Everything You Need to Know About Externships

Extern working with professional

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Laura Berlinsky-Schine
Laura Berlinsky-Schine
You know how important it is to find an internship that sets you up for career success. This bridge between your education or training and the professional world helps you transition into a full-time role—sometimes even at the organization where you’re interning.

But what about an externship? This less-well-known experience also offers an invaluable learning opportunity for people exploring potential careers. So, what exactly is an externship, how do you land one, and what can you do to make the most of the experience? We’ll tell you everything you need to know about externships.

Definition of an Externship

An externship is an opportunity for individuals, usually college students, to gain real-world experience in a career field by shadowing professionals in the industry. In addition to shadowing, students may perform projects or conduct research relevant to the work they observed.

How Long Do You Do an Externship?

Externships can last as little as one day or run for several weeks. Typically, they are held during the academic year as opposed to summer breaks. Students tend to complete them over their winter or spring breaks.

What Career Fields Offer Externships?

Many different fields offer externship opportunities. Since they are often the result of established relationships between the college the student attends and the organization, the opportunities typically reflect the school’s majors and specialties.

Some fields in which you are likely to find externship opportunities include:

• Business

• Communications

• Finance

• Education

• Law (usually offered to second- or third-year law students)

• Medicine

• Nonprofit

• Research

• Software development

What is a medical externship?

The medical industry is one field in which externships are particularly common. In medical externship programs, first-year medical students shadow physicians on their rounds and during some procedures in clinics and hospitals. Students may have the opportunity to follow physicians from different specialties and ask questions, as well as attend conferences and explore the externship setting’s facilities to understand the services it offers and how the departments operate.

Externships occur earlier in medical students’ studies because they have not yet received much of the training they will need to perform hands-on procedures. Medical internships occur after the completion of medical school for this reason since interns do perform procedures under supervision.

Internship vs. Externship

Many people are far more familiar with internships than externships and may confuse the two terms and programs. So, what is the difference between an intern and an extern?

Both programs offer real-world learning opportunities for people wanting to explore a prospective career path. Typically, both involve training in a typical setting for that career, such as hospitals for medical interns and externs, and interns and externs learn about their prospective careers.

While they do have a number of commonalities, there are some key differences between internships and externships. They include:

• Length of time

Typically, internships last several months or even longer depending on the industry. Externships rarely last longer than eight weeks and are sometimes shorter than that.

• Time of year

Internships may occur any time of year depending on when the organization in question offers them. Many students who complete internships do so during their summer breaks. Externships, on the other hand, generally occur during the school year, and students often complete them during their winter or spring breaks.

• Work performed

As part of an internship, interns often perform basic, entry-level work. For example, they might file documents, sort data on spreadsheets, or complete other tasks that require a low level of training. Externs, however, are usually strictly observers. While they can and are often encouraged to ask questions, they don’t perform work during the externship.

• Purpose

The main purpose of an internship is to gain experience in one’s desired industry. In many but not all cases, interns have a good idea of the career they intend to pursue, and the internship gives them experience in that field such that they gain experience to make them more competitive entry-level candidates and learn more about what the job entails.

Externships tend to be more exploratory opportunities. Since they are shorter and involve observation rather than hands-on work experience, externs may explore several industries to get a better sense of what line of work they might pursue. Essentially, they are less of a commitment and therefore attract people who are looking for a lower-stakes opportunity.

Students who participate in externships in graduate school are an exception to this since they are already pursuing a specific path, such as law or medicine. In that case, externships serve as an opportunity to observe a future career without having the level of training needed for an internship.

• Life and career stage

While internships may be completed at nearly any stage, including during college, immediately afterward, or at a mid-career change, externships are almost always completed during college at the undergraduate or graduate stage.

How to Get an Externship

• College career centers

Externships are often found through colleges through a partnership between the institution and the organization. Alumni, local organizations, and other affiliated businesses may offer externships to students at a particular school. A good starting place is your college’s career center. A career counselor can most likely give you plenty of resources to help you find appropriate externship opportunities.

• Career fairs

Career fairs, whether offered through your college or sponsored through other local organizations, are often great resources for finding both internships and externships. The next time you hear of a career fair taking place, make sure to attend and speak to representatives from organizations that interest you.

• Job search websites

You’re more likely to find internships than externships on job search websites, but that doesn’t mean the opportunities don’t exist. Check out our guide to the best job search websites to find out where to look.


As with most jobs, networking is one of your most powerful tools. Talk to friends, family members, and acquaintances about your interest in externing in a specific industry. Professors are another important resource since they tend to have many connections in their fields.

Don’t forget to use LinkedIn to connect with people you know or even those you admire. Connect with alumni from your college and high school, because people tend to be favorably disposed—and want to give opportunities—to people from their institutions and communities. Often, if you reach out to enough people, an opportunity will arise.

Do You Get Paid When You Do an Externship?

You don’t get paid to do an externship. This is in contrast to internships, which often do offer minimum wage. (The U.S. Department of Labor offers these guidelines to help determine whether interns must be compensated by for-profit employers.)

Externships, on the other hand, are strictly learning opportunities. Since they don’t involve the student performing work, the extern is generally not compensated for her time. Occasionally, an extern may receive academic credit for the externship, although this is usually not the case. If you’re hoping to receive credit, make sure you establish this with your college and the organization before participating in the externship.

How to Make the Most of Your Externship

As with an internship or any professional or learning experience, you should view an externship as an opportunity—to gain knowledge, to discover a field, and to grow. While it may be tempting to sit back and watch since you’re not actually “doing the work” per se, you’ll get more out of the experience if you prepare and take an active role in your own learning. Here are some ways to make the most of your externship:

• Come in with objectives.

You chose to do this externship for a reason. What is it? Define your objectives for the experience, such as key information you’d like to learn, observing the work a particular role performs, or understanding how the departments work together. That way, you can search for ways to meet your objectives, such as by asking questions or requesting to observe a particular department.

• Be professional and courteous.

Treat this experience as you would a paid job by showing up on time, dressing appropriately, and being polite and respectful. Professionalism also entails acting engaged, so avoid treating your externship like you’re above it; you’re a learner, not a peer.

While externships don’t usually lead to paid positions with the employer, it’s not out of the question. Plus, you might make some important contacts for the future.

• Take notes.

Your externship will probably cover a lot of material, and it will be difficult to remember everything you learn. Be sure to jot down some notes so you can refer to them later. You should also make note of questions you want to ask in case you don’t have the opportunity to ask them on the spot.

• Ask questions.

Asking questions is a key component of most externships. The point, after all, is to learn about the career path. Come prepared with a few questions to start. You’ll probably think of some along the way, too.

• Get to know as many employees as possible.

Externships aren’t just learning experiences—they’re also networking opportunities. Try to interact with as many people at the organization as possible, because you never know who might put in a good word for you later on.

• Send a thank you note.

As with an internship, sending a thank-you note to your supervisor and the program coordinator is a nice touch that leaves both you and the recipient feeling positive about the experience. Mention a couple highlights of the externship, and convey your overall appreciation for having had the opportunity.

What Are the Benefits of Doing an Externship?

Thinking of doing an externship? Externships give you a valuable introduction to the working world and help you hone your career interests and path. If you make the most of the opportunity, you’ll find numerous other benefits:

• You’ll learn more about the inner workings and day-to-day responsibilities of a prospective job.

• You’ll be able to network with professionals in your prospective field.

• You’ll be able to explore different career options (there’s no reason why you can’t do multiple externships!).

• You’ll add valuable experience to your resume, which can help you land a job in the future.