to sort this mail, cold call offices or run errands, that is what you need to be doing, efficiently and with a smile on your face and a song in your heart. Just because you’ve written a few letters, pitched a few press releases and drafted a memo or two does not mean that you are suddenly over-qualified for grunt work.
Harsh? Maybe. But think of your internship as boot camp. No one likes doing PT at 5:00AM, but they won’t let you shoot the rocket launcher or pilot a C-130 until you can do 100 push ups without bitching about it. And in the words of Rep. Ted Poe, “That’s just the way it is.”
So if your ego is feeling a bit heavier than it was a few months ago, deflate it. Humility is a highly underrated quality in an intern.
Do something substantive. If you’ve been at your internship for more than six weeks and you haven’t written anything, you need to change that. First, ask yourself this question, have I done something to make my supervisor think that I am unqualified for more substantive work?
If you’ve had a surly attitude, consistently made mistakes or showed a lack of work ethic, then you have your answer. Yes, this exercise requires some self-awareness, but you’re a grown up and you need to be able to accurately evaluate your own performance. And remember, your supervisor will not trust you with harder tasks until you prove you can do the easy stuff without messing up.
Now, if you still think that you’ve been doing a pretty good job, and you haven’t been offered a harder task, it’s time to ask for one. Go to your immediate supervisor (don’t jump the line and go to a higher up) and respectfully ask if, once all of your other tasks are complete, you can take a stab at a constituent letter or a co-sponsor memo. Usually, if you stay calm and ask nicely, they’ll be happy to help you.
If you happen to be the unlucky intern whose supervisor is a total troll, respectfully explain that you’d love to have a writing sample or two for your portfolio, and offer to stay late to work on one. If your supervisor is convinced that you aren’t trying to skip the work they have for you, they’ll probably be more apt to help. And if you still get a no, wait until the end of the day and ask one of the LAs for a small writing assignment. Sometimes people will actually stonewall you, but going over your supervisor’s head has to be an option of last resort.
Before you leave the Hill, you need to make sure you have four things: a glowing letter of recommendation (scanned and hard copy), two writing samples (one one page, one a bit longer) and the names and contact info for anyone you want to use as a reference. And make sure to get personal and professional contact info in case they change jobs.
Don’t fall off the wagon. Since you’ve been on the Hill, you’ve probably made friends with other interns and staffers. You probably head up the street to Tune Inn or Cap Lounge after work to drink a few beers and shoot the breeze. And it’s all fun and games until you start showing up late, your hair a mess, smelling like last week’s gym socks.
Yesterday, I walked up to the Cannon for a 10:00AM meeting. In front of me in the security line were three interns, two of them freshly showered, one of them still drunk. Judging by their blood shot eyes and nauseated expressions, they were late because they’d been out drinking. There’s the lasting impression you want your bosses to have of you. (That being said, I would rather have a freshly showered intern who is 30 minutes late and ready to work than an intern who is on time and wearing yesterday’s clothes. So if you’re in an emergency situation and you need to choose, choose looking presentable but make sure your supervisor knows that you’re going to be a few minutes late.)
Interning is a right of passage for Hill staffers and a resume booster for any college graduate, and I hate to see anyone blow their chance at a productive experience in the final minutes of the game. So keep your ego in check, make sure you’re cultivating the tools and skills that will improve your resume and take extra care not to make a bad impression.
If you have other tips for interns on or off the Hill, leave them in the comments.