I want to get in touch with some details about an (unpaid) internship opportunity through the State Department for those who are interested in getting some experience working with government agencies. This internship is open to students at all stages of their graduate or undergraduate career.
The program is called the Virtual Student Federal Service (VSFS). In short, it’s a 10-hour per week, flexible, remote opportunity to both apply and develop research skills working on project of some importance to the government institution with which you are paired. Read more about VSFS and the institutions you might work with here. Applications to work on a VSFS project open July 1 and close July 31. More details about that timeline can be found here.
Our very own Kirsten Cooper is just finishing up an internship on a VSFS project. She was kind enough to answer some questions about the application process, what she has learned, and how she thinks Ph.D. skills helped her as well as how she built on these skills. I’m including the bulk of her write-up below, so please read on to learn more about the internship.
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Name: Kirsten Cooper
Field & brief dissertation description: Early Modern Europe; Propaganda, political rhetoric and ideas of nation in France & the Holy Roman Empire during the Wars of Louis XIV
Current status: ABD, 7th Year
Where you found out about internship?: An announcement was sent out on a government job search listserv for Boren Fellowship alumni
What is the internship and what have you been doing?: The general internship program is intended to match students with various government agencies who are sponsoring projects that can be completed remotely/digitally. All projects run from September-May and expect approximately 10 hours of work/week. The website does say that some interns are able to receive course credit for their work through their universities.
The projects and the types of work they need vary widely. As they explain: “VSFS projects may be research based, contributing to reports on issues such as human rights, economics or the environment. They may also be more technology oriented, such as working on web pages, or helping produce electronic journals.” Many of the projects are looking for people with language skills – which many of us historians have! The program seems to have been designed with undergraduates in mind, but there are no restrictions against graduate students applying. And, in my experience, project leaders seemed thrilled to get the chance to have the skills of an advanced graduate student for free!
The project I ended up on was working for the Department of State, specifically with the US Embassy in Bern, Switzerland to analyze Swiss media for evidence of Russian mis- and disinformation. Over the last year my team has been monitoring Swiss news media, known Russian sources of disinformation, and social media to assess the quality of Swiss news coverage and the extent to which it is influenced – or not – by known Russian talking points and disinformation stories. As part of this we have also researched the background of Russian disinformation strategies, its influence in countries worldwide, the state and quality of Swiss news media, its political climate, and what vulnerabilities Switzerland does and does not share with other well-known targets of Russian information manipulation. We were required to submit 3 broader quarterly reports to the embassy over the course of the year, and elected to submit 3 additional interim reports detailing findings and summarizing analyses of more specific components of the project.
What was the application process like and how did you get matched to the specific project?: VSFS posts a list of all of the programs looking for interns for that year, and you submit one central application on which you list up to 3 projects that you are qualified for and interested in. After you submit, supervisors of the projects you indicated interest in will review your application and may contact you for a virtual interview, or to have you provide examples of your expertise and work. By September all applicants will be informed if they have been offered a position and applicants who have been offered one or more positions can accept or reject the offers. You can be offered more than one position, but can only accept to work on one project for the year.
I applied to 3 projects, never heard back from one, got an almost immediate offer from another, and went through an interview process for a third that included a Skype interview and submission of a sample written analysis. This also ended up in an offer, which was the one I accepted.
What relevant Ph.D. skills have you used in the course of the internship?: One reason I was most excited about the project I ended up working on was that it was essentially the same research skills I use for my dissertation research, just applied to contemporary problems. My research analyzes published news media to extract underlying narratives, understand them in their political, social and cultural contexts, and uncover the political motivations behind them. These are all skills that I could apply to the analysis of Russian information manipulation and its impact in Switzerland.
More broadly, however, all of those basic, core, skills of a PhD and a historian – research, analysis, being able to find relevant background information, to assess sources’ quality, biases and relevance to the research questions at hand, to understand and draw connections with broader contextual factors and, perhaps most importantly, the ability to then communicate all of that information in a clear, written report – were what my project supervisor valued the most. Yes, I was able to draw more specific connections with my own research, but it was these fundamental skills that really made my contributions to this project most valuable.
The language skills I’ve acquired over the course of my PhD were also immensely important, as my specific project required analysis of German-language media, and my ability to do the same in French was an added bonus.
Finally, I was also able to apply some of my teaching skills as I helped coach my teammate through the writing of some of our reports. Just as being a good writer is a skill almost universally applicable, so apparently is teaching good writing!
What skills have you learned or honed in the course of the internship?: Working as part of a team! So much of PhD research is completely solitary – you decide the research questions, parameters, and direction and then execute all of the research and analysis. In this project, however, I was working as a part of a team. For my particular project, I was designated “team leader” essentially, working with an advanced undergraduate intern as my team member and then our project supervisor at the embassy. Our supervisor had set up the parameters of the project, the main questions the embassy wanted answers to if possible, and served as the ultimate decision maker regarding new approaches, directions, or topics of inquiry. My team member and I had separate areas of focus that had been designated at the outset of the project, which I was in charge of managing and accounting for. It was a very valuable experience learning how to best function within this team structure – leveraging our different areas of expertise and focus to achieve the best outcome, instead of simply dong it all by myself.
One other aspect that differed greatly from PhD research was the act of creating specific products for somebody else. First, our supervisor would sometimes task us with writing a report on a certain topic of interest to the embassy, regardless of whether it seemed most relevant or important to us. Or she would tell us not to look into a topic, because it was something they were already tracking, even if we still had unanswered questions. Second, with a dissertation you are expected to change your questions, focus, sources, methodology, etc. as many times as needed to get to the bottom of whatever issue(s) you are interested in. With this project, we had specific questions that they wanted answers to, and in some cases that was it. For example, the main question for our project was whether or not there was evidence of Russian mis- and disinformation in mainstream Swiss news media. We found that on the whole Swiss news media was of very high quality and was quite immune to Russian information manipulation. Question answered. We did do some work to try to understand why this was the case and where vulnerabilities might exist for Russian information manipulation elsewhere in Switzerland, but this information was largely a bonus to the main focus of the project. We also realized that we, as interns, didn’t have the resources to actually answer a lot of those tangential questions, and that was fine. Unlike with a dissertation, there wasn’t the expectation that we would go acquire those skills and resources to get to the bottom of the issue at whatever cost. The complete independence and autonomy one has while doing dissertation research was constrained, but it also relieved a lot of the pressure that goes along with that!
Potential career outcomes that the internship prepares you for?: As a past recipient of a Boren Fellowship, I do have a one-year service requirement to work for the federal government. This internship was great experience that I can use in finding such a job – and I think can be applied towards partial fulfillment of that service requirement. But more broadly, for many PhDs trying to move beyond academia, I think one of the biggest hurdles is having people look at your resume and saying yes, you have this impressive degree in this obscure corner of knowledge, but what does that mean you can do for us in our industry? In addition to being a great, easily recognizable line of work experience on my resume, this internship gives me a concrete example of what my PhD background can provide. What I can do with it and how all of those skills can be applied beyond that obscure corner of knowledge to something clearly relevant and important to contemporary society. I am considering the State Department as a future career path – for which I now have my project supervisor as a resource and mentor in that sector. But more broadly, I also now have a letter of recommendation from somebody outside academia who can vouch for the applicability of my skills to “real life” work situations. I’ll have to get back to you in a few years to let you know where exactly I end up, but this internship has also proven to me how transferable all of my PhD skills are and given me more confidence to be able to convince others of that fact.
Details on where and how and when to apply: The central application process usually runs from July 1-31. You have to apply through the US Government Job Board, USAJobs.com, which then takes you to the State Department website for a supplemental application portion. Both of these websites can be difficult, but the VSFS program website provides good instructions (https://www.state.gov/vsfs/ c59083.htm) and the application itself was relatively simple.
For more information on the program, available projects for the upcoming year (should be announced by July 1), and how to apply check out their website: https://www.state. gov/vsfs/