If you tell someone outside of the veterinary (or medical) profession that you are completing an externship, they usually look at you with a look of confusion followed by, “What’s that? Is it like an internship?”
What: A short (usually 1-3 weeks, although it can be longer) veterinary experience at a clinic that is not your own veterinary school. Unlike an internship, you complete externships while still in veterinary school.
When: Most veterinary school programs require some off-campus externships during the 4th year clinical rotations, although that can vary greatly from school to school. At Purdue, we have to do 6 weeks of off-campus externships, with the potential to do additional weeks through an application process.
However, 4th year is not the only time an externship can be completed! Many larger clinics prefer 4th-year students, but a lot of places reserve their externship spots for 3rd or 4th-year students. A lot of places don’t have a preference on what year you are and accept externs of any year. It is important to make sure you double check any requirements from the clinics you are interested in, and be realistic when applying for externships; if they say they give preference to 3rd and 4th years only, and you just finished your 1st year, realize that you might not get that externship until you are a 3rd or 4th year.
Who/Where: This is the tricky part. How do you decide where in the world you want to spend time studying? Purdue has a very active study abroad program, so many of my classmates have already spent time completing externships abroad during their summers. But regardless of if you are looking to stay in the country or not, picking an externship can take a lot of thought and effort. Purdue keeps a running list of externships that the 4th years have completed, and they have to complete a short write-up about their experience. They catalog all of these for us into different categories: small animal, mixed animal, large animal, equine, food animal, exotics, etc. If your school does something like this, this is a great place to start if you are totally overwhelmed.
Another great tool is to talk to upperclassmen. Have they gone anywhere that was spectacular? Places to avoid? Places they wished they could’ve gone? I keep a running list of clinics I would like to go to, making sure that they even take externs, and that I meet any other requirements they have.
Another aspect to keep in mind is housing. Some externships actually provide you with housing during your stay, which can save you a lot of time, money, and hassle. Some externships don’t, but don’t discount these immediately – you may be able to work out your own housing or pick an area where you have friends or family that you can stay with.
Be sure you look into any application requirements that the externship requires. Do you have to contact someone at the clinic? Do they have an online form? How far out does your application need to be? Do they require any letters of recommendation? Many places will ask for your preferred dates (and backup dates), so make sure you’ve checked your schedule thoroughly so that you don’t end up in a travel snafu down the line.
Why: If you are in your 4th year, externships are important to get out of the school clinic arena, see how different practices operate “in the real world,” to get different perspectives, to see more aspects of the industry that you are interested in, and if you are planning to apply for internship/residency, externships are often a requirement for application at that practice (and a great way to make a first impression!).
As an underclassman, the reasons are the same, but I think with a little less pressure, and more time to find the clinics that you really want to go back to potentially during your 4th year.
Be sure as you look into externships that you are realistic with your expectations. If they tell you that the externship is observation only, or that there will be hands-on opportunities, or that you will rotate through different areas of their practice, be prepared for that. Be prepared to answer questions, be prepared to ask questions, be prepared to help when you can, and get involved. You are there to learn; wherever you are externing understands that and wants to facilitate that – they wouldn’t offer an externship if they didn’t want you to learn.
So go out, experience different clinics, make a good impression, meet some cool vet students and clinicians along the way, and learn as much as you can from every place that you visit!