How to Secure Your Dream Policy School Internship

Guest Post from Connie, consultant for The Art of Applying

4 Tips for Winning the Policy School Internship Game

When I was applying to policy school, I daydreamed a lot. Between cramming for the GRE and drafting personal statements, I would browse school websites, look at glossy pictures of alumni, and I imagined myself at my MPP internship or first job.

In my daydreams, I would be working somewhere glamorous like the United Nations (UN) or somewhere intensely policy wonky like the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), brushing shoulders with key policy makers in the halls of power.

If you’re applying to policy school, you dream of changing the world. The summer internship between your first and second year can help you reach your goals. You can learn a new skill, enter a new sector, and even find a full-time job.

Good internship opportunities don’t fall from the sky, though. You have to seek them out with support from your school. Thanks to hard work, good advisors, and some luck, I ended up with four internship offers on three different continents, and had my pick of internationally renowned organizations like the United Nations and the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Here’s how I did it.

How to get the summer internship of your dreams:
Network, Compensation, Focus,
and Determination

Tip #1: Apply to policy schools with a strong alumni network

A school’s alumni network might possibly be the most valuable asset you gain from your degree, so look for schools that have a strong alumni network. My Assistant Dean of Career Services helped me set up Skype and phone calls with alumni who had worked at every organization I was interested in. To make the most of our appointments, I came prepared with a list of organizations that I was interested in, and we went through it one by one to identify alumni or even current students who had interned or worked there. She even suggested similar additions to my list based on her experiences with other students. I talked to second-year students who had done the same internship, and even professors who had contacts at local policy think tanks.

Everyone was extraordinarily helpful in referring me to the right people and giving me the advice I needed. When it comes to using networking to get a job or internship, younger policy schools can be at a slight disadvantage, since they have a smaller network, but if an alum is enthusiastic about the education they received, they will also be enthusiastic to help you out. Since many jobs and opportunities can come your way through your school’s network, make sure you go to a school with a strong one!

Tip #2: Apply to policy schools with internship funds

Some internships are paid, but many public policy internships are unpaid. If you want to intern at a government agency, NGO, or nonprofit, they may be unfunded internships. For example, State Department internships are entirely unfunded.

Fortunately, some schools make it easy for you to accept the internship you want, regardless of what it pays. Schools like Duke SanfordBerkeley Goldman, and Harvard Kennedy School provide unpaid internship funds for its students. The amount and the policies for applying for and securing such funds vary from school to school or even from year to year. Getting summer internship funding can be a big help in covering your living and transportation expenses. The grant or stipend you receive may even include your cost of living. Be sure to research whether your dream schools offer summer internship funding!

Tip #3: Have a clear focus for your policy school internship

Knowing what you want out of the summer internship experience can help you have a productive, interesting, and memorable summer. Some things to think about are:

Do you want to intern there with the goal of securing a full-time job there?

Do you want to learn content knowledge from experts?

Do you want to practice your new quant skills or do first-hand fieldwork?

I was thrilled to receive an offer from the Beijing office of the UN’s International Labor Organization (ILO), but I felt deflated when I found out that the role was mostly administrative work, translating documents from Chinese to English and taking meeting notes. With that position, I would learn more about labor policy in China, but I knew I really wanted to learn a new skill or gain more quantitative experience. Most organizations that care about offering a good internship experience will ask you what you want out of it too, so figure out what you want to learn and how you want to contribute, and then be brave enough ask for it!

Tip #4: Be determined and persistent

Once you figure out what you want from your internship, you need to go after it with real determination, and not give up until you get a solid yes or no. I was very interested the OECD, a prestigious Parisian think tank.

Though there was no internship listed, I sought out three current students and alumni who had interned and worked there, interviewed current staff by Skype, and sent a dozen emails starting in December.

Through my emails, I relayed my request directly and politely, acknowledged their busy schedule, and added any deadlines or relevant details. It was almost May before the director came back to me with an offer, but it did finally happen!

Here is an example of the check-in emails I sent:

Hello Mr. ____,

I would like to check in once more about the status of my application. I understand your busy schedule but would much appreciate a timely response about the possibility of a summer internship with your team. I must make my decision on my summer commitment by March 30, and remain interested in working with the OECD. Thank you in advance for your consideration and time.

Very respectfully,
Connie Ma

You really can create your own opportunities if you are persistent and make your case. Best of luck out there getting your dream internship!


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