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The Hill Life: Don't Blow Your Internship

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.  

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    19 comments

  1. Britt says:

    Very timely, Belle. While I do not work in Capitol Hill, interns are an important role at my office. We typically hire from our intern program and prefer to have interns stay multiple semesters, as it takes time to train them and it's worth keeping them on for awhile if they're doing well.

    My tip: never, ever complain that you're “bored” – to anyone in the office. I heard this yesterday from one of our interns and knew the project I gave her was tedious, but important. Hearing she's bored makes me think she's not interested and doesn't care. Not good.

    July 18, 2012/Reply
  2. AP says:

    I'd say the same thing goes for medical students. Especially the “this is not worth my time” comment. Nothing makes me more dismissive than that.

    July 18, 2012/Reply
  3. LACP says:

    Great post, Belle. As an HR professional, I completely agree with your points. It is so important that if someone has made the decision to be an intern, they use the experience to the fullest. It is critical that entry level professionals and college students take advantage of internships, they are the quickest way to a full time/permanent opportunity. This almost goes without saying, but those that have had successful internships are much more likely to find an opportunity upon graduating than those that have sat back and either not interned or not taken advantage of their internship opportunity.

    July 18, 2012/Reply
  4. Ellen says:

    Belle-

    Thank you for this! I spent six years as a Naval Officer after college and did not start grad school until I was 28. Because of this, I was a 28 year old unpaid intern/bar server. Having to realize that I was no longer the boss but rather the one making copies and coffee was humbling, but the experience was second to none. Now, because of my hard work as an intern, I landed my dream job.

    Like you said, no job is beneth you..everyone has to pay their dues at some point!
    GREAT READ!!

    July 18, 2012/Reply
  5. SmallFry says:

    Hi Belle,

    This post is great! Lots of great tips for interns. Just one question, what do you (or perhaps the commenters) this is the best way to say farewell at the end of an internship? Because its for a set period of time and people know when you're starting and when your leaving, its a bit different than leaving a regular job. What are your thoughts?

    July 18, 2012/Reply
  6. Belle says:

    SmallFry: I preach the glories of thank you notes, but it's so true. My last intern, Shelby, wrote us the nicest, personalized notes. They were short, but they were perfect. I'll remember that for years.

    Also, it never hurts to bring in a baked good, or if you don't bake, a 12 pack of soda and some popcorn. It's just a little something to show your gratitude.

    July 18, 2012/Reply
  7. Kristen says:

    How in the world did that intern think it was appropriate to chew tobacco at work, regardless of the views of the representative he was working for. I don't think it's really appropriate to chew tobacco in any public place (except maybe a rodeo).

    On a related note, what are your views on chewing gum? I don't know why I feel this way, but I really don't like it when people chew gum in public. I just think it's kind of gross and many people chomp loudly without realizing it.

    July 18, 2012/Reply
  8. Gabriela says:

    As a recent intern myself, I'm going through this list and hoping I didn't commit any faux pax…though thankfully, I don't think I did. I have a question I'd like your opinion on, though: as an intern, what should you do if you have no continual projects to work on and there's a dead day at the office? I always felt bad spending hours on news sites or monitoring my personal Twitter account from work (it was a PR agency, so it was allowed, but still), but there were some days where I'd ask every employee if I needed help and still came up with nothing.

    July 18, 2012/Reply
  9. Mara says:

    I agree with all your points for getting the most out of internship, but it still makes me sad that people get students to come work for free and then abuse that power by making them do complete and utter bullshit like mail sorting where they are getting very little value out of it. If you want the mail sorted….pay someone!

    Having passed the intern stage of life, I am still angry that our society thinks it's ok to not pay people for their time and at the same time treat them like crap. Maybe it made sense when interns were more work to supervise than a help, but nowadays there is so much competition for these positions that you can have very competent people doing real work for free. The government should be the first place where this nonsense ends.

    July 18, 2012/Reply
  10. AG says:

    Well, Mara, since it was my intern that caused me share with Belle the hair-raising “this isn't a good use of my time” remark, let me clarify a bit about free labor. I'm a runner and love to run. I can't set out this afternoon and run 15 miles without the tedious training (sprints, yassos, hills) that is required. The seemingly mundane training prepares me to excel in the grandness of a foot race. My asking an intern to sort mail, or check press contacts against the master list, isn't about power. At its basic level, it's about making sure they can sprint before I ask them to run.

    On top of all that, the intern does get a benefit though not immediately financial. They get experience in the process of democracy. They get excellent contacts for their future endeavors. They get leverage for the next thing in their life. Just because they were willing to show up and excel at the day-to-day.

    July 18, 2012/Reply
  11. Anna says:

    Gabriella, try to find something to do. Does something need organizing? Any filing that needs to be done? Any issues you can research and write a brief memo on? Being able to take initiative and going above and beyond are important traits. Tidying up the kitchen or the supply closet may not be in your job description or applicable to your career aspirations, but it will help you get noticed and people will appreciate that you're trying to make their jobs easier (just be sure you don't get in people's way when you're doing it or neglect your assigned duties).

    Mara, the grunt work may not be intellectually stimulating, but it is important. I'm a mid-level staffer, and I still answer phones and sort mail when our interns slack off or get the boss coffee if he asks. Also, I won't trust someone to write a letter or a memo if I can't trust them to do the simple stuff. And we have had A LOT of interns who seemed competent on paper but ended up being totally useless in practice.

    July 18, 2012/Reply
  12. Mara says:

    Anna and AG, I am not against grunt work. I am against unpaid gruntwork. The intern should be getting some benefit out of the free labor, however, the educational/career benefit of mail sorting is extremely low. I mean, my family didn't have a ton of money. It was hard to sell to them that sorting mail and getting coffee and getting paid (as an assistant or a summer job) was somehow less valuable than sorting mail and getting coffee in the presence of Hill staffers…for free.

    And there is only so much summer to be had. Your intern should be thanking you for teaching them things instead of feeling like they are giving YOU the gift of their time and having it squandered.

    July 18, 2012/Reply
  13. Belle says:

    Mara: I get where you're coming from with the paid/unpaid, for some people the paid summer job is more valuable. But my intern isn't giving me a gift. They come to work to learn, and yes it is my job to teach them, but they have to learn the basics first.

    And while sorting mail may be one of the least glamorous jobs on Earth, in a congressional office, even that is a learning experience. You learn what the issues are, what constituents care about, what your boss's positions are and what it's like to be the paid Staff Asst. who spends most of her time sorting mail too.

    I did it. Most of the staffers I know did it. And we all learned valuable lessons from our internships. We also made coffee, gave tours and paid our dues without getting paid.

    July 18, 2012/Reply
  14. Talia says:

    Mara, You take the unpaid job to get a better paying job later. If you don't want to work hard for free, don't take an unpaid internship.

    July 18, 2012/Reply
  15. Katy says:

    Except in the private sector you're violating labor law by having an intern do work like mail sorting and coffee making. But hey, what's a law or two.

    July 19, 2012/Reply
  16. EK says:

    Maybe true in the private sector, where “mail sorting” doesn't mean “performing a major function of democracy by sorting, processing, and responding to the concerns of hundreds of thousands of your constituents.” Is there seriously that much commenter confusion about what “mail sorting” means in a Congressional office, on a blog directed largely towards Hill staff?

    July 19, 2012/Reply
  17. Jess says:

    Mara has a good point. I've worked in offices where interns were treated appropriately and I've also worked in Hill offices where staffers sought out the best interns and basically had them do as much of their work as possible so the staffers had time to spend g-chatting and having “networking” coffees. Yes, it's beneficial to have work product to show (even if the staffer claims it as their own) but we ended up with too many quality interns who had gotten much less out of the experience than they put into it.

    July 19, 2012/Reply
  18. Frances says:

    Having just finished an unpaid internship on The Hill, I can tell you that the work you do might seem tedious and unimportant, however the benefits go far beyond the monetary woes of working for free. I am a firm believer in that every job is important no matter how small. Think of it as an assembly line, each person that tightens a screw or inspects a product for quality is monumentally important to the face of the company they represent. I gave up to three tours a day which lasted from an hour and a half to two and a half hours each. Being at the bottom of the food chain does not mean that your time isn't valued. Spending time giving tours or writing letters to constituents reflects greatly on your work ethic and more importantly your office. Find something that you really enjoy doing around the office and capitalize on that aspect; however you should not be dissmisive of small tasks. For example, this August recess has left alot of free time around the office, rather than reading the news or checking my Facebook I noticed that alot of constituents were visiting with families. So I took the time to put together a “DC Cheat Sheet” geared towards families. I included a list of nearby affordable restaurants, great tour bus services, tips for navigating the Metro, and great museams for children. I forwarded my little project to my intern coordinator and within 20minutes my work had been forwarded through the office to all the staffers, the chief of staff, and other friendly offices. It wasn't a constituent letter or a memo but it was something that the office appreciated and I recieved glowing praise for my initiative.

    August 10, 2012/Reply
  19. Diana says:

    I've worked in and around DC for awhile now, and I'm always amazed at how many interns think nobody can hear them talk on metro. I still remember the 30 minute conversation going on directly behind me–a guy interning at Justice was giving his buddy the lowdown on how stupid his boss was, how slutty the other intern was, and how the only reason the other girl got the good jobs was because she was disabled. As the train approached my stop, I turned to this loser, gave him my warmest smile, and said “Oh, you work at Justice? Tell your boss Diana says hello.” Hope it shook the little *#@!! up. Bottom line, all kinds of people ride metro, this town is smaller than you think, and you never know who's listening.

    September 13, 2012/Reply