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Internship vs. Externship: What's the Difference?

Jennifer King Logan

Written By: Jennifer King Logan

Published: 8/25/2022

For students without previous professional work experience, landing your first entry-level job right out of college can be challenging, but you can dramatically increase your chances of success by completing an internship or externship — or both! — while you're still in school.

Data from the National Association of Colleges and Employers shows that 2021 graduates who held paid internships received almost twice as many job offers as students who did not serve any internships. Even if you've returned to college after some years in the workforce or military service, these activities can still give your career a significant boost.

Understanding the similarities and differences between internships and externships may help you decide whether to pursue them and how you can benefit from them.

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What Is the Difference Between an Externship and an Internship?

Internships and externships both provide opportunities to gain real-world work experience and meet people in your occupation or industry. They may also give you a chance to see how the concepts and theories you're learning in your college courses play out in the workplace. However, the two are distinctly different in terms of expectations.

What Is an Internship?

An internship is an opportunity to develop genuine work experience in some type of organization, usually related to your field of study. Summer internships are often full-time jobs, while semester-long internships are frequently part-time positions. Depending on the nature of the work, you may work on-site or remotely and may be paid for your time.

An internship serves a variety of purposes. First, it's a chance for you to understand how the organization functions and how different roles contribute to achieving its goals. By completing assigned tasks and interacting with co-workers, you'll also work on developing key technical and interpersonal skills. If the internship meets your school's criteria, you'll probably earn academic credit for the experience, and you'll be able to add it to your resume.

What Is an Externship?

If an internship is learning by doing, an externship is learning by observing. In this situation, you'll do something called job shadowing, meaning you follow someone working in the field or type of for-profit business or nonprofit organization you're considering for the future to get a first-hand look at what the job entails. Externships are typically short-term options, lasting anywhere from one day to six or eight weeks.

Although you typically don't earn academic credit or get paid for your time, externships are still valuable career development tools. You'll have a more realistic vision of your future career and possibly identify an area you'd like to specialize in. For example, after completing a computer science externship, you may opt for a concentration in cybersecurity or software development.

Externships also make an impressive addition to your resume by showing prospective employers that you're a dedicated professional.

What Is a Graduate Externship?

In graduate school, students are often encouraged or required to serve externships. However, a graduate externship is more like an internship, allowing you to gain hands-on, supervised work experience in your field. They are generally longer — a full summer or semester — and may be part-time or full-time. You may or may not be paid for your work, but you will probably earn college credit.

What Are the Benefits of an Internship?

Whether it's voluntary or required by your school, an internship offers numerous benefits regardless of whether you're paid.

Gaining Work Experience

Interns get an insider's look at an organization. This is your chance to see the big picture — how various departments contribute to meeting goals, how an organization fits into the industry as a whole, and how the industry works.

As part of your job training, you'll also be given specific tasks to complete, which gives you a close-up view of a particular role and work environment. For example, if you're studying human resources and land an internship in an HR department, you may get involved in the hiring process of recruiting, screening, and onboarding job candidates. You'll also learn about other HR functions, such as compensation and benefits, allowing you to decide if you want to be a generalist or a specialist in one of these areas.

Making Professional Connections

As you work at your internship, you'll start to build relationships with your supervisor and others in the organization. These connections with industry professionals can be incredibly valuable to you immediately after graduation and long into the future, as these people may be able to help you secure jobs. As you interact with your co-workers, look for opportunities to show them your interest, dedication, and enthusiasm for your career. One way you can maintain these connections is through LinkedIn, a social media platform for professionals.

Learning From a Mentor

Any one of the people you work with may develop into a mentor. Not only can this person teach you what they've learned about the profession, industry, and specific workplaces, they may help you identify your strengths and skills. If you continue to nurture this relationship, it could continue on long after you've moved on to another position or company.

Enhancing Your Resume

Once you graduate and start submitting your resume to prospective employers, you'll be able to present yourself in a much better light by showing that you already have relevant, professional work experience. You'll be able to list the specific job duties and skills you learned during your internship. If your experience was particularly positive, you might even be offered a full-time job with the organization where you completed your internship.

What Are the Benefits of an Externship?

Externships offer some of the same benefits as internships, although perhaps on a smaller scale. Through the experience, you may make valuable connections with professionals, one of whom could become a mentor. Externships also add credibility to your resume by demonstrating your commitment to your career.

Exploring Your Career Path

The biggest advantage to being an extern is that it gives you a realistic view of a particular career or industry. If you're still in the early stages of your college experience, an externship — like an informational interview — may help you decide on a major. You may discover a career you're passionate about and determine it's the right career for you. Later on, externships may enable you to find an area of concentration or identify a place you'd like to work when you graduate.

Let's say you're a creative person who enjoys computer technology. As a first-year student, you may be considering majoring in graphic design. Shadowing a graphic designer for several days may show you that you dislike some aspects of the job, such as numerous meetings or sometimes having to compromise on your design sense. Then again, your externship may confirm that this career path is the perfect fit for both your technical skills and artistry.

How to Choose the Right Program for You

College students sometimes question whether they should do an internship or an externship, but why not do both? Ideally, you'll complete at least one internship and one externship over the course of your college experience. Many schools offer internship and externship programs to help you make the best choices. Just make sure these opportunities serve a purpose for you beyond checking off something on your college "to do" list.

Before committing to either type of experience, consider the following criteria.

  • Outcomes: This may seem obvious, but make sure the proposed opportunity gives you something you actually need. Will the externship answer your questions about direction and career goals? Will the internship offer relevant work experience? Will the internship teach you skills you can apply to future opportunities?
  • Timing: Since externships are geared toward understanding a career or field, these may be better for first- and second-year students. On the other hand, internships may be more useful to students who have completed more of their education. Internships allow you to start applying what you've learned, understand more about occupations and industries, and prepare for entering the workforce.
  • Commitment level: Internships often require a significant amount of time and energy, which is why many students complete full-time internships during the summer. If you plan to do an internship during a semester, even if it's only part-time, try to balance it with a lighter course load. Externships, however, require relatively little time and may be completed whenever they're convenient for you and the person you're shadowing.
  • Payment: Finances are another concern for many students. If this is true for you, look for paid internships that compensate you for your efforts while you learn. An exception to this may be an unpaid opportunity that you're sure will provide you with essential learning and networking opportunities.

FAQs About Internships and Externships

Where Can I Find Internships?

There are many ways to find internships. Your school may have a career services center with advisors who can assist you in using online search tools like Handshake to identify opportunities and in contacting appropriate employers. You can also search online job listings by specifying that you're looking for internships in a particular field. Another option is to enlist the help of friends, family members, and teachers who may know of an open position.

Can You Do Two Internships at Once?

Yes, you can do two internships at once, but it may be difficult. Internships are usually either part-time jobs during a semester, which requires juggling work and school, or full-time jobs during the summer. It may be better to do just one internship at a time so you can remain focused and balanced.

Are Externships Paid?

At the bachelor's level, student externships are generally unpaid opportunities because they're considered learning experiences that benefit the student. However, master's level externships are often longer in duration and require more work from the student, so they're often paid opportunities.

What Is a Medical Externship?

A medical externship is an externship for people training for occupations in the healthcare field, such as medical assistants or nurses. Shadowing other medical professionals for a short period of time is an excellent way for students — especially those who are early in their educational journeys — to determine if they're on the right career path. It may also help students choose an area of specialization, such as pediatrics or oncology.

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