5 tips for setting up virtual internships

May 4, 2020 | Work experience/internships

Andrew Ferguson from the University of York offers advice to employers following his insightful ISE webinar on Setting up and managing virtual internships: a university’s perspective.

Virtual internships can produce tangible results for both businesses and students.
They can be treated like standard internships with regard to contracting, pay and the expectations that both parties can have of the experience. However, inevitably, virtual internships have to be more flexible around when hours are worked and the levels of supervision that can be provided. This need not reduce the value of the internship and, indeed, may attract different types of students to the project on offer.

Project based internships offer the student the opportunity to ‘own’ a deliverable output and can make the whole experience more rewarding than simply helping to deliver the standard activities of the organisation online.

Here are my five tips for setting up a virtual internship:

1. Define your project

With less opportunity to supervise and direct the intern the initial design of their project becomes more important. Although projects can still develop iteratively, both the intern and their host can have more confidence that the work taking place is relevant and worthwhile if they have a shared understanding of the desired outputs in measurable terms. Clarity on the project’s scope and parameters will also help to stop the intern feeling overwhelmed or lost.

2. Understand your intern’s skills

Understanding the intern’s skills and experience before the project can help with the design process. A project should certainly challenge the intern and they will also be able to learn and develop new skills and knowledge at a rapid rate. However, if the skills and knowledge required are a long way from their experience to date then this process can be difficult without access to the informal support of peers and more knowledgeable colleagues. For these reasons, virtual internships that can build on a student’s established skills are often safest. In our experience, projects that feature research, collation and interpretation of data and the use of writing skills have tended to play well with the interests and skills of a broad range of students considering virtual work.

3. Mitigate for over delivery

An issue that the University of York has seen whilst monitoring students who are virtual interns has been that of anxiety and stress caused by ‘over delivery’. Whilst it is often relatively straight forward to see when an intern is underperforming against project milestones it is harder to see whether the student is actually putting in more work than is actually required for the project to be successful.

Inexperienced interns can aim for perfection in what they do – particularly if they have been rewarded for this behavior throughout their academic careers. Without the informal cues and prompts from colleagues that a ‘real intern’ would experience the virtual intern may not recognise when other factors, such as speed or cost, are actually more important to the project than everything being exceptionally well researched and perfectly delivered. Having an informal contact, who is not the project manager, can help the intern discuss these issues and avoid the stress of over delivery.

4. Use tech to support, not drive delivery

Technology has not proven to be much of a factor in the delivery of successful virtual internships at the University of York. Whatever virtual tools are used, and there are many available, then they should simply support basic, well established, project management principles such as breaking down outputs into manageable tasks, agreeing measurable indicators that progress has been achieved and setting milestones to give a shared understanding of timescales. Communication to check that the project plan is proving realistic needs to be regular and informal but can be achieved through such mundane means as telephone or email. It is our experience that technology is there to support the internship, it doesn’t have to drive its delivery.

5. Don’t overlook the importance of properly concluding a project

Without the same opportunities to build informal links and relationships within an organisation the conclusion of a virtual internship risks being somewhat transactional; the intern simply delivers the output and logs off. Concluding a project is an opportunity to support the intern in reviewing the learning they have achieved, identifying those elements of the project that were challenging and how the intern overcame them. Recognising the value of their experiences and the measurable importance of what they have delivered for their employer are vital elements in turning a virtual internship into an asset for the intern’s next career move.

Watch ISE webinar Setting up and managing virtual internships: a university’s perspective.

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