Taking the Fast Track to the Beltway
K-School Grads Head for the Hill
Jim Brenner, Dave Williams and Catherine Canfield all knew what they wanted--high-profile jobs on Capitol Hill--but they did not know just how to get it. Brenner considered law school; Williams weighed the merits of going for his M.B.A.; and Canfield planned on doing graduate work in political science.
But each decided to take a third, less established academic route to top congressional staff positions. They are just three examples of a new breed of government officials that have graduated in the past five years from one of the Kennedy School of Government's three degree-granting professional programs.
Brenner received his Master's of Public Policy (M.P.P.) in 1982, Williams in 1985. Canfield graduated in 1984 from the one-year mid-career program that Harvard's youngest professional school offers. Their post-Kennedy School path has led them on the much-traveled Cambridge-Washington circuit, where along with growing numbers of K-School alumni, they are forming a new corps of congressional administrators and policymakers.
Traditionally top jobs on Capitol Hill are political plums, meted out for long years of political service or personal connections with the elected official.
But the influx of Harvard-trained government professionals to the nation's capital is beginning to alter the time-honored fabric of Congressional networking. For example, law was considered a quick and prestigious route to a career in government once, but the Kennedy School in 1968 introduced a new academic route for those interested in public sector careers.
Nearly 20 years later, graduates of the three programs say that while the programs still have their problems, their K-School experiences have provided them with more than adequate experience for working on the Hill.
At the relatively young age of 30, Canfield has already risen to the post of administrative assistant to Sen. Wyche Fowler (D-Ga.). She attributes her success solely to her Kennedy School connections. The native New Yorker had no personal or political ties to Fowler before she started working for him. Canfield avoided the traditional back-room congressional politicking necessary to land a job such as hers in past years.
The Kennedy School provided "the leverage I needed to get downtown," Canfield says. "I would never have moved to this level at this age without the Kennedy School."
About 30 percent of Kennedy School M.P.P. graduates work in Washington and 19.7 percent of them work for Congress, according to a career path study published in 1985.
Recent graduates say that these growing numbers reflect K-School alumni's strong commitment to public service, although they add that the burgeoning Harvard presence also stems from more career-oriented concerns.
Graduates profit from the Harvard moniker attached to their resume, but many Hill staffers say they place little day-to-day value in the academic lessons of their K-School years. However, many graduates say that courses in management and communications proved particularly helpful.
"The Kennedy School helped me get here more than it's helped me since," says Brenner, who is a legislative assistant to Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.).
"My first assignment at the Kennedy School was the most practical thing I learned in the two years," he says. "We had to write a two-page memo on a policy issue and recommend a course of action. More than anything else, I continue to use that skill."
Chris Van Hollen, an analyst for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee who received an M.P.P. in 1985, agrees that writing skills are the most valuable lesson the K-School teaches its students. "For working on the Hill, the best thing is being able to write very quickly and succinctly," he says.
The results of the career path study supported their observations, finding that graduates cited analytic methods, systematic thinking and memo writing as the three most valuable skills learned at the Kennedy School.
Canfield cites the management training she received as the most relevant aspect to her Capitol Hill job, "though all the management information is hardly unique to a school of government."
Robert Waters, a top aide to Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) who received an M.P.A. in 1979, also remembers management as an important component of his education. As a final project for Richard Darman's course on "Managing the Policymaking Process," Waters applied the model to a congressional office "not knowing then that I would end up using that project in the real world."
Brenner lists the policy analysis and public management orientation of the school as helpful
In fact, the M.P.P. career path study echoedthese students' approval of the managementcourses, finding that 35 percent of the alumnithought the K-School should increase the number ofcourses offered in this area.
The survey criticized three aspects of theKennedy School's program: lack of facultyfeedback, faculty advising and the various KennedySchool research centers.
In addition to these academic critiques,Kennedy School graduates have a commoncomplaint--the uncertainty of what to do withtheir degrees. "It [the K-School] is a great placeto go and waste two years," says Canfield, addingthat to profit academically from the environment,Kennedy School students must have very specificgoals.
"One of the real challenges and frustrationsfor those pursuing policy careers in the publicsector is the lack of a defined career path,"Waters says. "For lawyers, there is the challengeof making partner, a teacher shoots for tenure, abusinessman for CEO. But in the public sector thecareer path is just not altogether clear."
Many of the current Hill staffers who graduatedfrom the Kennedy School say they had to experimentbefore they realized how best to apply the skillsthey acquired in Cambridge. Most have tried boththe public and the private sectors, and many havedegrees in law or business to supplement theirKennedy School diplomas.
Williams, an analyst for the Senate BudgetCommittee, received an M.B.A. from Colorado Statein 1983, two years before attending the KennedySchool. He has also finished all the requirementsfor his professional business degree except adissertation for a Ph.D in public finance.
Although Canfield has no graduate degrees otherthan her K-School diploma, she traveled anothertypical career route: the revolving door betweenpublic and private sector. She had five years ofexperience working for Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.)before coming to Cambridge in 1984.
After graduating, Canfield worked for one ofthe "big five" accounting firms as a governmentrelations consultant. "I thought I didn't want togo back to Capitol Hill," Canfield says. Shereturned to federal government two years ago asFowler's chief office manager.
Brenner, on the other hand, has spent hisentire career in the public sphere. While at theK-School, he met with Michael S. Dukakis andfollowed him to the State House when the K-Schoolformer lecturer swept back into office in 1982.Brenner was introduced to Kerry, his currentemployer, by a Kennedy School classmate during theSenator's 1984 campaign. Soon after he moved toWashington and joined Kerry's staff.
But devotion to the public sphere is notuniversal. Some graduates abandon the glamour ofCapitol Hill careers because of the salarytradeoff; their 'revolving door' leads to WallStreet. Brenner has friends from the KennedySchool in corporate finance, junk bonds andinvestment banking. Canfield's Cambridge friendswork for such diverse employers as CBS, Timemagazine, corporate law firms and consultingcompanies.
But those K-School graduates who stuck withpublic service jobs, finding their own route toCapitol Hill, have risen to the top.
While Brenner--like many other K-Schoolgrads--says that his years in Cambridge provided"a very good background for people who expect tohave a career on the Hill," he adds it was not theperfect education. As Van Hollen says, "It's hardto think of anything that can really prepare youfor working on the Hill except for being here.