Sometimes the hardest part of being a student nurse isn’t the pressure or trying to learn an overwhelming amount of information all at once. When you’re a new nurse just starting out, the lack of basic familiarity with a working health care environment is daunting.

There’s no way to learn until you are on the job,” says Liana Lo Chau, president of the Nursing Students’ Association at the University of Texas at Austin.

But Lo Chau says one of the biggest benefits in her student nursing career has been completing an externship. Like a clinical, an externship gives a nursing student real-world experience that can make the transition from nursing school to working nurse much easier.

I was able to follow a nurse’s schedule even before my capstone,” Lo Chau says of her three-month externship at MD Anderson Cancer Center. “And I worked as a nurse but still had the support.”

Just getting that experience of knowing how a nurses’ station is set up, who to call in an emergency, seeing how nurses interact with patients, observing how the work flow operates, taking part in daily routines, and even how the medication process goes (even if you don’t handle the medications yourself) is an important step to just navigating the typical nursing day.

If you’re interested in an externship, spend some time in the coming months to research one that would be a good fit. Nursing students generally apply for these competitive placements in the second half of their first year, to participate in an externship during the summer between their two years of nursing school, says Lo Chau. Check with your school’s career services office for help finding an appropriate externship match for your interests.

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An externship allows you to work in a hospital setting for two or three months while getting paid. You follow a preceptor for the duration, learning as you go. Some externships can be longer than the summer months and each one offers something slightly different.

In the end, however, nursing students gain experience they couldn’t get in another way.

But don’t count on just landing a great externship without some effort, no matter how fantastic your record is. Lo Chau says even the application process is tough and highly competitive. Her program accepted only 20 students nationwide. Other externships exist in the Fox Chase Cancer Center, the Mayo Clinic, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, and in most states throughout the nation. There are a good amount available if you are interested, says Lo Chau, but consider each as a job application and interview process.

Generally the application process will include an application, essays, recommendations, and an interview. Your area of interest, work ethic, grade history, and activities will all be considered as part of your application as well.

In addition to the incredible opportunity for face-to-face interactions with patients and real-world experience with nursing tasks, an externship gives you a valuable record of a solid work history. The organization sees how you work and you also can judge if the fit would be a good one.

You might even get an interview or a job offer right off the bat,” says Lo Chau.

Julia Quinn-Szcesuil
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