The Future of Internships

Looking Ahead: This article is part of an occasional series of bicentennial stories in which GW experts share their thoughts on what we can expect on a variety of topics as the George Washington University moves into its third century.



Rachel Brown

Rachel Brown is associate vice provost for University Career Services

By Rachel Brown

Like so much of our world, internships were impacted by the pandemic. In spring 2020, employers had to quickly determine the future of their internship programs. New internship postings took a hit.  For example, internship postings for George Washington University students in May 2020 were down 44% from May 2019. Some employers cancelled or scaled back their programs, others adapted by shortening the length or scope, and many shifted to virtual internships.

Just one year ago, the future of internships was unclear. In hindsight, however, the pandemic actually solidified the future of internships. First is the rise of virtual internships. According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) 2021 Internship and Coop Report, among employers who offered internships during summer 2020, approximately 72% offered virtual internships. Prior to the pandemic, this would have been unimaginable. 

Last summer, we learned a lot about what did and didn’t work well with virtual internships, and employers and interns benefited by being flexible and identifying and addressing challenges. Overall, feedback from employers and interns show positive outcomes of virtual internships—such as access, flexibility and cost savings—are likely to continue into the future.


Owen Hall, a rising senior in the Elliott School of International Affairs, had an all-virtual internship with the State Department’s Bureau of African Affairs from October 2020 through February 2021.

“My biggest takeaway from the virtual internship was that I got out of it what I put in,” Mr. Hall said. “If I wanted to get to know a colleague or learn more about their portfolio, I had to go through the sometimes tedious process of setting up a virtual ‘coffee’ meeting.

“This extra barrier, which is felt particularly strongly when meeting someone for the first time, can be overcome when all involved want to maximize our resources and opportunities and when we are comfortable with a potentially awkward WebEx introduction.” 

His virtual internship led to another with the State Department—this one also with the Bureau of African Affairs at the U.S. Embassy in Ghana.

“I feel very excited going into this position at the embassy because it gives me the opportunity to pick up where I left off with the State Department,” he said. “I will carry with me all that I learned about interning virtually.”

Looking forward, internship postings for GW students in March 2021 increased by 83% compared to March 2020 and postings continue to grow. These numbers seem to indicate that internships have rebounded and more in 2021. Simultaneously, GW Career Services increased opportunities for students to meet virtually with employers by expanding the number of virtual career fairs and consortium events, increasing the number of employers that students had access to from 800 in 2019-2020 to 900 in 2020-21. 

Furthermore, according to the NACE Quick Poll of employers in April 2021, employers who are hiring interns for summer 2021 report 42% of positions will be hybrid; 38% exclusively virtual; 13% exclusively in-person and 7% are not sure yet. While there is a decrease in fully-virtual internships, the combination of hybrid and fully virtual (80%) will be an interesting trend to watch in the coming years. The benefits of virtual internships may still be possible in a hybrid model while gaining some of the benefits of in-person internships including the greater potential for relationship and community building.

Another interesting dynamic that occurred during the pandemic is the rise of micro-internships—virtual, short-term, project-based, paid experiences. GW students have access to micro-internships through our partnership with Parker-Dewey, who reported the number of micro-internships increased over five times during 2020, with an additional five times increase during the first quarter of 2021. These shorter-term, project-based, paid roles can increase equity and access to professional experiences.

Equity and access in internships have not been consistent over the years—especially with unpaid internships. The NACE position statement includes the U.S. Department of Labor guidance that includes criteria for determining when internships can be offered legitimately without pay. Universities also have worked to increase equity and access by creating funds like GW’s Knowledge in Action Career Internship Fund to help reduce barriers.

While virtual internships and micro-internships are not new, the pandemic provided the fuel to drive these models to the forefront making them more accessible and impactful. In 2020, we had the opportunity to take a deep dive, albeit unexpectedly, to test out new models and learn best practices. Moving forward and looking to the future, we have the opportunity to take the benefits of in-person, virtual and micro-internships as independent options or in combination as hybrids. The flexibility of these options has the potential to increase quality, equity and access and if realized, will positively direct the future of internships.