I am about ten hours into a virtual internship I was told would take me no more than six.

When I decided to start the virtual internship in Human Rights Law through the platform InsideSherpa, I had no idea the form it would take. I had completed a partially remote placement with no problem just weeks before and thought that I would be able to just build on the skills I had developed there. I had just graduated, the country was still largely in lockdown, and had more free time than I’d had for years. Like so many people, I wanted to regain a sense of structure and thought that laying some foundations for my career would be a positive way to do it.

However, I did not anticipate the nature of the tasks or how my working-style would have to adapt to the increasingly popular virtual internship world. 

Websites such as InsideSherpa have been running online experiences for years but the coronavirus pandemic has sparked many large companies to adapt their popular in-person internship programmes. Notably, the Guardian reports companies such as ‘Google, Marks & Spencer, PwC and Vodafone’ using the database Bright Network to launch online  experiences. More and more students are taking advantage with InsideSherpa reporting an increased enrollment of over 80 per cent recently and benefitting from new investment and rebranding to become Forage (accordingly future references will be Forage).

These virtual internships take different formats with some being more like traditional programmes where an intern is given a supervisor who communicates via Zoom or phone calls. The platform I am using boasts the chance to ‘experience what it is really like to be a human rights lawyer’ and is structured through modules with pre-uploaded content. You are required to conduct independent research with suggested timescales for each task and you must submit decent work to achieve a verified certificate at the end of the programme.

 “I think a virtual internship even more so prepares you to be a go-getter because you have to take initiative,” says Amanda Nachman, CEO and publisher of College Magazine. “You have to be proactive and you have to be really good at managing your time and self-discipline.’’ 

My undergraduate degree is in English Literature, so I thought that I was prepared for independent study. However, months later and I am still working through the modules, I spend longer on each task than the website suggests, and I am finding it difficult to submit work. The pressures of travelling, appearance, and interaction have been removed, and I am left to provide a purely work-based profile of myself. If this is the only version of myself that I can present, then I feel pressured to make that version perfect.

Michelle Almeida, a Journalism student from the University of Sheffield, who worked at-home during a placement with the start-up company Toddle this summer, says that even though working from home “had its advantages, I feel I could have done much better being in an office environment’’. This is unsurprising as a study conducted during lockdown revealed that half the employees surveyed ‘were not happy with their current work-life balance’.

Like Michelle, I find the less immersive experience produces a complicated work environment. When I was able to go into the office during a partially-remote placement in a law firm late in summer, I found the pressure of having a supervisor close was the motivation I needed to be productive, but also to moderate my work load. Now I need to be my own supervisor. 

Sam Baker, a Physics student from the University of Sheffield, finished a remote placement with a start-up tech company over summer. He admits that “the actual work wasn’t that different” to what it would have been in person, but he missed the opportunity to socialise with his team. 

He described finding it “harder to balance work when your work-space […] is your home’’. Despite this difficulty, Sam admitted that he ‘had a great time’ and remarked that the remote nature of the placement meant another intern was able to work with the company from another country.

Sam’s sentiments about the potential of virtual internships are shared by James Uffindell who founded Bright Network. He says “[this] experience opens up access to the world’s best employers to students from all walks of life.’’ This attitude helped me realise that the experience I am getting from my virtual internship is invaluable. Leo Cussan is an Australian-based law firm which means that an in-person placement would be impractical under usual circumstances and nearly impossible during the ongoing coronavirus travel restrictions. Although the law covered in modules is specific to Australia, the opportunity to work in any way with an international law firm is invaluable and it is an opportunity I would not have had without the increasing availability of virtual internships. Should we look past the difficulties of working from home and accept that in an increasingly digital world, remote working has the potential to diversify and benefit the working environment?

It is hard not to be grateful for any opportunity this year especially when so many students who rely on placements for their degree are struggling. A recent Guardian survey revealed that over 60 per cent of employers had to ‘cancel some or all of their work experience.’ 

Jennifer Chan, an architecture graduate from the University of Sheffield, explained the difficulty she faced securing necessary placements during the pandemic. 

“I sent over 50 and I think around 90% of those emails were ignored,” she says. “With the current state of the economy I know a lot of projects have been dropped due to lack of funding and this negatively affects students who want to pursue postgraduate study where experience is often a requirement.”

Virtual experiences offer a temporary salve to students who missed out on placements this summer, but for practical degrees, such as Jennifer’s, can virtual training ever meet the mark of in-person experience? 

Since the coronavirus pandemic, there has been a decrease in the number of graduates securing jobs with one source describing the number being as low as a third. “It’s a very unusual time to be navigating the graduate career world,” said Victoria Linley, a 2020 graduate who read Theology at University of Cambridge. She described the strangeness of working from home, noting that she doesn’t “even know what [her] team looks like”. 

Victoria is not alone in feeling this way as a recent study by New Prospects revealed that more than 60 percent of graduates ‘now feel negative about their job prospects’. Like me, over the summer, many students were trying to do anything to broaden their career prospects and virtual internships provide a self-paced and low intensity way to do this.

Dr Duco van Oostrum, a senior lecturer and careers advisor for the English Department at University of Sheffield, noted University of Sheffield’s encouragement of students to utilise the virtual internships on offer. “It is a different experience for students than an internship in a physical workplace, but does reflect the working from home reality of businesses currently […] Not only will students develop a variety of invaluable skills such as team working, communication and resilience but they’ll clearly demonstrate their adaptability and willingness to learn something new – skills that are vital in the majority of workplaces especially in the current climate.’’

Ultimately, my experience has taught me that being a virtual intern cannot compare to having an in-person placement, but I am not sure it needs to be compared. I have come to the conclusion that they are unavoidably different experiences and they should be valued for their differences. There are benefits to being able to self-pace and control your work environment; it’s hard to make your supervisor a bad cup of tea when you have never met them. 

The type of virtual internship offered by platforms such as Forage, provide a self-paced escape from the daunting world of networking. An especially refreshing distraction from a working world that is becoming less detachable from our homelife. However, without more direct guidance, you miss out on the necessary pressures and discipline of an in-person placement. I realise that so much is about understanding the way that we work best. Much of what we have done throughout the pandemic has been about adapting and carrying on through challenging circumstances. These skills are invaluable and make us not only better employees but better suited to a changing world.  

Featured image by Pixabay

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