Popular among students and employers, online work experience opportunities have a number of advantages - increased accessibility and lower cost are just two. Discover what virtual internships involve and how to make the most of them
What is virtual work experience?
Virtual work experience is completed digitally rather than in person and gives students and graduates the opportunity to complete an internship from home. Also referred to as online, remote or e-experience, all you need is access to a laptop/computer and a stable internet connection.
Virtual internship opportunities share many similarities with traditional, in-person internships but their online nature allows participants to work with organisations across the country, even the globe.
While traditional, in-person internships often exclude a large number of students and graduates, owing to the limited number of placements available, the financial implications and the practicalities of taking part, the increased accessibility of virtual work experience means that opportunities are open to all.
Learn more about work experience and internships.
What do virtual internships involve?
On the whole, online internships involve:
- regular online meetings with your supervisor or mentor
- individual project work where you'll focus on one larger project instead of helping with lots of small jobs (as you probably would if you were in an office environment)
- video tutorials and virtual tours
- virtual networking sessions and online chats with various members of the organisation, to give you an insight into what different colleagues do
- training opportunities generally provided via an e-learning platform
- online socialising events such as team drinks, coffee breaks and quizzes.
Usually a virtual intern will be assigned a single point of contact within the organisation who will act as a mentor. This person will set jobs and give you feedback on completed tasks, as well as answering any questions you may have.
Completing experience remotely can make networking hard, so jump at the chance to speak to other people in the company. You'll get different perspectives and may discover a role that you never knew existed. Plus, it's a chance to make new contacts and expand your professional network.
Before taking part in virtual work experience make sure that you're fully aware of what's involved and that your duties are clearly defined. Contact the employer or internship provider if you're unsure.
Also, make sure that you have the technology you'll need to complete the opportunity. For starters you'll need a laptop or computer with a working camera and microphone and access to the internet. It's likely that you'll also need software such as Skype, Microsoft Teams or Zoom.
How long do placements last?
This largely depends on which remote internship you take. Most last between one and three months, although longer six or 12-month opportunities also exist.
The amount of work required varies depending on your placement, but as a minimum expect to put in at least 20 to 30 hours per week.
The more time and effort you put in, the more you'll get out of the experience - so only apply for opportunities if you're committed to making the most of it.
Where can I find online work experience opportunities?
An increasing number of UK employers, from large, multi-national companies to small and medium-sized employers (SMEs), provide virtual work experience opportunities.
Placements are available across a number of sectors including:
- business and consultancy
Companies providing virtual work experience include:
- Baker McKenzie
- JP Morgan
- Kuehne & Nagel
- Latham & Watkins
- Pinsent Masons
- White & Case.
This is not an exhaustive list. Many employers recognise the benefits of online experience and are working to provide these opportunities, so do some research into organisations you'd like to intern with to see what they provide.
Universities also run virtual internship schemes, such as the Virtual Internships Programme at the University of Birmingham, which is open to all University of Birmingham undergraduates and postgraduates, as well as those who've graduated in the last two years.
Look for virtual work experience at:
How do I apply for virtual work experience?
You'll typically apply for online internships with a CV and cover letter - alternatively an organisation may require you to complete an application form. If you'd like to gain experience with a particular company but can't find any advertised work experience programmes, it's worth sending a speculative application. Bear in mind that an organisation may not always have the necessary technology to grant your request for online experience. Take a look at our internship and speculative cover letter examples for inspiration.
Will I get paid?
Again, this depends on the organisation you work for. Some large companies may pay participants for their time, others may pay minimum wage, while some may still honour expenses (although you're unlikely to incur many when working from home).
Be aware that a lot of virtual work experience is unpaid, so make sure you do your research before applying or signing up. Never accept a placement if the duties or tasks seem exploitative.
What are the benefits of online experience?
One of the main benefits to completing an internship from home is the flexibility that the arrangement affords you. You can work hours that suit you and fit the internship around other work or personal commitments. Other advantages include:
- Online opportunities are as useful and respected as in-person ones - the working landscape has changed dramatically in the past few years and remote work experience is highly valued by employers. Taking part demonstrates your initiative, motivation and ability to work independently, as well as your proficiency with office technology - all great skills for your CV.
- Accessibility - virtual work experience is open to all and location isn't an issue. High-quality roles that were previously only accessible to those who could afford to live in London or other major cities are now open to all.
- Cost - as you're working from home and the experience is online you won't need to temporarily move to the town or city where your internship is based, saving you the cost of accommodation. You're also unlikely to incur travel fees meaning you'll save money on the commute, not to mention coffees and lunches.
- More options - because you're not restricted by cost or location you can apply for an internship anywhere in the world, which dramatically increases your options and potentially the breadth of your experience.
- Improved technical skills - remote working is an important skill for the modern workplace and learning how to be useful and effective from afar is a valuable skill.
- Enhanced soft skills - the self-discipline required to work from home will hone a number of soft skills, such as organisation, time management and the ability to prioritise.
What about the drawbacks?
It's only fair to acknowledge that virtual work experience does have some drawbacks. The most obvious disadvantage is a lack of face-to-face interaction. Others include:
- No experience in an office environment - an intern going into a workplace will normally be given exposure to dozens of people doing all sorts of different jobs. By contrast, a virtual intern is likely to be more isolated and less exposed. It means being extra proactive - take the chance to make connections, follow up on opportunities to talk to people.
- Staying motivated - if you lack self-discipline and struggle to stay motivated completing online experience may be a challenge.
- Lack of confidence - because you haven't met your colleagues in person, asking questions and putting yourself forward in meetings may feel awkward. This can also make it harder to ask for help if you're struggling.
- Communication issues - the quality of your virtual experience will hinge on how good the organisation is at keeping in touch.
- False opportunities - as virtual internships are arranged and completed online there's a risk of being duped by false opportunities. It's therefore essential that you do your research before applying and be especially careful when applying for an overseas internship.
How do I make the most of a virtual internship?
To get the most out of your experience:
- Set clear boundaries and create a routine - stick to set hours (regular office hours are best if these suit your circumstances), create a professional space to work from, ideally a desk or table and dress the part every day.
- Keep in touch - frequently check in with your manager and teammates.
- Don't be afraid to raise your hand - metaphorically speaking. Ask questions, seek advice and be open to guidance. Also, don't shy away from asking for more work to do if you run out.
- Join in - take part in any networking or social events, as the contacts you make now may prove useful in the future.
- Keep track of your achievements - without the structure of a face-to-face internship it's easy to lose track of the tasks you've completed. Make a note of the things you've done and the skills you've developed, as these will prove useful for future applications and interviews.
- Ask for feedback - internships, not matter how they're completed, are learning curves so it's important to ask your employer and colleagues for feedback on your performance. It'll help you to identify your strengths and weaknesses and improve where necessary.
What if I can't get online experience?
Don't worry. Employers are well aware of the difficulties that students and graduates face when trying to obtain relevant work experience. If you struggle to complete an internship recruiters are unlikely to hold it against you. However, there are still a number of things that you can do to boost your employability, so don't sit idle.
Anyone can volunteer and this is often a great way to gain work experience if you're struggling to get a place on a formal internship programme.