Tips for Finding Policy-based Internships

Perhaps one of the more difficult aspects of being a college student is looking for  summer internship opportunities. Furthermore, as I discovered this year in my own search for something to do this summer, there can often be unique challenges for students who are primarily interested in public policy. As a (prospective) economics major, it often felt like no matter how hard I searched on Handshake, nearly every internship that I found was in finance or investment banking. While these were undoubtedly interesting opportunities, this was a little disappointing to me as I was hoping that I would be able to use the summer to explore policy and economics research, and maybe even get a better understanding of possible career paths. 

My initially discouraging internship search notwithstanding, be assured that these kinds of internships do exist. I myself was fortunate enough to find and eventually participate in such an opportunity– but only after I began to approach my search in a different way.

Talking to a graduate student or post-doc

One of the most important things I did was email the preceptor of my economics class. This might seem strange; after all, why would a graduate student know about summer opportunities or research for undergraduate students, especially for one who is only in his second year? Nonetheless, it was really helpful for me in terms of understanding his mindset when he was an undergraduate student. While he did not have specific advice for me, it was invaluable to learn about the path that he ended up taking through college and how he made sure he was prepared for each step of his journey (as well as some of the mistakes he made) in terms of which courses and skills he found the most important for his internships and research and how he built on them. For example, he advised me to try to learn how to use Stata and R (two programs commonly used for statistical analysis) as early as possible as they are often used in internships and would greatly add to the value that I can provide as an intern while being relatively easy to learn. He also advised me to continue taking mathematics courses in fields like real analysis that are beyond what Princeton requires in economics (even for students who are more math-based) as he found these courses really useful as he pursued a Ph.D. Getting this kind of “birds eye view” of his trajectory was really amazing, and I highly recommend any of my fellow students to reach out to our older counterparts and learn from their experiences.

Keeping an Open Mind

It is also important to keep an open mind. In my case, when I started searching I had a pretty narrow idea of what would count as a good policy internship in economics. I hoped specifically to get an internship at some government agency or think tank. However, my search for summer internships became much more productive once I decided to cast a wider net and I started talking to my academic adviser. While he did not know too much about opportunities in traditional economic fields by virtue of being a physicist, this actually proved to be helpful, as he was able to point me in the direction of some more unorthodox applications of economic analysis. For instance, he gave me the idea of looking for an internship at C-PREE (the Center for Policy Research on Energy and the Environment), which he had heard employed researchers working on environmentally-focused economic analyses. Without his suggestion, I would likely have completely glossed over this organization, thinking that it was more for engineers or environmental scientists. As it turned out, C-PREE is where I will be interning this summer!

The logo for C-PREE where I will be interning this summer!

Contacting Organizations

My final piece of advice is to contact organizations you are interested in working with, even if a certain opportunity feels out of reach. In my case, at C-PREE, most work is done by grad students and post-docs, and there are no formal internship opportunities for undergraduate students. When I first learned about this, I was left somewhat discouraged. Still, I decided to send an email to Keely Swan, the assistant director of C-PREE (for those who are nervous about writing such emails, please see our recent post on it). She even worked with me to help procure funding for it (we have another helpful post on finding funding for unpaid internships). To my surprise, she immediately agreed to put me in contact with one of the researchers there, with whom I am going to be working. Thus, while it might not always work as well as it did in this case, it definitely does not hurt to try, and if it works it will most certainly be worth it.

Finding policy based internships can often be difficult or disheartening, but with a little unorthodox thinking, it can be done. Hopefully, with these tips, your process for finding a summer internship will be a little easier.

– Abhimanyu Banerjee, Social Sciences Correspondent