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Virtual Internships: Opportunity or Oxymoron?

Today’s (29 September 2009) Wall Street Journal tells about students doing unpaid internships from the comfort of their own homes. These virtual internships are generally offered by small enterprises for tasks requiring a computer, Internet access, and telephone — all provided by the intern.

Virtual internships would not likely work for most science students or trainees, where hands-on experience in the lab or field is vital. And there’s more to an internship than conducting the required tasks. As Rachel Austin pointed out last December in the Science Careers feature on summer internships, “A planned, formal research experience offers many advantages, including exposure to new topics, techniques, and equipment; the self-confidence that comes from accomplishing things in an unfamiliar setting where your prior record doesn’t matter; the opportunity to develop new friendships based on shared intellectual interests; and the chance to find new mentors and professional advisers.”

Nonetheless, there are fields related to science where virtual internships are available. The Journal’s story tells of Princess Ojiaku, a biology graduate student at North Carolina Central University in Durham, who is considering a career in science policy. Ojiaku is in a 6-month virtual internship with a Washington, DC-based policy organization, where she follows news developments and posts items on the organization’s Web site while attending classes and working as a lab assistant. Ojiaku says the experience gives her a taste of policy work, although she admits that from a distance she does not get a real sense of how policy is made in Washington.

Ojiaku’s experience exposes the strengths and weaknesses of virtual internships. On one hand, they offer real-life work experiences with real-world consequences and allow the organizations to see how the intern handles these experiences. But they do not provide the all-important teamwork skills learned only in the workplace. Nor do they provide, as Rachel Austin says, the opportunity to find new friends, mentors, or advisers.

Plus, there’s potential for abuse. It would be tempting for an organization that needs a task to get done to try and find an unpaid, virtual intern rather than hiring and paying someone for the labor. Whatever value the intern receives could be offset by the negative impact on the job market, which that intern is likely soon to join.

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