The virtual student internship – how to make it work and impress
As university winds down for 2021, many students will be taking internships over the summer. Securing an internship is a fantastic opportunity to gain relevant work experience, fulfill course requirements, make professional connections, learn about yourself, and importantly – get a feel for the industry or sector(s) you are contemplating working in after you graduate. However, with an increasing number of interns working remotely for some or all their internships, student interns must adapt to a changed workforce to make a good impression.
Most people would agree it is more challenging for anyone starting a new position remotely. There is less opportunity to be visible, and have face to face interactions with supervisors, colleagues, and clients as you would in a typical work setting. The office enables casual interactions with co-workers, whether before or after meetings, whilst grabbing a coffee in the tearoom, socializing after work, walking to meetings and so on. Working face to face is optimal when it comes to observing people, work culture and group dynamics.
With most university students studying remotely for the last few years, the prospect of taking a remote internship may be less appealing, though a virtual internship can still be a great learning experience and help develop your employability skills.
Tips for remote/virtual internship success
There are many ways you can stand out positively and be remembered for the right reasons.
- Be professional. Respond promptly to online meeting requests and submit tasks on time. Dress appropriately for meetings, have a background computer image suited to your work or aligned with what others in the organization are using, remove home distractions insofar as this is possible and have your phone on silent during meetings. Do a test run to check your computer technology works and during work meetings, remember to make eye contact with participants and smile even if you feel nervous initially.
- Show up on time. Why not join team meetings a few minutes early as you might have the chance to engage in informal conversation with colleagues. Be curious, show interest in others and their work and ask them how they are – just as you would in an office setting.
- Show initiative. Come to internal meetings prepared for the agenda and if time permits, be familiar with the profiles of those attending. An organizational chart is very handy for this purpose. Observe but do not be afraid to share your ideas or ask questions especially if invited to contribute. Be prepared to introduce yourself to people you have not met though do give the meeting’s convenor the opportunity to do this first as you are not running the meeting. Practice your introduction, keep it brief and do not be afraid to show your personality. You might share with the group the nature of your internship, what course you are studying, what interests you about the organization and what you hope to learn/contribute. Prepare as you would for your first team meeting with colleagues in person.
- Show interest in developments taking place within the organization/sector and always show willingness to collaborate with others and help in any way you can. This includes helping and working with other interns. Remember it is highly likely you have skills and perspectives your employer will want to utilize.
- Ask questions. Whilst showing initiative and resourcefulness is great, it is important you clarify any tasks that are unclear so you can put forward your best work. Also, don’t be afraid to ask for feedback on your work. This demonstrates interest, good judgement, and a willingness to receive constructive comments. Remember, your supervisor was in your shoes once.
- Express interest in any online training, professional development or planning sessions offered by the organization that might be appropriate for you to attend. This may be dependent on the nature and duration of your internship.
- Be proactive about catchups. If your supervisor hasn’t arranged a regular meeting, suggest this. You might also ask if it would be possible for you to have a brief chat with some key people working in different divisions within the organization so you can learn about their various roles. Quite apart from providing you with an additional opportunity to meet people and impress, this broadens your professional network and provides insights into future work opportunities that might interest you. If it is appropriate, you might connect with them on LinkedIn. Do not be offended if some staff are too busy to meet you but do thank those who share their insights with you.
- Be clear about the terms of your internship, flexibility, and expectations in terms of working hours. Plan your day as if you were in the office and take short breaks as needed.
The positives of a remote/virtual internship?
Taking any internship is an opportunity for you to use your initiative and demonstrate resilience. Some clients taking virtual student internships have told me they have enjoyed getting to know staff in an informal way online and meeting their pets etc. Senior staff can seem less intimidating in their home environment than in a structured office setting.
Some students have loved interning remotely, with the time saved helping facilitate a better balance between work, study, and leisure. Virtual internships have opened opportunities for students living in remote regions around Australia too. As the way we work is changing rapidly, in part due to COVID-19, working virtually for at least part of the time, will be more common and a virtual internship prepares you for this.
Young people today can expect to have five or six careers and work will become increasingly interdisciplinary. Prospective employers will be interested in your “employability skills” These include communication and teamwork, creative thinking, problem solving, digital literacy, resilience, and self-management. A virtual internship will also help you to develop these skills.
Remember you are learning. Do not be hard on yourself if you make mistakes. It is how you respond that is most important. Enjoy the experience and play it forward if you are hosting interns in the future.
Helen is a qualified careers consultant, careers writer and professional member of the Career Development Association of Australia. She has over two decades’ experience working in senior education and career program management roles, particularly within the tertiary sector where she has assisted many students. She now runs her own careers consulting practice, Career Confident, in the South-East suburbs of Melbourne and has children at university.