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An internship is a temporary (8 to 16 weeks) position that offers on-the-job training. Most interns are college students or recent graduates, although some internships allow high school students or older adults. Internships provide employers with cheap or free labor for low-level tasks and the prospect of interns returning as employees. For many careers, but especially public policy, getting an internship is an essential first step to starting a career.
First of all, an internship allows you to explore whether a policy career is a good choice for a full-time career. You can also explore what kind of role is right for you, whether it’s policy research, communications, marketing, etc. Think about what roles you would consider for a career and then look for internships where you can begin to explore and build skills in those areas.
An internship also allows you to learn more about specific organizations where you may want to work in the future. By interning in that organization’s office for a few weeks, you will learn about the office environment and culture before you decide to apply for a permanent position.
Internships are a particularly good way to start building a network of contacts in the policy world. At your organization, you will get to know your immediate colleagues very well. They will (hopefully) think of you as an excellent, productive worker and will be willing to offer positive references to potential employers. In addition, you will have the opportunity to meet professionals and interns at other policy organizations who are doing similar work.
There are also bad reasons to get an internship. I frequently see applicants who only want to add a line to their résumé that looks prestigious or exciting. If this is your reason for wanting a policy internship, you are better off finding another kind of experience. Not only will your application be less persuasive, but even if you are accepted, you will not be totally committed to the experience and your colleagues will know it.
Finding the Right Type of Internship
After thinking about your specific career interests, the next step is to select the ideal internship role that will advance those goals. Are you interested in researching health care policy, or do you want experience in fundraising? Perhaps you’d like a role that does a little of both? If your career interests are broad, try to find a role that includes a wide range of duties, giving you exposure to several different career paths.
Large think tanks usually run well-established internship programs that host many interns in specialized roles, with each intern assigned to a different supervisor. These organizations are a good choice if your career interests are very specific. Because the organization is large, each policy scholar may have a dedicated research intern, and supporting departments may have dedicated interns as well. In particular, large think tanks are more likely to cover niche policy issues, like technology or foreign policy.
A smaller think tank will likely host fewer interns, who have the opportunity to work on multiple projects. If you’d like to explore policy research as well as some other think tank roles, a small organization’s internship might be the best fit. Smaller organizations may also offer more opportunities for publishing research in your own name.
Many policy organizations are located in the Washington, D.C., area, but prospective interns should consider organizations focusing on state policy as well. Politics and policy tend to be more accessible at the state level, so interns at state-based organizations may have more access to the political process than at national organizations. At state organizations, there is a higher potential that interns will see results of their efforts in policy success.
Some organizations allow interns to telecommute, but this should be avoided. Telecommuting interns may only interact with one or two people at the organization and thus miss out on the important social and networking aspects of working in the office.
To find particular organizations that match your interests, visit www.PolicyExperts.org, a directory of conservative and libertarian policy organizations. For organizations outside of D.C., look at the directory of State Policy Network organizations. Also visit the major liberty-oriented job banks to find intern positions.
In addition to scouting for an internship yourself, you can also apply to internship programs that offer placements at several policy organizations, along with other educational benefits. To maximize your chances of securing an internship, you can apply to these programs and pursue individual positions at the same time.
Applying and Getting Accepted
Application materials should be 100 percent professional: your résumé, cover letter, and any other materials should be polished and error-free. In addition, your materials should be well-informed and reflect good knowledge of the organization, its mission and activities, and the skills they are seeking. (See the previous section for more on résumés and cover letters.)
An internship may or may not indicate an application deadline, but regardless, there is an advantage to applying early. Early applicants usually have a better chance of success, plus the internship may already have been filled if you wait to apply. For a summer internship, the best time to scout for positions and apply is during the winter holidays.
During the application process, avoid asking questions unless you must. Internship program administrators receive more inquiries than they prefer, most of which are easily answered by examining the organization’s website. One exception: if you receive an internship offer, but would prefer another that you have not heard from, you should let the latter organization know about your situation and request an update on your application’s status.
Above all, be honest in your materials. Sometimes, you may be tempted to stretch the truth about your skills or interests in order to get the internship, but this strategy usually ends poorly. Lies tend to be obvious, but even if this results in an acceptance letter, the opportunity will probably not be a good fit with who you really are.
Making the Most of the Internship Experience
Before the internship starts, contact your supervisor and obtain more details about the work you’ll be doing. Find out about any preparation you can do in advance, such as background reading. Also get details about office policies, such as working hours, dress code, etc. The people at your organization may also be able to point you in the direction of convenient housing, although craigslist.org remains the best housing source in large cities.
During the internship, you must focus on creating value for your organization. At a basic level, this means doing an excellent job at the tasks you are assigned. Your work should be high-quality, thorough, and delivered on-time. If you’re not sure about the quality of your work, ask your supervisor for candid feedback about your performance. Excellent workers are noticed by their colleagues and are rewarded with good recommendations and access to an organization’s connections.
A common intern complaint is not having enough work to fill a 40- hour week. If this happens, ask your supervisor for additional tasks rather than waiting for him or her to notice you’re waiting. Better yet, think about what tasks might be valuable for that organization and ask your supervisor for permission to proceed. Be entrepreneurial: try to find new ways that you can contribute to the organization. At the same time, keep in mind that intern tasks will and should be low-level; you’re not in a position to change the organization or start a brand-new initiative. However, you can create value in small ways by looking for small tasks within your capabilities that will make the lives of your colleagues easier.
In addition to delivering high-quality work, be social with your colleagues. Your goal is to make people aware of your presence and sparkling personality, without being overbearing. For instance, you should accept opportunities to attend lunch or happy hours with the people at your organization. You should also attend events hosted by other organizations; these are great opportunities to meet people outside your organization.
You should also pursue one-on-one advice and mentoring from established professionals. First, identify scholars or other professionals who can offer you advice from their experience. Then ask if you can meet with them, perhaps for lunch. These people are busy, so they may politely turn you down. If your invitation is accepted, make sure to develop questions in advance, so you always have something to talk about.
Scott Barton is the director of online education at the Institute for Humane Studies, where he oversees talent development programs for aspiring policy analysts, nonprofit leaders, journalists, and filmmakers. Barton directed IHS’s Charles G. Koch Summer Fellow Program from 2006 to 2009. Prior working at IHS, he was a 2003 Koch Summer Fellow at the Washington Legal Foundation, where he researched and wrote papers on contemporary legal issues. Barton graduated from Grinnell College in 2004 with a B.A. in philosophy.
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