The independent news organization of Duke University

The public policy internship: Burden or benefit?

Public policy majors are required to complete an internship before graduation. After completing the five core courses, students must seek out an internship in a field related to public policy in order to receive their degree. It’s meant to be a way to expose students to apply the skills they have learned and help them find a possible career path. One summer doing policy, for public policy majors. Easy enough, right? 

So I thought. As my junior year summer approaches (one of my last chances to complete the internship), I’ve realized that the requirement has possibly constrained my options more than they have broadened them. While the internship gives students the opportunity to apply their public policy skill set in a real world context, it can also be a burden for those interested in less conventional policy career paths.

The Sanford School of Public Policy refers to the internship as a “culmination of all of your core coursework” that “gives you a chance to see how the skills you have acquired in these classes apply in a real world context.” It’s a way to expose you to different career paths and policy. Students have interned everywhere from the Justice Department to the White House to think tanks. Public policy is truly a diverse field with a plethora of career possibilities.

Last summer, I arguably completed the most public policy-related internship possible: an internship on Capitol Hill. As a legislative intern for Nevada Congresswoman (now Senator) Jacky Rosen, I was responsible for researching legislative issues, writing memos to brief staff members on meetings, and corresponding with constituents about issues in Nevada. It was no walk in the park either—I worked eight hour days, five days a week, without pay, in one of the most expensive cities in the country.

And yet, I couldn’t get this internship to fulfill my requirement. I had only completed three out of the five core courses. Sanford’s website explains: “We believe the core courses teach the skills and critical thinking necessary to gain the most from the internship experience. A student must complete all the core classes… to receive credit for an internship that counts toward the completion of a major in public policy.” (There is also an option for students to petition for an internship to count upon completing 4 core courses). 

And I get it. Public policy is one of the most real-world oriented majors at Duke. The core classes explore actual problems in society—gun laws, health care, trade wars—and how to implement solutions to solve those problems. While it’s well-intentioned, it’s also frustrating. Would taking one more core course have significantly enhanced my internship experience? Would having taken Microeconomic Policy Analysis given me the skills to do my job any more effectively? Besides, I don’t think the possibility of applying learning goes only one way; I have found that my internship as a legislative intern has actually helped me better grasp course material in policy analysis. To me, that application is just as valuable and should be taken into account.

Most students complete their internship their junior year because it takes a while to complete all five core courses. While all internships are inherently valuable, the junior year internship is notoriously the “most important” because it sets you up for a job post-graduation. And for those interested in pursuing a career in public policy, that’s great. But for those who aren’t, it can be burdensome. I’ve known friends who have rejected internship offers from companies they were genuinely excited to work for in order to take a less suitable internship that would satisfy the public policy requirement. Otherwise, the far less ideal alternative would be to complete the internship during the school year. That requires dedicating anywhere from 10 to 20 hours per week to an internship, on top of classes, over the course of one to two semesters.

A senior in the Trinity school, who chose to remain anonymous, said that if it came down to it, he would just drop the public policy major. “I am double majoring in public policy and political science,” he said, “so if it’s too much of a hassle to find a qualifying internship that I have an interest in, I’ll just drop public policy. It’s not a big deal.”

Unless Sanford is okay with students growing dissatisfied with the public policy major, it should broaden its scope of compliant internships. The fundamental issue lies in the assumption that all public policy majors want to work in or closely with the government. But there are a lot of students who want to apply the skills they’ve learned from Sanford, just in a different setting. On paper, roles like marketing or business analyst appear unrelated to public policy, but they actually incorporate public policy skills like stakeholder engagement, institutional landscaping and economic analysis. The same can be said for fields like consulting, journalism, communications and human resources. So many careers utilize the skills learned from the public policy major. We should encourage students to appreciate the major’s broad applicability. More importantly, we should be encouraging people to explore the fields they are interested in, not forcing them into a narrow path of what policy “should be.”

Alicia Sun is a Trinity junior. Her column usually runs on alternate Wednesdays.


Share and discuss “The public policy internship: Burden or benefit?” on social media.