If you’re considering a new job or nearing the end of a college program, you might wonder what to expect from your professional life. You’re heading toward uncharted territory — which feels daunting when you lack industry experience.
That’s why externships exist. Externships are short-term work experience programs aimed at easing professional transitions. They provide people with practical experience that complements research and school-based theoretical learning.
Although they typically cater to students, anyone can apply for and gain useful insights from an externship. We’ll discuss the difference between externships and internships, why externships are valuable, and how to find a suitable program for you.
Externships versus internships
Externships are usually temporary training programs, whether that means individuals shadow someone in a work environment or focus on developing one specific skill. They often cater to students to help them add lines to their resumes and gain professional experience.
Internships, on the other hand, make individuals internal members of a company. Instead of working for a short period on set skills, they often become part of a company’s work environment and support team members in completing a variety of tasks.
Studies have found that internships can help students better perform in the professional world, proving the worth of gaining non-academic experience before hitting the job market. But some industries offer apprenticeships instead of internships. Plus, at for-profit companies, 43% of internships are unpaid, limiting how available these positions are to certain students.
Regardless, having hands-on experience will help your resume stand out. If you’re able to tackle either opportunity, you’ll likely be a better candidate.
While externships and internships provide experiential learning for students and new recruits, here are some critical differences between the two:
Externships: Don’t expect to get paid for an externship. They’re typically promoted as short-term learning opportunities so undergrads and new professionals can find out what the work involves and whether they want to pursue it. But if your school or workplace requires an externship, you might be eligible for compensation through them.
Internships: Internships are more likely to be paid since they typically lead to employment by the company. Unpaid internships still provide valuable work experience, but because these positions are more often full-time and long-term, organizations are more likely to offer payment.
Externships: The responsibilities are low for externs since they’re simply shadowing an employee or a team. You can expect to sit in on meetings and take notes while watching others perform tasks you’d likely do.
Internships: Responsibilities are higher for interns as they’re expected to learn and practice everything they need to take on a future role. They may shadow employees at first, but duties will increase as they become more comfortable.
Externships: The goal here is to give newcomers valuable information so they can decide whether they want to pursue this career, so there’s no job opportunity promised at the end of an externship.
Internships: While interns aren’t guaranteed full-time employment, many employers use internship programs to vet job candidates. Sometimes, teams onboard interns as employees and their next position post-internship is outlined for them.
Other times, organizations take on several interns, hiring the best performer afterward. Even if an intern isn’t hired, the experience should help them gain employment elsewhere.
Externships: Because externships are usually short-term and rely on shadowing a professional in any given field, they typically end after eight weeks. They might focus on one specific role or immersion in a workplace — but those completing externships aren’t employees, and they don’t usually complete work for that company.
Internships: Whether they’re required for school credit or secured independently, internships vary more in length. They usually span 8–16 weeks, like the summer or a school semester, but can last up to a year.
The benefits of externships
Externships help people decide whether they want to pursue a particular profession with less time committed than an internship. We can do all the research we want, but hands-on experience is priceless when choosing a career.
Here are six benefits of externship programs:
1. Gain exposure: No matter your industry interest, externships provide professional exposure. This is valuable whether you’re new to the working world or changing careers. Each industry offers its own bank of professional knowledge, like sector-specific communication skills or best practices for certain technology and tools.
2. Narrow your options: An externship can help you determine which role you’d like to take on in a more specialized industry. You’ll tap into your strengths and weaknesses and narrow down what you think you’d be best at.
3. Make a small commitment: Externships are less formal programs that last a few days or weeks, allowing you to do multiple externships to narrow down what you’d like to do. Because the commitment’s small, it’s an excellent opportunity to push yourself out of your comfort zone to get the most out of it.
4. Try it out: Research and university programs provide foundational knowledge, but the reality of a position can be quite different. Perhaps you think you’ll love it in theory but can’t stand the work once on site. Hands-on experience will give you a clearer idea of what the job requires and whether you want to pursue it.
You’ll also get to test certain skills you’ve developed throughout your schooling or past careers to see if they align with this position.
5. Potentially get a job: Externships are a great chance to network and make professional connections. The team member you’re shadowing might be able to put in a good word when you apply for a position at the company.
6. Build your resume: Externships look fantastic on a resume. They show you’re willing to learn new things and are proactive about your career. They also signal to the recruiter that you’re more likely to be content in the position since you already have some experience.
Types of externship programs
While externships exist in nearly every industry, these are three of the most common ones:
Judicial externships for law students
Law schools might offer externships with law firms, judges, or public advocacy projects. These external bodies monitor students and give them assignments to leverage their legal education. This helps them figure out where they’d like to practice and gain skills to bolster applications.
Clinical externships for medical students
A medical residency program may offer a clinical externship. Externs will perform supervised patient care and get familiar with different positions within the industry. These programs are also often used to help doctors and hiring staff decide if they want to offer residency to candidates.
Many consulting firms offer young associates field placement opportunities to fine-tune their knowledge. The firms will send associates to shadow different specializations so they can decide on their preferred role. These can be short or long-term.
Finding a program
If you’re thinking an externship is the right type of experience for you, it’s time to find a program. Here are some of the most common ways of finding a suitable externship program:
1. Ask your school
Externship programs are often directly developed between an academic institution and a company. Visit your college’s career services office or program advisor to discuss available externship opportunities.
Developing your networking skills is beneficial for every career stage. Make connections in the industry you’re interested in, and reach out once you feel comfortable.
For example, you might gain a few LinkedIn followers from a law student mixer and see an externship on their profile. Send them a note to ask about the opportunity or if they know of any organizations that offer externships.
3. Reach out directly
A more direct approach is reaching out to an organization and asking if you can shadow a team member. They may already offer externships and can send you the application form. If they don’t, this is a great opportunity to explain the benefits and see if they’re interested in starting a program.
Some industries might be more accommodating to this proposal than others. Non-profit organizations and government agencies take on interns frequently, so may be more willing to offer mentoring and externship placements if they don’t already have them. But if you show initiative, any company might.
Preparing for your career
Externships are a great way to check in and ensure you’re ready, willing, and excited to make a professional change. They bolster a university education, enhance a resume, and offer real-world experience. And they’re usually short-term, so you won’t waste any time as you prepare for this new and exciting career.
Taking the first step toward any new career is scary — but getting started is the hardest part. Once you’ve reached out about externships, you’re one step closer to gaining experience in your field of interest, starting on a career path, and finding your dream job.