Externships vs Internships: What’s the Difference?

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October 12, 2022
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min read

You know you want to change careers and want a structured program to explore your options. Or, perhaps you’re a student about to graduate from college who wouldn’t mind gaining more experience in your chosen profession. 

Enter internships and externships. Often overlooked for the sake of internships, externships provide as much value and insight into your next career. Both offer practical job training and a competitive advantage when it comes time to submit job applications. Based on your current needs and career goals, however, you may want to prioritize one over the other. 

Mid-career or just starting out, follow along to learn how you can determine whether an internship or externship is the right next step for you.

What Are Internships and Externships?

Interns function more like entry-level employees. Internship programs may require you to take on projects and tasks that contribute to a team’s success, whether you’re building a marketing proposal or synthesizing formulas in a lab. 

>> Read More: What are internships?

Externships provide job seekers of all kinds with a small window into the everyday activities of a business without the responsibility of an intern or employee. The goal of an externship is to simply observe, or shadow, a professional in your field to see whether you could step into their shoes. It’s a great way to assess your fit without commitment. 

>> Read More: What are externships?

How Do They Differ?

Most internships take place over the summer to take advantage of college students’ extended time off from school, while externships are much more flexible. If you so choose, you could pursue an externship or internship each summer when you're home on break or when you’ve saved ample vacation time. There’s no limit to participating in either internships or externships and choosing one doesn’t preclude the other.

Internships are by far the favored career training option among college students and early career professionals. But it's popularity is, in part, due to a general lack of awareness about the existence of externships. 

Level of Responsibility

Responsibility for interns and externs comes down to two distinctions: learning and doing. During an externship, your only responsibility is to soak up as much information as possible and learn from industry experts. Externships serve as valuable learning opportunities for students still figuring out which major they’d like to pursue or someone beginning to navigate a career change. 

Internships expect you to bring your current skill set to the table. Look forward to attending meetings, taking on projects and giving a presentation or two during your internship. What you learn by doing at an internship sets you up for success as you can market your achievements to your future employers. Keep in mind, though, that internships are still training experiences. It’s common for internship supervisors to schedule regular check-ins to ensure you’re meeting both your work performance and professional development goals. 

Here’s a helpful tip: Internships are the most likely option to convert into a full-time work opportunity based on an organization's needs and your performance. But don’t overlook externships. Externships are valuable networking opportunities and the connections you make during your externship can also lead to new job prospects. 

Length of Program

Cramped for time? Pursue an externship. Externships provide the most schedule flexibility and are well-suited to professionals who need to take time off work to explore a new career. Some externships last only a day or two, while others can extend to a few weeks or months. 

It’s not uncommon to create your own externship, either, which gives you even more power over its duration. You could even think about pursuing multiple externships as time allows. Occasionally professors incorporate externships into course material and require students to participate, which negates any flexibility, but still provides a valuable experience nonetheless. 

Internships, on the other hand, often have much more rigid timelines. Due to their popularity, many organizations, both large and small, have dedicated internship programs with set dates that begin in early summer and last until it’s time to go back to school. It’s also common for interns to work a 40-hour week just as they would at a full-time job.


Nowadays, paid internships are beginning to outnumber unpaid internship opportunities, though compensation still varies by organization and program. You may earn an hourly wage or a stipend for your duties as an intern, or receive housing or other living expenses as a form of payment. 

Some internship programs offer college credit instead of financial compensation, which can be attractive for students hoping to graduate early and enter the workforce sooner than later. It’s always a good idea to submit your internship for college credit, though, even if that’s not an explicit outcome of the program. Go to your college’s website to learn whether your experience applies and how to submit your internship for credit.

Studies also show that paid interns are more likely to receive a job offer, so if you find yourself choosing between two opportunities, go for the one that’s paid.

Most externships are almost always unpaid opportunities. You are there to observe and learn, not participate, so there’s no real reason to expect payment. The value you receive by learning whether a certain career is a good fit for you is worth far more than any form of monetary compensation. Occasionally college professors do choose to incorporate externships into their courses, in which case you’ll earn credit for the course but not the externship itself. 

Competition for Opportunities

Finding an externship can be as simple as contacting a connection on LinkedIn and asking to shadow them for the day or a set period of time. Not all organizations offer formal externships, but because it’s a low ask and you’re not taking on any of the work, more often than not they’ll agree. 

Internships evolved into highly competitive processes within the last decade. Large tech companies, certain nonprofits and popular organizations like Disney have elaborate application and interview processes and only select a small number of interns each year. You may feel pressure to throw your hat in the ring for a competitive internship at Google, and while there’s certainly no reason not to, make sure you apply to a variety of internship programs at both large and small organizations. What matters most is the skills you develop and how much you learn from an internship, not the name on the building. 

To help keep your internship applications in order, try using our Job Application Tracker. No more forgetting about which deadlines are when or how many versions of your resume you’ve saved. Our Job Tracker keeps all the necessary information in one, easy to use portal and highlights keywords in job descriptions to use on your resume. Bonus? There’s even a Chrome extension you can download for a more seamless application experience. 

Internship vs Externship: Which Is Right for You?

First-time job seekers and career changers alike can benefit from both externship and internship programs. There’s no drawback to either. Choosing one or the other often comes down to personal preference and which program would be of most benefit to you at this moment in time. You might even think about doing both, such as beginning with an externship before applying to a longer-term internship program. 

The more you can learn about what a career is like before making a commitment, the better, especially if it’s quite different from your current role. Adding an externship or internship to your resume also proves to employers that you’ve taken your future career path into serious consideration. 

Remember, there’s no wrong answer. Both internships and externships give you valuable learning experiences that will benefit you the rest of your career.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can externships lead to employment opportunities like internships often do?

Externships are typically shorter and more observational, so they are less likely to lead directly to employment compared to internships, which often serve as a proving ground for potential hires. However, externships can still provide valuable networking opportunities and insights into a profession that could benefit future job searches.

Are externships paid positions like some internships, or are they always unpaid?

Externships are usually unpaid as they are short-term and primarily educational in nature. They are designed to offer a glimpse into a professional environment rather than provide substantial work experience. In contrast, internships may be paid or unpaid depending on the industry, company, and duration of the internship.

How do I decide whether an externship or internship is better for my career goals?

If you're seeking in-depth, hands-on experience and the possibility of employment, an internship might be more suitable. However, if you're looking to explore a career path or gain exposure to a professional setting without a long-term commitment, an externship could be the better choice. Consider your career stage, educational needs, and the time you can commit when deciding between the two.

Meghan Gallagher

Meghan is a social impact content writer and strategist. She empowers people to achieve career growth with person-first storytelling and engaging advice.

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