Digital technology has dramatically changed the ways in which students navigate the college experience. Online courses, career fairs, and study groups have brought a new level of convenience to students’ lives, but one experience that you may not have expected to see transformed by technology is the college internship.
Internships are a critical piece of many college programs. They provide students with real-world experience, and help them make connections or build skills before heading out into their chosen field. These opportunities are often thought of as a type of hands-on learning that requires being both mentally and physically present. But in recent years, many companies and students have begun to take advantage of the convenience offered by virtual internships. Just as with any opportunity, virtual internships have both positive and negative aspects, and you should seriously consider whether or not such an experience can provide you with what you need before applying.
What is a virtual internship?
In general, virtual internships are much like the traditional internships with which you may be most familiar. Students work with a supervisor or manager on specific projects that may help them build the skills and experience needed to succeed in their chosen field. Unlike the traditional internship, students in virtual internships work remotely from a location of their choosing, communicating with their supervisor or manager through email, video chat, or another program.
Like other types of telecommuting, virtual internships are currently more popular with industries that regularly utilize technology in their daily practices, like technology companies or communications businesses. Nevertheless, they generally operate like any other internship inasmuch as they can be either paid or unpaid, and may carry course credit.
The benefits of virtual internships
The most obvious benefit of a virtual internship is the opportunity to telecommute. With a stable Internet connection and an email account, students can work from their dorm, apartment, or coffee shop, and they are unrestricted by geographic boundaries. Depending on where you live, this can be a very attractive opportunity, especially if you are looking to land a gig with a top company. You can avoid the hassle of a commute, without having to move to another state or limit your search to your city to gain the experience you need for a competitive edge. This flexibility also means that your internship can more easily be worked into your schedule.
In addition to the skills and knowledge that you could expect to gain in a traditional internship, the nature of most virtual internships means they provide an opportunity to expand an intern’s knowledge of and experience with technology. Increasingly, employers expect candidates to have some level of experience with things like social media or various technology and communication programs. Given that, this type of internship could be a great way to gain that experience and become more familiar with emerging technologies in your industry.
The drawbacks of virtual internships
Depending on your field of study or the type of career you hope to establish, a virtual internship might not be a good fit. In the humanities and social sciences, for example, interacting face-to-face is often a defining feature of the job. While not universally true, many customer service skills can be difficult to develop if you spend most of your time interacting with others through email or video chat.
Similarly, working remotely can be challenging if and when you need assistance with a project. Working in an office means that you are surrounded by professionals who can provide guidance and support at a moment’s notice. Along those same lines, virtual interns will likely miss out on gaining first-hand experience with the pace and environment of a company or organization.
Finally, these positions require considerable organizational skills and the ability to self-motivate. If you’re the type of person who isn’t comfortable working independently, or who just prefers working in groups, this type of internship might not be very beneficial—and it may possibly be counter-productive. Of course, this aspect can also work in your favor if one of your objectives is to develop the skills necessary to work independently. As an intern, the expectations will be somewhat less than those set for formal employees, which can allow for the space to make mistakes and build the skills to self-direct (within moderation). Still, keep the potential for future employment in mind as an end goal for your internship—virtual or otherwise.
David White is a contributing writer for UniversityTutor.com, the world’s largest global marketplace for finding independent tutors.