Externships: What They Are And Why They’re Important
According to Merriam-Webster’s dictionary, the first known use of the term “externship” dates back to 1945. However—until recently—most students were entirely unfamiliar with the concept. And many people still don’t know what they are, or why they’re important.
To find out more about externships, I spoke with two professionals who work in college career centers. This is what I learned:
Similar to an apprenticeship or internship, an externship is typically a training program offered by educational institutions and private businesses that give students brief practical experiences in their field of study.
“It’s [usually] a short-term, unpaid ‘shadowing’ experience,” says Melissa Schultz, an associate director in Career Services at Lafayette College.
Lafayette established its externship program over 30 years ago—and today, the externships range from two to five days in length, Schultz says.
“The purpose of the externship is to gain first-hand insight into a career or industry of interest. Strictly a job shadowing program in the past, over the last few years we have added hosts in graduate and professional school, so that students can gain first-hand insight into these types of paths as well. For the host, the externship program provides an opportunity to support students, by sharing their time and talent. In many cases, through serving as hosts, alumni are able to ‘pay forward’ the support they received from other alumni during their time as a student.”
She says some first-year students are familiar with the job shadow or externship concept through experiences they’ve had in high school–however, “this is a new concept for the majority of incoming students.”
Tiffany Kurzawa, an assistant director at the Center for Career Development at Gettysburg College, says the definition of an externship often varies by institution or organization. “If I had to speak generally, I would say that an externship is considered an opportunity for students to gain insight and knowledge in a particular career field of interest. Externships are valuable career learning experiences in that they provide the opportunity for students to see first-hand what the day-to-day work activities and responsibilities are in various professions and industries.” Kurzawa also believes that a majority of incoming freshman have never heard of an externship.
Are externships important?
Schultz says they are critical. During their externships, students will often become involved in projects, sit in on meetings, and meet other members of the organization, she says. “Not only do students get to see the career area first-hand, but they also have the opportunity to ask their host and others questions that they have about the role or industry, through informational interviewing. This allows the student to get a true picture of the context of the work, real-life challenges, and the structure of a typical work day or week.”
She says, in many cases, a student’s externship has a lasting impact on his or her career decision-making. “Students report that learning what they do not want to do is just as valuable as confirming what they are interested in.” The externship also fosters mentoring relationships, alumni connections, professional networking, and in some cases, can even lead to an internship, she adds. “Regarding lasting connections, 86% of students surveyed reported plans to stay in touch with their extern host.”
Each year Lafayette asks students and hosts to complete an evaluation of the externship program. For the January 2013 program, 59% of students and 31% of hosts provided feedback. Of those students who completed the survey, 100% stated that they would recommend the externship program to other students. Moreover, 99% reported that their externship helped them to clarify their career goals. As for the hosts, 93% said that they would participate again.
Kurzawa agrees that externships can be extremely valuable. She says some students go to college knowing exactly what they want to do; some have a few ideas; and others have no clue. “An externship can be a valuable experience in any of these cases. In the Center for Career Development at Gettysburg College, we like to say that participating in an externship is a great way to ‘test drive’ a potential career. Participating in an externship can help a student to determine if that particular career field is the right fit for them. If they enjoy an externship experience, they can work to obtain additional experiences and knowledge within that field during their college years. A student could also determine from their experience that a particular position or career field is not a good fit and see what other options they might want to pursue prior to graduation.”
If you’re wondering how an externship is any different from an internship, here are a few of the major differences:
–Internships typically last four or more weeks, whereas externships range from two days to two weeks, on average.
–Externships are an intensive job shadowing opportunity involving a lot of observation; an internship is generally more hands-on and requires the student to take on more responsibilities.
–An internship can involve academic credit and can be paid or unpaid; at Gettysburg and Lafayette, and most other colleges that offer externships, students do not receive credit and are generally not paid for it.
Schultz says it’s important that students participate in both externships and internships throughout their college career.
According to Chris Bierly, the head of North American associate consultant recruiting at Bain & Co., students aren’t the only ones participating in externships. Some companies, including Bain, are offering their employees the same sort of “job shadowing” experience.
In 1996, Bain, the Boston-based global management consulting firm, pioneered its global externship program to attract, motivate and retain top performers. The program provides exposure to alternative career paths and allows employees to test a passion for an industry, function or social cause. Since 2011, more than 200 Bain employees globally have participated in externships.
After an employee participates in a three- to six-month working engagement at a company or nonprofit of their choice (yes, this is longer than the typical two-day to two-week externships that students generally participate in), he or she must return to Bain.
“We work with employees to customize their externship to ensure that they fulfill their time commitments to Bain,” Bierly says.
Externships are offered to strong performing associate consultants, senior associate consultants and consultants, and are most typically done during the employee’s third year at Bain. The firm structures externships as leaves of absence, Bierly explains.
He says employees have many externship options to choose from across multiple geographies, industries, sectors and areas of social impact, ranging from large companies to startups and government organizations to nonprofits. “Employees are encouraged to secure the opportunity of their choice, with the guidance of Bain mentors, and the experience should fit into their overall development and career plan.”
Sounds risky for Bain, right? Bierly says externships provide a win-win experience. “Our consultants have an opportunity to broaden their horizons and capabilities and they return re-energized and with a deeper appreciation for the opportunities our platform creates for them.”
He continues: “We’ve also found that many of our employees participate in externships to enhance their candidacy for business school, as well as expand their professional network beyond Bain & Company.”
Whether you participate in an externship as a college student or a working professional, the purpose is essentially the same—and they’re a great way to get a taste of a career or organization you might be interested in.
by Jacquelyn Smith