Tips for Starting Your Career in D.C.: Internship Edition

One of my favorite parts of my job is meeting people. No surprise that the girl who scored 99 percent for extraversion on Myers-Briggs is a people person.

When people think of Washington, they usually think of a bunch of nerdy policy wonks who sit at their desks all day, papers piled mile-high, scratching their chins & puzzling over the world’s myriad problems. I won’t disavow you of the notion. It’s partially true.

But only partially.

One of my favorite parts about D.C. is the number of people who have been willing to mentor me and the number of people I’ve been privileged to advise and mentor myself. Sometimes one person’s comments shaped an entire trajectory of mine. So this post is also a reminder to those mentoring that their words and advice are not taken lightly.

Although my experience is limited, I wanted to do a series of posts on how to survive in D.C. These posts will answer some of the questions I get asked most frequently about life in D.C. Dislaimer from the start: a lot of these will focus on professional development.

The first post is about internships.

And to talk about that, we have to start at the beginning.

My first internship in D.C.

It was the summer of 2009 and I was coming to D.C. to intern with my hometown Congressman. I had worked on his re-election campaign banking many hours doing get-out-the-vote phone calls, licking more envelopes and stamps than is reasonable, and knocking on doors to convince people to vote for him. It was my first “real” job.

zach & olivia 2018-19 Working in the local office piqued my curiosity about D.C. and when I was offered an internship the summer before I started my freshmen year of college, I eagerly accepted.

At just 17, my Mom decided she was coming with me. No way she was sending her only daughter to the “scary”, big city of D.C.  alone. So we located a group house with a bunch of Christian girls on the corner of H and 10 and we were ready to roll.

It was exhilarating. The internship itself got me interested in Washington. It was during this internship that I met a guy who first introduced me to the think tank I now work at and told me that based off of my nerdy debate research instincts, this would probably be the right fit for me. I wouldn’t know until a few years later, but he was 100% right.

That first internship led to a second summer interning part-time in the same Congressman’s office and part-time long-distance at a think tank. The next summer, I went to another think tank and then worked for a magazine. The broad array of experience really shaped me and helped form dreams of my future work.

I share this with you so you can learn a little more about me, but also as background for the advice I give in this first post. From Capitol Hill, I learned that I’m not as interested in politics as I am in policy. From the think tank, I learned that I like to do deep research and writing and that specializing was important to me. And from the magazine, I learned that journalism was not right as a full-time occupation for me. It’s important for you to know these things about me because these suppositions about myself shape my advice for others. And frankly, not everyone’s journey will reveal the same about themselves.

So with those caveats, here are my two cents on a few of the internship-related questions I get asked repeatedly, in the hopes that the wisdom I’ve received from my mentors might be helpful to you as you chart your course through the Beltway.

How do I make the most out of my internship(s)?

This is the question I receive most frequently, in part, because my employer has a fantastic program where current employees mentor one or two interns each semester all of whom want to excel in their current role. So I’ve compiled a list of good tips for succeeding in an internship which will hopefully set you up for a solid job.

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1. Finding out you don’t enjoy a certain job through an internship is a success, not a failure. Many interns, myself included, believe that an internship is only a success if you loved it. This couldn’t be further from the truth. An internship is like a relationship — you are exploring whether the person, or the role rather, is the right fit. Like a relationship, you may conclude at the end of your time on the job that it is not the right for you.

This is, unequivocally, a success.

Sometimes identifying a job that you did not enjoy tells you more about yourself than if you really enjoyed the internship. Everyone, of course, wants to confirm their calling, but being able to disconfirm your fit in a field or sector is an equal success.

Plus, far better to find out through an internship that you hate it than to be stuck in a more permanent job you hate.

2. Intern a lot. As I referenced, I interned on Capitol Hill, two think tanks, and a magazine before starting my job search. Each experience revealed something about myself that I didn’t know, helped me to figure out what tasks I most enjoyed, and which ones I hated. It also helped me to build a network pre-graduation that was helpful when I began my job search. I cannot underestimate this enough.

But also, be sure to set aside time to relax (especially if you are interning during the summers in between college). There is so much time to be grown-up and professional. You have your whole life to do that. But you only have three or four summers in college to relish time with family and friends and make the most of having free, non-work time. Take advantage of that. Travel the world, go on an adventure, volunteer at your local church or in your community. You are so much more than your job. It’s important that you repeat that truth to yourself now before you get swept up in the professional world.

3. Set clear goals. It is important that you enter into an internship knowing what you would like out of it at the outset. Take some time either before the internship starts or within the first week, to 1) make sure you know why you took this internship, and 2) identify what you are hoping to glean from the experience (i.e. do you want to write and publish, research, network and develop connections, determine whether this is the right career path etc.). In making goals, I would suggest making some that are tangible and measurable (like publishing five pieces during the semester, making three new professional connections, or landing a job) and aspirational (answering questions about your gifts and strengths, figuring out if you want to live in D.C., answering questions like where do you see yourself in 1, 3, 5 or 10 years and will this job get you there).

4. Go above and beyond. You can make as much or as little out of your internship. And boy that choice is yours.

Make sure you understand your supervisor’s expectations from the start and also set clear, separate goals for yourself. If appropriate, share those goals with your supervisor so they can help maximize your potential and keep you on track to achieving those goals. Set-up regular check-ins and re-evaluate those goals half-way through your internship. You may find that you were dreaming too small and need to up the ante.

Determining those goals helps you to define success for yourself as well as make sure that you understand what your supervisor’s definition of success. Only then can you exceed those goals and go above and beyond — in whatever occupation that might be.

In school, you’re taught to write and answer questions in a way that demonstrate you mastered the material your professor wants you to learn. You don’t just get to write about what you think is most important.  The working world is much the same way — have your own goals and don’t forget to prioritize them, but you need to be sure that you are meeting your supervisor’s core needs and goals before, or at least simultaneously, while accomplishing his or her objectives for you, the department, or the organization.

5. Keep in touch with your supervisor, peers, and mentors after the internship. Best advice I ever received as an intern was to keep in touch with my intern supervisors. A successful internship continues long after the internship ends; it requires maintaining relationships (read: genuine friendships and mentors) long after the internship concludes. Send periodic email updates notifying your former supervisor of important career developments, follow-up on social media (ONLY IF APPROPRIATE), and schedule coffee meetings when you’re in town. If you’re serious about getting a job at their place of employment, you must stay in touch and alert them when you apply to jobs at their organization. An intern supervisor’s ability to testify to your character and quality of work is an essential calling card to landing a job post-graduation.

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Outfit details:

Dress: Nordstrom Rack, similar here and here from Lulus, Men’s Blazer: Nordstrom Rack, similar here and here from Asos

Hope that you found this Q&A helpful. Please provide feedback and any additional questions you have about internships. I have lots more to share, but frankly, know that everyone’s attention spans are probably pretty wiped at this point.

Looking forward to sharing more about life in D.C. in the next post!

Cheers loves,


Photos in collaboration with Yetta Reid at Yetta Reid Photography.

“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’”~ Matthew 25:40