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New handbook provides tips for interns while previewing careers in the public sector.
New handbook provides tips for interns while previewing careers in the public sector.January 07, 2003Nicci Brownnicbrown@syr.edu
Walk through the nation’s congressional office buildings and you’ll find that trench-level work in the legislative branch is done by people in their 20s and early 30s- “en-try-level” staffers who got their start as interns. Mack Mariani ’92 M.A. (P.Sc.) has no trouble recalling how overwhelmed he felt when he started working as an intern for U.S. Representative Jack Kemp. “Everyone on the staff seemed so busy,” Mariani says. “Nobody had a lot of time to sit down and give me a formal orientation. I pretty much showed up one day, they gave me a list of staffers and their responsibilities, then they sat me down at an intern desk and I started opening mail and answering phones.”
Mariani’s “baptism by fire” was in 1988, and the current director of special projects for the Monroe County (N.Y.) Department of Communications, and political science doctoral candidate at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, is quick to concede that today’s interns have even more need to hit the ground running. As more and more political “wannabes,” potential law school applicants, and career-oriented undergrads look for an edge, securing a political internship in D.C. or a state capital is getting far more competitive. Not only that, the duration of the average internship has decreased. If interns want to impress, they have to do it quickly.
So Mariani joined forces with Grant Reeher, associate professor of political science, to create “The Insider’s Guide to Political Internships” (2002: Westview Press), offering a roadmap for interns who want to learn not just the mechanics, but also the essence, of political life. The book, which they co-edited, is divided into sections such as “Basic Rules to Live By,” “Writing in the Political Environment,” and “Conducting Research.” Chapters were contributed by former interns, intern supervisors, and those otherwise familiar with the inner workings of the political process at all levels. Internships at nonprofit organizations are also covered.
By describing not only typical assignments, but also their context and ramifications, contributors to the book create a more complete understanding of an intern’s role in the political process. For example, Jessica Wintringham, former aide to U.S. Senator John Edwards, and another doctoral candidate at Maxwell, gives insight into the creation and importance of talking points, remarks, and speeches.
“There are no unimportant details,” she says. “Spending all day putting together talking points for a five-minute meeting might seem like a waste of time, but it helps a public official do her job and improves the relationship between your boss and the audience. It is one of the most powerful responsibilities you can have as an intern.”
L. Elaine Halchin ’00 Ph.D. (P.Sc.), an analyst at the Congressional Research Service, says that for the uninitiated, researching the presidential and executive branches can be confusing. Her chapter offers a step-by-step research guide for interns, but goes further: “Doing research is a creative process,” she says. “In some cases, it’s simply a matter of following known and specific steps. But sometimes you have to rely on your ingenuity and problem-solving skills.”
Reeher believes it’s this type of detail that elevates “Insider’s Guide” above other, less specific internship manuals. “The concrete tips and strategies help students get the most out of the internship from a learning perspective and, in particular, a civic learning perspective,” he says. “Internships give a more nuanced understanding of politics. Students might go into an internship somewhat cynical, but they come out appropriately critical, and there’s a huge difference between the two.”
Reeher describes interning as “almost essential” for those aspiring to a career in politics. Mariani, who also served on the residence life staff of the Washington Center for Internships and Academic Seminars, believes most college students-even political science majors-need extra preparation for the nuts-and-bolts work done in the world of politics. In addition, he says they often have unrealistic ex-pectations.
“It’s absolutely essential that interns meet early on with their supervisors to share their mutual expectations,” Mariani says. “That type of communication should continue throughout the internship, so interns have a realistic sense of where they stand and can then press for more opportunities.”
The book’s final section, “Last Words,” shares advice from two focus groups Reeher conducted with SU undergraduates who had recently completed a broad range of internships. Students openly discuss their good-and bad-experiences with tips such as “find a mentor” and “stay active.”
“Be patient,” Mariani says. “Everyone has to do the clerical work.” But he also advises interns to be creative and constructively voice their ideas-not only could they lead to more substantive experiences, they may also demonstrate initiative to potential employers.