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Are virtual internships the way to go?

Virtual internships are on the rise.

According to a 2012 survey by Internships.com, 33 percent of the 300-plus companies surveyed offer virtual internships, which is a 20 percent increase in virtual internships from 2011 to 2012. Additionally, 71 percent of the more than 7,300 students surveyed would consider doing a virtual internship.

But is it wise for students to complete internships remotely? Consider the benefits and drawbacks of completing virtual internships.

The benefits of virtual internships

Virtual internships (also referred to as remote internships or telecommute internships) allow students and recent college graduates to complete all the work off site. This could be from their home, in the same city as the company or across the world. All students often need is a laptop and an Internet connection.

According to a New York Times article on remote internships by technology reporter Jenna Wortham, the upsides of remote internships are plentiful.

"Students have more opportunities, especially during the school year, and they don't incur commuting and housing expenses," Wortham wrote. "Remote interns enjoy flexible hours, allowing them to juggle class schedules and even part-time jobs."

Packing up and moving for an internship is not always possible for some students. If a student attends college in a city lacking in internship opportunities, then considering a remote internship, as Wortham suggested, can open up the student to internships from companies around the world without having to move.

Other benefits of virtual internships may include:

  • No dress code. Unless you're Skyping with your boss, you can stay in your pajamas all day if you want to -- though you may feel more productive if you decide to go the business casual route with your virtual internship wardrobe.
  • You can work from just about anywhere.
  • For students who have kids: You don't have to get a babysitter or take your child to a daycare while working at your internship, since it's all done from your laptop.

As you can see, there's no shortage of benefits for completing an internship remotely.

The drawbacks of virtual internships

As with most good things in life, there are a few drawbacks to virtual internships.

In an article on USA Today College, career expert Dr. Susan Davis-Ali said students should only take a remote internship if that's their only option.

"It's much harder to get noticed, and to set yourself apart from your competition, when people aren't able to see you work," wrote Davis-Ali, who also holds a faculty position at Carlson School of Management. "It's harder for people to assess your work ethic, your eagerness to learn, and your strong teamwork skills when they can't see you. If getting noticed during your internship is your goal (and it should be), then working remotely is not your best option."

Business networking strategist and coach for college students Sandra Long sees a few drawbacks with virtual internships, as well. She discusses these on the Secrets of the Job Hunt website.

"The drawbacks could be a lack of supervision, opportunities to network and learn about the organization and its culture," Long wrote in the article.

Don't underestimate the lack of supervision that Long wrote about in that article. Not everyone is a self-starter. Many successful, smart people need set hours and a set location to be productive. If this is you, a virtual internship may not be in your best interest.

Some other drawbacks of virtual internships may include:

  • Missing out on the workplace atmosphere, which may entail feeling a sense of coworker community, holiday parties and free coffee.
  • If you don't have set hours on (not all virtual internships do), this may also mean you don't have set hours off. With flexibility comes responsibility, requiring you to always be checking your email for work and possibly being available to work evenings and weekends.

Some fields don't lend well to virtual internships, like mining engineering, and others do, like social media marketing. Some students, particularly self-starters who can balance various tasks, may thrive in virtual internships, whereas students who can't find motivation without supervision may not do as well working remotely.

So what's the verdict on remote internships, then? Only you can decide that. On the surface, doing your internship in your sweatpants sounds like a win-win situation, but benefits and drawbacks exist. It's important to know yourself and what motivates you.