Starting Your Search for a Foreign Policy Internship

By Miriam Roday | February 1, 2023 | Photo credit: Gage Skidmore, Flickr

As a young professional, you have probably experienced pressure to find the “right” internship—one that attracts the attention of future employers and sets you apart from your ambitious peers. Finding that internship, however, is especially challenging in a field like foreign policy that encompasses a range of jobs spanning the public and private sectors. The barriers to entry—from the research and think tank spheres to the classic government bureaucracy—seem high. It’s not immediately clear how to break into this space or even where to start your search.

If you’re also wondering whether your studies of political science, military history, or International Relations theory in the classroom will translate into a formal internship in the workplace, they will. There are a myriad of internship opportunities that exist, specifically in Washington D.C., that will give you insight into the field of foreign policy: how it works, who the key players are, and which issues you should know about. You’ll find that these jobs will enrich and drive your academic pursuits. (Some are even paid!)

To start, consider the following paths.

Think Tanks

One of the best internships you can secure early in your career is at a think tank. These organizations focus on a set of public policy issues and are staffed by scholars who generate analysis, draw out the domestic and global implications, and channel those insights to leaders in government, grass-roots organizations, and the private sector. You can find some of the top think tanks here.

As an intern, you’ll have a range of responsibilities, but most will involve tracking those issues and supporting the research staff, or fellows. You’ll collect, organize, and analyze data, and often produce preliminary findings that serve as the foundation for external publications (reports, briefing papers, op-eds). In the process, you’ll engage directly with leading experts in the field, helping them think about the most pressing issues of the day. Some of those issues may coincide with those being discussed in your classroom, like, how should the international community respond to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine? Or, what impact will climate change have on the global security environment in the next decade? (You’re better prepared for the job if you wrestle with these types of questions in your academic writings and stay up-to-date on current events.)

Every think tank’s goal is to bridge the gap between knowledge and policy. That’s why interning at a think tank is critical for those who want to pursue a career in government. These organizations provide the intellectual fodder and informed analysis that guides policymakers and educates the public on the largest global challenges we face today. Not only will you understand the issues more deeply, but you’ll be trained on how to best frame those problems in order to offer actionable policy recommendations to senior decision-makers. The ability to synthesize information and tailor it for specific audiences in a sharp and concise way is an invaluable skill that will serve you throughout your career.

Capitol Hill

For those who want to be in “the room where it happens,” Capitol Hill is a great place to start. It’s the quickest introduction to the rules and rhythms of the D.C. establishment. You’ll learn about the key players and how their equities and goals drive all legislation. You’ll witness how Congress influences domestic and foreign policy, mostly as it interacts with other parts of the federal government.

There are two types of internships you can apply for on the Hill. The first is a Member office. You work directly for a Congressman or woman. You can find openings here. You’re a stronger candidate if you reside in the state they represent. If you want to work for someone from another state, try to leverage your connections; the easiest entry point is leaning on people in your life who have ties to that state. Most work days will consist of running the front office, which includes fielding calls from constituents, sorting and responding to mail, attending hearings, and preparing memos for staff. You may also have the opportunity to contribute to various research projects and support the Senator or Representative’s schedule.

The other internship is working on a Congressional Committee. There are many committees in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, each with their own jurisdiction over, for example, foreign affairs, appropriations, homeland security, and science, space, and technology. These internships involve more substantive research. They’re not always publicly advertised, and can be difficult to qualify for without an advanced degree or connection to the office. But if you intern on a congressional committee, you’ll see, this is where the real policy work happens. Laws that determine the direction of U.S. foreign policy and national defense are written in these committees. As an intern, you’ll track major legislation, conduct legal research, and write memos, letters, and reports. You’ll also prepare for hearings and events, sometimes developing research or even talking points for the Members themselves. Both internships will give you a baseline understanding of the legal and policymaking worlds.

Perhaps the biggest lesson you’ll learn is the importance of relationships. You find out about other job opportunities, inside the halls of Congress and out, if you create a wide network. Remember—conversation on the Hill is your currency; you only stay in the know if you pass and receive information about the work you’re doing to your closest confidantes. Throughout your internship, attend as many networking events as possible to meet others on similar career paths. If you form a robust network, these connections will serve you in future job searches and in the years to come.

Government Agencies

Working for a U.S. government agency may seem like the hardest internship to land, especially for jobs related to defense. The national security apparatus is, after all, designed to look like an impenetrable fortress, and knowledge is closely held. There are, however, programs that allow students to work at government agencies and explore Federal careers while they’re in school. You can find some on USAJOBS. In addition to being highly competitive, they often require U.S. citizenship, a minimum GPA, and/or the ability to obtain and hold a security clearance. These applications are typically due earlier than other organizations, so pay attention to deadlines!

If and when you secure the job, you’ll get an unvarnished look into how the federal government operates. In any given office, you’ll assist with various projects to advance the agency’s overall mission. This may include attending meetings or conferences, writing summaries, and coordinating the flow of information to senior leadership. With a State Department internship, for example, you might arrange official consultations and prepare briefing materials for those meetings and high-level visits. When you work inside any executive branch agency, you learn the pace and size of the government bureaucracy. You see how “pushing paper” leads to enacting laws, and the interconnectedness of the whole enterprise. In addition to the exposure you get to processes and people, you may also be eligible to convert your internship into a full-time position once it’s over.

While the hype around finding the “right” internship is a bit exaggerated, the value cannot be overstated. Internships offer you the chance to experiment and course correct. They are critical to discovering important insights about yourself that shape and often determine your long-term career trajectory. Ultimately, these positions can animate passions, validate the kind of work you always thought you wanted to do, and even bring you to new, unexpected places.

Miriam Roday is an Assistant Managing Editor in the Rising Experts Program at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy. Miriam secured her first internship on Capitol Hill at the age of 19. She served on several congressional committees as a summer intern/law clerk, including with Senate Judiciary, and Homeland Security & Governmental Affairs, and the House Ways and Means Committee. Throughout her undergraduate studies, she also interned in the legal department with the International Crisis Group, and spent a summer at Stanford University interning for Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice at the Hoover Institution. Miriam is a researcher with the Joint Advanced Warfighting Division at the Institute for Defense Analyses in Alexandria, VA.

The opinions expressed here should not be construed as representing the official position of the Institute for Defense Analyses, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.