Behind every successful politician is an organized, multitasking aide--or several. Aides, a general term applied to most non-secretarial staff in an elected official's office, can fulfill a wide variety of roles, so adaptability is key. Aides who focus exclusively on one policy area typically have several years of experience working on that specific topic; entry-level aides generally attend meetings, hearings and banquets, and assist with any number of other tasks. Those who stick around long enough will gravitate toward their strengths--media-savvy aides may assist the press secretary (also an aide, technically) with press releases and public statements, while those with an aptitude for translating legalese often move to policy and legislation research. No matter which area an aide tends toward in the long run, however, the one thing he/she must always keep in mind is that the aide is an extension of the politician in many respects, so stay alert.
Political aides handle issues ranging from welfare to the environment, and deal with constituents from a wide range of backgrounds. Aides are not only responsible for keeping abreast of political trends among policymakers, but also for staying in touch with the needs and concerns of the constituents. In general, successful aides start out with a focus on constituent assistance (this can range from coordinating with a government agency, to helping locate a constituent's missing disability pay) and community outreach, then add the responsibility of legislative work as they gain experience and the trust of their boss (this can take years).
Who you know
Loyalty is of utmost value in the field, and an aide who lands a job with the next Obama should go along for the ride if he/she plays the cards right. That said, the shelf life of politicians varies greatly. Members of Congress aren't constricted by term limits (a major reason why there are so many grandparents serving on Capitol Hill), but many states, counties and cities do impose such restrictions. For many elected officials, term limits mean transition time to consulting, teaching or retirement, and aides don't usually get to join them on these endeavors. There is an upside, however: once you're in the building--whether that means city hall or the White House--you should be able to make enough connections to find another job should you need to.
Not all work and no play
As for the perks, the public sector ain't rolling in dough--at least not the kind of dough that's going anywhere near an aide's pockets. Veteran aides can collect a decent salary, but entry-levels shouldn't expect riches. What's more--and as illogical as it may seem--the higher up you start on the totem pole of U.S. governmental hierarchy, the less you typically make. An entry-level aide to a county supervisor in a major metro area, for example, may earn twice as much as a Congressional novice. But the non-salary benefits can be extremely generous when compared to those offered in the private sector, from lucrative pensions to primo health coverage. Aides must generally work at the same level of government for a set number of years, however, to qualify for that pension.
The demands placed upon an aide can be great: night and weekend work is usually required, many politicians (and other aides) have, um, let's say "challenging" personalities, and bureaucratic red tape can often impede seemingly simple tasks.
For all the frustrations aides young and old experience, moments of accomplishment can make it all worth it. As cliché as it sounds, helping an old lady claim a tax refund sent to the wrong address has its rewards, and witnessing Congress pass a bill that you've worked on feels good. Aides at the state and federal levels can spend years researching, revising and promoting a single piece of legislation; watching as it's signed into law should evoke elation.
A bachelor's degree is strongly recommended for all political aides; many have graduate degrees or relevant professional experience. Many political aides begin their careers near where they grew up or attended college, either in local or state politics, and there's no better way to build a relationship with someone who may eventually help you find a job than on the campaign trail.
Normally, aides start out as legislative assistants, learning the technical and legal aspects of their specialized fields. It is important that, during their first few years on staff, aides cultivate relationships with colleagues in other legislative offices. The turnover rate for political aides is relatively high, but those who establish themselves with a successful career politician or as an expert in a particular field are highly valued as advisors or consultants. These veteran aides have typically built extensive professional networks within their level of government, and often know many of the politicians personally from past work experience. Those who rise to the level of chief-of-staff (the politician's top in-house staffer) usually have years of experience "within the building" and can hold their own in negotiations with their bosses and other elected officials; many eventually run for office themselves. Then again, some higher-up aides are staffers of moderate ability who simply befriended the right people and rode their coattails all the way up.
The position of an aide to an elected official is stressful but filled with variety. "My day is never the same," says one staffer. Aides are exposed to many aspects of society; one contact describes a top perk of the job to be "a great education on humanity." However, life as a political aide also "requires a lot of reading and can be boring at times."
Although aides work 40- to 50-hour weeks, those hours are irregular, as aides often have to put together meetings "during the early morning or after dinner." Most elected officials "are very good when it comes to comp time, which makes the weird hours worth it." The dress code for political aides is generally "conservative and professional, more so for meeting with constituents."
The best way to land a position working for an elected official, insiders say, is to help out with a campaign and "get involved in the political side of things." Positions with the government "are terrific resume builders for private industry" and are "excellent for law or communication degrees."
Opportunity to work on issues making tomorrow's headlines; Ability to create social change; Exposure to high-profile politicians; Outstanding non-salary benefits
Irregular hours; High pressure; Modest pay; Occasionally dry tasks; Hard to break into the job
Efficient; Organized; Outgoing; Ambitious
Average about 45 per week
Varies; Average entry-level salary: $15,000; After five years: $30,000; After 10 years: $60,000
BA; Master's degree in public policy, international relations, communications or similar discipline