You can take your classes online, but can you get practical work experience online? A virtual internship will allow you to work, at a distance, as an intern for a company or other organization. Internships are a popular way to gain practical work experience while you are a student, and may even be a requirement of your academic program.
Virtual internships are not new, but they are gaining popularity. Employers began exploring these online internship options as early as the 1990's. As social media and online communication tools improve, companies look to telecommuting as a way to find full-time employees and interns at a potential cost savings.
Take a look at a few examples of virtual internship placements and think about how your career interests and academic major might fit with opportunities like these.
- Public Relations Assistant with new social networking site FreezeCrowd
- Virtual Teaching Internships at Florida Virtual Schools and the University of South Florida
- Science Policy Virtual Internship Program with Scientists and Engineers for America
- New Technologies and Global Marketing Virtual Internship with USJournal
- Online Marketing and Training E-Intern at the Natural History Museum of the Adirondacks
Benefits and Challenges
As an online student you may have an internship requirement as part of your academic program, but if not, it may also be something you will want to pursue on your own.
The benefits of a virtual internship may include:
- direct experience with a particular company,
- exposure to a typical work setting, and
- hands-on experience in the field you are studying.
A virtual internship also opens up additional opportunities outside of your local area. You aren't limited to only companies and positions in your town – you can search nationwide.
Challenges of virtual internships may include:
- more limited networking opportunities than a face-to-face environment,
- the learning curve associated with new technologies and online project management systems, and
- additional effort required to establish and maintain good communication channels.
You may find that many of the benefits and challenges of virtual internships are similar to those you find in your online courses. Your ability to stay engaged, ask questions, be self-directed, and manage your time will all be essential to the success of your experience as a student and intern.
What to Expect
Application Process: Virtual internships, like virtual jobs, will vary based on the type of company, project assignments, and the culture of the organization itself. You can expect an application process that may include submission of a resume, cover letter, references, and even a portfolio. Check each announcement carefully for the details. You may also be expected to interview with the company over the phone or online through a videoconferencing or calling system like Skype.
Type of Work: Not all types of work are readily adaptable, or available, in a virtual environment. Expect to find opportunities in fields where projects and related tasks can be completed and performed online and over the phone. Typical tasks might include: writing, research, sales and marketing, social media and public relations outreach, web and graphic design, and accounting.
Read the reflections of Alexandra M. Patterson, an experienced virtual intern who provides additional tips on applications, technology, and time zones! James W. Ernst also provides feedback about the challenges of his virtual internship experience in public relations while working a full-time job and taking classes.
Finding Virtual Internships
Online Databases: There are a lot of internship websites out there and many offer the option of searching for "online" or "virtual" listings specifically. Several database sites are listed below, but explore additional opportunities that may be available and recommended by your school's academic and career advisors!
- Externs.com offers a "virtual" search feature with multiple available positions listed.
- Internships.com provides information about virtual and face-to-face internships and is actively recruiting employers that offer a virtual option.
- Intern Queen, Inc. is a smaller company that offers daily internship tips and a searchable database of positions that includes virtual listings. This site works to match you with hiring internship employers.
- Urban Interns allows you to search location by "Any/Virtual." You can also create your profile and apply for jobs within the system.
- YouTern reports that over half of the internships on the site are virtual ones, and many with small business and technology start-ups. Search their site for more information.
When using the search databases, not all listings are alike. Search for "virtual" or "any" in the location field, but also search using career field and keyword options. Some companies will list virtual opportunities with their home office city locations in the description.
Take some time to explore the sites for more information and tips on how to use the site more effectively. Many of these sites also offer opportunities to set up profiles, application info, newsletters, and additional resources.
Consider following these sites on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, etc. to receive more information about opportunities and additional resources as they become available.
Looking on your own: Online databases are convenient, but are just one way to search.
- Consider contacting companies that you are interested in working for directly. Do they have remote employees? If so, they may be open to remote interns as well.
- Check company websites for posted information about existing internship programs.
- Propose a project. If you have an idea for an internship project, contact an organization that might be willing to supervise you through the process in a formal setting.
- Ask your network! Talk with people in your network – family, friends, instructors, classmates, previous employers – and let them know you are interested in a virtual internship.
Questions about Virtual Internships
Develop a list of questions to research as you browse internship websites and ask as you talk with potential internship supervisors:
- Will you provide your own computer and Internet connection? This is probably the case, but there may be some reimbursements available.
- Is the position hourly or project-based? It may be a combination of both. Find out how many hours per week are anticipated and if there are specific times of day you will be expected to be online. A virtual internship may have set work hours.
- What are typical work assignments? You will also want to find out more about the kind of work you will be doing as an intern as well as how projects are assigned and progress is tracked.
- How will you be trained and supervised? Is there an orientation? Scheduled staff meetings? How will you and your supervisor communicate with each other? Communication will be critical to making the situation work for all involved. Expect periodic check-in meetings to go over progress and task assignment and the use of email, shared calendars online, and instant messaging.
Before getting started…
Check with your school! If you are pursuing a virtual internship as part of your academic program, you will need to make sure the internship opportunity meets all of the guidelines your school requires, and that any necessary approval processes and paperwork are completed. Work with both the sponsoring company and your instructor/advisors to make sure that the internship will be accepted for experience hours, academic credit, or other requirement you are trying to fill.
Finding relevant experience through an internship can be both rewarding and challenging. Explore all of the opportunities available and ask questions before getting started. Have you been a virtual intern? If so, tell us about your experience and lessons learned!