No more networking
What is an online internship even worth?
Your alarm goes off at eight thirty. You quickly brush your hair, put on a nice blouse, and start your workday. You sit down at your desk and turn on your laptop. You can eat your breakfast during the morning meeting, that is, if you even get an invitation e-mail. Your company has a tendency to forget to include its interns.
This is the everyday reality for many UG students. The pandemic means internships are now online. That’s a big change. You don’t get to know the company, don’t know most of your co-workers’ names, can’t knock on your supervisor’s door with a question, and you certainly can’t network near the coffee machine.
When business administration student Tom Pronk started his internship at retail company Ahold Delhaize in February, everything was still normal. But when the outbreak started, he could no longer just walk into the Ahold headquarters in Zaandam. ‘One of the best things about an international company is that it has so many interns in different departments, and they organise social events just for them’, says Tom. But all those events got cancelled. ‘I didn’t get a good chance to get to know the other interns, or the company as a whole. That was a pretty big bummer.’
One of the best things about an international company is that it has so many interns
Biomedical technology student Ramin Davallou knows the feeling. His online internship was with the UMCG. ‘The first few days, I had a hard time finding the right routine and work-life balance. I did everything in just one room.’ His internship was originally going to entail mainly lab work. But when he had to start working from home, the focus shifted to programming, and analysing data from previous studies.
Vishesh Saxena, who studies nanoscience, also had to do his internship at the Zernike Institute for Advanced Material from behind his laptop. Fortunately, this wasn’t a problem for him, since his research is based on computational physics. His goal is to discover the structure of a particular protein that can cause type 2 diabetes. He’s using software in an effort to solve problems in the study.
Nevertheless, working this way isn’t easy. ‘Students can always email their questions, but they can’t just drop in if they need something. That leads to delays, since it takes more effort to write an email or set up an online meeting’, his supervisor Thomas Jansen says. On top of that, it can take several emails to figure out something that might have only taken five minutes in a face-to-face meeting.
One solution is proper planning. Another is to find a place to work that isn’t your home. Ramin started working at the Forum as soon as he was allowed back in, working from nine to five. ‘It was a routine that worked much better for me during corona.’
The students do say they’re actually learning from their internships. ‘I’m learning how important it is to be patient and re-evaluate things’, says Vishesh. ‘Because I couldn’t ask anyone else in the study for help, I had to do more work by myself. In the end, I actually resolved some of my own issues.’
Not as good
Ramin has also learned new skills. ‘Some of them I had to learn from scratch, like programming and certain ways to analyse raw data.’
Tom ended up with a part-time job after his internship at Ahold. But, he says, ‘online internships just aren’t as good, especially when it comes to networking opportunities. It’s so much harder to connect with people, which mostly just makes it less enjoyable.’
You won’t learn as much in terms of personal development
Other students are worried about this aspect as well. They’ve been looking forward to finally working for a real employer all this time, but what is the point of an internship where they don’t get to experience a real work environment?
Their worries are understandable, says Joeman Kwok, business controller at Ahold Delhaize. ‘Technically speaking, you can still put Ahold on your CV as an employer. But because you’re not sharing an office with people, you miss out on a lot. You still learn a lot in terms of personal development, but not as much as you would during a real internship.’
Ramin recognises the issue. ‘I should have learned so much more during my internship’, he says. ‘But it would have taken a lot of lab work, and I couldn’t do any of that because of the pandemic.’
Networking opportunities are non-existent, and since they’re invisible, interns are unlikely to get a job at their internship company. Kwok can’t see any advantages to online internships. ‘People intern at a company like Ahold to familiarise themselves with the corporate culture. But now they miss out on the connection with other interns and all the events involved in an internship. We’ve realised this and are legitimately sorry for it. It’s not just about work.’
Jansen also says it’s practically impossible to forge the same human connections that you’d get during an in-person internship during an online internship. ‘Having lunch together or chatting over a cup of coffee are important elements in creating a bond with the students and creating a real network.’
Doing an internship from home means the opportunity for cross-pollination with other projects is also small. That means it should not be more than an emergency solution. ‘Although obviously, even online internships are valuable and useful science, and we do come up with new ideas’, says Jansen.
Gera Welker, internship supervisor for UMCG students, sees it the same way. Her students are currently collecting digital data rather than real-life data. ‘You can still put that on your CV’, she says. ‘An online internship is worth just as much as an in-person one for this kind of research.’
Online internships can give you new skills you wouldn’t have learned otherwise
But, she adds, ‘the students would have got even more experience from a real internship, like the interaction with people in the research setting and being able to join rounds on the wards.’
Groningen municipality spokesperson Peter Steinfort says students don’t have to worry that they’re now less attractive to potential employers. ‘Online internships can give you new skills that you wouldn’t have learned during an in-person internship’, he says optimistically. ‘It might even give you an advantage. Just make sure to correctly write in on your CV.’
Ahold Delhaize won’t always pick applicants who did an in-person internship over the ones who did them online, either. ‘We’re moving towards a future where a combination of working on-site and from home is normal’, says Kwok. ‘An online internship teaches you to work from home and how to network differently.’