(Daniel Fishel illustration for Express)

To get his foot in the door at a major sports franchise, Vishnu Edara did his homework — literally. As part of a sports analytics class at Georgetown University, Edara and his classmates worked for D.C. United as “virtual interns” — gaining valuable experience at an organization where it would’ve been hard to snag an in-person internship, let alone for a whole class full of students.

“You’re actually working for a professional sports club,” says Edara, 27, a D.C. resident who received a master’s in sports industry management from Georgetown’s School of Continuing Studies. “That was possible only because of the virtual internship.”

Virtual internships allow students to gain work experience without having to show up to an office — or even being in the same city as their employer. These positions can expand students’ options and allow them to work on their own schedule. But to get the most out of them, there are a few things to keep in mind.

Have a guide
For their virtual internships, Edara and his classmates analyzed D.C. United’s team data and provided insights. For instance, the team might want to know how long it takes to recover from long-distance travel, or what offensive or defensive alignments work best.

Throughout the experience, they had an academic guide.

“I’m there to coach them along,” says Mike Fanning, who teaches the sports analytics course at Georgetown. “They don’t need me much to tell them what to do. What they really need is support.”

Fanning says virtual internships work well when the educational institution is there to help students get the most out of the experience. “You don’t just turn them loose,” he says.

Rachel Brown, assistant provost for university career services at George Washington University, agrees that academic feedback is often a missing component in the internship experience. The university has an online course that students can take while they’re doing a virtual or in-person internship, or she recommends students find a mentor.

“Be proactive on the educational side,” Brown says. “Get some perspective on all that you’re learning in the internship.”

Do your research
When considering a virtual internship, students should ask why the internship is virtual rather than in-person, whether there will be opportunities to interact with other colleagues virtually, and how they’ll communicate with and receive feedback from their supervisor, Brown says.

“Make sure there are clear expectations about the project and how the student will be evaluated,” she suggests.

Kelley Bishop, director of career services at the University of Maryland, cautions students to look out for red flags, like a virtual internship that’s unpaid and doesn’t provide students with exposure to the broader organization.

“The real concern that anyone would have is … ‘[Are you] basically outsourcing some work to me?’ ” Bishop says. “The definition of an internship goes well beyond ‘They gave me some work to do.’ ”
While it can be more challenging to learn about a company’s broader organization and culture as a virtual intern, it’s not impossible, Brown says.

“That would be one thing I would encourage people to ask about: What are the opportunities for me to learn about the broader organization, culture and context? And take advantage of those,” she says.

Weigh the pros and cons
Ultimately each student has to decide whether the quirks of a virtual internship make it a good fit. For Zack Waldorf, a senior at George Washington University who was a human resources intern for a small public relations firm whose staff all worked virtually, the downsides — including less camaraderie with his colleagues and some communication challenges — were outweighed by the flexibility that the virtual internship provided.

Even so, he recommends setting some parameters.

“You should enforce some sort of structure for yourself so you can stay organized and not get lost in the flexibility of it all,” says Waldorf, 21.

Edara, who also had an externship with Washington’s NFL team, says a mix of in-person and virtual work experience during school would be ideal.

“You should have the flexibility of being able to do it virtually whenever you can, but also sometimes it’s good to have in-person collaborations,” he says.