Reasonable Expectations Concerning Congressional (Or Any Other) Internships

Students should have reasonable expectations concerning internships, particularly internships on Capitol Hill. There are positive things about Congressional internships:

  1. For students with an interest in politics, they provide great opportunities to network and learn the political process.
  2. The career mobility of young Congressional staffers is very high - thus jobs are always becoming available.

On the other hand, Congress has a great deal of drudgery or grunt work to do and interns will do a great deal of it. The JMU Political Science Department is indebted to the Senate Republican Policy Committee, which has posted at its web site the following realistic information (see box below) concerning Congressional internships. The information has been copied here for our students' convenience.

Any internship has the possibility of unfulfilling work, or what may be worse, no work. The intern should discuss fully the nature of the prospective work with the prospective internship provider and understand going in what type of work will be assigned to the intern.

Common Misunderstandings of Interns*

"I'll become personal friends with the Senator, see him every day, have lunch with him, exchange jokes with him."

Sorry...although Senator Craig makes an effort to get acquainted with interns and commits to at least one meeting with them each semester, every Senator's schedule is necessarily so tight that much regular personal contact is simply not possible.

"I'll be advising the Senator on how to vote on critical issues, or I'll be advising RPC Staff on areas on which I am an expert."

Truth is, no one is an expert when they first come to town. Spend your time listening, learning, observing and absorbing.

"I'll be writing speeches and drafting bills."

There are some opportunities along these lines such as background research, but for the most part, that is the job of the Staff and your job will be to help them however possible.

"I'll be doing detailed research on particular issues."

The Senate has access to the best researchers in the world at the Congressional Research Service, and Washington is the information capitol of the world. Your job may entail pulling together research which has already been done, perhaps distilling it to a readable level.

"I'll have a big desk, an office, a secretary, and lots of perks."

Office space is crowded in Washington, and designated space for interns is limited. You will also work around the office at whatever table happens to be free, and you'll do all your own typing, as all staffers do.

"I'll be a key player in the decision-making process."

The goal of the internship is to learn what the Republican policy-making process is, how it works, who is involved in it. This knowledge will help you become a key player later on.

Some Disappointments Interns Experience*

"I spend a lot of time stuffing envelopes, folding and filing letters, and doing pure 'grunt work'".

All of us do the same, including the Staff Director. Politics is 90% pure grunt work. Don't concentrate on the routine nature of your tasks; think of it as the price you pay for the learning opportunity.

"There isn't enough time to attend hearings, lectures, and fun events, even though I'm required to do so".

One thing you have to learn about the political life is that you have to make days last 36 hours, not 24. If you're the clock-punching type who wants to go home at 5:00 every day, you'll never experience all Washington has to offer.

"I don't get to offer my opinion on issues, or speak out at staff meetings."

There may be MUCH more to any issue or discussion than you realize. So be realistic about the reason you are here. Your purpose is to learn.

"People give me piles of work and don't explain how to do it, or even where to find answers."

This happens because everyone else is so busy there isn't time to explain everything to you. They won't know you're lost unless you say so. Ask questions whenever you don't know something.

Return to Internship Program Home Page

Inquiries concerning internships should be directed to:
Timothy M. LaPira at lapiratm@jmu.edu
Internship Coordinator, Department of Political Science

*Courtesy the Senate Republican Policy Committee