University of Wisconsin–Madison

Exploring Virtual Internships: Key Tips for Students

Guest contribution from Debora Jeske

Virtual internships have been around for well over ten years. In recent months, this kind of internship has suddenly moved into the mainstream, replacing traditional on-site internships. As students, educators and employers were readjusting to remote working, more and more advice has emerged to support students’ adjustment to virtual internships. Given the many discussions I have lead with both students and internship providers over the last ten years, and most notably in 2020, I decided to put together this more detailed blog post to support students in their selection of internships, their preparations for internships, and their career planning during and following the virtual internship experience.

The following post outlines my recommendations for students seeking virtual internships.

Finding virtual internship positions

As you are setting out to find virtual internships, just a clarification. In this blog post I am referring to virtual internships. When I do so, I am specifically referring to e-internships done remotely with an employer, rather than simulated work experience in virtual environments. This distinction is important as there are different forms of virtual internships. In addition, I am specifically referring to virtual internships that last for at least six weeks or several months, involving full-time or part-time hours, and feature plenty of opportunity to apply existing and learn new skills as part of a select number of projects.

Over the last ten years, many internship sites have emerged that allow employers to advertise their vacancies. These internship sites can be found in numerous countries. In addition, a few companies have emerged that offer platforms via which employers can run their internship programs (such as InsideSherpa or Symba). Furthermore, many companies are advertising their internship roles directly on their websites. This means that while it is tempting to rely on internship posting sites alone, you should be able to find many more internships if you look at company websites. Do consider also non-governmental organizations (e.g., environmental groups), museums and other public institutions, research institutes, and community groups. If you do not see any virtual roles being advertised, consider contacting HR in those organizations to find out if you can submit a speculative internship application to a department where you would be interested in working. Some employers might not plan to take on virtual interns, but when they receive applications from interesting candidates, I have known a number of managers and supervisors who then changed their minds.

Identifying relevant value propositions and expectations

This brings me to the next step. Every application is essentially a sales pitch exercise, especially given the number of applicants that are competing for virtual roles. The clearer you are in your application in terms of what motivates you to work for this company, what you can contribute in terms of skill set, and how as well as why you believe working for them will be of mutual benefit, the better. So before you get started on your application, you need to identify your motivations for the job – and most notably, consider what you can offer to an employer and what kind of internship experience you hope to receive in return.

One tip is to put together a list of value propositions. First of all, what do you bring to the organization that would be of value to them? This will require some strategic thinking. For example, which software programs do you use? What kind of skills have you acquired (e.g., conceptual thinking, analytical or technical skills) that could be relevant to the organization? Do you have specific work experiences that demonstrate your understanding and insights? Moreover, have you completed tasks or projects on topics that would be of interest to the organization and further demonstrate your ability to contribute some temporary intellectual capital to the organization?

Secondly, what do you hope to gain yourself from this experience? Think about your expectations for the internship and what you hope to gain in return for your work input in terms of training or mentoring (e.g., you need to know what you can offer to the organization but also be cognizant of potential skill or knowledge gaps). Moreover, do think about how the internship will help you to make progress towards your long-term career goals (e.g., you might want to think yourself what kind of job you aspire to, if you would be open to working in the private or public sector, working freelance or on contract, with specific stakeholders or industries). Do consider the possibility of how working for this company could help you to connect to role models, expand your professional network (building your social capital) and develop your digital foot print for the professional future you have in mind. Being able to talk about your expectations, hopes and plans will give an organization a clearer picture of your motivation and help them to match you to potential supervisors, mentors, projects, teams and departments.

Selecting your virtual internship of choice

Once you have successfully completed your application and have been invited to an interview, please consider the following during the selection process. While internships may be hard to come by, you are also making a selection choice. That means, you must decide for yourself if you would really benefit from the internship.

In order to make this decision, you have to ask yourself the following. First, do you have enough information and goal clarity on what the role involves (tasks, hours, interaction with others, training provided)? And relatedly, do I know the technical requirements (e.g., hardware and software) that I need to work on the planned projects? Second, do you have a good understanding of what the everyday would look like (e.g., how the work is completed, meeting frequencies, general values and team interactions)? Third, are you clear on who you would be working with? All these questions should be covered in the interview, as part of a realistic internship preview. It is up to you to ensure that you have goal clarity and enough information. In my experience, the lower one’s goal clarity, the more likely it is that you will be feeling uncertain and soon dissatisfied during your internship. It will also help you to make a more informed decision when you are offered the internship.

Another particularly important element to consider during the selection process is the extent to which learning and development is discussed during the selection process. If it is not mentioned, do address it yourself. Internships are principally transitional learning experiences that are meant to prepare you for the workplace. Internships are not gig work or basic assistant work where you are expected to be fully skilled. Furthermore, internships should allow for skill development – so try to find out if you would be essentially completing mundane, routine, and repetitive tasks. If so, you might want to think again about whether or not the internship would really be a learning experience for you. Ideally, the recruiter, supervisor or manager should be open to discussing your learning expectations. If you outline them in your motivation or cover letter, you can already steer the conversation carefully in this direction. Ideally, by the end of each interview, you should have a good understanding of the tasks involved as well as the learning and training opportunities that will be provided.

Keeping a record of your expectations and the internship goals

As soon as you have decided to accept an offer, consider documenting everybody’s expectations and goals for this role (including your own). This can be helpful to clarify roles and guide your development. In addition, such notes will help you to create a written learning agreement or learning contract with your supervisor, guiding your internship in addition to what is spelled out in the official internship contract.

Especially in virtual internships, it is critical for interns to keep track of all discussions. It is very likely that at times, you will work autonomously and independently on projects, but you might also end up working on team projects. When I have had interns myself, I required them to keep notes of our meetings and agreements that we would then revisit at different intervals. This ensured some sort of continuity and helped me as a supervisor to stay on top of various projects with various interns (especially team projects which involved discussions I was not part of). This documentation ensured that interns were always on top of their projects because they kept a record to guide them when I was not available – and I in turn could more easily catch up when they had worked on a project independently for some time. If your supervisor does not engage in this practice, start keeping a record on your own to guide you. This again points to the need to be proactive on this front from the get-go.

Be clear on what motivates you and find opportunities to stay motivated. If you are not assigned a mentor, ask your supervisor or team whether or not mentoring is an option for you (ideally from somebody who knows the organization or the career track you are hoping to take in the long-run). If they do not have such a mentoring scheme, contact your supervisor and consider asking him or her to help identify potential volunteers that might serve as potential mentors. Remember to plan ahead and be considerate of deadlines: if your team doesn’t have a time calendar or project schedule, consider developing one that also tracks their availability and critical mile stones (especially when you are completing projects that take longer). Time management is a critical skill for all remote working arrangements, including virtual internships. Planning ahead and for potential unplanned events, will ensure you are able to complete your project effectively with others and hopefully on time. A number of online tools are already available, so consider investing some time to learn about these!

As you get started and throughout your internship, remember to keep a track record of what you are learning (e.g., what kind of projects you completed with what kind of software). I personally loved those records as it helped me to understand where each intern was in terms of their own skill development. These records also guided our feedback sessions. And finally, remember that such records can help your supervisor to write up detailed references for you later – so keeping such lists and records benefits both parties!

Setting the stage for both personal and mutual learning

In today’s work environment, you will be expected to continuously develop your skill set and knowledge. Especially in virtual internships, it is likely that you will have to work on your own at times. Becoming comfortable with this requirement, setting time aside to find solutions, and being proactive about identifying what you need to learn for each task will be critical to success. In short, before and during your internship, remain cognizant of potential skill or knowledge gaps. While many employers will be happy to offer you training and mentoring, many smaller organizations struggle to do so. So take charge, be proactive and independent in seeking out solutions, tutorials, and assistance. Share your resources and insights with your supervisor and team members, or other peer interns. They will appreciate your input and hopefully also share their own suggestions. In my experience, you will almost always find information online if you know the right keywords. And if things are a bit trickier, your academic advisors may be willing to help you out at times as well.

I referred to the importance of keeping track of everything task or project related. I would also like to add that it will often be up to you to identify your learning goals. Be proactive about requesting feedback from your supervisor, team or project members at appropriate intervals (e.g., when you achieved a mile stone). Take a moment each week to reflect on your progress, on barriers such as knowledge and skill gaps. Schedule separate chats with your contacts to discuss learning progress, rather than the tasks at hand. Such chats also give you the opportunity to get feedback from them, or even clarify certain assumptions. For example, you love skill variety and don’t mind taking up adhoc tasks? You would love to give this new marketing project a try? You would be keen to onboard a new intern or become a peer mentor yourself? You could see yourself working for the company after your internship?

Finding time to discuss such development opportunities is as important as discussing task-related steps. Doing so will reduce potential boredom, demonstrate your interest in new tasks, and highlight you as a candidate for more diverse projects and maybe even future hiring rounds. In virtual settings, you have to be proactive to ensure you are also getting the most out of the experience. Be reflective about your own learning progress – and learn from your mistakes as well. Holding back or being too humble to share your project successes will potentially mean you do not get much feedback, and you could end up being excluded (intentionally or not) from taking on interesting new projects and roles.

Do remember that internship providers are learning with you as well. For many employers, virtual internships will be new endeavors. Your supervisor might be new to managing interns or working remotely. Do remember that you can also make a real difference to their experience by sharing your expertise, giving them feedback, making suggestions, and being open to changing projects and teams. Chances are you and your supervisor or team are all still learning the ropes. This means you might have more insights and knowledge to share with them than you realize. Given the right set up, many supervisors see interns as valuable internal consultants, bringing new perspectives and insights to the organization. So, consider the possibility of you actively contributing to the positive experience of your supervisor, team or organization by feeding information, feedback, and suggestions upward where possible. A good mentor or supervisor can help you identify the appropriate avenues to do so. It will also be a good learning experience for you to learn how to effectively communicate your insights upwards.

Planning for the next step

While internship quality, duration and projects often vary vastly, each internship is a learning experience. As noted above, if you reflect on what you learn, you can hopefully identify the things that you would like to adopt in the future (e.g., certain software or team management practices). Make sure you get an internship certificate or similar that outlines your role, your responsibilities and any training that you received. This way you have all the documentation that you can add to your portfolio of references and certificates for your next internship or job application.

And remember, the internship experience can clarify matters and career goals. What you liked about the internship may be just as informative as what you did not like about the internship. If you hated sales, well, your internship experience might tell you that this is no longer the career track you want to pursue after all. You should also reflect on whether remote working is a good fit for you. Having researched this further, I found that many virtual interns – following a successful e-internship – can see themselves working in similar remote roles in the future. But there are always some who find that this model is not really working for them. Being able to evaluate and summarize your experience will help you make better decisions when you are ready to find the next job or internship.

Regardless of how positive or negative your internship experience is, do remember to network widely. If you found role models in the organization, consider inviting them to connect to you on LinkedIn. If the organization has an alumni network or similar, think about joining this network. Talk to people in the organization that have been hired there recently, and get their advice on next steps if you are interested in working in the organization or this industry. See where your peer interns get hired and contact them to get more tips about getting hired. Ideally, when you leave, you will have expanded your network, conducted several informational interviews, and will be equipped with more insights and skills to tackle the next step in your journey.


About Dr. Debora Jeske

Debora is a work and organizational psychologist in Berlin, Germany (PhD 2011, Northern Illinois University). In addition, she has worked in education in the US, UK, as well as Ireland where she is an Adjunct Senior Lecturer at University College Cork. Debora has researched virtual internships for almost ten years in various countries and continues to collaborate with practitioners and academics on a number of projects related to remote work, e-HRM, as well as learning and development at work.

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