Non-Academic Job Searches in DC – What to Know

14 July 2014, 1540 EDT

Many graduate students are expanding their job searches outside the academy.  As an advisor, I’m horribly underprepared at offering job advice outside of the academic job market – besides work you can get off of Craigslist, I’ve never held a real job.  Recently, I had a student come to me with questions about finding a job in the DC policy world.  I asked my great friend (and former student) Kate Kidder for her thoughts, which she agreed to allow me to post at the Duck.

For academic jobs, I really like Michael Flynn‘s thoughts at The Quantitative Peace.

Kate’s Advice:


Right off the bat, I will say that the academic and DC employment landscapes are vastly different animals. I myself have not quite figured out how I’m going to navigate my career. In academia, the goal is to work really, really hard for job security. In DC, the goal is to work really, really hard so that you have multiple opportunities waiting for you after about 3 years at your job. Much of the happy hour talk here revolves around the “fear of getting stale” by “staying in a job for too long”; meanwhile, my fellow doctoral candidates yearn for the holy grail of a tenure-track position (by definition, staying in a job for a very, very long time).


The similarity in both career fields is this: be the kind of person other people want to work with. Most academics and DC professionals are really, really smart. Stand out by being a team player, keeping a good attitude, and staying humble–all while doing a kick-ass job producing quality work.


Where to look

1. Look for the lesser-known opportunities. Lots of folks graduating from undergrad and grad programs are trying to get their foot in the door at DoD and State at a time when there is little movement on the hiring front. If what you want to do is real policy research, I’d encourage you to take a look at the Government Accountability Office and the Congressional Research Service, which research and examine very specific issues within the government. Their respective research publications are considered the authoritative resources on a range of issues, from Foreign Affairs, Defense and Trade (CRS) down to the minutia of defense acquisitions (GAO). Their research and publications inform policymaking in Congress, the Executive, and individual agencies. In the think tank world, we rely heavily on their publications for accurate costing and as an indicator on where policy recommendations are most needed. These jobs pay the standard government salary.


2. Non-profits. If you have an interest in development or human rights work, and have had a difficult time getting into State or USAID, take a look at issue-specific non-profits and NGOs. This may allow you to refine your skill set and learn to speak the vernacular of your field–which goes a long way if and when you have the opportunity to interview for that dream job in the future. These jobs typically don’t pay as much as others around the District.


3. Defense contracting/Defense industry. Many of the large defense contractors and industry have (at least) an office in the District. Depending on the specific job you are applying for, you may actually get to rely on your research background. For example, many of the large defense industrial corporations have a vested interest in tracking world trends from two perspectives: 1) where is future conflict likely to happen? What domestic political trends signal future unrest, and what technology should that company develop should the US government become involved? What does that mean for the company’s supply chain and sourcing strategy? and 2) What is the direction of technological development across the globe? What would that company need to do to outpace the competition? Granted, an entry-level position is less likely to provide opportunities to lead such research; you are more likely to be working on marketing strategies and government relations. But it is useful to know that some of the long-term career paths can really capitalize on a research background. While not always the case, many of the contracting jobs pay well above other job opportunities in the District. Do take note: this can be a double-edged sword if your long-term goal is a federal job. One sage piece of advice I’ve heard (more than once) is that if your long-term goal is to end up working in the government, and you take a well-paying contract job, make the proactive decision to maintain the standard of living of a government employee. Enable yourself to make the leap should you be offered your dream job. I’ve known folks who’ve turned down dream jobs on the Hill or in DoD because, on a contractor’s salary, they signed a lease on a super expensive apartment that couldn’t be maintained on a staffer’s salary. Alternatively, I’ve also worked with folks who lived well below their means in the private sector and were thus able to make a seamless transition into government service.


4. Think tanks. Admittedly, there are few opportunities in think tanks–but they are there. One bonus: since many think tanks are smaller in scale than, say, the US government, you have a higher probability that your application might actually be seen by a human being. These jobs tend to pay roughly the equivalent of government jobs. A few things to do your homework on if you are considering applying for a job:

  • ​​Political affiliation can–but doesn’t always–matter. Know where on the ideological spectrum the think tank falls, and know where you stand. Make an informed decision that aligns well for both you and the organization.
  • Funding. It’s also worth checking out where think tanks get their funding, for a few reasons. Some think tanks list their donors publicly, while others provide them only on a need-to-know basis. Some think tanks have endowments, allowing more time for pure research and demanding less time spent on grant proposal writing. Most think tanks obtain funding from a range of sources, including the government, industry, and private donors. It is worthwhile to find out if the think tank maintains editorial control, or if the funders have a say in the final finished product.
  • Position nomenclature: almost everywhere, a “fellow” or a “senior fellow” position requires advanced schooling and/or years of government experience. Entry level positions range in titles from “research assistant” to “research associate” to “analyst,” but these terms do not necessarily mean the same thing across think tanks. Look specifically at the requirements and necessary qualifications to determine whether or not you should apply for that position.


​As someone who has read through stacks of application packages and interviewed candidates for positions ranging from interns through senior fellows, I’ve seen a lot. Many research application processes around the city require some variation of a cover letter, CV, and writing sample. In my experience, the cover letter is where folks get really tripped up–which is unfortunate, because it may leave the rest of your packet unread. So here’s my rant on cover letters.


​A cover letter IS a writing sample. If done correctly, your cover letter demonstrates both your writing chops and your qualifications. If a cover letter is poorly written, I’m going to (perhaps falsely) assume that the writing sample is equally disastrous. I know that it sounds so very simple, but in my experience, less than one quarter of the cover letters crossing my desk pass muster. You can use this to your advantage: if you draft a well-written cover letter, you can assume that many of the folks competing for the position drafted a poorly-written cover letter. Here’s some of the blunders I’ve seen:

    • ​Forgetting to change the name of the organization to which you are applying. First and foremost, it is a matter of respect for the institution. Secondly, if you fail to be detail-oriented out of pure self interest, you send the signal that you will not be detail-oriented when corresponding on behalf of the institution. Same thing goes for any grammatical or spelling errors. The worst is when I open a cover letter as a Word document and an abundance of red squiggly lines appear; not only does this signal that you didn’t pay attention to detail, it also signals that you were either to lazy or prideful to address the obvious need for edits.
    • Forgetting to take the document out of track changes. This is particularly damning if your mom’s editorial comments on the side are still visible.
    • Outright hero worship. Most offices in DC have (at least) one notable figure in their employ–former government officials and rising stars alike. Do not dedicate an entire paragraph to why that individual is your hero. Use that space to adequately and specifically explain what you can bring to the table for that specific position. Perhaps, then, you will someday have the opportunity to work with said hero.
    • Explaining where you were on 9/11. Anecdotally–and in my own experience–there seems to be a rising trend in these essays as folks attempt to break into the national security community. Unless you have a really compelling case or personal connection, I think it may do more harm than good. Many of the folks currently in national security leadership were in seriously difficult decision-making positions on 9/11. Many of them lost personal acquaintances. Several were in uniform when it happened, and have deployed at least once to Iraq or Afghanistan in the ensuing years. Trying to relate how you learned the news in your second grade classroom with their experience in the field does not translate the way you hope it will. (That is not to say that your experience isn’t valid. My advice: leave that portion out of your cover letter, and hope that one day, you can have that conversation over coffee with your future colleague.)
    • Cover letters that are too short, or too long. Your cover letter should (unless otherwise directed) be 1 page. I’ve seen 1-sentence cover letters, and 3-page cover letters. Neither are appropriate.
    • Do everyone a favor. Save it as a PDF (unless otherwise directed). For one thing, it’s just an easier document for me (or any other reader) to open. For another, there is no way to tinker with a PDF; you can be sure that the final product your hiring committee sees is unaltered.
    • The basic rules apply. Do your homework on both the organization and the position. Explicitly address how you are well-suited to the position. Also include how this position/organization is well-suited to you and your goals. In doing this, you’ve surpassed at least 50% of your competition.