WHY DID I START D.C. HOPEFULS?
Since 2009, I have worked in Washington, D.C. and I promise you that getting to this city isn’t as easy as people make it out to be (I will expand on this later). For the past two years, I have spoken to several student groups at universities across the country.
I would speak to students all the time who wanted a career in this city, but after talking to them, I realized that most of them were unprepared to fulfil their dreams. A lot of this was not their fault, as many people don’t have contacts in D.C., or have access to the right sources of information. After reflecting on my own story, and noticing the many similarities with these students, I really wanted to help. What started off as just mentoring a few students from the University of Arkansas has turned into a diverse group of people who are eager to succeed in Washington, D.C.
WHY YOU NEED D.C. HOPEFULS….
Washington, D.C. is the most important city in the World: It’s the capital city of the United States, which is home to some of the most influential people, businesses, and organizations. Taking this into account, it’s safe to say that more than just a few people want to work in this city. In many cases, hundreds of people will apply to the same job. The internet has made job openings easier to find, but not necessarily easier to get.
People often think that they need to know the high-ranking generals, politicians, non-profit presidents and business CEOs to land a job in this city, but this is both unrealistic and impractical. While it’s great if you know these types of people, many of them haven’t looked for a job in several decades and when they did look for a job, the market was completely different! I have had some great conversations with the types of people I just mentioned, but I learned the most from those who were 5-10 years older than me. These are the sorts of contacts who are more likely to find you a job because they work in the thick of day-to-day operations.
The key to being competitive in this city is knowing people, but the keys to knowing people are having a solid resume, being organized, and most importantly, being steadfast. D.C. Hopefuls fosters these skills and will connect you with others who are also seeking to launch a career in Washington, D.C.
If you are still unsure on whether this group is for you, I encourage you to check out the testimonials page and see the impact D.C. Hopefuls has made on young professionals from across the country.
One of the reasons Washington, D.C. is so difficult is because most people are their social media accounts. Meaning if you meet them at a party they’ll tell you everything you could have learned on LinkedIn like that they work on Capitol Hill and went to this great school. It just felt like everyone was doing exactly what they wanted and it came so easy to them. I call this people’s “D.C. story.” This can be helpful but what turned my life around is learning people’s “real stories.” This is when I began to learn how this town really works.
So my D.C. story is that my name is Tommy Pevehouse and I am from Fayetteville, Arkansas. In 2009, I graduated from the University of Arkansas as a double major in International Relations and European studies, with a minor in History. Upon graduation, I moved to Washington, D.C. where I began graduate school at American University.
As a graduate student, I also accepted a full-time position at the Air Force General Counsel’s Office of Dispute Resolution. I was part of team that was tasked with resolving thousands of disputes throughout the Air Force worldwide. Upon completion of my graduate degree, I accepted a position as a consultant working with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Office of Emergency Communications (OEC). This branch of DHS was formed in the wake of the attacks on 9/11 to improve communications between first-responders nationwide. After nearly two years at OEC, I answered the call to work on the Virginia governor’s race for the Terry McAuliffe Campaign.
The work was fast paced, difficult, and life changing. Following our successful campaign to elect Terry McAuliffe, I accepted a position at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Domestic Nuclear Detection Office (DNDO), working as an intelligence analyst. I helped to identify the threat posed by a potential radiological attack. Two years later I was offered a once in a lifetime opportunity to work at the Military Commissions Defense Organization as the senior intelligence analyst on the Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (alleged 9/11 mastermind) team.
— This is my D.C. Story: Everything I mentioned is true, but I didn’t explain the lessons I learned or how I got those jobs! —
My whole career has been riddled with triumphs and mistakes – both in equal proportion. There have been times when I have been heartbroken, but there have also been times where I’ve felt like the luckiest man alive to be able to work in this city. I hope you will be able to take something from the real story I’m about to tell you. Keep in mind as you read that these are the stories you want people to tell you as you go out and build your professional network.
Lost in Undergrad
During the summer of 2008, I was out at my favorite local bar in Fayetteville, and I bumped into an old friend who was a law student. At this point, I was preparing to take the LSAT. We spent over an hour talking about law school, and my friend asserted that unless I was 100% set on getting a law degree, I would burn out. I thought about it and law school did not seem as interesting as I had once thought. I left the bar feeling unsure of my future. The thing is, I had always wanted to work in Washington, D.C. but I was often embarrassed to admit it, as that seemed impossible to achieve – I had no relevant internships, no D.C. connections, and a terrible resume.
Something unexpected happened that changed my whole outlook on the future. My fraternity’s recruitment chair left school unexpectedly, and with only three weeks until formal recruitment started, I stepped up to oversee the whole operation. Normally, fraternities would bring in rich or well-known alumni to speak to prospective members as a way to impress them. I decided to bring in our former president, Tyler Reis, who had graduated two years prior, and I heard that he was working at the Pentagon.
Tyler flew down, gave a great speech about how he was getting his graduate degree from American University, and told us about his interesting work at the Air Force General Counsel’s Office which was based out of the Pentagon. I thought to myself: “If Tyler can figure this out, then maybe I can too!” I spoke to Tyler and told him that I wanted to move to D.C., and the rest is history. We kept in touch and he helped me with graduate school applications, gave me GRE tips, and completely redrafted my resume.
I went onto be accepted into a few graduate programs, but was also rejected by others. At this point, I had not heard back from American University or any other D.C. schools. Within a week, I found myself in D.C. interviewing for Tyler’s job, having recently found out I was accepted into American University – things were looking up!
Getting To D.C. Turned Out to Be The Easy Part
Before I could catch my breath, I had an offer to work at the Air Force General Counsel’s Office as part of a graduate school student program through American University. This all seemed to happen very quickly. I’d had many sleepless nights stressing over applications, interviews, and finals. I became incredibly naïve though about how much Tyler helped and propped me up. Upon taking my last undergraduate final at the University of Arkansas, the only words I wrote were, “I loved your class, but I’m set up for post grad so taking this test is pointless.” While this might seem stupid, I was right to an extent: My GPA did not move an inch by failing that test, but it also highlighted how overconfident I was as at 22.
My job at the Air Force was a great experience overall: I had a great boss, made lifetime friendships, and travelled throughout the United States and abroad multiple times. This job did come with many struggles though. I made several mistakes and my poor communication skills often landed me in hot water, but overall I did good job and was able push the boundaries.
Eighteen months into living in D.C., the real issues began with the 2010 Mid-term Election. The new Congress quickly put a freeze on government hiring, which had a direct impact on my school program that guaranteed special placement to the front of the interview line for government jobs. I watched many ahead of me in the program forced to leave their federal positions to seek private sector jobs as contractors – one student even went into unemployment.
I quickly began applying for jobs despite having over a year before the end of my graduate program. My plan was to find a federal job early so that I could finish my program early. 6 months later, I had made no progress. I broadened my job range to contracting positions, and went as far as delaying graduation by paying out-of-pocket for a class I didn’t need to give me more time. I applied to 120+ jobs over 14 months, and only received an interview after my 70th application, which I didn’t get. I kept applying to job after job online, but was left disappointed each time I didn’t hear back or received an email saying I didn’t make the interview round.
“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result” – Albert Einstein
Amid constant failure, I blamed everybody for my problems: The University of Arkansas, Congress, American University, my boss, the economy, and even God, I decided that something needed to change, because I had carried this ridiculous arrogance that made me think that with a good job and an MA, all I needed to do was apply to jobs and I would be set for life. This is when I began to deal with anxiety.
During the summer of 2011, I began to move away from the model of sending off endless online applications and began a professional experiment.
I talked to people and quickly realized that everyone gained their position through contacts and networking. I thought to myself: “Why not replicate what worked for me the first time with Tyler?” The reason I hadn’t done this already was because I felt ashamed that I only got this job because Tyler had helped – the answer to my problems was there all along, I was just too afraid to pursue it. I adopted this absurd strategy that I should get my next job without help and based on merit, but this doesn’t work! My strongest quality at the Air Force was being able to build strong and durable relationships with program mangers worldwide. I managed to receive all their reports on-time and more accurately which had never been done before. At this point, it was only natural to start building my professional network.
Sure, it was great that I stumbled upon this realization, but even then, I still didn’t go about networking the right way. I thought that the only people I needed were those who had the physical hiring power to fill positions (I was completely wrong). I met with the Air Force General Counsel himself and others multiple times, but none of these meetings led to jobs or even a chance of an interview. I reached the point which I never thought I’d see: I had 6 months left according to my program rules to find a job, and was still no closer to finding anything.
The reason why I was failing was because I lacked the understanding that while meeting important people is great, meeting people at your level or slightly above are even better. They can influence hiring, they hear first about office moves, and they can often benefit their own professional position by finding a new hire. I was effective at getting facetime with established professionals, but had no idea about maintaining the connection and would often get frustrated when somebody didn’t reply to my email. I have many lessons on networking that I have recently covered in blogs.
During the Fall of 2011, I began using the resources I had available. I started visiting American University’s Career Office with the theory that if I visited enough, they’d think of me if they heard of opportunities. I also checked the American University job board daily, my theory here was that people posting would be looking to fill entry-level jobs with American University graduates.
Small and Slow Progress
My second interview was for a defense contractor’s ‘Recent Graduate Program’. The aim of the program was to have you work as a recruiter while the company got you a top-secret security clearance – this normally took up to 18 months. Once you received the clearance, they would try to place you on a contract as an analyst. After the interview, I was excited that the manager wanted me to start as an analyst right away, thus bypassing the recruiter position. I filled out the paperwork, but then had to work out what I was going to do between now and getting that clearance.
Shockingly, I found a vague job posting and a real person responded to my inquiry! I wrote a bold email back boasting my skills and how I’d be a good fit. I asked if I could meet with somebody to learn more about the organization, and a few days later I was asked to interview with the co-founders – I later landed the job (that’s what I thought). I’d told them exactly what they wanted to hear: How much I liked their open office space concept, brand new MacBook’s, and their modern approach to government.
From the beginning, this new job was a nightmare. My contract was never really discussed, and I was later told that I wouldn’t be fully hired until they had won the pending contract with the military. As great as this could have been, I had run out of time at the Air Force.
Myself and other graduates worked together to demand greater help from leadership. We managed to find a meeting with the General Counsel himself, who appointed an attorney to help us find positions. During my last eligible week in the program, they found me an internship in Ohio, but it required a pay cut which was far from ideal. Luckily, I found a temporary eight-week job while I continued to wait on the contracting job. In January 2012, I got my offer to start in February.
It Got Much Worse
Despite the unbelievable amount of anxiety, stress, worry, and fear that had ensued throughout 2011, the next 18 months were about to be even worse. My first client was an office in government that focused on communications technology for first responders. It was noble work, but did not interest me in the slightest, but I feared unemployment so stuck it out.
During my time with one of the prime contracting companies, it was clear that I was not valued as an employee. I sat in a cubicle with no internet, had no key fob to access the office, and was never assigned an actual seat, so I had to rely on empty seats when others were not in the office. I had to use my phone for internet and knock when I need to be let back into the office – I felt useless. After meeting with the company’s CEO, I found out that many others did not have enough work for themselves, let alone assigning work to me.
My job was to write a newsletter, three sentence summaries, and organize excel sheets (this happened rarely). What made matters worse was that one of the prime contractors accused me of plagiarism – three times! His arguments were false and were later proven as false, but it set us off on the wrong foot. I began to buy into the work culture by getting drinks with my CEO, and lunch with other company leaders so I could seek advice on this individual. It turned out that many people were aware of how awful this person was and I was congratulated for handling the situation well.
Six months in, I was in a meeting with my CEO taking notes. I ended up having to erase everything later, but went onto ask a colleague to help rewrite them for my boss. He asked for the notes, so I gave him notes from a few weeks prior, but then had to give him the rewritten notes. He was never specific on what notes he was referring to and to be honest, I should have been upfront about it, but I had been open about receiving help. I was suddenly removed from the internal project and was called into a meeting: My CEO laid into me for not being honest and always complaining!
What had happened? I was foolish and thought venting to my work colleagues would help, but my complaints soon got back to my CEO, as many of my colleagues had worked with my CEO in the past. I was quickly assigned a day-to-day manager who met with me throughout the week. In summary, this was one huge horror story and I was miserable. I began networking and applying for jobs again, as the first company that had promised me a clearance would not respond to my calls. I had come to the determination that I should give up on international relations, intel, or anything in relation to that; I began looking for anything that would get me out of my current job.
I worked myself into the ground and often did so from home in my 400sq/ft. studio apartment. My girlfriend (now wife) noticed how miserable I had become and the job had changed who I was. She couldn’t understand why I dealt with the horrible treatment and told me that I need to seek help to identify mistakes, as well as stand up for myself at work. This is when I began to develop the steadfast spirit.
I began networking with people through mutual friends/colleagues. I logged every interaction and started to think strategically. I took advice from my new network on best practices, resumes, and how to improve my networking skills. I learnt through a great friend that I needed to try something new – he had a lot of campaign experience. Working on a campaign would hit the reset button on my career, while helping me make solid connections that would last a lifetime.
It was 2013, so the only elections going on were in New Jersey and Virginia. Everyone I talked to mentioned how hard it would be to get on the Virginia race because not only were many others trying to do the same, but I had zero campaign experience. I truly humbled myself by volunteering on the local delegate’s race to gain experience.
The campaign manager was still in college and was five years younger than me. The ‘old Tommy’ would have felt volunteering wasn’t worth the time, but the steadfast spirit in the ‘new Tommy’ knew he had to pay some dues. In June, my good friend overheard a conference call about the Virginia campaign needing new hires – he knocked on the door and handed them my résumé. I later interviewed for the job with terrible signal while I was on vacation. After the interview, I noticed that my current CEO needed to see me first thing on Monday…
Weeks prior, I had been running the internal communications team, and as a group we decided that sending an agenda was unnecessary. Unfortunately, a team member had skipped the last 8-10 meetings and had proceeded to email my CEO (and included me) telling him that he had not received an agenda, thus having no idea what was going on. This individual did not hold a leadership role and never asked to be updated, but I knew at this moment that this was enough. I flew back on the Monday knowing I was going to be fired because of poor performance and not being a good fit. Like I thought, I was fired.
Surprisingly, the company decided not to charge me for the two-day vacation I took, and told me they’d pay out my remaining vacation hours which turned out to be two whole paychecks! If I had quit like I was planning, I would have lost all those hours. They let me keep my work iPhone, MacBook, printer, and scanner too! The next day, the campaign called to offer me the job – I was ecstatic! It felt fantastic going in the next day to collect my remaining belongings and tell everybody that I had gotten a new job. Many of my old colleagues no longer work at that dreaded company, as they joined the CEO at a new company.
The Transformation Begins
The campaign was a fantastic experience and extremely humbling: I moved three hours away, never saw my fiancé (while she was planning our wedding), and had to take a 60% pay cut. My campaign colleagues were a few years younger than me, plus my boss was also a year younger. I had state-wide superiors who had not finished college! I had to ask my dad for help paying my massive student loan debt from graduate school too which was another reason that this whole experience was a big learning curve.
The best part of working on the campaign was the fact that I overcame several fears. I committed to tasks that would have normally make my anxiety worse, but instead they made me feel great about myself. It turned out that I was good at this job and I met new people every day. After our campaign won the election in November, I accepted a position to work on the inauguration. After the inauguration in January, I found myself unemployed again and living in Baltimore with my fiancé.
Being unemployed meant that my greatest fear had come true! I learnt though that our fears do not turn out as badly as we originally imagine them – I was happier being unemployed than I was at my old job! My newfound confidence allowed me to turn down terrible job offers which I knew the ‘old Tommy’ would have accepted, then complained about. In less than three months, I had attended twelve interviews which was fantastic considering I had only interviewed four times in the past three-and-a-half years prior to this. Out of the twelve interviews, there were only two that I really wanted and they were at political think-thanks, but I never heard back.
I received multiple offers but wasn’t excited about any of them, so I politely declined. I was confident that if I networked the right way and continued my positive thinking, something would happen.
In March 2013, I was in Las Vegas for my bachelor party, and my friend Tyler saved the day again! He was telling me about his amazing contracting job at Homeland Security doing intelligence work, but complained about the other analysts that had been hired solely because they had top-secret clearance, but no real ability to do the job. Tyler persuaded them to interview me, and while I only had secret clearance, I tried to convince them that I was passionate about the line of work, and that my top-secret clearance may go through quicker as it had been submitted before. Two days before my wedding, I was offered the job to become an intelligence analyst, and ultimately get my top-secret clearance!
Finally, I had made some evident progress in my career! However, I still had a few bumps along the way to getting where I am today.
How I Got To Where I Am Today
I landed this job, but still had to wait several months for my clearance. I created work for myself to stay occupied and was occasionally designated a project. In August, I got the email that confirmed my clearance approval – I was beyond ecstatic! The last bureaucratic hurdle was a simple internal background check. I thought that by September I’d be doing my job, but by the middle of January, I was still waiting. I could attend team meetings, but couldn’t help in any substantive way.
All of a sudden, the contractor analysts were called in for a meeting and we were told that they now only needed five analysts, not eight. The surplus analysts were assured that they’d be found new positions, and those seeking a new start too, would be helped. I was told because I didn’t have enough experience, that despite my passion, I was not going to be kept on. It’s safe to say that I was devastated. I called my wife and explained what had happened and she could tell how much of an impact the bad news had on me. Luckily, I married an angel and she provided all the support I needed to stay positive.
I knew the odds of finding another company to hire me in this field would be slim. The very next week, I received the final documentation approving me to do my job, how ironic right? I had four weeks left at this job to prove myself, so I was determined to work as hard as I could to give me the best shot at finding something.
I was learning things quickly from Tyler, and doing intelligence briefs within two weeks – the average time for most people was months! The company found new spots for a few of the other contractors, but my fate was still unknown. During my final week, I saw an analyst having several meetings with our bosses and thought: “Was she giving them notice?” She began clearing her desk and I soon learned from her that she was overwhelmed with the job and had accepted a more administrative oriented job. You can imagine how quickly I sprinted to my manager’s office asking for the job!
Meanwhile, I also tried to be proactive in networking with people in the field. I now had all the necessary clearances, so could market myself better. I managed to meet a guy called Andy who worked for an intelligence-centered contracting company. We had a good conversation, but luckily for me, by the time we met I had already secured my job. I continued the steadfast spirit though and kept in touch with Andy, giving him regular updates on my job and asking for tips. This is how it all came together at my first real analyst position.
18 months later, Andy introduced me to a friend of his who was looking for an analyst to work on the 9/11 Cases. I interviewed for the position, and I was quite frankly blown away by the historic and challenging work this team was doing. Not only that, but I was offered the job with a 25% higher salary than what I was already earning – this is the job I still work at now.
Overall, I went from being unemployed to making nearly double the salary I was earning at my miserable job. I finally made it to the type of work I’d always dreamed of doing, and I experienced these incredible life lessons in just over 2 years. I went from applying to hundreds of jobs and getting no where to landing the job of my dreams without filling out a single application. I truly believe I will never apply online, write a cover letter, or go to a job fair the rest of my life.
I know all this information is a lot to take in, and you probably won’t remember the small details which is fine. However, there are a few things I want you to take from my story: Firstly, life can be incredibly difficult, especially in Washington, D.C. Secondly, networking is key to having a successful career in this city, and regardless of whether you are in a terrible job or your dream job, you need professional contacts in your life. Finally, maintaining a steadfast spirit is very important because at some point in your career, you’re going to have a negative experience so you need to be able to bounce back.
I really appreciate you taking the time to read my full story. I hope that you will continue to browse the D.C. Hopefuls website and ultimately decide to develop the Steadfast Spirit in this organization.
I hope through my real story you understand that we all make mistakes and the key is to learn from them. We all have to grow and some have to get chopped to pieces before that growth can begin. Please continue using this site, read my blogs, interact with others by making comments, and try to absorb as much as you can.