Virtual Internships Give Students Extra Options

Microinternships allow students to get work experience from their laptops.

The face of internships is changing: rather than working in an office for a semester, students can work for a company from the comfort of their laptops for a few weeks at a time. These internships, sometimes called “micro-internships” or virtual internships, bring students on board to contribute to a specific task or project, and they’re a growing trend. Here’s what the experts have to say about them.

They might be the new temp agency—and that’s not necessarily bad

Mike True, a senior associate at the Career and Professional Development Center at Messiah College in Mechanicsburg, Pa., has seen more of these internships in recent years. He explains that these virtual internships allow students who are looking for experience to become “freelance interns,” contracted for temporary jobs.

“Some are calling them ‘micro’ internships. China currently has some that are only two weeks long,” says True. “I’d call that job shadowing on steroids rather than an internship.”

What’s helpful about the short-term internship, however, is that it lets both the student and the employer test drive the working relationship before committing to anything longer.

“Opportunities for ‘micro-internships’ are beneficial as they allow students the opportunity to build their résumé and test out a project, job, employer, or even industry without making a commitment to a summer- or semester-long experience,” says Andrea St. James, director of the Career Development Center at Western New England University in Springfield, Mass. “If a student finds that they enjoy the tasks, they can explore a more formal arrangement or find another organization which may allow them to further their experience and skill level.”

They can prepare students for a modern workplace

Telecommuting is a growing trend, and that puts both employers and students in a good position for micro-internships.

“With more full-time employees working remotely, employers have the infrastructure to manage remote workers and projects,” says Patrick Sullivan, associate director of Wake Forest University’s Office of Personal and Career Development in Winston-Salem, N.C. “Hiring students as virtual or micro interns gives employers the opportunity to determine if a student has the mindset and skills necessary for success in their workplace.”

“I think having opportunities for students to work remotely on internships is more of a positive for them than not,” says Toni McLawhorn, director of Career Services at Roanoke College. “In some cases, it will allow them access to companies that might otherwise be out of reach geographically. In today’s world, many people work remotely, and this is a good training ground to prepare one for that type of work environment, outside of the traditional office.”

They’re great for (some) students

These types of experience are particularly good for fields involving writing, like journalism, says Karen V. Evans, assistant dean of Experiential Learning and director of Career Development at Albright College in Reading, Pa.

“The beauty of this is that the student does not need a lot of guidance, but they receive some editing feedback. They have published work, and improve their writing skills,” she says.

McLawhorn sees benefits to working remotely, but she notes that the lack of structure and short timeline can be problematic for some students.

“This might not work for every student. Since much of the time is spent without an employer close by, the student is required to be self-driven,” she says. “He or she cannot be a procrastinator at all. Working well independently and good time management skills are absolutely necessary for remote internships. If a student is considering such a placement, he needs to really evaluate his own habits and determine if it’s a good fit.”

Michaeline Shuman, director of Career Development Center at Susquehanna University in Selinsgrove, Pa., says that there are other drawbacks to not having in-person guidance.

“Some potential drawbacks of micro-internships are particular to Millennials— soft skills aren’t practiced, and writing matters more than ever,” says Shuman. “Communication will be heavily writing-based, and students who are unfamiliar with writing formal, professional emails may suffer (or learn quickly).”

They have the same benefits as traditional internships, but require a different approach

Though they have the same goal, micro-internships require students to approach them differently to reap the same benefits. One concern, for example, is a lack of networking opportunities.

“On the surface, virtual internships and micro-internships limit the ability of a student to have those ‘water-cooler’ discussions that provide insight on the organization¹s culture,” says Sullivan. “The reality, however, is that these relationships can be developed through intentional actions on the part of the intern. Students can request brief feedback from their manager, students can connect with colleagues via social media, and they can choose alternative means of communication to achieve the same goals as would be achieved by the ‘water-cooler’ conversation, in much the same way that remote, full-time workers build these relationships.”

In order to get the most out of an internship, students need to be more “entrepreneurial” than they would for traditional internships.

“Students completing virtual or micro-internships need to be more entrepreneurial than their peers in ‘brick and mortar’ internships,” says Sullivan. “They need to be better self-managers, they need to use verbal and written communication skills across a variety of platforms, and they must be proactive in their approach to interacting with peers, teammates, and project managers.”

They rely on good communication

Evans says that virtual internships can be great for both students and their employers, as long as everyone is able to communicate.

“The worst sort of virtual internships are when A. the student is immature and needs more prompting than someone on the other end of a computer is able to provide, and B. the supervisor is not a great communicator,” says Evans.

Shuman also cites poor communication as a micro-internship pitfall.

“Employers may see these types of virtual internships as an efficient and cost-effective tool to use in certain situations and for certain projects,” Shuman says. “But, the employer has less control over someone working virtually in some respects and perhaps may waste more time communicating back and forth about a project than they would if the intern was on site or more strongly connected.”





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