The Rise Of Micro-Internships: How Students Can Take Advantage (And Avoid Being Taken Advantage Of)

The gig economy meets the college intern.

The Rise Of Micro-Internships: How Students Can Take Advantage (And Avoid Being Taken Advantage Of)
[All Photos: Eric Laignel]

In today’s world, students don’t have to leave their dorm rooms to complete an internship halfway around the world.


From an actor looking for a short-term virtual assistant in Los Angeles to the U.S. Department of State seeking Virtual Foreign Service interns, college career offices are seeing more and more employers offer micro-internships to college students. For most of these opportunities, students are hired to work on a specific project or task, usually remotely, at the same time they are completing their coursework. While the rise in virtual internships is relatively new, a recent survey found 71% of students would be willing to complete a virtual internship. Most college career counselors do not yet track virtual opportunities as they would traditional internships, though the University of Texas at Austin is reporting an uptick in these offers, and many expect interning remotely as a trend that will pick up across a range of industries.

Flickr user Alexander Lyubavin

For an employer, hiring students as virtual interns gives much greater geographic reach. And with more full-time employees working remotely, companies often already have the infrastructure to manage workers who aren’t in the office.

For students, these can be high-quality internship opportunities that allow students to make targeted contacts and gain industry-specific experience without relocating and absorbing the costs associated with moving to a new city. In the case of the California internship, for example, a Wake Forest student interested in the film industry could be working with an actor, a producer, and a director–making contacts in L.A. while also keeping on track academically and remaining a member of the North Carolina campus community.

But there can be drawbacks to this style of internship as well, especially when it is unpaid. Unfortunately, there may be individuals or organizations hoping to take advantage of cheap or free labor by asking students to help with routine work for little or no long-term payoff in experience (though that’s always been true for internships in general). Students should be wary of hiring managers who are not comfortable addressing this point, as it could be a red flag.

Clear expectations are key. Any internship experience offers the chance to apply skills and classroom learning in the real world if students know how to make the most of the opportunity. The student and the manager must agree on the scope of work to be completed and a deadline. Students also need to know whom to report to on their progress. If this is unclear, it’s best for the student to decline the offer. The intern should also have access to high-level managers to ensure exposure to and feedback from key leaders and decision-makers. Students may feel uncomfortable asking questions when they’re being invited to participate in one of these internships, but it’s critical to understand the expectations before taking on the work.

Success in a virtual internship requires a skillset that differs from the one required for a brick-and-mortar internship. Students in virtual or micro-internships need to be more entrepreneurial than their peers who work on site. They need to be better self-managers. They need to know how to use verbal and written communication skills across a variety of platforms, and they must be proactive in their approach to interacting with peers, teammates, and project managers.

Flickr user Alexander Lyubavin

On the surface, virtual internships and micro-internships limit access to those water-cooler discussions that provide insight into the organization’s culture. The reality, however, is that these relationships can be developed through intentional actions on the part of the intern and the employer. Students can request brief feedback from their manager, connect with colleagues via social media, and choose alternative means of communication, in much the same way that remote full-time workers build relationships.

As virtual micro-internships continue to become more popular, here are tips for students interested in taking them on and things companies should keep in mind so students get the most from their experience.

Schedule Time To Do The Work

Because virtual interns will not have a manager looking over their shoulders, they have to be responsible for making the time and completing the work.

Be Proactive In Building Relationships

Students at Wake Forest use WebEx to interact with faculty and staff when they are abroad. They can use similar technology, such as FaceTime or Skype, to build a relationship with their project manager while completing a virtual or micro-internship.

Leverage The Virtual Or Micro-Internship Into Something More

It may be possible for students completing a virtual or micro-internship to request additional short-term work and/or to explore the possibility of longer-term and full-time opportunities.

Using some of these tips, virtual internships and micro-internships can be positives for both employers and students if they are done right.


About the author

Patrick Sullivan is associate director of Wake Forest University’s Office of Personal and Career Development.