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Virtual internships: what are they and how do they work?

A student's guide to virtual internships

Your FAQs about virtual internships answered: what we know about them, how they work, what you will do and how you can make the most of them.

Due to social distancing and lockdown restrictions many summer internships have been postponed or cancelled, but some employers are running virtual internships instead. These are typically brand new ventures for employers and they are putting things in place speedily. TARGETjobs’ research partner Trendence UK & Ireland conducted a survey with 1,000 students in March and April to find out what specifically was concerning students and what questions they have – we answer as many as we can, and a few extra of our own, below.

What are virtual internships and how will they work?

Simply put: virtual internships are a way of undertaking work experience with an employer but done digitally and remotely rather than in person. From those we've spoken to, employers are putting real thought into making their virtual internships a meaningful experience for students. They know that you want to gain real learning and a sense of the company and the sector and they are trying to provide this, despite the difficulties posed by the medium. Many virtual internships are, therefore, made up of:

  • learning and training opportunities provided via an e-learning platform – this is likely to be a mix of soft skills training for everyone and job-specific training for your particular scheme
  • distinct project work, either individually or as part of a group – this means that you are likely to work on single projects rather than helping out lots of people on smaller tasks (as you might do in the office)
  • one-to-one digital consultations and catch ups with your manager and, if provided, your allocated buddy and/or mentor (a buddy tends to be a graduate employee there to make sure you are OK, while a mentor is usually a senior-level employee)
  • digital networking sessions with employees around the business
  • digital socialising opportunities with other interns, current graduates and other employees (expect ‘happy hours’, ‘pub’ quizzes and similar).

Employers are keen to capture that bump-into-people-at-the-water-cooler conversation and networking you gain in a workplace and so are looking at ways to facilitate this through online chat. They know you will miss out on that face-to-face experience and work-shadowing, though, so many are aiming to invite their virtual interns into the office for a day or two later when they are fully operational and it is safe to do so.

What if I don’t have the right technical equipment?

The Trendence UK & Ireland survey found that many students were worried about not having the right technical equipment. The technology and software needed will vary according to employers, but at least one employer that we know of (IBM) is providing interns with laptops. If you are concerned about not having the right technology, we recommend you speak with your contact at the employer (whether the recruiter or your intern programme manager). They may be able to help come up with a personalised solution.

Would I still get feedback on a virtual internship?

Another major concern that emerged from the survey was the question of whether and how interns would gain good quality feedback. It’s worth noting that how managers and colleagues provide feedback does vary between and within employers in normal times anyway, with good managers providing regular, specific, one-to-one feedback. It’s also fair to say that most organisations are alert to the potential downsides of working in isolation and are putting processes in place to facilitate regular contact and feedback, particularly for those still learning. So, if anything, you may get more feedback during a virtual internship than you would do face to face.

However, we’d always encourage interns to be proactive and ask for feedback – not just from managers but also recent graduates and more experienced colleagues. The online chats should facilitate this.

Will I still get a job offer out of a virtual internship?

Traditionally, most employers use their internships to recruit for their graduate programme, either offering interns a graduate job at the end of the internship or fast-tracking them through to the final stages of the graduate recruitment process. Again, in the survey, many students were worried that this wouldn’t happen.

The answer to this question is mixed. Some recruiters plan to use their internships as a selection method as before, perhaps with an additional assessment step built in (such as another interview). Others aren’t, but it would be surprising to us if they didn’t encourage impressive interns to apply for graduate vacancies when the time comes.

How can I get the most from a virtual internship and sell it on my CV?

As with an in-person internship, the best way to get the most out of a virtual internship is to throw yourself into it. For example:

  • Take part in all training modules open to you, even optional ones.
  • Contribute to online chats and networking sessions, even if you feel awkward. Other people will feel similarly.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for advice from colleagues on your current work, your future career and so on.
  • Actively seek feedback and, whatever you do, learn from it and act on it. Ask questions but make a note of the answers, so that you don’t need to ask the same question again.
  • Work on your time management (read our tips here) so that you prioritise and complete tasks promptly.
  • Make brief notes of what you did, what you achieved and any feedback so that you can update your CV later (particularly keep track of numbers to help quantify and scale your achievements).

On your CV, don’t be afraid to say that it was a virtual internship; in the current climate, when not all internship are running, taking part in a virtual internship will give you kudos. When writing it up, stress what you have learned and what you did, including if you have become familiar with any new apps or programs.

Gain more tips on how to write up your work experience in our big CV writing feature, which includes a template CV.

Which employers are running virtual internships?

Among others:

  • Amazon
  • Bloomberg
  • Clifford Chance
  • Hogan Lovells International LLP
  • IBM
  • Lloyd’s (the insurance market)
  • Macquarie Group
  • Marsh & McLennan
  • Schroders
  • Sky.

Employers are updating our partner website with their plans, so keep an eye on it regularly.

What if I don’t have a virtual internship?

As we say in our feature on internships, work experience and the coronavirus, don’t worry about not having done an internship this spring or summer; it would be a rare employer that would expect students to have done so. Take a look at the feature for some ideas of how you can build your skills while at home.