Thursday, March 7, 2013

Foot and Door

I entered the labor market again from graduate school with zero professional confidence, no belief in my ability to do an actual policy-related job. The internship I’d used to fulfill my graduation requirement had been a total joke. Looking at the job postings was like self-flagellation. Everywhere required experience, and I had no practical, professional experience to speak of. As a result, I looked for jobs well below my qualifications, even internships. Something that could lead to something meaningful, something to get in the door.

Ultimately, I did an unpaid summer internship. But it was at basically the best place for a policy student to do an unpaid internship, at possibly the most reputable think tank in DC. When I told classmates about it, they listened with awe tinged with a bit of envy. “What’s it like?” one of my friends gushed. She already had a job in DC, had finished grad school a year before and was working. When I first started at this think tank, I was filled with anxiety. How was I even here? I was an imposter, couldn’t possibly be good enough. What kind of work would they expect me to do, and could I even do it? Getting this internship was a confidence boost and the potential of doing it was an insecurity mindfuck. I didn’t deserve to be there.

The real reason middle-of-the-road, non-specialized me got into this competitive think tank was luck. I found out about it through my undergrad alumni network; I don’t think it had been posted in the open market. The description requested experience and knowledge in an area in which not many have expertise, and just happened to be the subject of my capstone project. Plus, they had a quick turn-around, needed to find someone and get them to DC within a couple weeks. At first this serendipity embarrassed me, but then I discovered that luck isn’t too uncommon in the DC experience of people with decent jobs.

Still, I was a bit starstruck. Somehow I’d made it through the casting call, and I was chosen to be at this prestigious place for policy nerds. Maybe I am special?

As it turns out, no. For the most part, my confidence about having acquired this internship dissipated after working there for a while. The work I was expected to do was all reading and writing, could have been performed by most hardworking undergrads. And most of the other interns there were undergrads. They all went to ivy leagues or very selective liberal arts colleges, and of course were majoring in things more practical than English literature. I remember as my supervisor walked me around the intern cubes to introduce me the first day, and I felt so old as I made small talk. I remember being introduced to a pretty, disinterested looking brunette, and I asked her if she was a student.

“No, I just actually just graduated from Brown,” she said, sounding a little chagrined. 

“Was that undergrad?” I asked.


I smiled nervously. “I just graduated too, but with my master’s.”

Now it was my turn to be chagrined.

I quickly discovered that I was also older and more educated than the majority of the paid research assistants on staff. They had gone to ivy leagues and prestigious liberal arts colleges, majored in economics or political science or sociology or geography, perhaps interned there during the summer as well, and began working immediately after graduating college. I went to a somewhat prestigious liberal arts college, actually the same one as two of the RAs, but I had majored in English. I fucked around in Japan for two years (by that, I mean “taught English”), then returned to America and tried my hardest to find sustainable work in nonprofits for two years before entering grad school. Like the creepy creeper I am, I used Linkedin to study the resumes of pretty much everyone on staff, as well as most of the summer interns. I wanted to understand how they got to this prestigious organization, and particularly for the interns and RAs, what was the difference between them and the thousands of other individuals who could do their job.

From a nonscientific survey of interns and RAs, it generally came down to connections and some luck. The interns and RAs seemed to have done everything according to a recipe for the ultra-privileged future elite of America. They’d gone to rigorous private high schools then ivy league colleges, majored in something wonky, and done multitudes of competitive internships. They had the airs of the extraordinarily wealthy, seemed to know important people. One intern spoke of her little sister being friends with Sasha Obama, playing at her house. Still, I knew that there was little in the way of hard skills a twenty year-old poli-sci major could offer. I had gone through a graduate program and become convinced that my technical skills were insufficient, while this think tank was packing their intern ranks with tens who have zero technical skills. It was a big disconnect: everyone was so impressed that I was able to get my foot in the door at this place, but the work I did wasn’t really anything special. I too often felt like that older person who still shows up to the high school parties, only the high school parties are filled only with class presidents, the debate team, and mathletes.

The fellows and analysts seemed to be a bit different. They came from more varied backgrounds, some even from state schools before their master’s or PhD educations, took more circuitous routes to their positions, but all with impressive publications and field experience. I was particularly enamored with the fellow I was working with, who had majored in English literature at a small liberal arts college (like me!) and was interested in working for social justice but uncomfortable with her quantitative skills (like me!) so she got a master’s degree in social work (like what I should have done). One benefit of this internship is my program hosted a lunch (free food!) with the fellows and senior analysts in which we could pick their brains on how the hell they got where they did. Many of their stories were similar: they generally had advanced degrees, but were generalists with good writing skills that someone noticed. They didn’t have much practical experience in their particular area, but they were able to learn. This was their advice: be a good writer and flexible enough to learn new things. These skills are not only somewhat difficult to prove to employers, they’re fairly common. We didn’t get much guidance in the way of being the exact point on the board where the dart lands. In one of the more honest moments of these lunches, one of the fellows stated that making it in DC is forty percent hard work and sixty percent luck.

During my few formal networking opportunities and many happy hours, the impression I got about working in DC was that there was no shortage of people who were extraordinarily young, ambitious, and willing to claw their way to the top for eighty hours a week for little to no pay. And they didn’t need an advanced degree. The job postings in DC required so much less than the ones in Minneapolis. In DC they only asked that you have a Bachelor’s, good verbal and written communication skills, some familiarity with quantitative and qualitative methods and a willingness to learn. In Minneapolis they prefer a Master’s or PhD, specify the exact statistical programs and processes you need to be an expert in, require that you have at least three years of experience doing exactly what they are hiring for. I suspect the reason they require less in DC is they’re casting a wide net, looking for the best of the best that are still young, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. The ivy league grads who’ve already accomplished plenty at twenty-two, are willing to claw their way further. Or, the people that they know. Cronyism. That was my sense of how most people got jobs in DC. They got the elite grads when they were young enough to mold and willing to work like crazy for nothing (because of trust funds), or they got their friends.

As someone who’s been applying for jobs for years, I’m almost embarrassed at the cocky cover letters I sent out as a recent college grad. From my years of rejection, I learned this lesson: your awards, your scholarships, your senior thesis and your Latin honors do not make a single bit of difference. It doesn’t matter what internships you’ve had or jobs you’ve worked while in school, at twenty-two you have done nothing worthwhile.

I know I’m not that impressive, which is the main reason why I didn’t make much of an impression. But I should grant myself that one month into the internship, my partner of nine years broke up with me over the phone. This changed everything. It changed my self-confidence, support, and sense of security. Before I left, he had told me I just needed to find a job, and he would follow me, because it was my turn to do something amazing. For the first time in nearly a decade, I had to face being on my own. I thought about trying to find a job in the city, thought about having to live with strangers again instead of him. There was nothing wrong with my craigslist roommate at the time, but I had quickly discovered that I fucking hated living with other people. Unless, of course, it was my partner in life whom I loved and whose idiosyncrasies I could tolerate. I wasn’t sure I even cared for this city, and if I chose to live there, at 28 when people are supposed to be getting established in their careers, I would experience an immediate deterioration in my quality of life.

And that was the better option. One choice was to return to Minneapolis and .... do something? I would have to find a new place to live, maybe a place with my sister, but I would have no job, few prospects, and maybe only a friend or two left in the area. There were more job listings in DC for sure. The other option was to return to Iowa and literally, live in my mother’s basement. That would be the cheapest option, and the ultimate defeat. Not only defeat, but destruction. Iowa isn’t just Iowa, my sister would remind me weeks later over beers. Iowa is returning to the dynamic of our family, that dark mud that sucks you down just as you’re trying to save the others from drowning.

Anyway, back in DC, I was trying to figure out a future without him, but unable to concentrate on my work, unable to be impressive enough to make a future for myself. My mind was wandering to what the hell I would do, how dependent I was on him, how entwined my dealings were in his dealings. I had an apartment filled with my things back in Minneapolis, and here I was in DC. There were no good options, nowhere to turn. Walking from work to my metro station, I hopefully imagined being struck by a car and killed. End of story. No need for choices.

Sitting in my cubicle every day buried in paper, I thought, if I were getting paid, maybe I could take this. As it was, I was paying for this experience, using up all of my savings and going into more credit card debt. I spent over eight hours a day in a cubicle, mostly reading hundreds of pages of bureaucratese reports from state governments, trying to translate them, summarize the relevant policy levers in writing. My cube was one in two rows in the center of a ring of offices for the fellows, analysts, shared ones for the research assistants. I was not staff, not even close, still couldn’t quite imagine being staff, here or anywhere. I was not doing the work of staff; I was doing work that only interns did for free. The regular factory line of super-privileged kids cycling through, some of them talented enough to become RAs after graduation. They go on to a prestigious graduate school, then return to their connections and become analysts or fellows or politicians. As I was trying to concentrate, to do what I was told and do it well, my brain was screaming, what next, what next. When I sat at my desk all I could think was that there were three hours until lunch. It’s customary to take only 30 minute lunches in DC, mostly spent at your desk, but I started taking my lunch to the cafeteria downstairs and wouldn’t come back for an hour. I’d eat and read my book, avoiding eye contact with the occupants of the table packed with undergrad interns. Then I’d take a walk around the block even though it was the hottest August on record, then I’d go to a bench, or if it was too hot, back to the cafeteria by a window, and I’d sit and read for the rest of the hour. That whole hour was the only way I could take it. I burned through books, through stories I could somehow take better than the story of my life. The time after lunch was the worst, the longest solid block of time in the day before I could go home. I broke it up: coffee at 2:30, another walk around the block at 3:30, The possibility of leaving starting at 5:30.

Except for the long lunch, I did what I was told, I always did what I was told, I have always done what I was told, but this would never be enough to be impressive. To get a job from an internship, you have to do more than you’re told, and I don’t think I have the drive or the energy to do that. I’ve barely been in the workforce and I’m already exhausted from all the time I spent not being able to find work.

By the way, that pretty brunette intern from Brown-- she seemed like she was nothing special, couldn’t have gotten hard skills from her major-- she was offered an RA position at the end of the summer. Maybe it had to do with who she was working with and their project. Maybe it was her elite boarding school, then ivy league education that trained her to do amazing work I knew nothing about. Sure, her education had given her the connections to get an internship in the first place. But maybe it was that same education and inherent talent required to get there that made her so amazing she was offered a contract, while I was offered a month extension without pay, of course.

In the end, my heart wasn’t in making it in DC. If I’d tried harder, done more informational interviews, taken my supervisor up on her offer to send out my resume and her recommendation to her friends and colleagues, I might have gotten something. But I’m not sure it’s something I would have been able to stand. Still, I must have looked defeated as my supervisor took me out for a last lunch and I discussed my plans for when I go back to Minneapolis.

She told me, “I want you to remember something about you. You’re the same person who picked up and moved to another country with no job or concrete plans. That is brave, and you made it.”

I wanted to argue with her. That person wasn’t so brave. Japan was even a relatively safe bet when I had nothing in America, and I wasn’t exactly striking out on my own, since I was there with my boyfriend. But I swallowed that argument, because even when that voice is right, I know that it’s incredibly irritating to others who are just trying to help.