Breaking into the security-cleared job market can be a formidable task for anyone, but especially for recent graduates who lack both job experience and a security clearance. How can students get a leg up – and maybe a valuable security clearance to go along with it? Student internships.

How Internships Work for You

Most federal agencies roll out internship opportunities every year. So do defense contractors. From the National Security Agency and the State Department to Boeing, Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, SAIC, Booz Allen Hamilton and others, internships are a great way for government and business to link up with qualified college students and for students to get experience they can’t get in the classroom.

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Internships work like a test drive, providing an inside look at how government and the defense industry work. Internships can be paid or unpaid, but either way, students gain work experience and the chance to network – both of which can help them get where they want to go – and they’re going in droves. According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers, full-time job offers were made to more than half of the students who completed internships.

That’s a definite advantage. But there’s another asset for interns. Those accepted into programs with some federal agencies and companies undergo backgrounds checks, and some even receive a security clearance.

Internships and Security Clearances

Students new to how the security clearance process works may not realize what a perk this is. A security clearance can’t be applied for and it can’t be purchased. It can only be issued by the federal government, and only when a job applicant or employee will be working in a position that requires one. Employers who need to fill positions requiring a security clearance are often prone to hire someone who already has one from a previous job or military service rather than wait up to a year or more for the clearance to be issued – or deal with the uncertainty of wondering if a candidate will be able to obtain the clearance. Hence, their value in the job market, and particularly in the defense industry.

According to the U.S. State Department, all State Department internship programs require background checks that lead to security clearances, with different jobs requiring different levels of clearance.

Educators and Clearances – A New Trend

Because educators play a major role in preparing students for the job market, they’re taking a closer look at security clearances and their value. In doing so, they’re coming up with new ways to introduce them to students. Due to the nature of the field, these partnerships are aimed at drawing students majoring in engineering, technology, computer sciences, IT, math, business and human resources.

The University of Maryland Global Campus (UMGC) is hosts regular seminars teaching students the factors that can jeopardize getting a security clearance – like misusing the Internet, breaking the law and financial irresponsibility. And George Mason University has its own ‘Clearance Ready’ program which helps to pair students with national security employers, educating them about the security clearance process along the way.


College students who want to take advantage of an internship should understand that they must apply with a specific agency or contractor, as each set their own requirements and outline program and eligibility guidelines.

As a rule, internships require students to be U.S. citizens and have good academic standing. Many also require students to have completed 60 hours of college credit at an accredited school. Government and private companies alike are looking for students who can complete a background investigation to determine their eligibility for a security clearance – which is why their selection processes are based on the best qualified applicants and those with job-related criteria in line with merit principles.


This article was updated for accuracy in 2021.

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