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Top Ten Tips for a Successful Career in Washington, D.C. Policymaking

Craig Zelizer

February 26, 2020

This advice is distilled from talk given for the Georgetown University Conflict Resolution Program by Alexandra Toma in 2015 (bio below), Executive Director of the Peace and Security Funders Group , a network of public, private, and family foundations and philanthropists who make grants contributing to peace and global security. Ms. Toma is a Capitol Hill veteran and has over 20 years’ experience at senior levels of politics, government, advocacy and philanthropic organizations.

1. There are no permanent friends and no permanent enemies

Washington is a very small place. Someone you work against on one project could end up being a strategic ally for another project. You must be careful not to burn bridges, but rather foster relationships for the future.

2. Identify your core values and let go of the other stuff

In D.C. policymaking and politics, you must be willing to compromise and work with those on the other side of the aisle. You cannot do this successfully if you aren’t flexible or willing to work with those that may hold different values. You have to choose your core values, fight for those, and be willing to compromise on secondary issues in order to reach common ground and create a workable policy.

3. You have to choose your specialty and, in 90% of jobs, your party

When asked what they want to do in D.C., recent graduates will often say, “I want to be a foreign policy generalist, and I don’t want to be political.” If this is you, take a moment to rethink what you want. There are many worthwhile positions in Washington for policy specialists doing political and nonpolitical work; some generalist jobs on Capitol Hill affiliated with each party; but very few genuine foreign policy generalists (outside of the State Department’s Foreign Service). Even a generalist should have some focus at some point in their career. Choose a specialty you feel passionate about and where you think you can make a difference given your skill set. Once you have proven yourself in that specialty area, you can return to being a generalist, if that’s your preference. And choose a party (unless you are aiming for a civil servant position).

4. Write frequently and write well

This is one skill that is absolutely essential to every job in Washington. You must be able to produce documents or briefs that are short and concise. No policy official will want to waste time reading through lengthy reports; instead you must be able to quickly and succinctly lay out the issues.

5. Work on Capitol Hill and learn the Defense budget

Working on the Hill is invaluable to advancing your career. Even as an unpaid intern, grunt work like making copies may not be glamorous, but it’s a way to get your foot in the door. In addition, when working in foreign policy, the Defense budget is king. Learn your way around it so that you can be a valuable part of the conversation.

6. Gain management experience

Learn to manage both people and processes. Being able to think strategically, plan accordingly (and according to resources), and delegate to produce results is a must-have skill. You can gain management experience through volunteer work; you don’t need to wait to be the boss.

7. Volunteer!

Volunteering is the best way to get your name out there and meet people while also getting experience in diverse fields.

8. Network!

Part of the power people have in D.C. comes from who they know. Networking is the key to finding opportunities and openings, and building relationships. But it shouldn’t just be self-serving: the most fulfilling networking is when it’s done out of curiosity (not just to get ahead).

9. Find mentors and keep in contact with them

Whether it’s for career advice or references, mentors can be some of the most valuable resources. Find them now and keep in contact with them. Your mentors should be more than just someone you met one time at an event three years ago. Instead they should be people who know you and your capabilities. Take the time to make the connections and develop deeper relationships with them so they can become invested in helping you.

10. Make time for others

Remember it is just a job. Be sure not to lose yourself or other opportunities by being so caught up in the work that you’re not making time for yourself and those around you.



Alexandra Toma (she/her/hers) brings over 15 years of leadership experience in politics, advocacy, and philanthropic organizations to her role as PSFG’s Executive Director. In recognition of her leadership in the peace and security philanthropic sector, Inside Philanthropy recognized Alex as the “Affinity Group Head with the Most Hustle.” Listen to her take on philanthropy in this interview with the LBJ School’s RGK Center for Philanthropy and Community Service.

Prior to joining PSFG in 2013, Alex was Executive Director of the Connect U.S. Fund, a donors’ collaborative focused on incentivizing collaboration as a tool to meet today’s global challenges. While a Director at the Ploughshares Fund, Alex founded the Fissile Materials Working Group, a coalition that she grew to 80 U.S. and international organizations providing action-oriented policy solutions to combat nuclear terrorism. Before her nonprofit experience, Alex served as a foreign policy and defense advisor to Congressman Stephen F. Lynch of Massachusetts.

Alex is a Term Member with the Council on Foreign Relations; serves on the boards of the Compton Foundation and Foreign Policy for America; and is a proud refugee. She earned her M.S. in Foreign Policy and Security Studies from Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service and a B.A. in International Affairs and Psychology, with a minor in French, from the University of Virginia. When not immersed in peace and security philanthropy, Alex enjoys Skype calls with her 97-y.o. grandmother, reading fiction, and traveling the world (she’s been to 50 countries).

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