Hi Betsy, as a public affairs practitioner myself, it is great to see a focus on a terrific profession that often falls under the radar. You did a great job breaking down the segments within the public policy space and I hope that this inspires readers to join the field!
If you’re a political nerd like me, election season probably makes you feel the way football fans do about the Super Bowl. And unless you already work in politics, it also likely has you thinking about your career path. Wondering what it’s like to work behind the scenes of a campaign? Have a secret desire to influence the political process, or see ways you could make a difference in your community?
If you find yourself fascinated by politics and wondering if you could make a career out of it, there are plenty of options to consider. Here are a few common paths—and what you need to know to break in.
Working on Capitol Hill—or serving as a Legislative Aide or Spokesperson for a Senator or Member of Congress—is a traditional career path for many political wonks. So, what’s it like? Well, remember when Elle Woods goes to Capitol Hill to work for her Senator? Just like that—except that unless you’re exceptionally well-connected or fortunate, your work won’t be that exciting (at least right away). Most of the time, you’ll probably find yourself answering calls and opening up weird letters from cranky constituents.
But—you’ll also have a chance to learn the ins and outs of government and see how our laws are made and implemented. As a Legislative Aide (or Legislative Director, the next step up), you’ll also be asked to research issues and make recommendations on how your boss should vote on the bills you care about.
Members love to hire staffers from their home state or congressional district, so don’t be afraid to call the local office or attend an event when your Congress member or Senator is in town and introduce yourself. (Or, browse the current openings with members of Congress.)
And if you don’t want to move to DC, you can actually do this work in your own city or state capital. Many Councilmembers and State Representatives have staff that serve as their community representatives and help them implement policy. If you’re interested in learning more about city government, City Hall Fellows is a cool fellowship that places 20-somethings in local government offices across the country.
Now, an important note: Whether you’re working in DC or in your local representative’s office, these jobs are pretty tough to land. A good way to get your resume to stand out in the pile is to volunteer on a campaign or in the office on your time off.
Non-Profit and Advocacy Work
Is there a cause you’re particularly passionate about—like education, healthcare, women’s rights, or animal welfare? For just about every issue out there, there’s an organization that works to influence policy outcomes around it by lobbying and educating politicians and the general public. Getting involved in this work is a great way to feel like you’re part of something bigger than yourself, plus influence the specific policies and issues that you care about.
A great entry into this type of work is, again, to volunteer. You will probably hear this again and again, but politics is all about relationships. The only way you will meet the right people is to get your foot in the door, and unless you have friends or family that are already involved in the cause, you’ll likely have to somehow donate your time.
Start by signing up to an organization’s email list or following it on Facebook and Twitter. Find out about its events—and attend them. Better yet, offer to serve as an intern or commit to volunteering a few nights a month. The key here is to not only give your time, but also to meet lots of people and express your passion for the cause. These relationships may not instantly generate a job, but they will allow you to learn more about the cause and give you a great advantage when a position does open up.
Private Sector Work
Private sector work—or, working in the political affairs or government affairs office of a company—is a great option for a dynamic job that gives you direct access to policymakers. Sometimes known as the fourth branch of government, lobbyists and the people who work for them definitely have the ability to influence policy. For example, when President Obama was discussing reforming our healthcare system in 2010, teams of lobbyists from insurance companies and advocacy organizations traveled to DC to meet with members and explain how the reform would affect their entities. The same thing is also done in state capitals and city government offices throughout the country.
If companies don’t have in-house lobbyists, they often hire a team of contractors from a public affairs firm, which works with a portfolio of clients on various issues. This work is constantly changing—you’ll probably never get stuck in a routine! While many firms operate out of DC, there are many others, both large and small, all over the country. Some specialize in lobbying, while others do data analysis for campaigns or prepare marketing materials (the kind you get in the mail during campaign season).
Many public affairs professionals have worked for an elected official in the past, but, you can start here if you’re willing to intern or if you have previous marketing or public relations experience. Visit the Association of American Political Consultants for more details on this profession and to find your local chapter and get involved.
If you have a passion for global causes and can see yourself traveling all over the world, look into international non-governmental organizations (NGOs). These organizations provide humanitarian assistance, help monitor elections, and fulfill certain functions that might normally be ascribed to the government during times of war or civil conflict or in nations that are underdeveloped.
While the United Nations is an obvious choice, there are so many other organizations that are involved in this type of work. Amnesty International does work in war torn countries and advocates for the rights of women and racial and ethnic minorities around the world, and it has offices (and job openings) in many cities around the country. Idealist.org is a great place to start searching for jobs and volunteer opportunities for NGOs both here and abroad.
Political work doesn’t just happen during an election year. It’s all around us, and it influences many things that affect our day-to-day lives. So, whether you’re DC-bound or want to make changes closer to home, a career in politics is a great way to make a difference in your community and around the world.