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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Getting Ahead

Dos and Don'ts to Ace Your Virtual Internship

To get a job in the real world, I knew that getting an internship was a good first move. The problem was fitting one into my already hectic schedule: The requirements of many internships—travel, 40 hours a week in an office, or complete relocation—just weren’t an option.

But lucky for me—I found the solution: An internship that didn't require me to move from my own desk and, yet, provides me with a world of opportunity. An internship with no office, no dress code, and no travel time—because it’s 100% virtual.

Virtual internships are becoming more and more common, and they’re a great way to get hands-on experience while being able to keep a flexible schedule. But there are some tricky aspects to working online, too. So, if you want to make the most of an internship like mine, check out these tips to help you on your way.

Do: Get a Feel for the Environment

Everything I do is on the computer or over the phone. I don't have to show up to the office, and it's possible that I’ll never meet the people I'm working with in person.

But, that doesn't mean it's not important to get along with them. Before I even applied for my internship, I checked out the publication's “About” pages to get a feel for the company, and I read through the staff bios to make sure they seemed like people I'd enjoy working with. I also got to talk with my future bosses during a phone interview, which gave me more insight into the company and staff than merely exchanging emails would have.

And I'm glad I did my homework. I correspond with various members of the team on a daily basis, and if we didn’t get along, then the internship—virtual or not—could very well be a disaster. Before you sign on to an online team, make sure you’ve done some research to make sure it’s a good fit for you.


Do: Be Timely

When you’re working at an office, you know exactly what days and times you need to show up. But in a virtual environment, there’s no official schedule, so it's harder to be timely. You can easily ignore that email or put aside those assignments you promised to do until just a little bit later.

But whether you’re working at a cubicle or in your pajamas on your bed, it’s important to stay on top of deadlines. You won’t necessarily have someone checking in with you every day, so keep track of important dates and assignments in your personal calendar. (This is great practice no matter what full-time job you take later.) Even if the company you're working for is easygoing like mine, you don't want to disappoint them—like with any internship, your goal should be to stand out as best you can.

Don't: Bite Off More Than You Can Chew

By the same token, when there’s no “end” time to the day or week, you might be tempted to take on more than you can handle. But remember that you can only do so much. Your supervisor knows that you're enrolled in a full semester of classes and taking on extracurricular clubs and activities, too—in fact, she may have chosen you for the work you do at school!

But, that doesn’t mean she always has a good grasp of what you can reasonably balance and what is too much—especially since she doesn’t see you every day. Make sure to communicate with your supervisor when you’re overwhelmed and, to prevent that from even happening, only take on what you know you can handle. Chances are, she's going to prefer quality over quantity (plus, you can always take on more later).


Do: Take Advantage of Not Being a Coffee-Getter

One of the great things about a virtual internship is that you obviously weren’t hired to file paperwork and get everyone's morning coffee—you were hired because you have something to offer. So, take advantage of that!

In addition to staying on top of your assignments, don’t be afraid to be creative, offer new ideas, and immerse yourself in the company. Being timid won’t impress anyone, especially in a virtual environment, but being enthusiastic about your job and taking on new things will.

Don't: Be Afraid to Ask for Help

But, while you’re trying to be the intern super-hero, bear in mind this is an internship for a reason—you're learning. While you should certainly be an independent thinker, you won't be expected to know everything. And the first couple of weeks will be stressful because not only are you just starting, but you're starting in an environment you're probably not familiar with—the virtual one.

But even though you’re not on-site, don’t be afraid to ask questions via email, Gchat, or the phone. I've asked plenty of questions—and though at first I thought it might annoy my supervisor, it turns out that it’s impressed her. Plus, it’s made me more comfortable with my assignments and enabled me to better produce quality work.


Do: Be Patient

This one has been especially difficult for me. I like to have things done as soon as possible, all at once, but it doesn't always work like that in the virtual world. My supervisor has lots of other things to do besides respond to my emails or edit the article I just finished writing (this, by the way, will be true in every job you have). And online communication can make matters particularly difficult—you can’t always see when your supervisor is busy, and you don’t know what else might be going on. At one point, I thought I was getting fired because I hadn't received an email back over a few days—when in fact my supervisor just had my email address wrong!

Working in the virtual world, your co-workers are on different schedules (sometimes even different time zones), and probably have lots on their plate. They won’t always respond right away—nor do they expect you to. Working in a virtual environment lets you have a flexible schedule, but it requires to you be flexible, too. So, learn to be patient, even if it doesn’t come naturally.

Virtual internships are a great experience, and while they present some unique challenges, they give you flexibility and a chance to demonstrate your ability to work independently, and they’re great preparation for the real world. Plus—virtual and flexible jobs are on the rise, too, and your online internship might turn out to be exactly the experience you need.

For more in this series, check out: Internship Week

Photo courtesy of Spirit-Fire.