Tag Archives: Interns

So You Want to Be Paid to Sit at a Desk and Think About Things

Living the dream.

A couple weeks ago I did an orientation session with our latest class of incoming interns, who are much more fun to deal with now that I don’t have to be the one responsible for interviewing and hiring them all. We mostly talked about some basic research tips and tools they could potentially use during their time here and afterwards, and I thought I would rework some of that into a post for this blog, which I’m a little afraid is going to be otherwise starved for content.

There’s lots that could be said on work in the policy field in Washington (some of it much snarkier than the approach I’ve opted for here), and what is here is my attempt to distill some of what I’ve learned on the job for the past three and a half years. Much of this may seem self-evident, particularly to folks reading who are later on in their careers than I am or who have received actual formal training, but I can’t recall ever getting specific guidance along these lines when I was in undergrad, and maybe it will prove useful to others. I’d also appreciate any thoughts or suggestions from others more experienced than I.

There are different paths to success in Washington, many of them involving the art of relationships, politics, and occasionally having a rich uncle who donated to the campaign or owns the magazine. Those are all important areas to master which I haven’t, so I can’t really offer advice on them. As important as the need to be politically astute and responsive is, I would still argue that you are really going to be best served in whatever you do by having a solid grounding of analytical and critical thinking skills, so that’s going to be my focus. Some good advice that I got when I started goes along the lines of if you do the work, you will get the work, and while you may not always get the job title or the front page quote, I do think this generally holds true. It also means it would be best for you to actually want to do the work, because otherwise it is probably going to be a long disappointing grind for you. But there is a lot of turnover in Washington and with a solid body of work and a little bit of putting yourself out there, people will notice and start calling on you. Think first about how to prepare yourself with as solid of an intellectual foundation as you can, before you find yourself in charge of a Coalition Provisional Authority ministry in the Romney administration without a clue as to whether the locals are Sunni or Shiia and whether that makes any difference.

So the first point, and this applies to many more things in life than just policy work, is: what you practice regularly is what you get good at. Comic strip artists may not be able to paint the Mona Lisa, but they turn something in every day for publication. In college we generally get good at taking lecture notes, reading large chunks of text, writing a dozen or so 15-30 page papers over the course of three-month semesters, and passing hour-long closed-book tests, all of which is useful but probably none of which is directly relevant to the kind of work you are going to be called to do on a daily basis. The specifics of that work will change depending on the exact nature of your job but the three things you should be doing no matter what are: read every day; write every day; and write about what you read every day. If you’ve got a job that gives you the opportunity to do all of this on the clock, that’s great, but if not, start yourself a blog, even if it’s pseudonymous or just a private journal only you ever read. (The value of pseudonymity versus writing in your own name early in your career is probably worth a fuller discussion but I’m not sure I have fully developed thoughts on it yet.)  Blogging isn’t a perfect substitute for the kind of writing you’ll generally be called upon to produce (which, beyond style and depth differences, is probably going to involve much more collaborative drafting), but forcing yourself to think about what you’ve read and putting it into writing other people can understand is at the core of a lot of the work you will being doing over the course of your career. I’ll talk more about the reading part of this further down in this post, but the ability to write with speed, concision, and accuracy is probably the most valuable skill you will develop, and in the end it takes practice (and usually either merciless self-criticism or regular feedback from editors and readers).

The importance of concision is because nobody in Washington has any time to pay close attention to anything. (Yes, I do appreciate the irony of arguing for concision in a 2800-word blog post.) This increases the further you rise up in seniority. As a junior research staffer, I have the comparative luxury of focusing on America’s relations with only two of the world’s most complicated countries, Afghanistan and Pakistan; my bosses have to think about a whole range of U.S. foreign policy problems, as well as our organization’s relations with other organizations, donors, media, etc; and at the top of the organization, we have people charged with overseeing both the health and growth of the organization as well as policy research and political action on everything from labor policy to Chinese currency policy to how to build a green economy. (At the other end, our interns are generally going to be working on very discrete research projects — how much military aid did we give to Pakistan under the Bush administration, or whatever.) This is not even getting into the elected officials, who have to constantly be justifying their jobs to the public every two to four years. Some organizations or offices are more focused on a particular issue than others but generally speaking, time and attention will be the most valuable commodity overstretched and overworked policymakers can give you.

One of the most common relationships in Washington is going to be the principal-staffer dynamic, wherein you, the bright-eyed junior staffer, reports up to an overworked senior principal who is going to be relying on you to identify what’s actually important for them in the flood of information coming in on whatever particular issue area they have tasked you to explore. Smart policymakers will try to use the limited time they have on an issue to engage and get at the substance of the problem and the potential effects and second- and third-order consequences of pursuing a particular course of action. (You should do this yourself.) But often principals are going to look for individuals who appear to know what the hell they’re talking about, build a level of trust with them, and then rely on them to provide both the questions and the answers. (In an ideal world, people who demonstrate that they clearly don’t know what the hell they’re talking about would be subsequently ignored, but Michael O’Hanlon still has a job, so let’s not pretend we’re living in an ideal world here.)

Doing this effectively requires regular communication with your principal about what pieces of information are important for them to do their job, and early on in your career should hopefully involve lots of feedback. Inevitably, however, you will know more about a specific issue or incident than the smartest and most widely read principal, and it then falls to you to anticipate how much of this information they need to know to make informed decisions and figure out what it actually suggests. That judgment in turn requires building a level of specialization and depth on the issue areas you work on — you won’t always want to or be able to stick to this specialty (particularly if you work in a general-subject policy organization like a Hill office or a think tank), but having something you actually understand at a deep level will help ground you and more importantly should help build the critical thinking and research skills that allow you get up to speed in new areas as needed. (Just be cautious about overapplying your experience in one area to others where it is really not all that applicable. See Exhibit A, as in Afghanistan, General Petraeus’ experiences in.)

So, finally, the question of how to build this body of experience and understanding. This takes time but I think the answer ultimately is: read every day. Ask yourself what happened. Ask yourself why it happened. And then ask yourself how you know that to be the case. We are in an era of information overload, and your challenge is to collect from as a broad a range as possible, curate it to sort out what’s relevant, and analyze the implications before making decisions. (I believe the acolytes of John Boyd describe this as the OODA Loop, although I haven’t read the theory.) You cannot rely on the New York Times or The Economist (or god forbid, network television) to tell you everything that’s important in your specific issue area on a given day (also, prospective interns: I’m not nearly as impressed as you seem to think I should be when you tell me you read the Economist). You should read them, but these are publications intended for the general-interest, busy principal, and as a staffer and an analyst you are going to need to go wider and deeper.

Tools of the trade. Your first step if you haven’t already should be to set up a Google Reader account (or some similar newsreader program) and familiarizing yourself with the wonders of RSS Feeds (almost every website these days publishes multiple feeds; if your experience on the web to date has been manually going to a series of bookmarks every day, you will be amazed at how much easier it is to have it delivered to you all in one place). Subscribe to all the major dailies (NYT, WSJ, Washington Post, Al Jazeera) and news wires (Reuters, AP, AFP); then start adding as much local-area press (ideally in the local language, if you can read it) and local sourcing as you can. Start looking for blogs and organizations publishing on the issues you are covering, follow their links, and expand your network of coverage. Use the Google Reader note button in your browsers or some other cross-platform notation service to keep track of pieces that pop up as you are wandering across the web. Use Reeder or another mobile app that syncs with your Google Reader to load and read during your morning and evening commute, assuming you have a smartphone or iPod touch. I hear good things about Evernote and Instapaper, although I don’t use them myself — my personal daily routine involves starring items I want to read as they come up during the day in my Google Reader, then loading and reordering them to read and write up the next morning as part of the daily news summaries I write on Afghanistan/Pakistan. Find something that works for you, but commit to skimming your Reader at regular intervals throughout the day; it will be a firehose of information, particularly as you increase the number of feeds you follow (I’m up to around 400, although some number of those are defunct ones I haven’t bothered unfollowing), but you will get better (callback to the practice point at the start here) at skimming out stories worth reading in full and at picking out the relevant new material in any story. (Also, it helps if you never again take vacation.)

As a supplement to your Reader account, you should join Twitter and start looking for individuals on there who share the same research or professional interests as you. Twitter may be useful as a tool for promotion and communication, but its real value to a researcher is that by following the right network of smart people and sharing in their reading experience, it provides you with a whole additional level of curation on the day’s news, as people post links and comment on events, helping you to catch stories that you may have otherwise missed. (See also Diana’s piece on the value of Twitter and social networking in general for young analysts.) There are other social media services that can provide this but my experience is that Twitter is best for this because 1) the basic limited-character format forces people to be concise and tends to encourage link-sharing; and 2) it is almost totally public and open, allowing you to tap into the comments of people and experts you might not otherwise come in contact with (which I think is the problem with Google+ — conversations may be happening among established social circles but it’s not obvious where they are or how to tap into them). Even more so than RSS feeds, Twitter is a huge flood of information, and trying to follow everything on it constantly is a recipe for sleepless breakdown, but the use of retweets to re-share major developments mitigates this to some degree, and there are a few services out there (I use The TweetedTimes) that can scrape links shared by the network of people of people you follow into a regularly-updated page (whose RSS feed you can then plug into your Reader).

Beyond this, there are lots of resources out there that you can tap into; this varies by subject but some of the big general-use resources that I think everyone working in Washington should be familiar with are Congressional Research Service reports (which are often written from secondary or tertiary sources but can be useful to get up to speed on a new issue at a general level), GAO and department Inspectors General reports (but be aware that these are often maddeningly specific in their scope), the World Bank’s datasets, the Greenbook on U.S. foreign assistance, the THOMAS legislative search engine, and the Congressional budget justifications that every U.S. government department submits as part of the annual appropriations process. Read books on your issue to compress months or years of daily news into a single volume, and when you’re done them, read the books they use in their bibliography. When reading the news, learn to identify the sources and remember that almost everything you read in the paper appeared there because someone wanted it to, and think about who and why that might be. When reading official reports, understand the definitions as they are being used and how people obfuscate with them.

Finally (and this is running long so I’m wrapping up here), a few general guidelines for critical analysis when you are trying to figure out what is going on in almost any given situation:

  • Follow the money. Strategy is how you allocate resources to achieve policy objectives. Whether coherently or not, these decisions are made in a budgeting process. (Sometimes that process is one guy taking the money and running, but it’s still a process.) To understand an organization’s strategy, you must identify the decision-makers in the budgeting process and the process by which they make their decisions. (There’s a decent introduction to the American budget process here.)
  • Organizations (in whatever form) not states, or civilizations, or “the people”, make both war and politics. (I previously borrowed this point from Sinno here.) Individual actors can be important but they almost always operate within the constraints of the organizations (and political system) they are a part of, and generally speaking, “you stand where you sit” — it is very hard to break out of those immediate constraints. (See: The Wire, particularly seasons Three and Four.)
  • No organization — and especially no broader national polity — is a monolith. We use shorthands a lot in international relations writing (I’ve been using “Washington” throughout this whole piece), but every organization is going to have multiple policy priorities. These priorities will not be supported unanimously across the organization, and their relative importance to the organization will shift over time depending on internal politics and the perceived chance of successfully advancing at a reasonable cost. Per the Iron Law of Bureaucracy, the foremost of these is usually the survival and advancement of those in decision-making positions.
  • A lot of this basically boils down to Hanlon’s Razor. Don’t ascribe other organizations, countries, or individuals with super powers or grand strategies just because you don’t understand their thinking or behavior. Also, just because a report is “classified” doesn’t necessarily mean it holds the comprehensive truth.

There you have it. Good luck, and try not to inadvertently invade any foreign countries.