Getting the Most Out of Your Virtual Internship

Theresa Putkeyby Theresa Putkey

Starting an internship can be intimidating. Starting a virtual internship may make you feel even more like a fish-out-of-water. Not only are you in a new situation, but you’re removed by geography. Doing a remote or virtual internship can expand your internship possibilities, but can also lead to other difficulties in communication, work assignments, and follow-up. After doing my internship in Summer 2011, I’d like to share some lessons learned so you can get the most out of your virtual internship. (And I’m sure these things can apply to on-site internships as well!)

Set up phone call times for each week

My first lesson learned was to set up a recurring, standard time to talk on the phone each week. Setting up this time gets a commitment from the site supervisor to spend one hour with you each week. During this call, you can be assigned tasks, review completed tasks and ask questions about the assignment.

A virtual internship differs from an on-site internship in terms of immediacy. When you’re virtual, you aren’t sitting in front of your site supervisor, tapping your fingers on the desk, looking bored. In virtual internships, your supervisors may think they have supplied you with enough work and won’t know that you are staring at your messaging app, email or phone waiting for further assignments to come in.

The other thing to remember is that site supervisors are very busy. They may have taken on interns to help with the work overload. Setting up a regular meeting time makes sure that your supervisor takes time for you each week and ensures that internship agreements are fulfilled.

Know the tasks to fulfill the goal of the internship

Sometimes when regular meetings are not forthcoming or are cancelled, you still need assignments. Knowing the overall tasks and goals of your work will help keep you directed when you can’t get “face time” with the site supervisor. For example, your internship might be to create a new organization structure for a complex website. If you and your supervisor discuss the tasks needed to be completed throughout the life of the internship, then you will always have something else to research, learn about and work on.

Plus, knowing where you’re going will help you realize the overall point of the work, put your work in context and help you recognize when this type of work will be appropriate in the future. In other words, if you’re told to “do a website page inventory” but you’re not told what this website page inventory will be used for in the project, then you don’t know when and why to do a inventory or how it is useful. If you know that you’ll create a new website structure based on the current site’s content, then you’ll understand more about the task.

Set up a simple schedule of tasks

Once you understand the overall tasks and goals of the internship, you can set up a basic schedule with the site supervisor. With a simple schedule detailing the tasks you will work on each week, your site supervisor can be prepared with specific assignments for that week and you can ask for specific assignments for that week.

Remember, though, that your site supervisor will be extremely busy so it’s up to you to follow up on the tasks and get the information needed to complete each task. Each week, look at the tasks for the next week and ask the supervisor for the assignment. This gives your supervisor time to respond and you aren’t sitting around staring at your computer screen looking bored.

Make sure there’s a secondary contact person

One classmate in my internship group had her site supervisor go on vacation for three weeks during the internship without first providing my classmate with assignments. The supervisor was only supposed to be on vacation for two weeks, but was sick in the third week. The summer semester internship period is only ten weeks, so three weeks without assignments is substantial! (As a note, this classmate had an on-site internship, so getting assignments for on-site work can still be difficult and this advice still applies!) I also encountered times when my site supervisor was traveling for work and wasn’t available to meet with me.

Had this classmate or I set up a secondary contact person who could give assignments and feedback, we would have gotten a lot more out of our internships. If your site supervisor goes on vacation or travels for work, make it known that you need a secondary contact person. Your internship can’t wait until he gets back!


Whether you’re doing an on-site or virtual internship, it’s your responsibility to make sure your internship goes according to your plan. If you’ve got a good internship, your site supervisor will pay attention to you. However, you won’t know that you have a good internship until you accept the position and start completing the work.

Instead of waiting passively for your internship to work out and to avoid encountering potential problems, I suggest that you take control at the beginning of your internship and set up:
● regular meeting times
● the goals and tasks for the internship
● a simple schedule with specific tasks to complete on a week to week basis
● a secondary contact person to reach if your site supervisor is unavailable
By initiating these steps at the beginning of your internship, you take control of both the tasks and the outcome and will hopefully have a very enjoyable internship!

Theresa Putkey is an independent information architect in Vancouver, Canada with just a single semester left in SLIS. She is also a content editor on the SLIS Student Research Journal. Contact her at