A Summer in Washington D.C.

Evan Henry is a recent TCD graduate, who spent four weeks interning in Washington D.C. in July 2022 as part of the Washington Ireland Program. Evan shares his experience and learnings from his time in the US below.

Tell us about your academic and professional background.

Hi everyone, my name is Evan and I’m from Ballyhaunis in County Mayo. I’ve just finished studying Economics and Political Science through the PPES program at Trinity College Dublin. At the end of my four years in Trinity, I was torn between pursuing a master’s degree and diving directly into the world of work. I decided on the latter, and have recently assumed an Associate Consultant position in PwC’s Project Portfolio Management team. In this blog post, I’m going to share a few tips I’ve picked up along the way with the Washington-Ireland Program. While I’ll take the opportunity now to warn you against expecting any incredibly original or profound insights, I hope that some of what I have to say will be useful for those of you considering what to do next.

What is the Washington Ireland Program and how did you get involved?

The Washington Ireland Program (WIP) for service and leadership is a non-profit that seeks to garner relationships between future leaders committed to cultivating a future of peace and prosperity for Northern Ireland and Ireland. WIP has brought people from a diverse range of communities and backgrounds together to engage in a challenging leadership program for over twenty years. More information about the program can be found here.

In 2022, the program sought to re-establish its presence in the U.S. after the pandemic had spiralled the world into disarray, and opened recruitment to the online classes of the previous two years, from which twenty participants were selected to relaunch a more typical WIP experience.

Tell us about your experience in D.C.

Our month in D.C. was as action-packed as any I’ve ever had. My work placement was with one of America’s leading public affairs companies, DDC Public Affairs. Others were placed in similar private sector roles, in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, and in charities, universities, and NGOs. Along with a full day’s work, we engaged in debates, networking events, and speaker sessions with highly accomplished leaders from a wide breadth of fields and backgrounds.

Unfortunately, a disquisition of my day-to-day in Washington isn’t going to make it into this blog post. A word limit, rather than my humility, is your saving grace. Instead, I’m going to discuss some practical advice we received from these speakers and some of my own experience from the month. While you have likely considered the forthcoming, the knowledge that most of what I say has come from the hyper-successful should offer you comfort and confidence should you choose to apply it.

Networking 101

From the palatial global headquarters of Goldman Sachs to the West Wing, the necessity of cultivating a robust network was instilled in us by every speaker. As someone who has always shuddered at the idea of network building, and who viewed it as a cynical and transactional means for self-advancement, I have been forced to reflect.

Networking is certainly required for you to realise any career aspirations, or to meaningfully impact whatever you decide to focus your efforts upon. However, it should not be classed as a completely selfish action. During my time in D.C., I noticed that almost everyone I spoke to viewed networking as the building of reciprocal relationships. This relationship-centric approach, they say, aids you not only in achieving your own goals, but also in allowing you to help someone achieve theirs. This way, networking is not just a one-way street, and can be as selfless as it is self-serving. If you need proof of this, just turn to any of the countless examples that can be found on the other end of a google search, where you will see stories of successful people getting their big break for no particular reason other than someone above them felt like helping

This point may prompt you to state the obvious- either a partner in a multinational firm does not stand to benefit as much from my wisdom and experience as I do from theirs, or that my chutzpah has stumbled over the precipice and is plummeting deep into the pits of delusion, or both. I think the first statement is true, but allow me to retort with another observation that I noticed recurring regularly in D.C.: the willingness of people further along the course to help you out. Most people are decent, and will do someone much further down the proverbial food chain a relatively minor favour without the promise of any reward. This is not speculation, as I will show shortly. It is useful to remember that these people, who have progressed and risen, have benefitted from precisely the kind of help you seek. No one has gotten anywhere without building strong relationships and the help they provide. Just remember that you will probably be in a position to do the same- albeit to a greater or lesser degree- at all stages of your career.

Now I’ll briefly depart from splurging other people’s advice and offer some practical tips for those who, like me, cringe at the thought of approaching someone with a business card. Networking can be done in a subtle and natural way. Engaging in normal conversation, having a smooth opening line, remembering someone’s name as you speak to them, and then following up with an appreciative message on LinkedIn is more effective than robotically dispatching a business card. I must urge you to remember that this is what I found effective, as someone who finds taking a more measured and strategic approach to networking difficult. If you’re someone who thrives on carefully planned and structured interactions, then you should consider that approach. To be honest, I think any of these techniques should be thought of as occupying a spectrum, and that we should all experiment.

I should also note that regardless of approach, you will cultivate more meaningful relationships if you’ve met someone in person. As part of a virtual WIP class in 2021, we were exposed to a similar depth of lauded speakers, but because we did not meet them, we found ourselves less inclined to reach out, and it was usually more difficult to strike up the kind of natural interactions that you experience in real-life meetings whenever we did. For that reason, I would recommend meeting people in person as much as possible, and the reason for this will become even clearer when my next tip is considered.

Informed by my own regret, I strongly recommend that you simply take the leap and introduce yourself, whenever you can. Always make a connection if the option is there. Being somewhat reserved, I was forced to learn this quickly in D.C., though I am painfully aware of how often my initial hemming and hawing caused me to miss out on introducing myself to new and brilliant people. Encouragingly, although though I am still by no means an expert networker, I saw quite rapid development of my willingness to initiate conversation over the month.

The profundity of this simple advice is clear to see in one WIP speaker’s story about an occasion where he, after significant hesitation, introduced himself to a distinguished person who he almost only observed from afar. When this distinguished individual was in need of an assistant six months later, he remembered the WIP speaker from their brief interaction and offered him the position that eventually catapulted his career. If his uncertainty predominated, the speaker admitted that he would not be in the position he enjoys today.

This example demonstrates not only the potentially life-changing benefits of taking the leap, but also just how closely linked this bravery is with the ideas that networking is not a selfish endeavour, and that people are willing to help if you just ask. While there is much more to say about this, if you now understand networking as relationship cultivation, as absolutely essential to career advancement, and as always worth attempting, then I’ve gotten my message across.

Work trumps books

This section could become lengthy, and I’m prone to rambling, so I’ll keep it brief. Assuming that most people reading this blog post plan on pursuing a professional career, and not one in academia, I think it would be beneficial for you to know that without fail, every speaker advised us to seek as much practical experience as possible before deciding to specialise, even if it is not always in what you deem to be your desired role.

Before starting WIP, I assumed that I would simply begin a master’s degree after completing my undergraduate degree; an idea informed by the perception that more academic qualifications correlated with better job prospects. However, after two summers of engaging with no shortage of widely accomplished individuals, my opinions about learning have sharply diverged from those I held two years ago.

The logic is straightforward. If your goal is to build an impactful and successful career, no matter the field, then it is beneficial to engage in as much “hands-on” learning as you can from the outset. The reasons for this are several. Perhaps most potently, given our current economic climate, is the fact that attaining further academic credentials burdens one with debt before they possess the career perspective that only professional experience provides. This apprentice model of learning also allows you to not only build the skills that professional competence requires, but this practical experience in the workplace- where you will spend much of your life- may also illuminate the values you consider most important when deciding your career path. One example may be the trade-off between money and free-time. These lessons will likely be worth more to you than a hastily chosen master’s program. If you feel compelled to pursue further study, which I am fully aware is becoming more of a necessity for eventual progression, then some practical experience is even likely to improve the odds that you choose a more suitable degree. Some jobs may even fund your education! It appears to me, then, that the option of taking an explorative approach to your career and gaining career insight through practical (and paid) experimentation, makes more sense from most angles.

Of course, I realise that the decision to invest in postgraduate education is not lightly taken, and there are several arguments that can be made in favour of immediate further study.  By all means, if something grips you, or you believe postgraduate education is necessary to enter a specific field (as it often is), then go for it. As someone quite young and inexperienced, aside from suffocating you with the perspective of those far wiser than me, I can only urge patience, and remind you that further specialisation is still an option in the very near future.

Get in touch

I hope my tinpot career guidance session was of some use to you. Because I kept speaker insight anonymous for discretion, and because I usually find conversation more helpful than general advice when considering my career, anyone who wants to get in touch about WIP or to discuss specific speaker lessons can reach out to me on LinkedIn.

Evan Henry

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