RN teaching nurse extern how to draw blood
Career Resources

Kickstart Your Nursing Career as a Nurse Extern

Nursing careers allow you to answer a call to help others while earning a competitive salary. You can even enjoy adventure and travel if you land work as a travel nurse. Kickstarting your career before you even graduate nursing school helps you capitalize on all the benefits of a nursing degree, and a nurse externship is one way to do that. Discover more about nurse extern jobs, including how they can help you pave your nursing career path.

What Is a Nurse Extern and Externships?

Nurse externs are students who shadow licensed registered nurses (RNs). Nurse externships are jobs or programs that offer hands-on experience in a clinical setting. These positions are typically temporary and let nursing students work alongside and under the supervision of RNs and other healthcare professionals to gain practical skills and knowledge.

During an externship, a nurse extern may perform nursing assistant roles, such as taking vital signs, administering medications, dressing wounds and assisting patients with activities of daily living (ADLs). Externs can often perform other nursing tasks as long as a licensed RN is with them and directs the task. Nurse externs may also have opportunities to observe surgeries and other medical procedures and attend educational sessions.

What’s the Difference Between Nurse Externs and Nurse Interns?

While they may sound similar, nurse externs and interns aren’t the same things. While the exact parameters of each position depend somewhat on the employer or facility, here are a few common differences and similarities you can expect between nurse externships and internships.

Nurse Externship Nurse Internship
Usually paid but can be a work-study/volunteer position Often paid but can be a volunteer position
Mostly applies to students currently enrolled in nursing school, but some employers may require candidates to have completed a certain level of school Usually occur once someone has finished or is just about to finish nursing school
Nurse externs typically only provide patient care as a nursing assistant under the direct supervision of an RN Nurse interns may be allowed to provide some patient care as a nurse
Positions tend to be shorter and coincide with school semesters or lengths Positions may be long-term

Are Nursing Externs Paid?

Yes, in many cases, nursing externs are paid. According to Vivian Health’s salary data collected on March 11, 2023, the average pay for nurse externs was $37.24 per hour, though facilities in some geolocations or medical specialties may pay more. 

However, some nurse extern programs work more like work-study programs. These may or may not provide wages. These types of programs typically involve less nursing assistant-type work and more shadowing of clinicians. They may only last for a few hours or a few days. 

When applying for any nurse extern position, ensure you understand the details, including salary, associated with the program. Succeeding in nursing interviews involves answering questions and asking them to help you determine whether the job is a good match for you. Interviewing for nurse extern positions is an ideal time to practice your interview skills to help you land a great graduate nurse job after completing your nursing program.

How Can a Nursing Externship Help Your Career?


A nursing externship can be a positive stepping stone in your nursing career, whether you opt for a permanent or travel job as a new graduate. Consider some of the benefits of nurse externships below.

You Gain Real-World Clinical Experience

A nurse externship moves you out of the classroom and into a real-world, hands-on environment. Many nurse externs perform nursing assistant duties, which include taking vital signs, monitoring patient food intake, supporting patients with ADLs and documenting health information. However, you’re still under the supervision of experienced RNs and won’t be allowed to make serious clinical decisions, providing some protection and confidence as you wade into these experiences.

In some cases, nurse externs may perform duties such as drawing blood, operating certain types of equipment and caring for wounds. How much actual clinical experience you get depends on your employer and your extern role. It may also depend on how comfortable RNs are in overseeing these experiences, as externships are teaching roles. For some duties, you may need an RN willing to directly oversee and teach you as you perform the task.

You Work Directly with Patients

You have some direct contact with patients no matter what specifics are involved in your externship. This experience can be invaluable for up-and-coming nurses, as it lets you work on critical interpersonal skills. Nurse externs may be able to practice skills such as:

  • Patient Empathy and Support
  • Patient and Family Communication
  • Patient Education
  • Patient Advocacy

Many of these skills are complex, and there aren’t always black-and-white rules for handling scenarios. Nurse externs have the opportunity to face various scenarios with the support and counseling of experienced RNs, helping them learn how to balance nursing jobs, patient wellness, ethics and compassion.

You Build Your Network of Clinical Peers

While learning from various clinicians during a nurse externship, you also build a network of clinical peers and career contacts. For example, an externship can be an ideal time to find a nurse mentor you can stay in touch with throughout your career. Nurse mentors are more experienced clinicians who offer advice and act as sounding boards as you build your career.

If you’re pleasant to work with, demonstrate a strong work ethic and show that you care about patients and want to grow your skills to provide for their care, you can impress others during your nurse externship. This impression may help you land a new nursing job after finishing nursing school and passing the NCLEX.

You Can Try Different Employers and Specialties

Nurse with patient

A huge variety exists in nursing jobs, and your happiness in the field partially depends on finding the right niche for your skills and personality. For example, someone who succeeds as an emergency room nurse may not do as well in labor and delivery because the skills, environment and work pace can be quite different.

If you’re interested in a specific type of nursing, you can test the field with a nurse extern position. The time you spend in the role lets you experience the pace of the setting and understand the tasks nurses in those specialties normally deal with.

Nurse externships also help you decide whether certain employers are the right step for you after nursing school. During externships, you can gather information about various medical employers’ cultures, missions and values. Once you’re ready to apply for nursing jobs, you have a better idea about which facilities you do and don’t want to work for.

You Increase Potential Success as a New Nurse

A nursing externship can boost your success as a new nurse because you can add these positions to your nursing resume. Benefits of adding nurse externships to your resume include:

  • Adding critical keywords that can help your resume make it through automated applicant tracking systems designed to weed out resumes without requisite experience
  • Creating a more competitive work experience section that includes actual clinical experience
  • Demonstrating that you have some knowledge and experience in specific fields or with the employer already

Nurse extern positions do more than boost your resume, though. Having worked in a hospital or other clinical environment, you may acclimate better to other nursing roles when you enter them. An investigation of participants in the VALOR externship completed by Federal Practitioner showed that individuals who went through nurse externships experienced less initial career shock as new RNs, allowing them to slip more seamlessly into their careers.

What to Expect with a Nurse Externship

How a nurse externship plays out depends heavily on the employer and program. However, you can expect to:

  • Deal directly with patients in some capacity
  • Work under the supervision of one or more RNs
  • Complete nursing assistant-type tasks on your own under the direction of licensed nurses
  • Complete RN-type tasks with a licensed RN at your side, directing you throughout the task

For example, you might wonder whether a nursing extern can give medications. While only doctors and other prescribing clinicians can order medications, nurses of various types can follow through on those orders to administer meds. As a nurse extern, you may have an opportunity to administer meds or help patients manage medication under the direct supervision of an RN on staff with you.

Are Nurse Externships Competitive?

Nurse externship positions can be competitive because many nursing students may want these opportunities. The following offers tips for increasing your chance of landing nursing externships to boost your career:

  • Don’t put off researching options. Start looking into nurse externships early on during your nursing school tenure. Even if you can’t apply for these positions yet, getting the lay of the land can help you act faster when the time comes. It also helps you build your resume to ensure you’re a more competitive candidate when you do apply.
  • Talk to coordinators and teachers. Ensure your nursing school instructors and anyone charged with coordinating externship, internship and job placements knows you’re interested in externship opportunities. By doing so, you may hear about externships before being publicly posted.
  • Apply outside your school network. Look online for nurse externship positions in your area. Don’t limit yourself to applying for opportunities you hear about through school or existing networks.

Nurse externships can be a valuable boon to your career. Take the time now to investigate these opportunities so you can build a strong resume to support your launch as a new nurse.

Vivian Health

Vivian Health is the leading healthcare jobs marketplace built to serve medical professionals first. We’re fixing the way healthcare hiring works in America, because nurses deserve better.

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