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government internships: Woman sitting in front of the United States Congress Capitol building

Government Internships: What You Need To Know To Intern for Uncle Sam

by | Mar 8, 2021 | Internships

According to the Department of Labor, the federal government is the largest employer in the United States. And while that statistic might perk up the political science students in the room, there are opportunities for everyone in public service.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics — yet another federal agency you could work for — states that our government offers more than 350 different roles and employs more than 2 million people. If you want a piece of that employment pie, the best thing you can do is get in early with a government internship.

There’s a lot of competition for government internships and job opportunities. But if you start as a student intern, it can help you make the connections and gain the work experience you need to land a job after you graduate.

Here’s a look at the types of government internships you can apply for, plus what you can do to make your application stand out.

Types of Government Internships

government internships: Image of the Capitol Building in Washington DC

When you imagine interning for the government, you might picture yourself at the Department of State, Federal Bureau of Investigations, or Central Intelligence Agency. While you can find internship opportunities with all three, federal agencies aren’t the only places offering government internships.

There are student internships on the federal, state, and local levels. You can often learn as much with a local internship as you can with a federal internship, so don’t dismiss local programs. Here are the internship opportunities to look for at each level.

Federal Government Internships

The federal government’s student programs are part of the Pathways Program — so called because it offers three different pathways that students can follow to start a career in the federal government. The three paths are:

1. Internship Program

The federal government offers paid, part-time and full-time internships for high school, trade school, college, and graduate students. The exact requirements vary depending on the internship position. But, the job description will specify what type of education the role requires and what type of work you’ll do while you’re there.

The federal internship program is a great way to try out a career in civil service before you commit. If you excel in your internship, your department can “convert” you into a full-time employee — that’s government lingo for, “You’re hired!” But, you won’t be eligible for a full-time employment opportunity until you’ve worked between 320 and 640 hours as an intern (roughly 8-16 weeks of full-time work). That should give you plenty of time to decide whether the career is right for you.

If you don’t love your internship experience, you’ll be able to gracefully bow out at the end of the term and pursue other internship opportunities before you graduate.

2. Recent Graduate Program

If you’re no longer in school, you can get your foot in the door with the Recent Graduate Program. This is a year-long career development and education program. Again, your exact responsibilities will depend on the role you apply for, but with any recent graduate position, you’ll receive a personal development plan, 40 hours of formal training, and mentorship throughout the program.

These rolls are full-time and salaried. So in many ways, this program is similar to your standard entry-level job, but with two exceptions: You’re guaranteed extensive training, and you’re not guaranteed employment after your first year.

This allows the government agency to make sure you do good work before they offer you long-term employment. And it allows you to make sure you like the job before you accept long-term employment. If, after a year, you decide the role isn’t for you, in future job interviews, you can explain your departure by saying that you completed your contract.

To qualify for the Recent Graduate Program, you need to have earned your degree or certificate within the last two years. Any level of education above high school will qualify, including an associate’s degree, bachelor’s degree, master’s degree, Ph.D., trade school degree, or vocational certificate.

3. Presidential Management Fellows (PMF) Program

Students who have just completed or are about to complete their graduate degree can apply for the PMF program. This two-year program helps develop the best and the brightest for future leadership roles in the government.

The program is extremely competitive, but if you earn a spot, you’ll receive senior-level mentorship, 80 hours of training during each year of the program, and a personal development plan.

To qualify, you need a master’s degree, Ph.D., or professional degree (like a law degree), and you need to have graduated within the last two years.

State Government Internships 

Most state governments are like the federal government in miniature. And like the federal government, states need talent in a variety of fields.

State governments are a little more likely to offer unpaid internships. (Federal internships only recently switched to a paid model.) They’re also likely to work with state educational institutions to fill their internship positions. Many states offer fall, spring, and summer internships to line up with university semesters.

Every state’s internship program is a little different. To find the specifics for your state, head to your state government’s website.

​Local Government Internships

Not every student lives near Washington, D.C., or their state capital. But, even the smallest hometowns have a government — and potentially, government internships to go along with it.

Check your city and county’s official government websites for information. If you don’t find anything, head down to your city hall to ask about internship opportunities.

You can also reach out to your local Congressperson and inquire about internships in their office. Even if there are no formal programs available, you may be able to create your own volunteer internship by asking around. When it comes to government work, a little tenacity goes a long way.

Where To Find Internship Opportunities

government internships: Pasadena City Hall sign

You can find federal internship opportunities on USAJOBS. Federal agencies put together requests for interns and send them to the Office of Personnel Management or OPM. (Imagine a giant HR department for the entire federal government.)

OPM posts the jobs on USAJOBS, reviews applications, and facilitates the hiring process. But while most federal internships appear on USAJOBS, some agencies run their own programs, like the FBI’s honors internship program. So, make sure you also check the websites of the federal agencies you’re interested in.

Most federal government internships are located in Washington, D.C. However, there are also positions in other major metropolitan areas, like New York.

For state and local internship opportunities, check your state, county, and city government websites. And for additional resources, check with your educational institution.

Your university might be able to help you land a government internship. Universities often work closely with local businesses and government agencies.

So, if you’re going to Georgetown or American University, they should be able to help you find an internship in Washington, D.C. If your university is located in your state capital, like Florida State University or the University of Wisconsin–Madison, they’ll likely have connections with state government internship programs. Consult with your advisor or make an appointment with your university’s careers center to learn how they can help with your applications.

Who Should Apply for Government Internships

In short, everyone. The government offers internships ranging from law enforcement to human resources to information technology. Anyone can apply, including high school, trade school, and college students. And there are multiple government programs for recent graduates and master’s degree students. With the abundance of opportunities, the only thing standing in your way is that “apply” button.

Intern for America

Woman's hand holding USA flags

A government internship could be your first step toward a long and fulfilling career in civil service. But, before you can get started, you have to land a spot in a federal, state, or local government internship program.

You should expect a competitive application process, but if you put together a strong resume, prepare for your interview, and follow up, you’ll have a better chance than most.

Head to USAJOBS to see the government internships that are available. Then, trust Scholars — the largest hub of career information for students and recent grads — to give you the advice you need to succeed.

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The Report Card: January 2021

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