Planning for your Internship at an NGO

If possible, obtain a summer job at an NGO. The difficulty for many students is that most international NGOs will not be able to pay. If you are unable to volunteer, you may need to bring your own funding with you. Many schools offer some form of summer funding. At HLS, we are fortunate to be able to offer our students guaranteed summer funding, along with supplemental sources to help those facing the additional expense of traveling abroad. If your school does not offer summer funding, you can turn to outside sources. Some enterprising students who cannot otherwise find funding manage to work part of the summer with a paying organization, such as a private firm, to support their NGO work.

At HLS we also have a winter term, and a growing number of students have used that month to do work overseas and have obtained credit through the independent clinical option or through the independent written work option (which requires students to produce a paper in conjunction with their work). Others have traveled abroad during spring break to do “field” work.

Hiring Process

Once you have identified the NGOs where you would like to work, how do you get the job? 

Obtaining a summer internship at an NGO is much easier than finding a postgraduate position for several reasons. First, as discussed above, funding for law student summer internships is often available through law schools and other organizations. If you are able to volunteer, state that clearly in your cover letters, as a “free” law student is often very attractive to an NGO. Second, NGOs do not expect students to have the level of expertise that they expect of attorneys. Further, the time commitment – for both students and the organizations – is relatively short. So you should be optimistic that you can land a terrific international position and think ambitiously about where you would most like to work. However, while we are optimistic that you will land a terrific summer position, you do need to understand the reality of the hiring process. In addition to preparation, you need patience, persistence, and flexibility. 

Employers in NGOs – like employers everywhere – will look at your educational and work background, your legal skills, your writing skills, your demonstrated commitment to the work and your interpersonal skills. Generally we recommend applying to about 20 NGOs for summer positions. This number will vary depending upon your preexisting experience (if you have no international work experience, you may need to hedge your bets a bit more; if you have substantial international experience you can get away with fewer applications); how competitive the NGOs are that you are applying to; and how good the NGOs you are applying to are at following up on applications. Before sending out an application, you should take the time to try to identify the right contact person to send that application to. It can be helpful if you can find more than one contact person within an NGO who can field your application and make sure it is considered. 

Unless the NGO asks for additional information, a typical “application packet” will consist of a resume and cover letter. In writing your resume and cover letters, be sure to read and review the sample resumes and cover letters for jobs in the resumes and cover letters section of our website. Try to email copies of all materials, as well as sending a copy via post. You can usually apply as early as December 1st. But, as noted below, be prepared to wait a while to be hired and be prepared to follow-up. It is better to research the right employers that fi t your interests and who have a good track record at working with interns than to rush to apply to NGOs that might not be a good fit, particularly since the NGO hiring process can be late in the academic year.

Patience, Persistence, and Flexibility

The NGO hiring process, specifically at NGOs outside the U.S. often begins later than the hiring process for internships based in the U.S. Very often the work of NGOs is all-encompassing and the workload depends upon current events or crises. Thus, the NGOs may not be able to plan ahead and think about hiring interns until closer to the summer. Sometimes the difference in the hiring calendars frustrates students as they see their classmates landing summer positions earlier in the school year. Students often do not land their NGO positions until March, sometimes later. Yet, as you will see from the narratives about NGO work, the wait is well worth it. 

Patience is not enough. Follow up on your application. In following up, remember not to just rely on email – although you can certainly start there. As described above, not all NGOs reliably use email, so follow-up with fax and/or phone as well. Make sure the NGOs received your materials. Keep in contact with the NGOs, remind them of your interest, and when necessary, give deadlines by which you need to know if you will be offered a position. Students at HLS, for example, will often “blame” one of the funding sources here for a deadline that they have to meet; they will say that “I need to know if I have an internship with your office and, if so, what kind of project I will be working on in order to satisfy the requirements of the Chayes Fellowships in International Public Service.”

Finally, “don’t put all of your eggs in one basket.” This is where flexibility comes into play. Situations sometimes arise that may require you to totally rethink your summer plans. For example, despite outstanding reviews from former interns and well-established connections with your law school, an employer may decide against hiring interns one summer. Similarly, students have been offered positions, then declined to go because of turmoil in the area where the internships are located. Without prior notice, organizations may decide that they need a commitment longer than the summer or they may decide to hire law students from another school or another country. During those inevitable periods of impatience and worry about not having a summer job, be sure to use your network (the one you already established to identify the NGOs) to support you as well as to assist you in finding a terrific internship.

Making the Most of Your Internship

Picking Your Summer Job
The first step in making sure you have a valuable internship experience is to pick wisely between possible summer employers. If you have not already done so, check to see if your school keeps student evaluations of their summer experiences with different international NGOs. At HLS, we have many years of evaluations; the most recent are in an online database accessible through the OPIA webpage. Check to see if any current students at your law school worked at NGOs and ask them about their experiences. If you can’t find written evaluations or students to talk to, ask NGOs for the names and contact information of the previous year’s summer interns (or for the NGOs to pass on your name to their previous interns). The caveat here is to bear in mind that students can have dramatically different summer experiences at the same place depending upon their personalities and who their supervisors are that summer. Sometimes it depends upon what the NGO’s summer is like; some supervisors attentive to interns one summer are so overwhelmed by crises the next summer they have little time to mentor interns. 

In terms of picking the right summer job, make sure that you find one that fits your personality. For students interested in NGO work in such fields as international conflict management, human rights, hunger or health care, be sure to assess your expectations carefully in deciding where to work. If you need to see immediate results, this is probably not the work for you. In addition, if you are considering work for a grassroots NGO, it is important to consider your comfort level with working with victims of human rights violations as well as exposure to atrocities, deaths of clients, and being surrounded by poverty. You should also think about your threshold for living in conflict and post-conflict areas. For many law students and attorneys, it is the interaction with their clients and the realities of their clients’ lives that keep them in the field. For others, the personal toll is too great.

Preparing for Your Internship

Before starting your internship, to the extent possible, identify your projects for the summer. Pinning your employer down about a project in advance means that you might be able to get your employer to think in advance about how to effectively use you and therefore it may be less likely you will be handed “busy work” when you first arrive at the NGO. 

Find out what resources the NGO has available. For example, if research and writing are two components of your projects, ask your supervisor and/or previous interns about computers, workspace, libraries, technology, copying capability, printers and other practical questions. Determine if you should bring a laptop. Ask if there are publications, treatises or other books you should bring. Inquire about access to the internet. Consider doing some preliminary research before leaving the U.S. To make the most of your summer, you may want to bring your own related project to develop while working for the NGO. Having this “back up” has proven helpful if (for a variety of reasons) there are gaps in assignments. 

Despite all these words of wisdom about how to make sure you have a substantive experience, it is important to be prepared for a certain amount of administrative and menial work. In NGOs, as well as in other understaffed organizations, attorneys do everything from arguing cases in the highest appellate courts, negotiating with senior government officials or CEOs of multinational corporations, to typing legal documents, fixing the copying machine, and making the coffee. As law students, therefore, do not be surprised or insulted if some of the same tasks fall to you. If there is too much free time or too many menial tasks, speak to your supervisors. If you are not sure about how to handle these situations, you also should contact your law school career or faculty advisers.

Working in a Foreign Country

When planning to work in a foreign country, other advance planning can help for a smoother transition. This is especially important if you are traveling to a country in a conflict or post-conflict situation or a location where there may be greater susceptibility to health problems. 

First, to learn more about the country you are traveling to and its culture, talk to students who have traveled, or preferably lived and worked, there before. If you are fortunate, you may find a classmate who is from the country you will be traveling to. If not, try to find one who has worked there as summer intern before you. You can also familiarize yourself with conditions in a country through written materials. The State Department has a website - http://travel.state.gov/travel/cis_pa_tw/cis/cis_4965.html - that has information on country conditions, including health and safety information. 

You can find information about health issues while traveling abroad from the Center for Disease Control: http://www.cdc.gov/travel/. Bear in mind, though, that this information contains the opinion of one government. Guidebooks such as the Lonely Planet can also be helpful. 

Make sure that your health coverage is current. At Harvard we also provide supplemental insurance for 24-hour worldwide emergency medical and evacuation assistance to students, faculty and staff traveling on university-related activities. See if your school provides such a benefit. 

Many countries require visitors to have immunizations prior to granting a visa or entry to a country. Make sure you know which immunizations you will be required to have and leave plenty of time to obtain them. The State Department website listed above provides links to many countries’ visa and entry requirements. You can also check the CDC website listed above for guidance. 

Before you leave, make sure your school knows where you are going and how long you will be away. It is helpful to leave the school with contact information in case someone tries to reach you. You should also register with the State Department (www. travelregistration.state.gov) or your home country’s consulate if you are not an American citizen. 

You may want to consider having a contact have copies of your important documents such as passport, visa and health documentation in case you lose yours. In any event, make sure you have copies of those documents somewhere – you can scan them and email them to yourself. 

Make sure you know how to communicate from the country you will be staying in. Not all American cell phones work in foreign countries and many require special cards even if they will work abroad. If you think you will need a cell phone, check to see if yours will work abroad. Cells phones that work internationally can be rented in the U.S. but are pricey. If you will be in one country for a while, it will likely be more cost-effective to buy a cell phone there.

Last modified: December 10, 2012

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