The Virtual Student Federal Service (VSFS) program enables university students to intern for a wide variety of federal agencies – from the CDC and the NIH to the military and the intelligence community. In addition to testing your fit for US policy work, internships can be an excellent way to build initial public sector career capital while connecting with potential employers.
The program caters to a wide variety of backgrounds and is generally open to all majors, with specific projects ranging from data analysis and graphic design to marketing and compiling educational content. The internship is quite flexible and runs entirely remotely for nine months on a part-time basis (7-10 hours/week). While the internships are eligible for university course credit, the opportunity itself is unfortunately unpaid.
The application window is generally open for the month July, with hundreds of open positions posted at beginning of the month. We encourage EAs who would like to gather first experiences in the US government to look into this program to see if they might be a good fit. Since 2009 more than 10,000 college students have participated in VSFS – both the VSFS LinkedIn page and this unofficial discord channel can be useful to connect with program alums.
If you are interested in applying and want to talk to program alums or receive other kinds of support related to working in US policy, you can fill out this brief survey.
This post will cover the specific eligibility requirements, outline some experiences in the program, and give a broad overview of the application process. It’s informed by my personal experiences in the program.
Who is eligible?
Internship applicants must be US citizens, have graduated from high school, and be enrolled in higher education both at the time of application and during participation in the program. While enrollment in higher education is mandatory, both half-time and full-time enrollment is permitted, and the opportunity is open to undergraduate, graduate as well as post-graduate students.
The VSFS program encourages students of all majors to apply. Because the internship is conducted entirely online and does not necessitate any travel to Washington, DC, students are generally able to complete the internship from anywhere with a stable internet connection and do not even have to reside in the US. No VSFS positions require a security clearance.
Why is this an exciting opportunity for EAs?
A wide variety of government agencies participate in VSFS
Throughout its existence, the VSFS program has connected US citizen talent with the needs of over 50 federal agencies and accommodates an incredibly diverse range of academic backgrounds and personal interests. In the past, notable agencies like the CDC, NIH, as well as various intelligence agencies, branches of the military, the State Department, and USAID, have all posted positions to VSFS. Building experience and connections at agencies such as the CDC and NIH could be quite relevant to future biosecurity work; agencies like USAID are heavily involved in global development work, and experiences with the State Department and the Department of Defense could be useful for entering government work on topics spanning AI, biosecurity and climate change among others.
No previous government experience is required
Unlike other – at times highly competitive – entry-level government positions, VSFS does not require or expect previous public sector experience. Because of this, the program can be a great entry into government work for those interested in future US policy positions.
The program is very flexible
The VSFS program, conducted entirely online from anywhere and without fixed working hours, means that most students should be able to continue pursuing their studies while participating in the program. It is worth noting that, while the program itself is unpaid, EA offers a variety of potential funding opportunities if this acts as a barrier to participating in the internship.
The experience can be useful for future applications
In addition to being a useful initial fit test for federal government work, participation in the VSFS program can make an applicant's future public-sector applications stand out. In my case, internship supervisors provided valuable mentorship throughout the program and agreed to serve as professional references for future applications.
A brief note on personal fit: while testing fit for public sector work is understandably part of the motivation for completing a VSFS internship, due to the entirely remote and part-time nature of the program, its usefulness for forecasting one’s personal fit for the average in-person full-time government position is likely limited. To this end, I caution VSFS interns against concluding that they are not a good fit for government work based on this program alone.
There are several alternatives to VSFS that are also worth considering, such as the Semester in DC program outlined in a previous forum post.
Reasons why you might choose not to participate in VSFS include:
- Limited exposure to individuals working in government: Because the program is entirely remote and part-time, a VSFS internship doesn’t necessarily feel very personal, and you could likely meet many more people and build more substantive relationships with mentors and coworkers through an in-person and full-time experience in Washington, DC (if that option is available to you).
- Unpaid: The internship is unpaid, which may require some participants to continue working other jobs during the internship
- Time differences: Working across timezones can be tricky depending on your location; the interns in my group spanned across a nine-hour time difference and we managed it fine, but depending on your supervisor’s flexibility this may be a challenge for some roles depending on your location
- Limited opportunity for public work: The work you do and the deliverables you produce are not usually public which means there are likely limited opportunities for getting public writing samples.
What does participating in this program entail?
A personal example
The wide variety of positions and agencies hiring interns suggests that personal experiences and tasks will vary widely. Yet, it nevertheless seems helpful to provide some details on my personal experience in the program.
This specific position - working with the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Transportation and Air Quality (OTAQ) - hired three VSFS interns, supervised by two full-time agency staff members. Working across timezones, all project members met virtually once a week to discuss upcoming deadlines, check in on progress, and work through any difficulties. A joint messaging channel also served as a useful tool for regular communication, and both supervisors and the other students were generally very approachable and responsive to questions.
The work itself was primarily research-focused in my case and mostly involved individual literature reviews spanning academic, private sector, and government sources on the status and future potential of zero-emission technologies in the marine and aviation sectors, with a limited teamwork component. With few exceptions, the weekly time commitment was around seven hours per week, with some weeks requiring less. The final deliverable culminated in a one-hour presentation – delivered together with the other interns – on the state of emerging technology presented to 40-50 agency staff with a Q&A round afterward.
Other VSFS internship experiences
For other general testimonials of what it is like to be a VSFS intern check out this newsletter, and students’ experiences working for ODNI, US embassies, the Department of Veteran Affairs (and again), NOAA, the National Park Service, and others.
General advice during the program
- Take the opportunity to look beyond your immediate job: Working closely with agency staff can offer a unique opportunity to learn more broadly about the inner workings of government work. Express your interest in this early on in the internship. My supervisors were more than happy to accommodate this and regularly sent open invites to meetings where interns were welcome to listen in, or shared unclassified agency documents.
- Learn from your mentor’s experiences: Leverage your intern status to set up 1:1 calls with your mentor(s) (and possibly others) to learn more about their background, motivations, and advice for public sector work. This can be a great opportunity to ask any questions you may have about getting into government work.
- Be transparent about other commitments: The VSFS program is generally very flexible, and supervisors understand that interns are taking classes in conjunction with the program. If you have exams or other commitments coming up which might influence the time you can dedicate to VSFS, be open and transparent about this; in my case, this could always be accommodated and was never an issue.
Candidates who meet the eligibility criteria should apply to their top three positions (submitted as a single application) from a list of all VSFS projects between during July of every year (keep an eye on the VSFS LinkedIn page for updates). Because each internship is limited to 300 applicants, it can make sense to apply earlier to positions that may be especially popular - in the past research positions with the intelligence agencies have been especially quick to fill up. That being said, during the 2021 application cycle, several openings were posted only later in the cycle, so this is a balancing act — submitting your application early on might mean you forgo such opportunities. If you feel excited about the positions you are applying for and they seem to fit well with your background it may be helpful to apply earlier, otherwise, there’s no harm in waiting a bit.
There are a lot of projects to apply to: During the 2022 application window, 452 projects were accepting applications, many of which hire more than one student. In 2021, over 1,000 open projects were listed on the VSFS website.
For a complete and up-to-date list of application steps, see this overview on the VSFS website. What follows is a brief summary:
- Join the VSFS community on USAJobs and create a Login.gov account. Visit the USAJobs help center for further information
- Login to USAJobs and upload or build your resume
- Upload the required documents
- College transcripts
- Reference contact information
- Your top three internships choices
- A statement of interest for each of your top three internships (limited to 2,999 characters – this is the most critical part of the application)
- Your answer to a few questions on previous experience and skill development
- Candidate selections are made in August
- Mentors will email candidates for interviews – make sure that VSFS@state.gov and other dot-gov messages are not caught in any spam filters
- I received an email in mid-August prompting me to accept or decline an offer. Many positions conduct brief interviews, but not all will
- The internship starts in September and lasts through May of the following year
Personal advice on picking your top three positions: Depending on the level of previous experience, it can be smart to balance a “reach” application(s) with 1-2 positions that seem like a safer bet. In 2021, some of the top internships with ODNI (Office of the Director of National Intelligence) received hundreds of applications for only a few spots.
Join the unofficial discord channel: This can be a useful hub to connect with other applicants and exchange feedback regarding application materials, technical difficulties, or other issues!
Due to its flexible work arrangements, the wide array of available projects, and acceptance of many different academic backgrounds, VSFS can be an excellent way to gain initial career capital for those interested in US government work! Specifically, the internship’s ability to:
- Test fit for public sector roles while still working towards a degree
- Connect interns with potential mentors in government roles
- Convey insights into some of the inner workings of various federal agencies
makes the VSFS an opportunity that could be quite interesting for many EAs interested in US policy work.
Appendix: US policy fellowships
Are you looking for opportunities to pivot into or accelerate your policy career? If so, check out this database of EA-relevant US policy fellowships. It includes opportunities for people from various backgrounds (STEM, social sciences, etc.) and career levels (undergrad to mid-career). The database allows you to filter by cause area, degree requirements, location, and more.
If you are eligible for the VSFS program, please also consider these early-career fellowships:
Some example positions:
Highly recommend these opportunities! If you're at all interested in policy, I would encourage you to take 15 minutes to look through the projects.
Depending on the position, I can imagine some applicants would be eligible for funding (eg. funding so you can drop another job to work on this). Here’s a list of EA funding opportunities that could get someone started.
From the VSFS LinkedIn page:
We invite U.S. citizen college students to a VSFS info session:
-- 12:10-1 p.m. Eastern 7/15 -- 3:10-4 p.m. Eastern 7/18 -- 8:30-9:30 p.m. Eastern 7/25
Join at https://lnkd.in/grnNM5JE or call 617-675-4444 and enter pin 125 773 443 1455#. Or visit the “How to” video library at https://lnkd.in/gy5HEcT9 Tutorials include “How to create an Open Opportunities student account” and “How to apply for a VSFS internship.”
Thanks for the post! I seem to be having problems trying to join the discord server. Could you take a look at why that may be? Thanks