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.