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Externships & Job Shadowing: How They Can Help Your Job Search

externships job shadowing


Externships & Job Shadowing: How They Can Help Your Job Search

Let’s talk about externships. Don’t feel like reading? Listen here!

As a job seeker, you will continually revisit your job search strategies. What are you doing that works? What are you doing that may need to be improved? How can you increase your odds of job search success? One way to increase your odds is to consider the value of externships and job shadowing in your job search process.

You may be thinking externships and job shadowing are for college students. You’re absolutely right—these are great job search and career development strategies for college students and recent graduates.

But don’t dismiss the notion of gaining insight and experience through externships and job shadowing if you’re further along on your career journey.

Externships & Job Shadowing: What Exactly Are They?

Experts differ when it comes to defining externships, but a good general definition is that externships provide experiential learning, and that usually involves job shadowing. Externships may also be hosted by employers via a higher education institution, and in this case, the externship results in academic credit.

Externships are not always paid opportunities, while most internships are paid opportunities. As Steven Rothberg, Founder/Chief Visionary Officer of, points out, “[as an extern] you’re clearly performing duties, and typically, but not always, are being paid. Nonprofits and governmental agencies are allowed not to pay, but for-profit employers must if there’s any benefit accruing to the employer, which there almost always will be. Some employers will argue they shouldn’t have to pay as the employee is receiving training benefits, but the Fair Labor Standards Act doesn’t set up a balancing test. It simply states if the employer benefits, it needs to pay for the labor. Unfortunately, it isn’t well enforced.”

Internships are typically longer in duration than externships and require a true commitment on your part. You will generally be treated like an employee as an intern, and the company will often pay you and may provide learning and development opportunities. However, internships are still typically reserved for college students and recent graduates.

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For this reason, externships, and especially job shadowing, may be more appealing if you’re already a working professional.

Which Is Right for You?

If you graduated from college within the past three years, an externship might still feel like a good fit for you. Many externships are geared toward college students and recent grads. You might want to consider externships if you’re hoping to gain insight and learn through experience but cannot devote months to an internship.

If you graduated years ago, you might feel uncomfortable with externships because you may be part of a cohort of younger professionals and college students. Job shadowing may be a better fit. Even if you graduated from college 20 years ago, job shadowing might appeal to you if you plan to switch gears in your career. Whether you’re transitioning to a new industry or job role, gaining experiential learning (short-term, paid, or unpaid) may benefit you. You won’t list job shadowing on your resume.

Job shadowing, unlike externships, involves no hands-on learning. When you shadow a professional, you do exactly as the term implies: you follow the professional around and observe the work environment, daily work tasks, and interactions in the workplace. If you’re job shadowing, you will not be asked or required to complete any tasks. You will receive no academic credit. But you will gain insight into the work environment, the career field, the industry, and the specific organization and its leaders. This is priceless when you’re not just looking for a job but are seeking true career fulfillment.

If you’re a seasoned professional and hope to transition into a new career field or industry, consider job shadowing. However, you might rename the experience and refer to it as a potential employer site visit. By doing this, you indicate to employers your intentions as a job seeker. 

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You’ll also likely be taken more seriously by leaders and team members if they know you are not simply observing for the sake of it.

Ways to Secure Externships, Micro-Internships, & Job Shadowing Opportunities

Unlike full-time and part-time employment opportunities, you cannot always search and apply for externships, micro-internships, and job shadowing opportunities. You might need to utilize a more diverse career readiness skill set to land one of these opportunities. Here are some strategies to consider.

Search Online

The first step, whether you are seeking an externship, micro-internship, or job shadowing opportunity, is to look. Get a glimpse of which opportunities are readily posted and accessible online.

Most employers will post externships either on their careers page or on a job board. As Rothberg notes, the internet blurs the lines between internships and externships quite often.

“I could see that many of the 313 externships [on] were also included in the list of 354 internships. That makes sense to me given the blurring of the lines between the two,” Rothberg shares.

Thus, you may have success finding externship opportunities by searching for internships and externships on Lensa.

“We have been seeing more companies providing prospective candidates opportunities to work on real, paid, short-term projects as part of their recruiting tactics, not as a replacement for internships, but as a feeder. This works because it’s how individuals want to be engaged, as it provides better insights than the artificial messages or job shadowing. For companies, it helps them better engage candidates, evaluate skills, and build relationships earlier in the process,” Moss elaborates.

You can also find gig opportunities (requiring no more than six hours’ worth of work) for job seekers hoping to build skills and gain experience.

Ask Around

If you don’t see externships, micro-internships, or job shadowing opportunities posted online that appeal to you, try utilizing your networking skills. Ask your former professors, career development staff, fellow alumni, and colleagues to recommend opportunities. It’s a great idea to join and participate in alumni networking events and programs if you’re alma mater hosts these. You can typically meet leaders and professionals from a variety of industries and career fields. Reach out to your connections on LinkedIn and other professional networking platforms, too.

When you meet someone working in your targeted industry or career field, don’t be afraid to ask for help in identifying the right person within the company to contact about externship, micro-internship, or job shadowing opportunities. Let this new contact know your intentions, and be clear about whether you are seeking paid or unpaid opportunities.

In addition, don’t be opposed to volunteer opportunities for nonprofit organizations. You can build transferable skills through volunteering, and you may even have fun. Volunteering to update a website for a nonprofit, for example, helps the organization while building your own web development skills. 

job search insights

You may also be introduced to employees and board members with great connections. This will, in turn, build your network.

Contact Employers Directly

If your network can’t help, and you don’t see opportunities posted online that interest you, simply reach out to employers. You can easily search for employees in most companies on LinkedIn. Messaging an employer and asking for the opportunity for job shadowing is a perfectly appropriate request. You may consider reaching out to someone in talent acquisition, recruiting, or human resources if you cannot find a hiring manager in your chosen career field.

Final Thoughts for Job Seekers

Remember that most professionals are more generous and helpful than we may think. We often fear the worst—that if we ask someone for help, they will laugh at us or refuse to help.

While this could happen, it isn’t likely. Even if your contact can’t provide job shadowing experience, there’s a good chance they will not mind connecting you to someone who can.

Whether you seek a paid or unpaid externship, micro-internship, or job shadowing role, you’ll gain the same invaluable insight into the world of work within your targeted career field or industry. This insight is invaluable when you’re transitioning to a new field or industry. It can either reassure you that you’re on the right path or dissuade you from pursuing a path that would not be a great fit. Either way, you’ll be one step closer to greater career fulfillment.

Bethany Wallace
Bethany Wallace
Bethany Wallace partners with mission-minded organizations to build better workplaces through soft skills solutions. Bethany aids leaders in strengthening workplace relationships through communications consulting, training, executive coaching, keynote presentations, & career coaching. Bethany enjoys presenting research at conferences and contributes regularly to major publications & recognized podcasts, including Glassdoor, College Recruiter, Zip Recruiter, Jobscan, FlexJobs, the New York Daily News, BusinessTech, Human Resources Online, Life After Teaching, Love Your Story, The Conversation Guy (10 Minute Mindset), Everyday People Podcast, The Success Chronicles, and more.

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