Career Development

Tips from a University Career Coach: How to Succeed in a Virtual Internship

Oct 28, 2020

By: Jennifer Herrity

Jennifer Herrity is a career coach at Indeed and has worked with job seekers from various industries over the last 10 years. She creates content to help people navigate their career challenges with tools and techniques she has shaped through practical experience.


COVID-19 has reshaped the way many internship programs are being conducted this year, resulting in cancellations, postponements and the movement to virtual programs for many. In a survey conducted by the National Association of Colleges and Employers in the US, 29% of employers reported that their internship programs were going virtual this summer, with another 42% expected to increase their virtual recruiting. Businesses are impacted by the coronavirus in Hong Kong and across the world., including the way they conduct internship programs. Virtual internships may require some changes to the way you approach your work and establish relationships with peers and colleagues.

In this article, we sat with Julie Brewer, Career Specialist at The University of Texas at Austin’s Moody College of Communication Career Center to offer best practices for making sure you have a successful virtual internship.

Internship preparation check-list

Brewer says the first question you should ask yourself before you begin your internships is “Why was I looking for an internship? She says, “Internships can help to identify if there is a particular skill set you want more practice in, to grow your professional network or even to help you decide between two different career paths.”

Having a set of expectations or goals you’d like to accomplish identified in advance will help to ensure that you are getting a return on your investment of time by participating in an internship. Using the SMART goal framework can help you create specific, measurable achievable and relevant goals.

While you should create a checklist specific to your goals broken down by milestones, here is a general list you can use throughout your experience:

  • Connect early to clarify expectations
  • Test your tech
  • Set up a professional workspace
  • Develop professional habits
  • Establish regular meetings (with a prepared agenda)
  • Be proactive
  • Be your own advocate
  • Ask clarifying questions
  • Monitor your workload
  • Build a virtual network

Connect early to clarify expectations

The value of participating in an internship is gaining practical experience focused on an area of educational study. Before you begin your internship program, schedule a meeting with your hosting company’s dedicated internship coordinator or your direct supervisor to gain a better understanding of what is expected of you and what the scope of your responsibilities will be. A simple way to get this information is by asking your internship manager questions like, “Can you describe what it would look like for me to leave this internship successfully?”

The primary goal of your internship experience is learning about the industry. If you are receiving academic credit for your internship, provide clear expectations to the company for what criteria need to be met for you to meet the requirements to receive credit. Another thing you might consider is whether the company hires high-performing interns full-time. Ask your employer before you start to understand what opportunities, if any, you may have at the end of your internship.

Test your tech

One of the main differences between participating in a virtual internship versus being onsite is the dependency you will have on technology. Check-in with your school and internship employer to understand who should be providing the tools you’ll need to be successful, such as a computer, wifi, monitor or paid applications. To prepare for starting your internship off right, confirm with your internship coordinator, supervisor or company technical support staff that you have the software and messaging apps needed to perform the duties of your internship and communicate with your team. Make sure you know who to contact on the IT team should you have any technical difficulties during your internship.

Before your first day, consider testing out the following technical equipment and software

  • Video conferencing platform
  • Camera
  • Microphone
  • Internet
  • Messaging apps

In addition to the tools needed to perform the responsibilities for the role, consider using a productivity tracker to document the progress you are making on your projects. There are several free options including Clockify, which also includes a Pomodoro Timer, but a simple spreadsheet works as well. Within your tracker, include the task or project name, the number of minutes/hours spent working on it and a brief description of what you accomplished for each day. This information will be useful during check-ins, reviews and as you take steps to update your resume to include your internship experience.

Set up a professional workspace

Before your first day, find a quiet corner of your home where you can set up a professional workspace. Choose a location where you can have limited interruptions. Pay attention to what is visible behind you when on a video meeting and opt for a neutral background. Brewer recommends thinking twice before using a virtual background. “Virtual backgrounds can sometimes be distracting. If you choose to use one, it should be professional.”

Establish “office hours” for yourself based on the scheduling requirements of your internships. Work hours for internships can vary by company. It’s possible for your internship to have a set schedule, a set number of hours to complete in a week with no pre-set schedule or even be project-based. Clarify with your supervisor what the expectations are and then build a dedicated environment for yourself that you can stick to that balances work, school and personal time.

Develop professional habits

An internship might be your first step into a professional work environment. Even if this is your first internship, you want to give the impression that you’ve already established the habits of a seasoned employee. Here are three ways to make a positive impression:

Be aware of your screen. When you begin your internship, take measures to limit your distractions throughout the day by only keeping work-related messaging apps open. Be aware that when you share your screen during a meeting that viewers are able to see your open tabs, so keep your search results professional during the workday and when using company-issued equipment.

Be presentable. In virtual internships where you may have limited interactions with your supervisor and the rest of the team, there can be extra attention paid to your timeliness, personal appearance and participation in meetings. For video meetings, show up on time and with your camera on to indicate that you’re ready to work and be seen. Keep your eyes directed at the camera so that you can show your attentiveness to the speaker. To appear professional, so wear a nice, clean top and hairstyle.

Be reliable. As an intern, it's important to develop a reputation for being reliable and able to work autonomously. Ensure that you meet deadlines, pay attention to feedback and produce quality work. If you’re not sure you’re able to meet expectations, communicate with your supervisor early on to find opportunities for efficiency or to reassess goals.

Establish regular meetings (with a prepared agenda)

Set the expectation that you would like ongoing feedback as you progress through your internship. Regular check-ins may be set for you by your employer, but communicate if you need to meet more frequently—even daily—for 5-10 minute check-ins to ensure you’re still focused on the highest-priority work. Ask your supervisor how they prefer to communicate. While a video meeting might be best to have once a week, you might find that shorter check-ins or questions can be communicated through your company’s messaging app.

As a best practice, have an agenda ready with a list of items you would like to discuss during the meeting. Create a shared document where you and your supervisor can add agenda items. Prioritize topics that are time-sensitive or urgent to ensure you address those first.

Be proactive

A beneficial habit to develop during an internship that will set you up for success as you grow as a professional is being proactive, meaning you take actions towards impact without being specifically told or asked. While you will have a direct supervisor and possibly an internship coordinator either at your college or university or your hosting company, it is ultimately up to you to own the quality of your internship experience and advocate for what you need.

Brewer says a common misconception held is that you have to participate in numerous internships to be seen as a qualified candidate for employment. “Quality over quantity of internships is important. Internship quality includes both the breadth of the experience gained in addition to the relationships that you build during that time.”

Be your own advocate

With so much of your work in a virtual internship being done autonomously, it’s important to be your own advocate and communicate your needs. Establish trust with your supervisor by doing what’s expected of you, following through on assigned tasks, meeting deadlines and communicating project barriers or challenges before deadlines.

If you complete your assigned tasks early, ask for feedback from your supervisor and colleagues about the quality of your work and opportunities for improvement before asking for more work. The goal of your internship is to learn, so seek advice on what you could have done better so that you can continuously improve.

Once you’re ready to ask for additional work or learning opportunities, consider requesting projects that focus on a skill or area of the business that interests you. Think back to the first conversations you had with your supervisor before the start of your internship. Is there a skill you’re looking to develop that you haven’t worked on yet?

Conducting internships virtually may be a new experience for the company likely facing new challenges as a result of the impact of COVID-19, so it's important to speak up if things aren't working.

Ask clarifying questions

Above all else, an internship is a learning opportunity. Your supervisor expects you to ask questions to learn more about the work, industry and how decisions are made. If you’re tasked with an assignment or project and need more direction, ask your supervisor for more information or clarification on the direction you should take. Asking clarifying questions can help to prevent mistakes and improve the quality of your work.

A great initial question to ask is how your supervisor prefers to receive questions. Every manager is different, so yours might prefer to communicate by chat, email, phone or video. Encourage your manager to provide feedback after you complete an assignment or present so they know you’re interested in growing as a professional. When the time comes, if they don’t offer it directly, ask for it.

Brewer suggests being intentional about the questions you ask when participating in a virtual internship. “You’ll be managing and driving yourself more than you would be in an office setting.” If you have concerns about the quality of your internship experience, consider asking your manager these questions:

  • What are the attributes you’ve seen in interns who stood out to you?
  • Which areas do you think I should be working harder on?
  • What steps should I take to ensure I’m getting the most out of my experience with your team?

Monitor your workload

As a new intern, you might be excited by the opportunity and take on additional projects without knowing what your bandwidth really is. Consistent communication with your supervisor regarding your workload can help to ensure you don’t have too much or too little to work on. When working virtually, it can be easy for the work hours to extend past what is expected.

A recent survey of Microsoft employees showed workdays were actually lengthening as people transitioned to working from home. People were working four more hours per week on average and the share of instant messages sent between 6 pm and midnight increased by 52%.

Use your productivity tracker to monitor how much time you’re spending on your projects. Brewer recommends emailing a summary of your accomplishments to your supervisor at the end of your workweek. Here’s an example summary for a marketing intern:

This week I:

  • Shadowed three stakeholder meetings
  • Attended a brainstorming session for an email campaign
  • Drafted email copy for an A/B test and sent to a marketing manager for review

Build a virtual network

One of the benefits of participating in an internship is the exposure to peers and professionals in the industry you’re interested in working in. While you may not have the opportunity to work side-by-side with fellow interns, you can still take steps to build a network of peers by scheduling virtual events like social hours, career development workshops, breakfasts, lunches or coffee breaks.

To continue to build your professional network, identify one or two colleagues you’ve admired during your internship and ask them to meet for a coffee break. Use this as an opportunity to gain a better understanding of your organization’s culture, how people fit in and how they got to where they are in their professional career. Share your own goals as well and how you see yourself growing due to the internship opportunity. Building professional relationships can increase your chances of receiving a full-time offer or an invitation to return for future internships.

Brewer recommends crafting a message that introduces yourself, clearly explains why you want to meet and includes your availability.

Here’s an example invitation to send to a professional colleague:

Subject: Meeting to discuss email marketing strategy

Dear Mr. Chen,

My name is Jessie Lee, and I’m currently interning at ABC Company. I attended the marketing team meeting last week where you presented on the topic of changes made to the company’s email marketing strategy over the last year. I was hoping you might be able to meet virtually for a coffee or lunch to discuss this further. I have some questions I would love to ask you on that subject; specifically, how you approached testing and the evaluation of your findings.

If it is more convenient to talk on the phone, that would work well for me also. I have some free time next Wednesday or Thursday and the following week most of my days are open. Please let me know if any of those options are convenient for you and your preferred time to speak and I can send a calendar invite.

Thank you again for sharing your experiences, and I look forward to speaking with you.

Sincerely,
Jessie

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