I, and I’m sure many others in my generation have often heard the joke ‘now that I’m out of school I still don’t know how to do my taxes but at least I know the mitochondria is the power house of the cell’. That is why I decided to join the Wisconsin in Washington D.C. program, to learn the things that you don’t necessarily learn in class. Not of course to diminish the value of academic learning, as much of what I learn at Madison has created the foundation of knowledge for my future career. There are however certain skills and practices that you can only get from hands on experience and from the knowledge of others who work outside academia. For someone who is interested in politics and policy there is no better place to gain this experience than D.C.
The great thing about D.C. is that there is always something happening. It may be a festival introducing you to a particular D.C. neighborhood, a cultural festival, or even an interesting protest or demonstration. Often though it is an event with speakers on a policy issue, a chance to meet professionals in a specific field, or network with others interested in the same things you are. Of course, the city itself isn’t the only benefit of being here. By participating in this program, I have access to professors who have worked in politics and policy and know the skills that employers are looking for. . In addition, this program has introduced my classmates and I to an extensive network of alumni who work in every imaginable aspect of government and politics. Now I am just a student still struggling to find work after graduation, so I won’t pretend to be an expert or try (and fail) to teach what I’ve learned. What I will do is at least list off some of the things that I’ve experienced so that if you are interested you can get a better idea of whether a program like this is right for you. So without further ado, the things I didn’t know before interning in D.C. and participating in the Wisconsin in Washington Program:
Professional Writing is very Different from Academic Writing: While applying for internships, one common theme was the requirement of a writing sample. At the time I did not realize this but the type of writing they were looking for was very different from what I had been doing in school. Academic writing calls for double spacing, in-text citations and works cited pages, a thesis statement, conclusions and often several pages worth of supporting information. This is almost the exact opposite of what professional writing is (according to my professors here). Everything is single spaced, one page maximum, and while you should always credit a source, academic citations and bibliographies aren’t that useful when trying to get a point across quickly. Now I am still very new to these concepts, but it is something that I wouldn’t have been aware of had I not joined this program.
Network, Network, Network: My perception of job hunting was always broken down into four steps: find a job, apply for job, interview for job, and if you’re the best person for it, get job. The D.C. experience has taught me that it isn’t nearly that simple and that there’s this whole other world that you should participate in to help you along those steps. That world is networking. Networking might introduce you to someone who knows of jobs you wouldn’t realize are available. Networking might help you find someone who knows how to fine tune your application to get to the top or what questions might be asked in the interview. Most importantly, knowing someone wherever you are applying may be the difference between getting the job and not. After this program, networking is still very strange to my midwestern sensibilities but at least I have an idea of how it works now.
And So Much More: There are some many other skills and lessons that are picked up by working in an office environment, learning from professionals, and simply being in D.C. From tips and tricks on resumes and cover letters, inside information on the application process of different organizations to simply hearing the reassuring stories of people who were once in the same position you are and managed to succeed. In the end if you want to know what working in D.C. is like and if you are considering working in D.C. there is no substitute to just being out here.
The University of Wisconsin offers an insane amount of career resources. There are workshops on resumes and cover letters, the career fair, recruitment events, etc. and I wish I had taken better advantage of many of these opportunities. I am definitely thrilled that I did take advantage of this resource and it is one that I would recommend you strongly considered if you are at all interested in working in D.C.