How to succeed in internships and jobs (and maybe even as a student)

Dan Lindley, with suggestions from his Govt 324, Intro to USFP class, Spring 2000

October 27, 2005; v. .9

I write this memo having worked at four internships and jobs in Washington D.C. after college, after watching the rise and occasional fall of my fellow students during a lengthy stint in grad school, and after tracking the progress of some of my students.

Two Functions of Jobs: Learning and Progress

There are two things to learn at each job you have, especially when you are in college, or have recently graduated. The first is whether you like the job at all. Whether you like it or do not like it, there are lessons to be learned. Think hard and also spend time listening to your heart and intuitions. Have the courage, after deliberation, to flee (after duly fulfilling your responsibilities). Finding out what you like to do and want to do often involves figuring out what you do not like or want to do.

The second thing to learn at the job is enough skills to progress to the next job or to get a promotion within the job. Keep your eyes and brain open and learn what you can at all opportunities. Go to meetings, meet people, read things. Volunteer to take on more responsibilities. Always be excellent.

The Key to Progress: Reputation

Above all, remember that your reputation is key to your progress.

  1. How to get a good reputation: Always be excellent
  2. .      (just call me Sherlock....)
    1. Always exceed expectations
      1. accomplish even small tasks with excellence and ask what more you can do.
      2. Letters of recommendation and progress depend on this. Remember the key role of letters of recommendation (and good word of mouth). One of the key functions of internships is to get a great letter of recommendation. Employers can fill in things about you that professors can not. Future employers may know and/or trust past employers more than they may know or trust professors.
        1. Related advice: none but the most powerful contacts can do more than get you into the door; once in the door itís up to you.
        2. Yet another reason to be excellent: no one will put their own rep on the line to promote a doofus: how many times will they be able to open a given door if they keep sending doofusí?
      3. If you are too proud to photocopy, then you will please no one. Photocopy well and better things will follow.
        1. Unless: you were promised other things and are being scrod.
        2. Think of what your bosses are thinking (again, use the bowling shoe): of five interns, one is a slacker who doesnít show up on time, and is often poorly dressed. Two show up on time, but donít really care about their work because they are in town for a good time. One is really pretty bright and does a pretty good job, but is conceited and resentful. And, finally, there is you: both bright and highly motivated, does everything well. All of you have to photocopy, and yet of the five only you progress.  (actually this is not fair, in places like D.C. where lots of people want to be, organizations can pick interns from many, sometimes hundreds, of applications.  D.C. consumes more brains for less money than any other place I know.  So you can count on being surrounded by lots of excellent interns - which is part of the fun.)
    2. Why do so many people miss the point and donít try to be that last person? Caveat: sometimes the conceited jerks do get ahead.
    3. Often, it is not so hard to be excellent, you just have to try. Some of the competition will blow their own feet off. But, do not be cocky. The obvious counterpoint is that any internship worth getting is highly competitive and will attract bright and talented people like bees to honey. The competition may well be keen.
    4.  And if you think you are being excellent because you are surrounded by fools, remember what a professor once told me: "if you compare yourself to idiots, you are not saying much."
      1. Have you noticed this pattern already as you went from high school to an elite university, and as your courses got more and more selective and challenging in the university (assuming you are trying to challenge yourself)?
      2. Be professional and serious, though without being too uptight.  Use proper titles as appropriate.  Do not be overly informal.  Do not email your boss and open with "Hey xyz."  Take yourself, your bosses, and your job seriously.  Dress the part, perhaps erring a tad to the more formal if there is any uncertainty.  The closer you are to power, the more formal the setting tends to be.  Washington D.C. is a formal place.
  3. Internships may or may not pay you but, regardless, the real currency of the realm is the letter of recommendation you end up with.  That letter, and your reputation, can be crucial building blocks for future internships, jobs, and graduate schools.  Do not forget to get your letter before they forget you.  This is the same real currency for RAships, senior theses, and the like at school.  Do not be misled by grade-chasing.  It is far harder to earn excellent letters of recommendation that are filled with your specific accomplishments and examples of excellence.


Strategies while on the job

    1. try to work with more important people within an organization.
      1. A possible tradeoff is that poobahs may not give you the time of day or know you well enough to write a good letter.
      2. lesser-known people have less influence and their letters will carry less weight, but they may be more engaging or apt to give you more serious responsibilities, and may write more detailed and persuasive letters.
    2. see if you can wingle your way into larger and more important projects.  If you can possibly write or co-write a report, article, or some other public document with your name on it, you should.  This should be a major goal.  It is intrinsically cool, and it is a product that will open future doors.
    3. use lots of individual initiative to work on substantive projects, to rise above the hoi polloi, to get out your own article.  Do not just let the internship happen to you.  Make it the best it can be.   
    4. be a team player.  Despite all this talk of individual initiative, help out the people you are supposed to help.  Do not be annoying or cavalier.
    5. enjoy yourself.
      1. The worst that can happen is that youíll learn something about yourself and the way the world works.



The following is a copy of an ad for an excellent arms control internship from Much can be learned about the nature and benefits of all internships from reading this ad.


The Federation of American Scientists (FAS) is looking for a few good interns...

Hard Work

Long Hours

Low Pay

What is the Federation?

Founded in 1945 by atomic scientists of the Manhattan Project, FAS is dedicated to the responsible use of science and technology. As a non-profit organization licensed to lobby in the public interest, FAS brings a scientific perspective to the legislative arena through direct lobbying, expert testimony, media and grassroots work. FAS engages in analysis and public

education on a broad range of science, technology, and public policy issues, but the bulk of our work focuses on arms control and disarmament issues. For more information about the work of the Federation, visit our homepage at

FAS Projects currently looking for interns:

Military Analysis Network

Arms Sales Monitoring Project

Space Policy Project

Job Description:

Tasks will be varied, and differ by project. The internships will involve some mix of the following substantive and administrative activities:

Development of the organization's homepage on the World Wide Web. You will gain webskills from scanning to coding to indexing and uploading documents onto the Web. You will also conduct research via the internet, and use the Web for fostering citizen activism around policy issues of concern.

Representing the organization at coalition and working group meetings and attending Congressional hearings. Liaising with coalition partners and participate in document drops on Capitol Hill. Helping to arrange Congressional staff briefings and other sorts of meetings.

Tracking down Congressional, Executive Branch and other documents. Organizing and maintaining research files and the library's fairly extensive collection of daily, weekly and monthly publications.

Writing, editing, and desktop publishing.

What's in it for you?

These are not your ordinary Washington internships, and they are not for ordinary interns. If you are afraid of hard work, and inparticular if you get nervous around computers, you should almost certainly look elsewhere. But if you qualify, you will b egiven immediate responsiblity for helping build and maintain one of the premier public policy websites. Your main compensation

will be experience and pride of accomplishment. We don't offer a lot of money, just a modest stipend to cover expenses, whichwill vary according to hours worked.

But the experience will benefit you in many other ways:

You will gain professional experience, including marketable computer skills.

You will gain familiarity with the national policy community, finding out who does what. This networking and exposure will help you refine your employment interests and help you identify employment possibilities.

You will work on Capitol Hill and gain first hand exposure to all aspects of the legislative process. In particular, you will come to understand the role of public interest groups and the media in shaping public policy.

You will learn important research skills, like how to access government information.

You will learn about policy issues from people who are experts in their fields. You will be exposed to a variety of work habits and styles, in a busy and informal office setting.

In addition, you will work with an operation that has unusually high national visibility in the mass media, and gain a first-hand understanding of how the mass media operate.

If you do a good job here, you will get letters of recommendation from nationally recognized sources that will go a long way towards getting you a real job, or getting you into the graduate school of your choice .....

What we're looking for:

Applicants should have excellent interpersonal and organizational skills and a good attitude. Familiarity with PCs using Word Perfect for Windows is important and some knowledge of the web is helpful, but not required. Of course, preference is given to those who can hit the ground running, or at least convince us that your existing computer literacy provides a solid basis for mastering internet-related skills.

The term of the internship is a minimum of one semester with a possibility for continuation. Preference will be given to those who are prepared to make a longer commitment. We would like a time commitment of a minimum of 15 hours per week, but we are flexible in how the hours are scheduled.

To apply: Send a cover letter, your resume, and a one page essay explaining your interest in working for us. Please indicate which project you would like to work with and highlight any relevant skills, experience or knowledge you may have on that topic. For the Military Analysis Network or the Space Policy Project, please send the above information to John Pike, Project Director For all other positions, please send information to "Internship Coordinator"

Federation of American Scientists

307 Massachusetts Avenue NE

Washington, DC 20002

You may also send in the above materials via fax to (202) 675-1010; or via e-mail to

Internships are open until filled.

NOTE: The Herbert Scoville Jr. Peace Fellowship provides stipends for college graduates to work with peace and security organizations in Washington, DC, including FAS, for four to six months.

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