What Is an Externship?

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October 12, 2022
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min read

Wouldn’t it be nice if you could try on a career? Classes, interviews, and even the infinite amount of information available at our fingertips only give us a small window into what it’s like to step into a full-time career. 

Here’s the good news: You can try on a career for size through something called an externship. If you’re weighing options for your first career or are thinking about a career change, let’s dive into the reasons you may want to pursue an externship to help you clarify your next step. 

What Is an Externship?

Externships are most often associated with higher education courses or programs. Students, as part of a semester, trimester, or quarter, may participate in an externship to more thoroughly round out their studies. Instead of learning about a career or topic in class, be it marketing management or neurobiology, students go to those places of work to shadow professionals. 

So, is an externship just a fancy term for ‘job shadowing?’ Well, yes and no. Externships incorporate elements of job shadowing, but whereas a job shadow may last only a day or two at most, externships can last up to multiple weeks to give someone a more complete picture of the day-to-day of a particular career. Since externships are often lengthier (from a few weeks to a few months), they also provide more opportunities to network, make an impression on someone who could be your future employer, and take small roles in projects as needed. 

Externships, though they share a few similarities, are quite different from internships in their purpose and outcome. Externships low-commitment opportunities that allow you to experience first-hand what it's like to enter a particular field by shadowing an established employee or practitioner. If it fits, great. If not, now you know more about your values, your likes and dislikes, and where to direct your job search. 

Are Externships Limited to Students?

If you’re debating a career change and now wondering if you need to return to the classroom, don’t worry. Externships aren’t limited to students. Students make up a large portion of externs due to the variable nature of their studies and number of career options in front of them, but they are also valuable tools for anyone thinking about trying a new career. 

Instead of going through an undergraduate or graduate program, you may find yourself looking for large organizations that have pre-determined externship programs or venturing forth to create your own (which we’ll walk you through how to do). 

Keep in mind that externships are usually unpaid experiences. Though you are going into a place of work, you are there to learn and observe, not do. Take this into consideration if you are working full-time and need to arrange time off or limit your externship to a few days.

Why Should You Do an Externship?

Certain benefits of an externship are more obvious, such as going behind the scenes of a potential career, whereas others are more subtle. 

Determine Your Workplace Preferences

For students, being in a workplace is a new experience altogether. Do you prefer small or large teams? How do you feel about coworking spaces? Workplaces are diverse and the best way to learn if you’d thrive in that environment is to visit yourself. It’s one thing to imagine yourself sitting in a cubicle coding JavaScript or working with patients in a clinic, it’s quite another to experience it in real-time with little to no strings attached. 

Nowadays, externships can also take place online if an organization is fully remote. Online externships can help you determine if you prefer remote, in-person, or a hybrid work environment before accepting your first, or a new, full-time role. 

Improve Your Soft Skills

You can also start to develop, or improve, your repertoire of soft skills, such as good communication, confidence, and relationship-building during an externship. The more soft skills you develop before your first day of work, the more confident you’ll feel stepping into a new role. Take note of how people interact, whether it’s with fellow coworkers, clients, or patients, and practice introducing yourself to a variety of people you come across. 

Learn from Industry Experts

Near the top of the list of externship benefits lies the people you’ll meet. During an externship, expect to encounter a range of industry experts. Each person you meet has a wealth of knowledge that you can both learn and benefit from. 

Take this time to soak up the knowledge they offer and ask pertinent questions about how they got to where they are today and what advice they’d give to someone entering the profession. Don’t be afraid to ask about the challenges, too. Externships can give you a full picture of your future career, not only an idealistic view. 

Prioritize Your Mental Health 

A once overlooked aspect of choosing a career is its impact on your mental health. Externships allow you to see for yourself how long employees stay at the office, how many patients a clinic receives in a day, and what’s expected of new employees. What mental health resources are available? What is the overall value placed on an employee’s mental wellbeing? Externships are valuable opportunities to observe the impact of a career far beyond its job description. 

How to Create Your Own Externship

If you're a student and your course or program includes an externship, that’s wonderful. If not, consider talking to a trusted professor or visiting your campus’s career office. Ask for guidance about connecting with organizations to either take part in a current externship program or discover what it would take to create your own. Alumni can also be valuable resources in this regard. 

To create your own externship, either as a student or someone making a career change, you’ll need to reach out to organizations or managers directly (LinkedIn is a great resource), participate in an interview process, and coordinate how and when you’d like your externship to take place. 

Another way to create your own externship is to ask your personal network for professional connections in your ideal career. It may feel intimidating to reach out on your own, but more often than not, people want to help you succeed and grow. Creating your own externship also gives you ample flexibility to determine its length and what you’d like to learn.

How to Make the Most of Your Externship

No matter where you are in your career, what you learn from an externship can benefit you long after its completion. Each day of your externship, bring a journal or iPad or laptop to take notes during meetings, lunchtime conversations, and informal interviews. Your brain will be busy taking in an abundance of new information and you won’t want to forget what you learned. Writing it down allows you to refer to it later and refresh your memory of the experience. 

Don’t be afraid to ask questions and say yes to new experiences, even if they’re outside of what you assume is your chosen career path. You never know what insights you’ll gain or what encounters will push you to consider alternative roles or careers. 

Not sure where to start? That’s where our Job Application Tracker comes in. Whether you’re applying to externship programs through your school or networking on LinkedIn, our Job Tracker allows you to organize each application or contact how you prefer and indicates where you are in the process. Juggling studies or a full-time job as you’re going about finding (or creating) an externship is complex enough without endless browser tabs or resume versions. Using our Job Tracker prioritizes everything you need in one place.

An externship might be the low-commitment, high learning potential you need to gain clarity about what you want to do and where you want to go next.

Frequently Asked Questions

How does an externship differ from an internship?

An externship is typically a shorter, observational experience that offers a real-world insight into a profession without the extensive hands-on work that an internship involves. Externships are often unpaid and can last from a day to a few weeks, while internships are usually longer, may be paid, and involve more in-depth work responsibilities.

Can an externship lead to employment?

While an externship is primarily a learning and networking opportunity, it can sometimes lead to employment. It allows you to make professional connections and demonstrate your interest and potential in a particular field, which may impress employers and give you an edge in the job market.

What should I expect to gain from an externship?

From an externship, you can expect to gain industry insights, observe day-to-day operations, and understand workplace culture. It's an opportunity to ask questions, build professional relationships, and clarify your career interests. While it may not offer hands-on experience, it provides a valuable overview of a potential career path.

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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