"What is the Difference Between Internships, Externships, Co-ops, and Fellowships? Which One Should I Choose?"

By Joyce Huber

Many college students look for work opportunities while they are still in college. The reasons vary. It can be because they want to earn more money to help pay college tuition, they want to 'test drive' a career they are interested in pursuing to see if it is right for them, or they may be in a field that values much experience. Whatever the reason, there are many work opportunities available, including internships, externships, co-ops, and fellowships. It can be real confusing trying to decide which one is right for you.


Before you decide which opportunity is best for you, it is important to understand what each one is and the differences between them. This will go a long way toward helping you make the right decision.


An internship is a temporary job for students that allows them to gain experience and learn new skills within the field they have chosen. Internships can be paid or unpaid (although the trend is paid); pay can include hourly wages or a stipend. Internships can be offered during the summer break, or at other times during the year. Internships offered during the summer generally require interns to work a full week, up to 40 hours or more. They generally last 8-12 weeks, but can last as long as 6 months to one year.

Many times, internships can lead to a full-time job. This is something to keep in mind if you are looking at specific companies in which to intern. You should be serious when considering an internship, especially if it includes pay. It will have the same requirements from you as though you were a regular, full-time employee, which means you will have assignments to complete, a boss, and timelines. Many companies specifically recruit students as interns because they are looking to fill their ranks with the best and brightest students.

In addition, if an internship is what you are looking for, you have the opportunity to complete more than one internship while you are still in college. Internships are a great way to really scrutinize a company and to get a very clear picture of your career, including what you will actually be doing every day for the rest of your career.


An externship is basically an opportunity to get a sneak preview into a particular job or field. It gives students an opportunity to explore various career options. Unlike an internship, externships cover a much shorter time frame such as one day, or one month. Externships are structured as job shadowing and generally do not include pay or stipends. This is because externs are observing, not actually doing the work of an employee, like interns. They also do not get college credit for externships. 

So, what is the benefit of an externship? It is a great way to explore more career options. This is a big benefit to students who may be deciding between two or more career fields. It is also a benefit to students who know their career field but want to explore several companies. In addition, completing externships will be a positive addition to your resume, and it may even increase your chances of being chosen for an internship when you are ready. You can find more information on externships HERE.


Co-op, or cooperative education programs, are similar to internships. In fact, the two are often used interchangeably. They both provide an opportunity for students to gain work experience in their career field, but there are differences. A true co-op is when a student stops attending college temporarily to actually work at a company. Co-ops can last from 3-12 months and include pay. 

The benefits include getting more in-depth and extensive work experience. Since the focus is on working full time, co-op students will often be included on bigger, more long-term projects. This can heighten their experience in the field. In addition, working one year as a co-op student is going to give students firm work experience they can add to their resume. From an employer's view, this is more valuable than spending 3 months at an internship.

On the other hand, this means it will take longer for students to complete their college education. However, some colleges, like Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts, have programs where students can choose to complete their degree in four years, with the potential for two co-ops, or five years, building in time for three co-ops. It may take a year longer to complete their degree, but they can interview for jobs after graduation with a record of up to 18 months' worth of actual job experience.


Fellowships are offered to students at the graduate and post-graduate level. Many students consider fellowships as a way to augment their academic studies with the experience necessary to succeed in their chosen field. This is particularly true in the fields of medicine, humanities, public relations, and the sciences. Fulbright Fellowships, Guggenheim Fellowships, Smithsonian Fellowships, and Woodrow Wilson National Fellowships are examples of some of the country's most prestigious programs.

Fellowships include pay, so graduate students are able to focus on the experience without having to worry about a job or paying for tuition. Compensation for fellowships can be anywhere from $5,000 to $50,000 a year with a sizable living stipend to cover travel costs. Fellowships also offer more in-depth training than internships, opportunities to work abroad, and publish their research. Fellowships often ensure that graduate students land more than entry jobs when they graduate.

If you're still confused about what is best for you, a co-op is probably the quickest way to get your feet wet, so to speak. From here you can determine whether or not the next step is an internship or a co-op. Keep in mind, however, that the more extensive the work program, the more competitive the requirements will be in order to be selected. Also, many internships require students to be sophomores or higher in order to be eligible. The good news is this means you have time to work in one or more co-ops before you are eligible for an internship.

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