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As a result of the global pandemic, workplaces were forced to shift their approach to internships, with 40% of businesses having converted traditional in-person experiences into virtual internships. During year one of the pandemic, nearly a quarter of students interning remotely were concerned about the quality of their experience, believing that it would be less impactful than an in-person experience.
Since 2020, organizations have maintained this “new normal”, continuing to support and prioritize flexible and remote work, including interns, at the behest of changing employee preferences. Virtual internships exploded during the pandemic and continue to flourish, even as in-person events have become safer and more widely accepted.
The public conversation surrounding remote work is far from over, but as summer internship season quickly approaches, it’s important for LSA students to consider their options and recognize the realities of virtual opportunities. We spoke with LSA senior Evan Hall, who has many internships under his belt, to learn more about his virtual internship experiences and get his advice to other students considering virtual intern roles.
Evan, a Biology, Health & Society [BCN] major, was in his first year at U-M LSA when the pandemic began and stay-at-home orders were put in place. Evan says that although a virtual internship was never part of his original plan, it actually gave him an advantage that he never saw coming.
Evan knew he was interested in pursuing a career related to HIV prevention and policy, but wasn’t sure what types of internships were available in this realm. It wasn’t until his third year when a trip to Boston presented itself as an exciting virtual opportunity and turned out to be a formative internship experience.
“I was in a Boston Starbucks worrying about internships for the fall semester,” Evan said. “So, I typed ‘Policy Intern HIV’ into the search bar, and low and behold, I found an open position.”
Evan applied to and secured a fully virtual role as the Policy and Legislative Affairs Intern for NASTAD, a Washington D.C.-based public health organization. If this internship would have been a traditional, in-person role, Evan says his application wouldn’t have even been considered, as he was living hundreds of miles away in Ann Arbor, and geographic distance would have been the ultimate barrier.
“I was able to achieve so much via virtual internships because the entire sphere of policy had moved virtual,” Evan said.
When it comes to searching for internships, Evan started early and actively searched for positions that aligned with his interests. Coty Pyscher, an Employer Relations Manager at the Opportunity Hub, encourages students to proactively explore potential internship opportunities rather than wait until the last minute.
“Even if you’re not applying for internships right now, it’s never too early to check out your options,” Coty says.
Evan’s experience is a testament to this, as he found the NASTAD opportunity while casually scrolling through Handshake.
Prior to earning his internship at NASTAD, Evan held a virtual Analytics and Evaluation role with a New York-based HIV prevention nonprofit, GMHC, along with other virtual consulting and global engagement internships. Although he did not envision the totality of his internship experience taking place remotely, all of these roles greatly contributed to his professional growth.
Virtual vs. In-Person: The Pros, Cons & Misconceptions
Despite the increasing popularity of virtual and hybrid work, students still hold many misconceptions and hesitancies when it comes to remote internships: Do remote roles elicit “real-life” experience? Are they as effective as traditional, in-person internships? What’s the value of going virtual?
Evan responds to the misconceptions by saying: “It is completely up to the user. Just as in-person roles, you will get out of it what you put into it.”
The big question is: are you really preparing yourself for the real world? The resounding response: Yes. Virtual internships are mirroring the future of work.
Research indicates that nearly 60% of U.S. workers who say their job can be done from home are working from home all or most of the time. Before the
pandemic, 57% of these workers said they rarely or never worked from home. This is a trend that is not projected to go away.
“People think if you don’t do an in-person internship, you’ll never know how to interact in the in-person workforce,” Evan says. “But, am I entering an in-person workforce?”
As he is preparing for graduation this spring and applying for jobs, Evan says that nearly all of the positions he has looked into, many of which are related to policy, are virtual or hybrid. He is also cognizant of the fact that some careers don’t offer the luxury of remote work. In fact, most U.S. workers don’t have jobs that can be done from home.
For students who are pursuing a career that requires fully in-person work, virtual internships may not be the best option. But, with today’s technology, there are many other innovative, virtual opportunities available, even for those who are pursuing careers that cannot be accomplished from home.
Coty shared that the Hub’s Employer Engagement team recently collaborated with an employer partner, a hospital in Chicago, that held an interactive workshop where students interested in medicine could join a live, virtual surgery.
Although they may not be as beneficial for everyone, Evan recommends virtual internships for “people who feel very secure and independent in their work style, or individuals who are curious about developing this sense of independence at work.”
Like traditional, in-person internships, virtual roles pose different challenges and benefits. While these positions allow a lot of flexibility, interns may not get the desired face-to-face time in the office with colleagues. Some argue that asynchronous work can take away from the “social culture” of a workplace. As an outgoing and social person, Evan says he has found ways to overcome the challenges. When he travels to Boston or D.C. on his own time, he is intentional about meeting up with colleagues in the area.
“This is a great way to build rapport,” Evan says. “When you work virtually, people find a lot of value in face-to-face interactions. It isn’t as intentional when you have an in-person position.”
He also explains that, for him, working virtually prevents distractions, increases his productivity, and allows him to integrate more intentional social activities into his schedule. Evan meets with his supervisor once a week, so during this short time, he must be deliberate, especially in terms of communication.
“Without the short, one-off conversations you may have in an office setting, virtual internships are a little more formalized because you’re frequently presenting yourself via writing,” Evan says. “I have to be very careful about what I’m communicating and how.”
Expectations: What’s Right for You?
Evan says it’s crucial for remote interns to be explicit with colleagues, ask questions, and be mindful of others’ schedules. Just like traditional internships, virtual positions require independence, responsibility, and accountability. However, they can also require you to be responsive, as work schedules are oftentimes fluid.
Virtual internships are favored for their flexibility and freedom to work anywhere. For many students, location is a significant barrier to certain internship opportunities. And, from an employer perspective, virtual work has allowed companies and organizations to source talent from anywhere. Since many internships are no longer limited by location, Coty says employers are “looking to hire candidates that translate to full-time employees after the conclusion of their internship.” Approaching internships with openness and consideration of a potential full-time role is expected.
Considering all that you now know about virtual internships–are they right for you? Evan believes that, “It really boils down to knowing who you are, what aspects of work you prioritize, and what type of career you’re interested in pursuing in the future.” For students who excel at creating their own structure, enjoy self-paced work, and value the flexibility of location, virtual opportunities may be a perfect fit.
While you’re exploring opportunities and applying for internships, consider the benefits of both in-person and online positions. Virtual internships can be extremely impactful and formative to your professional development. Just like traditional internships, virtual roles offer students a taste of what it’s like to work within a specific industry, initiating new ways of learning, communicating, and maintaining working relationships, all while navigating the ever-changing professional landscape. Ultimately, virtual internships are sticking around and offer a net positive outcome.
For more information on available internship opportunities, check out our curated list of positions on LSA Engage, or join us at the 2023 LSA Internship Fair.