How to Survive and Find Your Policy Niche in DC
Don’t give up! It took me four years to really break into my preferred policy field, but that doesn’t have to be the case for everyone. It is possible to make ends meet and find your policy niche and ideal job.
I arrived in Washington, DC in the summer of 2014 without knowing anyone in the area and with only a vague notion of how to navigate this small town of politics and think tanks. I desperately wanted to do something, anything, related to foreign policy. Several internships, jobs, temp work, and one month of scary unemployment later, I finally succeeded — and it was worth it. Now I edit, write, and research on foreign policy full-time and also get to appear on local and cable television for interviews.
Here is my best advice to you on how to make your way in DC and do a better job of it than I did.
1. Find the intersection of the news and your interests.
This is a good way to accelerate your career while also caring about the area in which you want to have an impact. On the one hand, you don’t want to focus on something that is too obscure, because your work will be less impactful. On the other hand, you also don’t want to run around chasing every trending subject, because your work will be boring for you and too scattered and fleeting. Having an impact comes with practice and long-term investments of your time, resources, and concentration.
For example, when I was in undergraduate and graduate school, I studied a lot about North Korea, China, and Russia. Today, I’m primarily a North Korean commentator, but that wasn’t deliberate or planned out at first. As I began to write my papers and my first op-ed articles in grad school, I discovered that I got more traction because North Korea was in the news. I also realized that I enjoyed being informed and writing on that subject. Over time, I decided to pursue that happy intersection of interests and traction by doubling-down on North Korea. As a result, this new specialization allows me to enjoy my work while making a difference and paying the bills.
2. Note what predictable topics will be big in the news that you could write about.
I keep a calendar of all predictable upcoming foreign policy events for the year, so I can write op-eds for them ahead of time and have a news-relevant hook to give them. This makes life easier for me as a writer and helps keep me organized. Think about your policy area and what you could look out for and be ready to comment on.
Foreign policy examples include upcoming elections, when the defense budget is up for a vote, sanctions bills in Congress, meetings like the G20, major historical anniversaries, or major speeches world leaders give domestically.
3. Realize you can’t do this alone or take all the credit for any success you have.
We’re all flawed human beings who need a baseline of social interaction to stay happy and healthy. There is also someone who is always smarter or who has figured things out that you haven’t yet.
When I moved to DC, one of the first things I did was find a church to call home. Not everyone is religious, but finding some kind of support system in this type-A high-powered area is a must. I found a congregation where I could practice my faith and make friends. I also went to events to network as usual and ended up finding a fun board gaming group.
There are meet-up groups of people who have similar interests or hobbies to hang with that you can find online. Your alma mater and your home state also have societies you can join. Find people who you have a natural connection with to make finding friends and networking a bit easier on yourself.
Additionally, ask questions and find the people you admire and would like to emulate. Networking is about making long-term connections and about learning from people who are smarter than you. It is about asking about their lives and being genuinely interested — not immediately demanding a foot in the door.
Who is in a job you would like to have in five, 10, 20 years? There is always someone who is better and who knows the ropes — find them. The more you learn from others and experiment, the more you can find out what works and what doesn’t. Besides, one day, someone may come to you asking for help and then it will be your chance to pay it back.
4. Find a path forward, even if it is unconventional.
Four years was a long time to spend dreaming and trying to break into the foreign policy space. Could I have done a better job? Sure. But I also could have given up or wasted away my time worrying about what I couldn’t control instead of what I could.
Find ways to master your policy niche and gain the skills you will need to land the kind of job you want down the road, even if you can’t get there yet. If you are in school, that means using every paper as a chance to learn more about your niche and then using those papers as the basis for op-eds. You could also write for your school paper or send letters to the editor as a start. You could apply to the AF Writing Fellows Program to learn the basics and meet some new people. Once you get some writing samples under your belt, you could also apply to Young Voices to get more of your articles published in national newspapers. Either way, you need to make a portfolio so that when that ideal job has an opening you are ready. Build your credentials on the side and look for ways into the field you want that aren’t obvious. Be persistent, take care of yourself, and go be a happy warrior.