Externship vs. Internship

In today’s job hunting climate, a college internship can be the key to a painless transition from new grad to new hire. 

But there’s another type of on-the-job learning opportunity that fewer students know about: the externship.

Today I’ll give you a quick overview of the differences between an externship and an internship, the reasons why you might want an externship, how you can get one and, most importantly—how an externship can help you land a future job.

What is an Externship?

An externship is a short (usually a week long) working experience, where the extern shadows a working professional to observe and get a preview of the day-to-day activities needed for the career.

Externship vs. Internship

Unless you’ve spent the last few years of your college life with your head buried in an analytical chemistry textbook, then you’re likely familiar with the basics of internships.

Internships typically last eight weeks or longer, often during summer breaks. An intern functions as part of a company’s team, performing real tasks, working against deadlines, and getting hands-on experience just like a regular employee. Often interns are paid like regular employees too.

Externships, on the other hand, are much shorter, usually lasting only a day or up to a week. This makes them more flexible than internships because it’s possible for a student to complete an externship during a winter or spring break.

Since the time is abbreviated, typically externs learn through observation and aren’t expected to perform any work tasks. Think of it more like a shadowing opportunity than a job. You see the actual equipment and practical techniques used by professionals in their day-to-day work. As such, externships are not typically paid.

Why Do an Externship?

These days finding a job right out of school takes a little more savvy than it used to. Here are a few ways that an externship can help you:

  • An externship shows enthusiasm for your chosen career path which makes you more likely to land the job you want.
  • Taking part in an externship can be a stepping stone to a longer-term internship or job, particularly if you have your sights set on a competitive industry or company like Facebook or Google.
  • A brief externship helps you build your network for your upcoming employment application process, particularly if your list of LinkedIn connections is a little short.
  • You also gain the opportunity to ask working professionals questions that you likely wouldn’t be able to in another context. That can give you an invaluable insider’s view of the realities of a company or profession to help you decide if it’s a direction you really want to pursue.

In short, think of an externship as a quick and easy way for you to gain information about your intended career before making major decisions that will affect your entire future.

How Can You Get an Externship?

Externships tend to be more informal than internships. You won’t typically find externship listings on job boards.

Your school’s career services advisor may be able to help you secure a placement, but finding an externship may be as simple as working your network: family friends, your parents’ work colleagues, or leaders in your community may be able to connect you to people who work in your field of interest.

Also it’s never too soon to start building your LinkedIn presence by reaching out to professionals in the field you’re interested in and inquiring about any externship opportunities at their companies.

Examples of Externships

Now that we’ve looked at what externships are and why and how to get one, let’s take a look at some examples of real externships and how they can help you.

Example 1: Angela's Museum Externship

angela's externship

When Angela entered her sophomore year of college, she was still unsure what she wanted to major in, much less do as a career. History really interested her, so she considered a career in archaeology or museum work. However, she didn't feel she knew enough about either to make an informed decision.

The Rotary Club in her town was known for arranging externships, so she approached them and asked if they could help. They put Angela in touch with the curator of a museum in a nearby city. He invited her to spend a day with him at work.

Angela was taken on a tour of the facility: shown around the back offices, storerooms, and restoration laboratories not usually seen by the public. The curator introduced Angela to the various members of staff, who each demonstrated the tasks they most often did every day. This gave her an in-depth insight into how museums work behind the scenes.

During Angela’s externship, the museum curator introduced her to a local archaeologist. The archaeologist explained her work in the field and invited Angela to come work for her as a paid volunteer for eight weeks over the summer. She found it hard work. But during that period she learned the reality of work in the field, a lifestyle very different to that imagined by Hollywood yet satisfying in many ways.

Example 2: Tom's Courthouse Externship

tom's externshipWhen Tom got into law school, he was unsure what kind of legal work he wanted to dedicate his life to. He decided to investigate what life was like for real lawyers.

Tom telephoned the local courthouse and asked if they could help. He was invited in to spend a week observing trials. During this externship, he learned the truth about the repetitive nature of the work: drunk-driver after drunk-driver and unpaid parking fines. He also got to see the joy in the faces of defendants whose skilled lawyers successfully pleaded their cases.

During that externship, Tom developed an acquaintance with a local criminal lawyer. She informed him about internships offered at one of the larger law firms in the same city. He followed up on her information and applied.

Because he demonstrated enthusiasm for law in his cover letter and was able to use his acquaintance as a reference, he secured an internship. During that summer, Tom got to see the other side of courtroom work: the long hours of research and preparation, as well as the realities of office work in a big organization.