Careers

What's an Externship and How Do I Know If I Need One?

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As a student, you've probably heard about internships and the value of completing one or more to gain skills, establish industry contacts and secure a full-time opportunity upon graduation. Another just as valuable option you may not be as familiar with is completing an externship.


What Is an Externship?

An externship is an opportunity that exposes students to a career field and allows them to see how knowledge and skills gained in school can be applied in the professional world. The main purpose of externships is to introduce students to an employer, an industry or a role, and let them explore it as a potential career path. Shorter than internships, externships often take place during winter and spring breaks, but you could also complete one in the summer. Depending on the field, the employer and your academic institution, externship experiences can vary quite a bit.

Externships are partnerships between academic institutions and employers, with alumni as the most likely hosts. You can find externship opportunities as a high school junior/senior or as a college student, and complete them domestically or abroad. In length, they could range from one- or two-day job shadowing experiences to several weeks of practical application of skills and knowledge on a project or a field assignment. Though externships are traditionally unpaid, depending on the setup at your institution, you may have the option for academic credit or financial support in the form of scholarships, stipends or reimbursements.

How to Know If You Need an Externship?

Now that you know what an externship is, you may be wondering whether it's worth applying for one. When pursued with a purpose, any experience can support your career development, but externships in particular could be of critical value if you fall in one of the following categories.

1. You have no idea which field(s) of study appeal to you

If you are in high school or college and you're still undecided about your major, worried about committing to a choice you may not like, externships may help you clarify what suits you best. Externships are perfect for exploring possible career paths because they give you access to different employers, industries and roles so you can gather information before making a decision. Being on site, among professionals who work in the career fields you are considering, you can observe and ask clarifying questions in real time. Doing that also offers the chance to cultivate meaningful relationships with these professionals, which could lead to further opportunities such as internships and full-time jobs.

2. You have already chosen a field of study and want to experience possible workplaces

If you are someone who knows exactly which field you want to pursue, an externship can help you solidify that interest and gain practical insights about entering and succeeding in the industry. In addition, externships allow you to explore different workspaces and work cultures. For example, you may know you are interested in business, but careers in that field can be realized across a variety of spaces (in large vs. small organizations, in rural vs urban areas, and so on). An externship can give you an idea of which employer/workplace is a fit and aligns with your values, personality and skill set. You can be strategic about your externship and get the chance to observe what it could look like to practice the skills and knowledge in your chosen field. Think of externships as experiments that help you design a career path you actually enjoy following.

3. Your field of study requires apprenticeship-like experience

Though you can discover externship opportunities in almost any field, certain ones such as medicine, engineering and law are not only more likely to have established externship programs, but in many cases, these may be required for completion of your program. Before you transition into the professional world, externships allow you to experience the work environment and observe how the skills you've been learning are applied in the specific context.

How Can You Get an Externship?

If you are finding yourself interested in completing an externship, here's how to go about it.

Visit your career office to determine if there are established externship partnerships with employers, especially ones in fields that are of interest to you (should you already have such interests). Keep in mind that you may need to work on clarifying a career vision before embarking on the exploration process through externships and other opportunities. As such, the earlier you touch base with a career professional, the more productive your experience will be.

If your institution offers externships, take the time to carefully review all of them -- not just the ones that may seem like an obvious fit -- and mark those that sound intriguing. Read through the descriptions and familiarize yourself with the requirements so you can determine your eligibility. Pursuing this option earlier in your college experience ensures that if you identify any gaps, you have the time to close them before applying. You will also have time to prepare for the application and interview process. Work with your career office to polish documents (such as resumes and application essays), interview stories and your presence.

If your institution doesn't have an externship program, consider tapping into your own network by speaking with family, friends, and trusted mentors. Think about your favorite professors or even your academic advisors, and chat with them about your interest in completing an externship. In some cases, a recommendation from a professor is required to secure an externship. Should you succeed in creating your own opportunity through your network, you can bring it back to your institution and even encourage its leadership to start an externship program.

Speaking of which, why not consider pitching the idea of establishing an externship program to your program's director or even the dean of the university? Not only could this result in an externship opportunity for you and your peers, but it could also become an excellent example of you taking an initiative, making a wish a reality and benefiting an entire community. Now that's a story you would love sharing in future interviews -- and that employers would appreciate hearing!

If you successfully identify and secure an externship, congrats! Keep in mind, though, that the journey doesn't end here. Getting an opportunity is not an end goal; it's just one of many steps on the path to a lifetime of career growth and development. Once you get your acceptance letter, be sure to complete any required activities, such as attending orientation and introducing yourself to your host, prior to starting your externship. Next, excel and go above and beyond in that role to both make a great impression and maximize your gains. You never know where such an opportunity, as short as it may be, could lead, so make the most of it by being actively engaged, taking notes and asking meaningful questions.