In a nutshell, the application process for the State Department is thorough; not necessarily difficult or overwhelming, but definitely and most certainly long.
As a result, timing is important to keep in mind. For all terms (fall/spring/summer), the application window opens and closes some eight months before the start of the internship itself, so deciding whether to apply requires significant planning in advance. The internships are unpaid, there is no stipend, and applicants are responsible for housing arrangements. Further, as positions are conditional on receiving a security clearance, a possibility exists in which the State Department does not provide a security clearance in time and the position falls through. Before making the decision to apply, I recommend taking into account some of the realities and making certain that an internship at the State Department is the right fit for you.
With that said, in order to not miss the application deadline, the State Department offers an email subscription for notifications on openings. As the application initially starts with USAJOBS, one way to get a step ahead is to create a profile before the application opens. Becoming familiar with the platform beforehand is one less thing to worry about. Once the application opens, both the USAJOBS and the State Department portal portions are fairly straightforward to navigate. The application is not on a rolling basis, so there is no need to submit as early as possible.
Setting aside experience in class or on your resume, the two most important elements of the application process are the statement of interest and the selection of two bureaus of interest, both integrally connected to each other. While you can’t change much about your work experiences or courses, you can certainly optimize your statement of interest and think long and hard about which two bureaus are most suitable. The statement of interest is a symbiotic dance between the abilities and experience of the applicant and the work of the bureaus. As a result, the final product should answer both why does the applicant wants to work in the bureaus and why should the bureaus of choice want to hire the applicant. Ultimately, a well-written statement of interest should align the interests of the bureau with the interests of the applicant.
Since the applications always use the same prompt, I recommend at least browsing through the list of bureaus at the State Department and getting a rough idea of potential overlaps between your interests and abilities and the work of the bureaus. Ideally, and not in my case, a rough draft can be complete before the application even opens. As usual, getting a pair of other eyes on a draft is also greatly beneficial. For the entire process, staying on top of timing is critical. Make sure to get all the straightforward items out of the way as quickly as possible and devote the most time to the consideration of bureaus and the statement of interest.
The Security Clearance
Some internships for the US government, in particular the State Department, require a security clearance. Follow these tips for a smoother clearance process:
- Track your travel – you will be asked to report all time spent outside of the United States in the last ten years (excluding trips for US government business). To avoid having to recall all the information, as you travel, keep records. Write down the starting and ending dates of your trips, addresses for where you stayed (especially important for trips spanning 90 days or more), and any information that can help an investigator confirm your information. For example, your landlord’s contact information for where you stayed.
- Know who you know – you will be asked for information on your relationship with non-US citizens, or “foreign nationals.” If you are in a network with many foreign nationals, you will focus on the last seven years. Log the date at which you began interaction with them, and try to learn about any connections they may have with foreign governments or employers. Additionally, if you or your immediate family work as an intern, employee, or consultant for a foreign agency, you will be asked to provide information about that.
- Recall close people – as a part of the clearance, your employer may run background checks to ensure you are “reliable, trustworthy, of good conduct and character, and loyal to the US” (Office of Personnel Management). For this, have three people in mind that you can provide contact information for, who can speak knowledgeably about you. These people cannot be family members, and must have known you for at least the last seven years. It would be helpful if you remind them of when you first met, what you did together, and what you have been involved in since you met, before the security clearance.
- Are you in debt? – Employers are generally understanding of debt; however, they also recognize that your debt can be used against you by foreign entities. Therefore, know your finances, from your credit score to exactly how much debt you have. Make sure you are up-to-date on paying your taxes. Request your consumer or credit report profiles, and understand what they may indicate about your financial situation, as investigators will also obtain them. If you have filed for bankruptcy, be prepared to provide additional information.
- Think before you post – Google yourself, and make sure you don’t have too much personal information online. This includes your address and birth year. Private settings on social media can help. When you post online, be mindful of how it reflects you, and how it may be interpreted by your employer. You should never share that you are seeking a position requiring clearance online. Finally, do not download files from the internet illegally.
The security clearance is a long process; however, starting early with the tips above can spare you from additional stress and trouble. One more excellent tip from a recent PIW participant: If your security clearance isn’t complete and the start date is getting close you can ask your Member of Congress’s office to do a status check on your clearance. They can inquire and at least tell you how far along it is. This student’s clearance magically finalized a few days after the status check!
Citation: Carmen Lezzi Mezzera, “5 Tips to Prepare for a US Government Security Clearance in Advance.” Association of Professional Schools of International Affairs (APSIA), www.apsia.org