You are here: American University School of International Service Big World podcast Episode 27: How to Get an Internship in International Affairs

How to Get an Internship in International Affairs

A college graduate’s search for their first professional job is made a lot easier when they have a great internship or two on their résumé. In this episode, Shaine Cunningham, SIS director of career education and employer relations, joins Big World to share her insights on landing an internship in international affairs.

Cunningham discusses when students should start looking for internships for any given semester (1:30) and what types of experiences their résumés should highlight (2:49). She also discusses the value of transferable skills (4:50) as well as how to talk about one’s experiences during an interview for an internship (6:26).

Are there any particular skills that SIS students can acquire through their courses that can help them land internships (8:49)? Cunningham answers this question and explains what students can do to get their foot in the door at a government agency (13:37). She ends our episode by revealing the common mistakes to avoid when applying for an internship (17:20).

During our “Take Five” segment, Cunningham shares the five ways to get the most out of an internship experience (10:45).

0:07      Kay Summers: From the School of International Service at American University in Washington, this is Big World, where we talk about something in the world that really matters. When a college graduate looks for their first professional job, they inevitably run into the challenge of positions that all require some level of experience. The catch-22 of "how do I get experience without having any experience" never gets any easier, but it's more easily overcome when you have a great internship or two on your résumé. I'm Kay Summers, and I'm joined by Shaine Cunningham.

0:38      KS: Shaine is the director of career education and employer relations for the School of International Service. She heads up our Office of Career Development, and she has the distinction of being our first repeat guest on Big World. Shaine, thanks for joining our podcast for a record second time.

0:55      Shaine Cunningham: Thanks so much for having me, Kay.

0:57      KS: So you were with us, the first time, about a year ago, to talk about how to get a job in international affairs. So anyone listening who hasn't checked out that episode, I highly recommend it. Today though, we're talking about what comes before the job, the internship. Shaine, at the beginning of a semester or a new school year, for many students, their thoughts turn to what types of great professional experiences can they accrue that year. When should students start looking for internships for any given semester?

1:30      SC: So, general rule of thumb is a couple of months in advance of that semester. So for summer internships, most employers are going to be posting positions February to April and then those internships during the summer will run from June to early August. For the fall, you're going to want to be looking July to September, and then most of those internships will start first thing in September and go until early December. And then for spring, most employers are going to post positions online November to January, and a typical spring internship will run from January to late April.

2:02      SC: There are some employers like agencies in the IC, also some Fortune 500 companies that can do their hiring process six months to a year in advance. So I think it's important to always be aware of the market, whether you're looking for internships or jobs; that means, knowing where you want to work, keeping an eye on those organizations' websites, knowing where to look to find the right types of roles, and then you'll be the first one to know when they typically post new positions.

2:31      KS: And when students apply for internships, applications usually require a résumé. If they don't have prior work experience, and maybe this is the first time they're even putting together a résumé, what types of experiences should they include on those résumés for internships?

2:49      SC: That's a great question, Kay. Internships aren't necessarily looking for you to have already had other internships, or even any kind of work experience at all. They're looking for skillsets, for interest in an area and for general knowledge on a topic. Things you can include on your résumé are campus involvement, so if you're part of any clubs on campus, if you've participated in any type of competition, Model UN, if you are involved in any other types of activities. Also your coursework, just make sure that you focus on what you did. So instead of describing what you learned or what was in a syllabus, tell me how you learned it. You can also consider including volunteer experience you have. It doesn't have to be relevant to the position that you're applying for. Anything that you've done on your free time to give back to the community is going to make a positive impression with employers.

3:41      SC: And then also part and full-time jobs. It doesn't have to be relevant to the job that you want to get when you graduate, or even to the internship you're applying for. If you had a part time job one summer as a babysitter, or if you worked for a grocery store, think about the parts of those jobs that could be relevant, meaning the skills that you've used. To use relevant skills, we also call those transferable skills, meaning ones that can be applied to different types of roles and industries, it doesn't mean that the work itself had to be in the field that you eventually want to get into.

4:14      KS: And I was going to ask about that, about those part-time experiences that students might have working a retail job or babysitting or working at a pool or something like that because those experiences do show reliability. They show that you can show up for work on time. They show that you can work in a professional atmosphere and that you have, I guess what you would call those transferable skills of being able to live in a professional environment and that you have that base of what the employer is going to be looking for?

4:50      SC: Definitely. I think transferable skills is key here, right? So skills that you're developing in one type of position that can be applied across a whole bunch of others. It also includes things like teamwork, customer service. Let's say that you want to go into a client- facing role and you want to intern with Albright Stonebridge Group, or Eurasia Group, so big private sector organizations offering consulting services to all types of clients across nonprofit, government, and other private sector organizations. They're looking for people that can build relationships. So if you were working as a cashier at a grocery store, my guess is that you had a lot of experience with customer service, representing the organization to every person that came through your checkout queue on a daily basis. The way that you talk about that experience can really highlight not the fact that you were a cashier and responsible for ringing people up, but the fact that you, on a regular basis, were building relationships on behalf of the organization and making sure that customers had a positive experience. That's going to be desirable to the organization, regardless of what that previous role might've been.

6:05      KS: Right. I really do think there's no better training for the work world than being in one of those forward-facing customer service jobs early on. It just really teaches you a lot. Shaine, pivoting back to the classroom, how should our students expect to talk about their class experiences and their campus involvement during an interview for an internship or maybe on their résumé?

6:26      SC: I think it all comes down to identifying what the employer is looking for. And I know this can be tough with internships because sometimes the job descriptions they give you online that you're applying for are pretty general. So think about what you think is going to help someone succeed and stand out in that role. Make a list of the skills that you think the employer is going to be looking for and then think through all of the different experiences you've had. Sometimes it helps to start with a reverse chronological list of the different things you've done. And come up with a set of examples ahead of time of how you've used the skills that the organization is looking for across all of those roles.

7:06      SC: In my office, we talk a lot about STAR, the STAR method. STAR stands for Situation, Task, Action, and Result. And the idea is that you're going to have a beginning, a middle, and an end to all of those different examples. You think it through—what was the situation, the setting that you were in? And then the task—what was the problem that you were faced with? Think about the action. This is the most important part, what you actually did, how you use the skill that the employer is looking for to carry out a task.

7:35      SC: And then you talk about the results. So what happened because of you? What was the impact? Bonus points if you can talk about accomplishments. Again, talk about those transferable skills: teamwork, communication, customer service or relationship building. And make sure that you're using facts and figures to describe your work. So if you talk about how you did something on a regular basis, tell them how much of that thing did you do. If you were working with people at a front desk, how many people were you greeting on a daily basis or on a weekly basis?

8:07      SC: It doesn't mean that you've done something better or worse. If you are taking an hour and 30 minutes to help five people on a daily basis troubleshoot their problems and get to a solution, that just says something very different than you were answering phone calls and responding to emails from over a hundred people on a daily basis. So you just want to make sure that you're giving them enough information to understand the context, and why what you did was so important.

8:36      KS: When we think about the classwork that students are doing, do you think there are any particular skills that students can acquire through their SIS courses that can help them land internships?

8:49      SC: Absolutely. Again, make sure that the focus is on how you learned whatever that piece of knowledge is, not on the fact that you learned it or that you were taught it. Skills that you can highlight from your classes include research and analysis. Those are huge for international affairs jobs. Also, teamwork, leadership. So if you were nominated by your team for a group project to be the liaison with the professor or with a client, that's something to talk about. Also, if you were just working with a team, delegating out assignments and then working together, collaborating to produce the final project, I think that that's something really important to be able to convey. Also data visualization, working with numbers. I know that our students aren't always big fans of economics or of stats classes, but they teach you really important quantitative skills that employers are looking for.

9:44      SC: Communication is huge. Almost every organization we talk to is looking for communication skills. And this includes writing, speaking. So think about the times that you presented in class, think about all of the papers you've written and what types of papers those are. Are they long research papers? Are they short memos or briefs? Think about simply conveying your thoughts during a class discussion. Those are all parts of communication that can be really helpful in a workplace.

10:10      SC: And then finally, industry knowledge. Again, the important thing here is that you're talking not about the fact that you have the industry knowledge, but how you gained it. So did you look at a bunch of information across publications on a certain topic, and then compile that information into a final report where you were synthesizing or summarizing everything you learned. Make sure that the focus is on how you learned it, not the fact that you just learned it.

10:45      KS: Shaine Cunningham, it's time to take five, time to wave a wand and reorder the world as you'd like it to be. Once you've got that internship, you confront the next question. How do I get as much value as I can out of this, while still serving as an asset to the team I'm assisting. So please, what are the five ways to get the most out of an internship experience?

11:08      SC: Number one, expand your knowledge. I think an internship is a great opportunity to connect classroom learning with real world application. So figure out those theories that you talked about in class, how they actually apply in a work setting.

11:22      SC: Number two, building new skills. This is your opportunity to fill in gaps in your résumé and to make yourself more marketable for the jobs that you want upon graduation. Don't be afraid to ask for more. After you've completed the basic assignments you were responsible for, figure out what is it that would be most interesting to you, or that would help you build that skill that would make you stand out to employers in the future, and talk to your supervisor about taking on a new project that would give you those experiences and opportunities.

11:50      SC: Number three, learn about office culture and workplace practices. A lot of organizations are expecting people upon graduation to know what it's like to work in an office setting and to have basic professional etiquette down. This is your chance to see what it's like to exchange emails in a professional setting, to wear business professional clothing on a regular basis, to interact with people in a professional setting in a professional way.

12:16      SC: Number four, look for connections. Your foot is already in the door, so this is your chance to set up informational interviews. Ask your supervisor or a colleague to help you set up conversations with other people on your team and off of it. Learn about what they do, how they got there, and take this as a great opportunity to expand your professional network in an organization and possibly a field that you might work for someday.

12:41      SC: And number five, ask for feedback. I know it can be challenging to be evaluated or critiqued based on your performance, but this is a great opportunity to learn and to grow. So at the end, and honestly, even before that, in the middle and throughout an internship, ask for feedback from your supervisor and your colleagues. Find out how you're doing and ways to improve and look for opportunities to make the most of it. These people can later on be used as references when you're applying for jobs and are just included as part of that expanding professional network that you're building.

13:12      KS: Fantastic. Thank you.

13:21      KS: Shaine, we know that a lot of our SIS students, they want internships at government agencies. It's really a goal of theirs, but these are hard to get. So what should students do to learn more about these types of opportunities, and to more importantly, get their foot in the door?

13:37      SC: I think it's important to check organizations' websites for program descriptions and hiring timelines. Most federal agencies are going to have something on their website about their internship program. The federal government in general has the Pathways Program, which actually consists of three separate programs: internships, their recent graduates program, and the Presidential Management Fellows Program. The latter two are designed for people who have already graduated, but the internship program is definitely something to check out. And there are opportunities across a lot of different federal agencies. Also, the Virtual Student Federal Service program. Students that participate in this program can work on a variety of projects, advancing the work of government on multiple fronts. Students in the past have helped with countering violent extremism, strengthening human rights monitoring, developing virtual programs, engaging in digital communications, economic and political reporting, data analysis, and much more. You can intern from wherever you are and on your schedule, which I think works really well considering that students have a lot of things going on and if you're looking to get your foot in the door with government, it can be tough. These positions give you a chance to do that while maybe you are also interning somewhere else. Or if you are studying abroad for a semester, wherever you might be that you're working remotely and need to participate in something like this.

15:09      SC: So again, you can choose from projects from a wide variety of agencies. There's a lot of flexibility there. And they usually post those positions again, a couple of months in advance. So it's helpful to do your research ahead of time, go to the organization's website on a regular basis. Again, that one is the Virtual Student Federal Service program, and just be aware of when their application open dates are going to take place.

15:33      SC: I think something else really important to do when it comes to landing an internship in government, is networking. The best way to learn about an internship or a job is to talk to someone who's doing it. So chat with your friends, figure out who has secured one of these coveted government internships, and how did they get it, right? Before you even get your foot in the door, there's nothing stopping you from finding alumni that are on LinkedIn, say that they work for a government agency, and then reaching out to them. Setting up an informational interview, which could be in person, over the phone, or by Skype. And building up your network of people that are working in the field you want to get into before you even get your foot in the door. These people aren't going to necessarily give you a job because of nepotism—because they know you—but if there are a bunch of strangers applying for a position and then someone that they know, a name that they recognize, chances are that they'll be able to say, "Hey, I know that person, I have a positive impression of that person, and I know that they're very interested in this type of role. We should definitely interview them and see if they would be a good fit."

16:35      SC: So, being aware of what's out there, where you want to work, and making sure that you're building up your network—making sure that you have the best, most updated information about what opportunities are available, and how other people made this happen for themselves. I think those are two really important ways that you can help yourself get an internship in government.

16:55      KS: Shaine, This is our last question, and I think it might be our most important question. This is always the fun one too. What are the common mistakes that students make when applying for internships, and what should applicants avoid? And I should say, it's the fun question for people who are on the front side of it. It's not the fun question when you've actually made the mistake, but we've got people who are trying to avoid those mistakes. So what do they look out for? What are the common mistakes?

17:20      SC: Number one, not tailoring your résumé and cover letter for the position. That's a big mistake. Again, if you have even 10 other people applying for the same role, that's 10 other people that you're competing with. So you want to stand out for all the right reasons. If the person reading your résumé and cover letter is looking for a certain skill set, and they have to take the time to figure out what is this person talking about and how does it relate to me, they're probably not going to be as quick to call you in for an interview. Versus, if you've taken the time to already connect those dots for them, it's going to make it really easy for them to say, "Wow, every single bullet point talks about a skill that I'm looking for. I definitely want to learn more about this person. I'm going to call them in."

18:03      SC: Also, not proofreading. Your résumé and your cover letter are the first impression that an organization is going to have of you, so you want to make sure that you're showing them that you have great attention to detail, that you're polished and professional, and that you stand out, again, for all the right reasons because you have the skills, the knowledge and the abilities to do the job that they have on their team.

18:26      SC: Also, not networking, I think, is a mistake. Just assuming that applying through an online portal is going to be enough. The international affairs community is a very small community in DC and outside of it. So, building your network of people that work in the organizations and in the field that you want to get into before it's time to apply. This is going to help not only create a support network for you, to support you through the process but also is going to give you important insight into what those organizations are actually looking for in top candidates.

18:58      SC: Also, not applying to enough positions. I know we all have that dream organization, that dream internship that we really want to get, but try to keep an open mind. See if there are other organizations that do similar types of work that might offer an alternate path to that dream job that you want to get when you graduate, or it might even help you ultimately get your foot in the door for the next position—that dream internship that you really want to get.

19:23      SC: And then finally, not planning ahead. I meet with too many students who have waited until their very last semester to secure an internship. And that just puts extra pressure on you to have to find that perfect role to fill in all of these gaps and help you put the pieces together to make yourself marketable for jobs upon graduation. Start thinking about internships as soon as you start your program. Or, if you've already started your program, right now. Again, there's no reason that you can't be looking and keeping your fingers on the pulse of what's happening in the field with internships. Find out what are the hiring timelines, where are the places I want to work? And that way, when that great position comes open, you'll be ready to apply for it.

20:05      KS: Shaine, I think that point about not tying yourself down to just one thing that you think you have to get, and casting a wide net is so important because this is also a time of learning. And you may think you know exactly what's going to make you happy as a professional, but sometimes it's those unexpected experiences where you learn something, or you learn about a different type of work and come away thinking that's really it for me. I think part of it is if they do more than one internship over the course of their time, and they have the opportunity to have those different experiences and cast a wider net, ultimately they have an opportunity to be more satisfied with where they finally land in their career path, yes?

20:51      SC: Definitely. There's never going to be an easier time to get new experience, to build your skillset, expand your knowledge as an intern than when you're a student. So take advantage of it because as soon as you graduate, internships are really hard to come by, and the opportunities that they offer you are just not going to have the same impact on your ability to make decisions and shift into a career path that you really love.

21:18      KS: Shaine, thank you for joining Big World and speaking with me about how to get an internship. I wish I had a resource like the one you provide when I was in college. And I hope that all of our SIS students seek out your office's help in their internship search.

21:34      SC: Thank you, Kay. It's been great being here and chatting with you, and I hope to hear from as many students as possible. We love what we do, and we enjoy being able to support students, helping them realize their goals and then achieve them.

21:48      KS: Big World is a production of the School of International Service at American University. Our podcast is available on our website, on iTunes, Spotify, and wherever else you listen to podcasts. If you leave us a good rating or a review, it'll be like getting a new pencil case when you start the school year. Our theme music is "It Was Just Cold" by Andrew Codeman. Until next time.

Episode Guest

Shaine (Melnick) Cunningham,
director of career education and employer relations, SIS

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