The Age of Virtual Internships is Here

Have you ever considered doing a remote research internship? Peter shares his experiences with virtual internships, both before and during COVID!


As winter semester winds down and summer approaches, most students will inevitably hear the dreaded question: "what are you doing this summer?". Along with all that physical and social distancing, you're also probably anxious to gain some experience with a summer work internship or volunteer trip. But have you ever considered doing a remote research internship?

If we were still in the pre-2020 era, completing remote research internships might carry what many of us internally acknowledge as an invisible stigma. We might have feared that employers would distance themselves from selecting us because we opted for a position that could be done at the comfort of our homes, rather than be challenged by a new and unfamiliar environment. As we approach our second summer of COVID-19, this is no longer the case.

Summer 2020

Freshly graduated and out of work for the summer of 2020, this fear put me at odds with myself about what I should do. Throughout the summers of my undergrad I'd been lab-hopping, and while I was in grad school there was always a project that would leap out at me. But with the restrictions imposed by pandemic, I was left asking myself: should I stop hopping around and just skip the professional development drill this year?

Now although taking a break was not off my radar, I still didn't want to miss an opportunity. That's when I locked onto the idea of doing something remotely, and virtual internships offered me a perfect balance.

I set out to take on a research project that contemplated some of the critical areas affecting mental health and access to care amidst the pandemic. During this time, I co-piloted a national research internship program that recruited more than 100 students from across Canada and helped them to navigate barriers and shield them from cutbacks to youth employment posed by COVID-19. This work helped me realize the pandemic was a double-edged sword, creating problems and opportunities alike. 

For those of us in the sciences, virtual internships often involve reviews, database research, or big data science. Thanks to the nature of the pandemic, much of the research that can be completed remotely is very unique and, oftentimes, specific to the field you're interested in researching.

Fall 2020

Opportunity is practically knocking on the door, but how do we take advantage of it? Virtual internships allow us to transcend global boundaries from the comfort of home, but we still need to be willing to travel the extra distance— metaphorically, of course. For me this year, this meant sitting down, scouting big-name researchers from big-name institutions who were doing research I was interested in, and mass emailing them with a CV and template message which could be personalized for each project. 

The first few replies were along the lines of, "sorry, we are not looking for students right now," sometimes with a bonus, "I can forward this along to a colleague if you'd like." The worst response I could get was pretty much no response. I was contacting professors on the other side of the world and being denied an opportunity had no consequences— if any, they'd be positive ones because I expressed my interest and maximized my chances of getting a position if it ever opened up. 

By the end of fall semester, I had replies for more than 10 out of the 30 emails I had sent out. In addition to receiving paid offers, top-ranking institutions such as Harvard University and Oxford University were in touch. I scheduled Zoom calls to introduce myself and get acquainted with the projects, go over expectations, and weigh out what piqued my interest and what did not float my boat. 

Winter 2021

I ended up settling on an internship at Oxford University during the winter semester, working on a systematic review of global health networks. As I started to work on my project, I discovered several parallels to physical internships. The structure was quite in line with what conventional research looked like, even though I was almost ~7000 km apart from my colleagues. There were still regular team meetings every two weeks, regular check-ins with the supervisor, and a fair amount of collaboration within the team, even though we weren't physically working in the same space. At the end of the day, the main difference was that timing was more flexible— I could set my own schedule for meetings, research, and writing. 

Summer 2021 and beyond...

So where am I now? My experience doing virtual internships has been rewarding and given me the flexibility to be twice as productive than before. This summer, I'm full leaning into the remote internship experience and doing a paid part-time internship in Edmonton, two months of full-time research at the U of A, part-time volunteer research at Harvard University, and casual research to finish up my work at Oxford University— all from the comfort of home. At this point, remote positions and virtual placements are here to stay, so take center stage and keep up with the trend. The age of virtual internships have come. 


Peter Johnson

Peter (he/him) is a second year undergraduate medical student and MSc medical sciences graduate. He is currently juggling two international virtual research projects at Oxford University and Harvard University along with a virtual internship at the Antarctic Institute of Canada. When he’s not tossing pancakes, you’ll catch him hurling up some really bad puns.