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If you’re a US student interested in policy work (especially if you’re an undergraduate), I encourage you to consider applying to a “Semester in DC” program. Or if you know such students who are also impact-driven, encourage them to apply! Many US universities and some nonprofits host these programs, in which students spend a semester in Washington, DC, mainly doing DC-based internships. For US students who are interested in policy careers, many of these programs are hidden gems. That’s because:

  1. “Semester in DC” programs often offer very valuable support for getting US policy internships.
  2. “Semester in DC” programs often offer very valuable opportunities for US policy networking.
  3. Applications for “Semester in DC” programs are often much less competitive than other paths to getting DC-based internships.

Overall, these programs are probably the best chance many students have to get their first taste of US policy work.

See below for an incomplete list of these programs.

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What are “Semester in DC” programs?

General information:

“Semester in DC” programs are programs, typically hosted by universities, in which students (usually undergraduates) spend an academic term in DC. (I’m using the word “semester,” but programs that last an academic quarter also seem great.) Within these programs, the main activity students participate in is usually a DC-based internship, such as an internship in a Congressional office or a think tank. Many programs also involve other activities, such as academic coursework and opportunities for meeting other students.

Details vary a lot between specific programs, so you should check the site of the program you’re most interested in.

When these programs are run:

While some of these programs only run in the summer, many of these programs run during the school year, and some do both. For many students who can do so, participating in these programs during the school year is worth considering; most students want to have internships in the summer, so students who are willing to have internships in the school year can have an easier time getting cool internships and getting attention (e.g. coffee with people) within these internships (though an internship in the school year may come at the significant cost of graduating later).

Applications and eligibility:

To participate in these programs, students typically need to apply and get accepted. Sometimes, applications need to be submitted significantly in advance of the time when the student wants to be in DC.

Many of these programs are only open to undergraduates, especially juniors and seniors.

Most of these programs seem to be open to (and excited about) students of all majors--not just political science / policy.

Program resources:

In many of these programs, after the programs accept some students, program managers support students in getting internships they’re interested in. Some programs also support participants by offering housing for the cohort.

Why is applying to these programs a great choice for some students?

For students who are interested in policy careers, applying to these programs is often a great choice, for at least three reasons.

  1. “Semester in DC” programs often offer very valuable support for getting US policy internships.

Many universities have arrangements or connections with DC-based, internship-hosting organizations, as well as staff who know a lot about what helps DC internship applications succeed. Through these connections and this knowledge, program managers help participants get DC internships. In most cases, this support makes it much easier for program participants to land DC internships, since these internships tend to be extremely network-dependent and competitive (even for students from top schools).

This support doesn’t just help students get some internships; it also often helps students spend less time applying for internships, and it sometimes helps students get more substantive internships.

  1. “Semester in DC” programs often offer very valuable opportunities for US policy networking.

In some of these programs, participants live together. That’s a great chance for participants to get to know other students who are unusually likely to eventually have jobs in US policy.

These programs also offer good networking opportunities in the form of relevant coursework (taught by professors with policy networks), as well as events/programming aimed at helping students meet DC folks.

  1. Applications for “Semester in DC” programs are often much less competitive than other paths to getting DC-based internships.

Point (1) above wouldn’t matter much if “Semester in DC” programs were just as hard to get into as DC internships (or harder). Fortunately, that doesn’t seem to be the case. Anecdotally:

  • The “Semester in DC” program I’ve heard the most about holds multiple rounds of applications for each cohort; they seem to be obscure and struggle to fill their spots. I know of one person who got rejected from many DC internships and then got into this program on their first try. (Caveat: this program may have an unusually great ratio of resources per policy-interested student.)
  • A handful of people sharing relevant experiences online seem to agree that these programs aren’t terribly competitive.

For many students, the above benefits likely make up for the time and tuition costs. (If you’re constrained by finances, also consider applying for funding from your university, the Long-Term Future Fund or the Animal Welfare Fund--if they’re relevant to your internship and career plans (I'd guess these will keep your name unpublished if you ask for that), or other nonprofits.

What to do when you’re in DC

What kinds of internships can you do in DC? Here are some organizations for which you can intern:

  • A DC think tank (e.g. the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Nuclear Threat Initiative)
  • A Congressional committee (in the House of Representatives or Senate, e.g. the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology)
  • The personal office of a Congress member (in the House of Representatives or Senate)
  • An executive branch agency (e.g. in the Department of State)
  • A DC-based international organization (e.g. the World Bank)
  • A DC-based advocacy nonprofit
  • A DC-based media company

The work and opportunities offered by these different organizations are fairly different, so they’re worth reading / talking to people about.

For more info on some of these internships and organizations, see e.g. these two posts on working in Congress, and keep an eye out for future posts on think tanks.

Tips for what to do once you're in DC:

  • You can find a bunch of tips online by googling things like “making the most of your congressional internship.” These seem useful.
  • One concrete outcome to aim for with regard to networking: a reference / later letter of recommendation from your internships supervisor or a professor.
  • You may be interested in connecting with the DC EA community, e.g. through this form.

An incomplete list of “Semester in DC” programs

Incomplete list of “Semester in DC” programs, with their websites hyperlinked:


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Helpful post! Found a link for UW-Madison, my university: https://internships.international.wisc.edu/internships/wisconsin-in-washington/