Making the Most of a Virtual Internship or Project

Virtual internships and projects — experiences for which all of the work is done online from a remote location (e.g., your home) instead of on-site at the workplace — come with their own benefits (no commute!) and their own challenges (how to get to know colleagues?). This document will help you to identify and strategize for some of the benefits and challenges of a virtual experience in advance, so you’ll be ready to make the most of your summer experience.

 

Making the Most of a Virtual Experience

Regardless of whether an internship or project is in person or online, it’s important to plan ahead and set goals for the experience. Please review our Internship Resource Toolkit for some tips and goal-setting exercises that are helpful to consider before you begin any internship experience.

In addition, when planning specifically for a virtual experience, reflect on all of the information below. What aspects of this are exciting to you, and which are concerning? Make an appointment with your College Career Mentor to talk through your goals and plans for your upcoming virtual internship or project experience.

 

Building a strong working relationship with your supervisor can be one of the most educational, valuable, and enjoyable parts of any internship or project. There are many good ways to accomplish this in a virtual setting:

  • Communicate frequently with your supervisor. Schedule regular check-ins, maybe once or twice per week, when you both will have time set aside to continue getting to know each other and talking through any work challenges or questions.
  • Use your Professional Development Strategy as an ongoing and iterative tool to help clarify your goals and plans over the summer. Revisit this document regularly with your supervisor. 
  • Keep your supervisor informed about what you are working on and how you’re progressing. This is a great update to give at those regularly scheduled meetings mentioned above.
  • Be punctual and dependable. Doing your work well and on time is a big contributor to a positive relationship between you and your supervisor.
  • Ask for feedback. After submitting a project or completing a task, ask your supervisor for their comments. This is a great opportunity for you to learn and improve, and highlights your perseverance, openness, and growth mindset to your supervisor.
  • Ask for advice. Your supervisor is there not only to oversee your work, but to teach you about this industry and career path. Ask them about their own educational and career path, and seek out advice that will aid you in your own career decision-making.
  • Ask for help. It’s okay to ask for help from your supervisor. Asking for help is not a weakness, but an opportunity to seek clarification, and help you move forward with a project, idea, or task. Know when you need to ask for help, and do not be afraid to communicate your need for some extra support.
  • Provide ample notice before taking any time off from your internship or project. 

 

At the start of your internship, consider asking your supervisor the following questions, to help you to learn more about them and their expectations:

  • How will you measure success in this internship or project?
  • How do you prefer to be notified if I need to take time off?
  • What’s the best way for me to reach out to you with questions (e.g., email, text message, Slack, etc.)? 
  • Do you prefer that I reach out to you as questions arise, or save a list of questions to review at our scheduled meetings?

 

Learning about an employer’s workplace culture and norms is an important and interesting part of an internship or project, but it can be more difficult in a virtual position. Think about how to achieve this in an online environment. Start by doing some research on your own on the employer’s website: 

  • What is the organization’s mission? 
  • How do they describe themselves? 
  • Are there any images of the workplace available online, and if so, what do you notice about how the space is set up and decorated, or how formally people are dressed? 

Consider the following questions that you can ask your supervisor before your start date, or at the very beginning of your internship or project:

  • How would you describe the culture of this organization?
  • What do you like most about working here?
  • What are workplace expectations for dress? 

A note on work attire: It’s generally better to be overdressed than underdressed in the workplace, but virtual internships and projects can make dress confusing to figure out. Make sure that you appear put together on-screen. After a few days in your internship or project, you’ll get a better sense of how others are dressed and can try to match their general level of formality.

 

You’ve probably already experienced times when technology led to miscommunication or confusion. You’ll want to reduce or avoid those situations as much as possible in your virtual internship or project by asking questions frequently and being proactive in your outreach to your supervisor and colleagues.

  • Talk to supervisors and coworkers by phone or video call whenever possible (and especially for important questions or projects) rather than having all communication through written forums.
  • Familiarize yourself with the various modes of communication utilized by your team (e.g., Gchat, Slack, Trello, Freedcamp, Skype, Zoom, and more) and view their training webinars before getting started. 
  • Talk with your supervisor about which tools are used for which type of communication (e.g., what’s the best way to ask a quick question? How should you reach out to colleagues to schedule a meeting?)
  • At the start of your experience, clarify expectations for shared calendars and scheduling: how will you indicate the times you are unavailable during the day, and how will you know when others are available?
  • Use an appropriate level of formality in communications to your colleagues and supervisor. It may take a couple of weeks to gauge the team’s communication style; in the meantime, more formal is better than less formal. Be sure to include a salutation (Dear Maria) in emails, along with appropriate grammar and punctuation. Although you may be working from home or elsewhere, you are still part of a professional workplace and your coworkers will likely expect professionalism in communications.

Clarify at the outset whether your coworkers are in the same time zone as you or not, and what this means for meetings and shared projects. If your colleagues are spread across time zones, you may find that your work hours and meetings start early in the morning or last late into the evening. 

  • If your team includes multiple time zones, talk with your supervisor about what this means for your overall daily schedule. For example, if team meetings are at 7am to accommodate colleagues abroad, does this mean your workday should be 7am to 3pm, or can you join the early meeting but then complete the rest of your work during more traditional hours?
  • If teammates are spread across time zones, find out how people collaborate on shared projects. Are there regular meetings, or does everyone contribute to shared documents on their own schedules?

Don’t be afraid to ask these questions about scheduling expectations. If most of your team is working online, you may find that everyone is expected to be available during the same hours, or that people tend to complete their work independently during whatever hours suit them best. You’ll need to understand your supervisor’s expectations for your availability up front, as this is closely related to how your productivity and responsiveness will be assessed.

 

It can be very challenging to stay organized when your home is your workplace and all of your work happens virtually. However, it’s also important to note that responsiveness and reliability are particularly important attributes in a virtual internship or project, so finding ways to keep yourself organized is essential. Consider the following tips to help you stay on track.

  • Organize your email inbox with folders, since you’ll likely receive a high volume of email.
  • Learn your organization’s filing system (e.g., Google Drive, Dropbox) and download any necessary extensions or software to ensure you can use it effectively.
  • Find out who to ask when you need technical support for workplace software.
  • If possible, create a workspace that is separate from your living area. Store all of your work supplies in that space; don’t let them start to take over your living area.
  • If you share your living space with others, develop a system to protect your concentration while working (e.g., create a sign to let others know when you’re in a meeting and can’t be interrupted).
  • Decide what type of calendar you’ll use to keep track of your work, and then use it diligently. Mark all deadlines clearly on your calendar; you may consider color-coding them so they stand out. Another good strategy is to set notifications to pop up several days prior to each deadline.
  • At the start of each week, review your calendar for the coming 2 weeks, noting any upcoming deadlines. Prioritize work on tasks that are soon due.

 

One big challenge of working virtually is that you will likely spend more of your time alone and not speaking than you would in an in-person work environment, which can make it difficult to stay focused and motivated. In addition to the “Staying Organized” tips above, these strategies may help you to stay on task in your virtual internship or project.

  • Break up big projects into discrete tasks, ideally ones that take no more than 30 minutes at a time to complete, and tackle one of those individual tasks at a time.
  • Read about microproductivity, an effective strategy for breaking projects down to stimulate productivity and keep you energized in your work.
  • Start each week with a list of goals. If the list is long, break it up into high- and low-priority, or short- and long-term, so that you can tackle the most important or immediate goals first.
  • Take a quick break (5-10 minutes) at least once an hour. Use that time to stretch and take a quick walk, even just around the room, to help maintain your energy and concentration throughout the day.
  • Don’t multitask. Whenever possible, focus only on the task at hand. Resist the temptation to join in a group chat with friends during a webinar, have a movie playing in the background while you write up a report, or do anything else you wouldn’t do at an in-person internship. 
  • Keep a list of your accomplishments throughout your internship or project and post it where you can see it. This list may be useful to share with your supervisor at the end of the experience, and to incorporate into future resumes and job interviews. 

Professional relationships are among the most valuable takeaways of any experience, including virtual ones, though fostering those relationships remotely requires a proactive approach. To initiate and sustain meaningful professional relationships in your virtual internship or project, you may:

  • Proactively email coworkers to introduce yourself during your first week on the job. You can tell them a little bit about your background and why you’re excited to get started in the position. 
  • As mentioned elsewhere in this document, schedule regular phone or video meetings with your supervisor and colleagues, to create more opportunities to get to know each other. Do not rely on written communication alone for building relationships.
  • Reach out to others on the team to request time to talk with them, to learn about their roles, and essentially have the same kinds of conversations you might otherwise have had in a workplace lunch room. Prepare 3-4 questions you’d like to ask. The guide to informational interviewing may help you to formulate these questions. 

 

One benefit of remote experiences is that there are likely to be fewer of those tedious tasks that happen in person (e.g., brewing coffee, filing mail), so you can devote more time to the interesting content of your work. It also may be more challenging to quickly touch base with your supervisor throughout the day, particularly if you are working on different schedules. This makes it even more important to take initiative and be resourceful when it’s reasonable to do so.

  • If you have bandwidth, reach out and ask for more projects, or to be involved with something extra that interests you. 
  • Review all of the resources available to you and do your own research to learn more about the organization and the content of your work.
  • Ask for additional resources or suggestions of ways to support your skill development and knowledge independently, if needed.
  • As you work, questions will inevitably arise. Keep track of all of your questions in one place so that when you are able to connect with your supervisor, you’ll be able to make productive use of that time. 

 

While the flexibility to complete work during off-hours can be helpful, you also need to protect your personal time and privacy, to create balance for yourself and ensure that this experience will be a positive and sustainable one.

  • At the start of your internship, decide with your supervisor what your schedule will be, and when you will be off-duty, and then stick to that schedule. Resist the temptation to work outside of your designated work hours. Those additional hours are neither expected nor necessary.
  • If your workload is heavier than what you can manage well during your designated work hours, speak up. Work with your supervisor to find a solution so that off-time continues to be protected and separate from work-time.

 

When your internship or project is over, you will likely want to keep in touch with your supervisor and possibly other colleagues from your experience as well. Maintaining a relationship with your supervisor is particularly important, as that person may be able to provide you with professional references in the future. Some tips for maintaining those relationships after your experience has ended include:

  • During the last days of your internship or project, let your supervisor know that you’d like to keep in touch with them in the future, so they know this is your hope and can play an active role in maintaining the connection with you over time.
  • Connect to your supervisor and other colleagues on LinkedIn. Check out our resources on  LinkedIn and other social media outlets to learn how to use those platforms effectively for networking.
  • Reach out occasionally, to check in with your former supervisor and to let them know what’s happening with you. If you’ve been accepted to a graduate program, have gotten a great new internship opportunity, or have started an interesting research project, these are things your former supervisor may be interested to know, especially if you’re able to connect those new accomplishments to what you learned or gained during your time working with that supervisor. For example: “I’m really looking forward to starting this work at the hospital, and am really glad that I had the opportunity to start developing some clinical skills during my work experience with you.”

 

Career Education would love to talk with you! 

  • Please reach out to your College Career Mentor or a Career Community Advisor if you have a question, concern, or something you want to debrief or receive feedback on.
  • Schedule a summer check-in with your College Career Mentor.
  • Check out our resources on resumes, cover letters, interviewing, networking, and more as you prepare for your internship or project.

Here are some additional resources that may also be helpful for you: