Internships Vs. Externships: How To Spot The Differences

By Ryan Morris - Apr. 11, 2021

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When students start looking for jobs, there’s one phrase that pops up often enough to be a big discouragement to many job hunters: that is, “This position requires at least one year of work-related experience.”

For those who are just getting started in an industry, finding even entry-level positions that don’t require any prior work experience can be a real struggle.

That one year of experience can be a huge barrier when you haven’t had the opportunity to develop any of the skill sets or relationships you need to have in order to apply for jobs successfully and consistently.

That’s where internships and externships come into play. By bringing you on to work on a strictly temporary basis, companies are able to avoid the kind of costs that come with taking a risk on a new hire while also allowing you to start building up the experience that will later make you useful in a full-time position.

Internships and externships occupy a specific niche in the world of hiring and job searching — although the terms are often used interchangeably, the two have vastly different requirements and expectations.

What Is an Internship?

An internship is a limited-time role that allows for students and recent graduates to gain real-world, hands-on experience in the industry they’re interested in. Internships exist in just about every industry, making them a great way to build your resume and make connections in your field.

Internships can be paid or unpaid and full-time or part-time. They usually occur during summer or winter school breaks, but some offer part-time positions you can perform during your time in school. Some interns are also able to receive college credit for interning.

If you’re still in college or have recently graduated, your school’s career center is the first place to start looking for a suitable internship. They have experience setting up their alumni with such positions, and they ultimately want you to succeed and represent their institution well.

You can also attend internship fairs or other networking events to find out about local internships. Or, you can use Zippia’s job search feature to narrow down listings to only show internships.

What Is an Externship

An externship is a short-term job shadowing experience that allows participants to see first-hand what working in an industry or role is like. It’s a great way to dip your toes into an industry before committing significant time or resources towards pursuing a career.

During an externship, you might sit in on meetings, observe employees performing tasks, or even conduct one-on-one informational interviews with different professionals around the office. This period can last anywhere from one day to one month.

There are also graduate externships, which are usually longer-term and more akin to internships. These are usually performed primarily for course credits, however, some students may be lucky enough to also get paid for these roles.

Differences Between Internships and Externships

Internships and externships both provide the ability to interact one-on-one with workers in your chosen industry in order to gain firsthand knowledge or experience in that industry.

The main difference lies in the nature of that experience — we’ll go into some of the specifics of this further down, but the best way to think about the difference between internships and externships is that internships are lengthy and hands-on, while externships are typically hands-off and relatively short.

Here are some of the biggest points on which internships and externships differ:

  • Experience

  • Money

  • Time

Internships: Experience

Interns are often expected to perform the same functions as entry-level employees, albeit on a somewhat more limited scale. As a result, they tend to require just as much training as a new employee would, which can be more or less intensive depending on the industry a person is interning in.

The main benefit to an internship is the hands-on nature of the experience versus the externship. Because you’ll be working within an industry itself, it’s more likely that your experience will be directly related to your first job.

Internships: Money

While this is not always the case, internships often come with some form of compensation, such as an hourly wage or stipend. This depends largely on the industry — higher-earning fields like medicine and law are much more likely to offer money to their interns than internships in fields like journalism.

At the very least, almost every internship offers the opportunity to gain class credit for interns who are currently enrolled in university programs.

Internships: Time

Due especially to the level of training that’s often involved, internships are extended affairs. Some are only a few months long, but many can last one or even two full semesters.

For this reason, internships usually occur closer to the end of a person’s education — in fact, full-time internships are typically post-graduation, when a student has more time to devote to work.

Externships: Experience

Unlike internships, externships mostly offer a hands-off experience — that is, the experience you’ll gain mainly takes the form of job shadowing, where you follow around a person within your chosen industry in order to see how someone with genuine job experience conducts business.

The benefits of this over the experience found in an internship are dependent upon the person undertaking the externship. As they aren’t typically as work-intensive, it can be a much lower stress decision to choose to take on an externship over an internship.

You’ll also get to see how a person with a lot of experience does their job without the distraction of being thrown into the deep end yourself, which could theoretically give you more opportunity to educate yourself on the industry and pick up good habits early on.

Externships: Money

Unlike internships, externships are almost always unpaid, which can be a downside to many who are looking to bolster their bank accounts in addition to their resumes.

Depending on the length and commitment level necessary for particular externships, this lack of compensation can even be a barrier from entry for many hard-pressed would-be externs.

Externships: Time

To help offset this lack of payment, externships are typically very short. They rarely last for more than a month, and most externships are around a week or so in length. Some only last one day.

Externships typically occur a little earlier in a student’s education than an internship, but — given their brevity — they can be undertaken at almost any time. Many occur during school vacations for the extern’s convenience.

Final Thoughts

In conclusion, externships are used when you want to spend a small amount of time getting a taste for what an industry might be like, while internships are used for when you need to take a hands-on look at an industry that you’re already reasonably sure that you’re interested in pursuing.

Keep that in mind the next time you’re on the job hunt and find yourself stymied by your lack of work experience. Or better yet, keep it in mind while you’re still in college — after all, that’s the best time to work on things that will help you in the future, even if they don’t make you any immediate money.

If you’re really having trouble finding an entry-level position somewhere, it might be worth it to try for an internship first even if you’re not still in school. Although the pay might not be great (or may even be non-existent), many employers use internships as a trial period for an employee before offering them a real job.

Just be sure that if you go that route, you’re careful not to get yourself into a situation where you find you can’t pay for your everyday expenses.

Either way, don’t despair. If you keep an eye out, an entry-level position is bound to open up somewhere down the line.

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Ryan Morris


Ryan Morris

Ryan Morris was a writer for the Zippia Advice blog who tried to make the job process a little more entertaining for all those involved. He obtained his BA and Masters from Appalachian State University.

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