How to get a job in DC (without knowing anyone)

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I am sometimes asked how I got my DC job. Or DC jobs, rather. At the time of writing these words, I have been living in DC for 4.5 years, and am currently on my third job in this town. In this post, I try to distill what five years of cover letters, networking attempts and disastrous interviews have taught me about trying to land a job in DC — particularly if you’re standing on the outside and looking in, with no one to vouch for you from the inside.

First, about me: I did my undergrad in Atlanta, but I always knew that I wanted to move to DC the moment an opportunity beckoned. A few weeks before graduating from college, I landed an entry-level, full-time job at a downtown PR agency in DC. After two-and-a-half years there, I left for a part-time communications position at a well-known international development institution, which I juggled with full-time grad school. Another two-and-half-years later, I graduated with a master’s degree and left for a full-time, mid-level communications job at a small environment-focused NGO, where I am now.

How I found my first job: The summer before my senior year, I applied to a couple of unpaid internships in DC and had an unsuccessful phone interview with an obscure think tank. Nothing panned out that summer, but I remained in full job search mode as senior year rolled around, because I was graduating a semester early – in December of that year. There weren’t a lot of entry-level, full-time jobs being advertised in DC, but there were a lot of unpaid internships, many of them specifically targeting young people who had just graduated with a bachelor’s degree whose free labor could easily be exploited in exchange for experience working at a prestigious institution. I threw my resume at both options, just to see what kind of work I could get.

I did a phone interview with UNHCR for an unpaid internship but was rejected. I was offered an unpaid internship at a Middle East policy think tank, but turned it down because it was, again, unpaid. I was also offered an unpaid internship at a PR firm, which I’m pretty sure is illegal, but turned them down after I did some digging and found that they did some real sketch work for Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. It was almost December, and I hadn’t found a paying job.

That’s when I decided to try the networking route. I used LinkedIn to look up alumni of my university who were then working in DC. I identified three women who looked like kindred spirits, found their personal emails in the school’s alumni database, and emailed them asking for a quick phone conversation to pick their brains about kickstarting a career in DC.

One of those women got back to me, and we started talking. We had a very awkward dynamic: even though she was very helpful and responsive, she was also weirdly aggressive and sometimes downright rude. Basically, I would be over-the-top polite and sweet and a bit ingratiating, padding my emails with niceties like “I hope you’ve been having a great week!” and “I know you must be incredibly busy so I appreciate your wisdom and insight so much.” And she’d be like, quit wasting my time with this bullshit and just get to the point. By the end, I was actually legitimately terrified of her, and I wished I had never reached out in the first place.

But this woman is also the reason I found out about my first job in DC. She worked in education policy and was a member of an education policy listserv; one day, she saw an email about an entry-level job opening on the education team of a PR agency, and she forwarded it to me. The thing is, the opening was posted publicly on the agency’s careers page, but it hadn’t been advertised on any of the job boards I frequented, so I would never have seen it otherwise. I thanked her, and then I applied.

I got called in for an interview a week later. No phone, just straight to in-person. I was still living in Atlanta then, as I hadn’t yet graduated, but I had put on my resume that I was relocating to DC in December 2012, and I didn’t want to blow my own cover. So instead of asking if they could cover my flight (looking back, the obvious answer is no), I asked my parents for help, and they paid for my flight in and out of DCA on the same day. I flew to DC, ate a sandwich at a nearby Cosi, and went in for the interview. My future manager and I connected right away: she had worked for the communications office at her undergrad, and I had worked for the communications office at my undergrad. She saw a bit of herself in me.

A week later, I got the call: I was hired, with a start date of January 7, 2013.

How I found my second job: Two years into my first job, I had been promoted once and given two raises, but I was hopelessly unhappy. I hated working on domestic education policy and wished I were doing something that involved foreign policy – something, anything, that at least involved the word international. My health was also deteriorating, and I began suffering from crippling anxiety. It seemed like things were never going to get better.

I took the GRE and got great scores, so I applied to the school of international affairs at GW, because it was the only university located in the downtown area. I also applied to and interviewed for jobs here and there; I came close to being hired by Brookings, my dream job at the time, but they ended up cutting the position for budget reasons.

One day, I saw an email from a listserv for DC women working in tech and design. (I think the lesson throughout all of this is that one should subscribe to a lot of listservs.) A well-known international development agency was looking for part-time communications producers: again, the job was posted publicly, but it was in the form of a Google doc rather than a formal job posting, so I would have missed it if it were not for the listserv. I had barely any experience, much less in the international development sector, so I threw in my resume as a half-joke.

Imagine my shock when I got an email asking me to take a writing assessment for the job. I took it, and then a week later, I was assigned a time to come in for an interview. Yes, I was informed of the time, with the assumption that I would obviously drop everything else and come in at that precise moment. Red flag #1. Number 2 was when I showed up for the interview (after eating at Cosi, my good-luck charm), and they were still interviewing a different candidate in that room. No one stepped outside to let me know what was going on, so I walked around the mazelike office before I found someone who could help me. I waited outside the conference room for more than half an hour before the previous interview concluded and I was called in. Red flag #3.

Two weeks later, I got a call. I had been hired. I ignored all of the red flags and took the job, leaving behind my decent pay and my comfortable job and my health insurance and my job security. And it was – honestly – worth it.

How I found my third job: My second job was amazing and terrible at the same time. I worked at one of the most famous inter-governmental institutions in the world, I interacted with the most brilliant, worldly people, and I worked at a comfortable pace that fit well around my demanding grad school schedule. But at the same time, I was afraid of getting sick because taking a sick day meant no pay. Because I didn’t have a master’s degree, all I did was low-level grunt work that stalled my career. I didn’t see a path for myself to grow into a manager or a director. It was time to leave.

The search for a full-time job this time was easier, because I had the name of a shiny world-class institution on my resume, and I had a nearly completed master’s degree, which is worth about 3 years of work experience, but it was still grueling. I had no issues getting interviews, but once interviewers probed further and discovered that I had been doing mostly low-level work due to the bureaucratic constraints of the organization, they decided that I wasn’t ready for a manager role. (I was literally told this once in an interview, by the CEO of a small nonprofit; “I don’t think you’re qualified for this position,” she’d said, “but we’d be happy to hire you as a part-time consultant.” I managed to keep my composure and smiled and thanked her and promised to send a list of references. Once I was in the elevator and the doors closed, I burst into tears.)

This time around, I also took a more strategic approach. Thanks to the advice of a coach at my school’s career center, I created a spreadsheet in Google drive to track where I was applying, where I had applied, and where I was interested in future job openings. I organized it by industry, with an emphasis on environment and climate change. I used a combination of Wikipedia, Twitter, and LinkedIn to look up nonprofits that operated in this arena, and also bookmarked their career pages so that I could check back every few days for new job openings.

This was how I found my current job. One day, it didn’t have a job opening; two weeks later, I checked back, and there was a job that was perfect for me. I sent my resume in, and less than a week later, I was in the office for a first-round interview. I did a total of three rounds, the last of which took place over Skype, as I was traveling in Barcelona at the time. A few days later, when I was packing to leave Paris, I got a call: I had gotten the job.

This post has gotten very long, so I’ll cut it short here and follow up in a few days with a second part on the job sites I used, how I got better at interviewing, the extracurricular activities that added points to my resume, et cetera.

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