My nephew graduated from college last spring. He had always been interested in politics and current events, so it did surprise me when the year before he graduated he told me that he hoped that after graduation that he would be able to get a job as a congressional aide. What surprised me was when he asked me to help him get the job!
I am not some big political activist or insider who automatically knew how to become a congressional aide. I have done some work in human relations, so I know a little in general about what motivates employers to hire. Yet, I had to admit to my nephew that I didn’t know much about the specific requirements for how to become a congressional aide. I did promise to look into it, and this website is based on my experiences in helping my nephew land his dream job.
I say “dream job” because I soon learned that for a young political junkie like my nephew, working in Washington D.C. is like going to Disneyland. Washington is where all the action is, and to be a part of that world close up is a very coveted position. I soon discovered that the competition for the relatively small number of aide positions is very intense. Therefore, I told my nephew that he must make sure that he had all the necessary qualifications.
Simply by graduating from college my nephew had met one of them, as all congressional aides are required to have a college degree. While there are no official degree majors that an aide is supposed to have pursued, degrees in political science or journalism are considered helpful. Graduate degrees are also a plus, especially in law, but are not required. Fortunately, my nephew majored in political science with a minor in journalism, which was perfect!
Other job qualifications were more vague. Washington can be a chaotic place, with late night sessions, intense deadlines and massive amounts of information to be processed in a short time. The aides are expected to be right in the midst of this madness, so a calm temperament resistant to stress is preferred. Luckily, my nephew is an easy going guy. Yet, you never know for sure how you handle intense stress unless you have been tested in real life.
In my research, I discovered that one of the best ways to test your mettle in a political environment is in a campaign for political office. Many of the same kinds of pressures, deadlines and unusual hours can be experienced when seeking public office. My nephew first participated in a political campaign at the age of fifteen, when a family member ran for alderman. Since then he has participated in a number of campaigns for offices all the way up to governor.
However, I also learned that it doesn’t just matter whether you were in a political campaign, but whether you were in the right political campaign. Aides are required to be of the same political party as the congressperson they work for, so working for campaigns for candidates not of that party affiliation is not so helpful. As it turned out, my nephew worked entirely for campaigns in harmony with the party of the congressman he wanted to apply to.
My nephew also had experience in ways that further enhanced his eligibility. He ran for a position on student government while in high school and in college, and was elected both times. This gave him first hand insight into how a legislative body functions. Of course, student government has nowhere near the workload of the U.S. Congress, but it does provide general insights into how bills get passed, how to interact with others, including political opponents, and how to interact with voters. Experience in dealing with the public is most important, since aides are often assigned to do constituent service work.
To help my nephew beef up his skills in interacting with the public, I urged him to take certain courses in his last year in college. I told him he should take a course in public speaking, which would improve the way he presents himself if called upon to speak to the public on the congressperson’s behalf. I also suggested he take a course in basic Spanish, since that is the second most common non-English language he may encounter in his dealings with the public. Finally, I suggested that a basic course in common office computer skills might be helpful.
Despite the fact that my nephew had these basic qualifications, the one thing I kept hearing during my research was that personal contacts matter. Politics is politics, which is all about the relationships. How could my nephew acquire them? Fortunately, I personally know our local state representative. The work of a state legislator in our small New England state is far removed from Washington D.C., but not as much as you’d think. A state legislator often has to interact with the congressional office to implement federal policies and programs on the local level. My friend the state rep. did not have a part time job available for my nephew when I asked him. However, he did have a unpaid part time internship my nephew could do. My nephew wasn’t thrilled with the idea of working for no pay, but we both agreed this was a position that could open the doors of opportunity.
And it did. My nephew never got to have much direct interaction with the congressman himself, but he did interact with his aides. He became quite friendly with a couple of them, so when he submitted his application to become an aide himself, they were not looking at the name of a complete stranger. I believe it was that small degree of inside access he got from the unpaid internship that made the difference. I’m proud to say that with his hard work and my small help, my nephew is now working as a congressional aide.