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Insider Tips for Finding a Washington Internship

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Washington D.C.

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Talk to just about anybody who has had an internship in Washington, D.C., and they’ll tell you the experience was life-changing. Every year, and particularly in the summer, around 40,000 college students and recent grads flock to the nation’s capital. They get a closeup view of how government operates, acquire work experience, build their resumes and have fun.

One thriving young lawyer/lobbyist says of his internship experience, “It’s a great way to test the waters, meet people and get a feel for Washington. You can’t read about this city; you really have to experience it. It’s a big reason I ended up here.”

Although most internships are unpaid, competition for them is fierce. If you’re thinking about an internship for this summer, you’d better get moving. The application deadline for many summer programs is March 15th.

Consider these tips as you start your search:

1. Look at structured programs

Universities, government agencies and foundations offer programs that sometimes provide college credit, paid work or access to housing. A starting point for federal opportunities is USAJOBS. In addition, over the last 35 years, The Washington Center for Internships and Academic Seminars has placed more than 50,000 interns in countless fields, including journalism, law and education.

2. Talk to your congressional delegation

There’s no central clearinghouse for internships on Capitol Hill. Decisions are made by each senator and representative, and most acknowledge a preference for residents from their own state or district. So get in touch with the members of Congress who represent you. You’ll find their phone numbers on Contacting the Congress.

3. Cast a wide net

Slots are limited and competition is intense for congressional internships and most of the formal programs. But many folks look elsewhere. Non-governmental offices—like think tanks, associations and trade groups—open their doors to interns throughout the year. Often arrangements are informal, and sometimes internships are created just because a promising candidate makes a good case.

Even if your desire is to learn about Congress, keep in mind that thousands of businesses, organizations and interest groups maintain Washington offices dedicated to watching every congressional move.

4. Network, network, network

Think about your hometown utility companies, your university, the company that runs a nearby hospital and any good-sized business in your state. Chances are many of them have Washington offices, or at least have contacts in the capitol through their trade associations, professional groups or consultants. Start locally, and approach anybody you can think of who might know somebody in Washington.

A few years ago, a 20-year-old named Lara Pierpoint had her first internship with the National Academy of Science. Now she has her Ph.D. and is on her third tour in Washington, working in the Senate through a fellowship with the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Her advice is, “Use connections. If you can get a professor or family friend to introduce you and pass your resume to someone in D.C., that will give you the best chance of rising above the pack and, in some cases, could create an internship opportunity where there might not have been one.”

5. Show off with email

Whether you’re talking about government officials, lobbyists or journalists, most Washingtonians communicate constantly through email. When possible, track down individual email addresses. Use them to make your first approach, then continue the dialogue if you can. While it’s nice if you allow your personality to show, it’s vital that your messages be prompt, brief, well-written and error-free. And be sure to say “thank you” for every bit of help.

Beverly Jones is an executive coach in Washington, D.C. with clients including government agencies, congressional offices, trade associations, universities, lawyers, lobbyists and journalists. See more at www.clearwaysconsulting.com.

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