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The Invisible Office: A Guide to Virtual Internships

With the growing popularity of virtual career fairs and telecommuting, it’s no surprise that internships have also changed to meet the needs of students and businesses and to take advantage of new forms of technology. Virtual internships, once a relative rarity, have grown in both number and variety over the past few years. In fact, a survey by reported a 20% increase in the number of virtual positions available over the past year alone, with more than 8,000 listings for virtual internships just on their site. What’s more, students are increasingly embracing this kind of distance-learning experience, with 71% of students stating they’re open to the idea of completing a virtual internship.

Yet for many students and young professionals, it may not be clear just what virtual internships are or what they have to offer. That can make it difficult to determine whether a virtual experience is the right career move, or if a more traditional internship may be the best option. To help, we’ve compiled information that addresses the basics of virtual internships as well as some tips that can help students make the most of the experience, find an internship, and avoid some common pitfalls that come along with online work.

A New Type of Internship

So what exactly is a virtual internship? Usually, it’s not much different than a traditional internship, save that interns conduct their duties from a remote location rather than heading into an office each day. Most interns interact with supervisors through Skype, emails, or other forums on a daily or weekly basis to make sure projects are staying on track.

Virtual internships are most popular among small to midsize companies and online businesses. Some industries have embraced the trend more than others, with the greatest number of positions available in fields that are most conducive to working independently and in an online setting. There are numerous industries where this is the case, and with new technologies emerging all the time, it may soon expand to include other areas of employment as well.

Participants in virtual internships do similar kinds of work and get similar levels of experience as their in-person counterparts. Pay and other benefits are also on par with that of traditional internships: some vitual internships are unpaid and count toward credit in a degree program, and others offer a salary for the amount of work being done.

Where Virtual Internships Are Flourishing

Virtual internships aren’t showing up in all industries across the board — at least not yet. They tend to be concentrated in certain fields. Currently, prospective interns will find the greatest number of virtual internship opportunities in sales, marketing, and social media, though a growing number are showing up in graphic design and software development. This shouldn’t be especially surprising as these kinds of work naturally lend themselves to working off-site and often require minimal supervision.

While not every business out there has gotten on board with virtual internships, a growing number of them are willing to experiment with the process to see what it has to offer their company. One such example is Braathe Enterprises, a consulting firm that works with entrepreneurs, startups, and small and mid-sized businesses. The company’s founder, Robert Braathe, was inspired to create a virtual internship program by his own experiences as a college intern through the Disney World College Program. He wanted to create something that replicated this experience but that didn’t require students to leave home. Of the company’s experience with virtual internships, he says, “It has been amazing. Over 100 students have worked with us already and the work they have produced and the resumes they have built have helped them to launch their careers.” The success of programs like this one may just inspire other businesses to create their own virtual internship programs, especially as technology makes it easier to connect at any time and from anywhere.

As you might expect, one of the richest sources of openings for virtual internships is in companies based online. A number of online businesses have begun adding interns to their teams remotely, with supervision and advice happening in the online sphere as well., which launched a virtual internship program in 2011, is just one example. Other examples of web-based companies embracing virtual internships are and, though there are many more out there.

Another large source of virtual internship opportunities is the government, more specifically the Department of State’s Virtual Student Foreign Service Program. This program matches up college students and young professionals with diplomats at home and overseas, providing virtual interns with the chance to develop social media accounts, conduct research, create databases, write articles, and even build useful forms of digital media to be used for training and instruction.

It’s not just companies themselves that are pushing virtual internships, however. Some colleges are helping students along in the process, too. Columbia University was was one of the first to launch a virtual internship program from its campus back in 2009, a program that’s still thriving today. Through the school’s Center for Career Education, students can find virtual internships that have been vetted by the school in fields ranging from microfinance to public relations. By going through the Career Education office, students often enjoy a much more well-rounded experience than those in many other virtual internship programs as on-site training and support are provided in addition to the actual internship.

The Pros and Cons

Virtual internships may not be entirely different than their more traditional counterparts, but they do come with their own set of pros and cons. First, let’s take a look at the positive aspects of virtual internships that can make them a worthwhile choice for those looking to gain experience in a given field.

  • No commute. Because virtual internships can be done from anywhere, interns don’t need to travel to work each day or move away from home or college to take advantage of an opportunity with a great company. This can save time and money while making it easier to balance other responsibilities with interning.
  • An expanded range of opportunities. With virtual internships, students aren’t limited by location when applying for internship positions. This means that work within companies that are in different states or even different countries may be a possibility, allowing students to tailor their internship experience by interest rather than by proximity.
  • Year-round availability. Most internships require interns to be in the office from 9-5 each day, but since virtual internships are much more flexible, that allows students to integrate them into the regular school year. While this might sound stressful, it can actually be a huge benefit. Instead of competing for positions during summer break when everyone else is looking for work, students have a much wider range of opportunities and far less competition when they can work year round.
  • Benefits to business. Virtual internships aren’t just a boon for students looking to get experience; they can also be a great way for businesses to save money. Because interns work outside the office, they don’t need to be provided with space, supplies, or other essentials that can cost the company money.
  • Experience working independently. Being able to work with minimal supervision is a great skill for a young professional to have, and it’s one that can be honed by working in a virtual internship position that requires individuals to be self-motivated and responsible for meeting deadlines without someone constantly looking over their shoulders.
  • Practical skills. While virtual interns aren’t in the office, they’re still learning valuable skills that can be translated into future job experience. Some may expand their understanding of social media marketing, others will learn how to hone their writing, and others will simply gain experience working within deadlines and as part of a virtual team.

Of course, not every aspect of the virtual internship setup is necessarily positive. These types of remote work have faced a great deal of criticism, so it’s a good idea to weigh your options to make sure they fit your style. Here are a few of the downsides of interning remotely.

  • Little or no training. Because virtual internships take place outside of the workplace, there’s little opportunity for interns to get the training they would in an office. This often means that interns are left to learn on their own or end up doing tasks that they already know how to do, both of which have drawbacks.
  • No insights to the working world. Interns lose out on some valuable aspects of the traditional intern experience when they don’t head into the workplace. There are fewer opportunities to understand the importance of finding a place within the larger company culture and interns may not gain skills in successfully navigating the work environment. This may also mean that interns don’t get to know much about what working for a given company is really like on a day-to-day basis and have little idea what a job in a real world office setting entails.
  • Lack of guidance. For those who prefer to have regular feedback and help working through their daily tasks at an internship, the virtual experience can be seriously lacking. Some internship programs integrate meetings with virtual interns into the experience, but others don’t, which can make it hard to understand what’s expected and where to go with an assignment.
  • Fewer interactions with professionals. One of the best benefits of a traditional internship is working with professionals in your field of interest. In a virtual internship, that contact may be limited or non-existent, which can inhibit learning as well as potential of being hired at the company in the future.

How to Get a Virtual Internship

When it comes to finding and getting a virtual internship, the process is very similar to that of traditional internships. To get started, students can search for virtual internship opportunities through large search sites or with the aid of a college career services office. Some individual companies may post listings exclusively on their site, so it may also pay to do a quick Google search within an industry, too.

The actual application process will likely differ little from that of a traditional internship, though parts of it make take place remotely. Applicants will need to submit a resume, cover letter, and possibly supporting materials that may include letters of reference or writing samples. If a prospective employer thinks an applicant is a good fit for the job, an interview will take place either in person, over the phone, or through an online video chat site.

While much of the process is fairly similar to that of any other internship, there are some precautions and preparations applicants should make to ensure that their virtual internship experience is a positive one.

  • Learn about the company. Not every company is one that will look great on a resume or even be legitimate. Like some work-from-home opportunities that are advertised online, virtual internships may be a scam so it’s important to do some serious research about a company before applying or agreeing to take on an internship. Start with checking out the Better Business Bureau to see if there are complaints on file.
  • Ask questions. No matter what students might like to think, not every virtual internship opportunity will be a good fit. It’s important to find out ahead of time what tasks will be required and what the job entails on a daily basis to make a better informed decision. Some jobs, even those with well-known companies, may simply not be what students have in mind for a learning experience.
  • Know yourself. While virtual internships sounds like the ideal way to get experience while balancing coursework and eliminating the commute, not everyone is well-suited for them. Those who have a hard time maintaining concentration or don’t work well alone, likely won’t thrive in this kind of setting. Know yourself and your limits before pursuing these kinds of online opportunities to ensure the experience is one you’ll be proud of, not regret.

If you’ve already scored a virtual internship, you may be wondering how to put it on your resume or to explain it to your future employers. That’s actually the easiest part of the process. Interns can list their virtual experience on a resume the same way they would any other kind of internship. In fields that stress technical or online skills, it may be beneficial to emphasize the online aspect of the job, as it can demonstrate to future employers that students have a good mastery of tools that play a critical role in these fields.

While most employers won’t balk at seeing a virtual internship on a resume, you can reduce the chances that any will see your experience as less valuable than an in person internship by listing the skills you learned while serving in the position. Make sure to emphasize the self-reliance, time management, and problem solving skills it took to do your job, skills which few employers are likely to question, regardless of where an internship took place.

As technology expands and companies look for ways to reach out to a wider range of interns, virtual internships will likely continue to grow in popularity. With this surge in interest, it’s wise for any student or young professional to learn all they can about the exciting new opportunities they can offer for work experience and skills training. While there’s no guarantee that every virtual internship experience will be a positive one, with few costs and incredible levels of flexibility, prospective interns don’t have much to lose by trying them out.

February 28th, 2013 written by Staff Writers

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