I just had an interview.

I'm about to send a follow-up email. In that email I'm considering asking if "shadowing" the position is possible, that is the following:

  • I won't be recognized as the official intern
  • My employers will have no need to directly talk to me
  • No need to pay me

Here's my main reason and rationale though:

  • I will receive similar tasks that the other interns get, except I'd just do them on my own, not really for them

My rationale is that, I really just want to see what sort of tasks people are working on, it's just my curiosity.

Would this be weird to ask in a follow-up email?

That is: "If I'm not selected as the official intern, I'd still love to shadow the position."

More important details about the internship:

They're actually just 7 professors and a few developers at a university. It's an internship through the university.

  • 1
    @PSU - It can't hurt to ask (enthusiasm alone can sometimes win people over, especially in academia), but don't get your hopes up too much. You would essentially be asking them to create an additional role for yourself, entirely on the authority of one or more of the profs, who may be sidestepping some institutional rules as other comments point out. FWIW I have seen this happen.
    – Pete W
    Apr 2, 2021 at 15:08
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    First of all, see if you get the internship. In the event you don't, if you are as motivated as you say, letting them know this could still lead to other opportunities. Unlike being an employee in a corp, if you are a student then you have license to make all kinds of inquiries that might be considered presumptuous later in life.
    – Pete W
    Apr 2, 2021 at 21:49
  • 1
    @BernhardDöbler I guess I was thinking a ghost haunts people so I would be like a ghost following people around, I suppose shadowing would probably be the better word, wasn't thinking at the moment. Apr 2, 2021 at 22:43
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    @employee-X yep, one reason I decided this was awful. My original intention was that it would show I'm enthusiastic because I love the work so much I'd do it for free. Turns out there are more bad interpretations than good. Apr 2, 2021 at 22:44
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    @PSUChange Isn't it a shame, though? Maybe the Academics stack exchange already has some info on another way to demonstrate your enthusiasm. Or, even here, some general stuff about internships.
    – employee-X
    Apr 2, 2021 at 22:49

4 Answers 4


Facet #1: Since this is a University, you may be able to get away with a modified version of what you're looking for.

You're in an unusual situation. You're not looking for pay or for official work history - you're looking for knowledge/experience.

Which means you don't need a formal job.

... but you can't exactly do that at an actual business, for a dozen different reasons (the first being: businesses aren't supposed to profit off unpaid labor.)

That's not necessarily true at the college level. Most undergraduate TAs aren't paid at all. There's really not a lot fundamentally different about their position and what you're asking for.

The thing is, you probably shouldn't ask for this from the top-down. Instead, simply go up to a professor you'd like to do pro-bono work for and ask, "I find the subject really interesting, and I'd like do help out with your class. Is there any way I could volunteer my time to assist with anything?"

Facet #2: Negotiating Power

Imagine you were trying to decide whether to buy a used car from Alice's Awesome Auto or Charlie's Quality Cars. Charlie comes up to you and says,

"Hey, I know you're still trying to decide whether to buy a car from me. Listen, if you decide to go with Alice, can I go ahead and just give you a car for free as well?"

... that sounds strange, right? Not only is Charlie offering to give away a car, but... why on earth you would not choose Alice after that, and get two cars for the price of one? And more subtly... do you get the impression that Charlie's cars have good value, or are worth much? It's not like you get a sense that Charlie has pride in his product.

You're doing the same thing.

"Hey, if you end up selecting someone else for the job, is it okay if I just give you my time for free?"

If they are willing to entertain this, you just cost yourself any chance of getting the job for real - because they can get you for free instead. If they aren't willing to entertain this, you probably just cost yourself the job - because you're practically screaming that your 'product' isn't all that valuable.

  • 1
    TBH, I think this is a little too wordy for the answer to the question (and kind of beats around the bush a little bit without directly addressing the question). On a specific note, colleges/universities are actual businesses though. They are non-profits (as hard as that is to believe) and have arguably even tighter restrictions and regulations. The position may, and likely does, have access to what could be seen as sensitive or privileged info. I don't believe the OP stated the exact position or it's R&R's.
    – David
    Apr 2, 2021 at 14:43
  • Great point about saying my product is probably not valuable. I guess I was optimistic thinking I wouldn't seem that way. Apr 2, 2021 at 14:44
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    @PSUChange - I'm NOT saying that your product doesn't have value. I'm saying, 'When you send an email like you were considering in your post, it's communicating that it doesn't have value.' It'd be like me telling my boss, "Hey, I know I messed up last week. But I really need this job - can I take a pay cut to keep working here?" Whether or not my labor is valuable has no bearing - my message is telling him that it doesn't (rightly or wrongly)
    – Kevin
    Apr 2, 2021 at 14:46
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    Yeah, you're absolutely right and sorry I didn't mean you telling me my product has no value, I just meant the concept in general. Ah, I guess I'll give it a try after I get rejected, no harm in doing so right? Apr 2, 2021 at 14:47
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    "Most undergraduate TAs aren't paid at all. " wait what? Is not paying TAs or faculty staff common in parts of the world? Are you expected to TA a course and not get paid for it? Why would anyone volunteer for the position? Apr 4, 2021 at 16:29

This won't get you anywhere.

The legal and administrative overheads of what you're suggesting would far outweigh any value you'd potentially bring to the company. Even though you're trying to minimize those costs, they're still very much non-zero, and you're not going to bring any value to the company.

  • 30
    I have had students offer to intern for me for free. Not watching and shadowing the paid interns but actually doing work I could sell. I never took that offer. My time, the risk of client work going wrong, plus office space and computers etc, all cost far more than an intern's paycheque. I either pay people or they don't work for me. Apr 2, 2021 at 15:08
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    The onboarding cost of a new staff is non-zero. Depending on industry and how specialized the role is, it may be multiple months worth of the employee's salary. I've seen estimated $ cost and it is much larger than I would expect. If you don't on-board an unpaid intern, there are some significant liabilities here (no insurance coverage, what happens if company knowledge is stolen, NDA, labor law violations, -etc.) There's a reason why co-op programs usually come with significant tax incentives, and even then, not every company bothers with that.
    – Nelson
    Apr 3, 2021 at 5:07
  • In most countries/states/cities, it's actually illegal (see FLSA for USA) to have people do value-added work without compensation (i.e. monetary wages) for any profit based entity or role where compensation is standard. Companies cannot use anything you produce in their business practice (selling products, offering services, or creating research) without making sure there is fair and equitable compensation in place. However, the ethical & legal implications are arguably worse whereby reputations are affected and the company can face lawsuits from other employees, customers, regulators, etc.
    – David
    Apr 7, 2021 at 12:06

Really, really weird

This is going to come across really weird and completely out of touch with professional norms even for a university. No company is going to let you show up and hang out all day watching other people work. From the university's perspective it's a bunch of liabilities. What if you get hurt - you might sue for workers comp? Will you slow down other research? Will you share potentially sensitive research outside the university?

Find and internship you are interested in and spend your time making a great impression.

  • 1
    +1 though I think Phillip's answer is slightly better because it addresses the legal, ethical, and administrative implications & costs of the question.
    – David
    Apr 2, 2021 at 14:40

If they're done anywhere close to correctly, interns should produce negative productivity. That is, employees/ professors/ post docs/ grad students/ etc. should be spending more time explaining problems, answering questions, and providing guidance than they gain from whatever work you produce. It should be much more efficient for one of the grad students to do whatever tasks they assign to the intern than to have the intern do those tasks. Professors and employers are supposed to offer internships as a way to give back to the community and as a way of recruiting people that may become productive employees/ grad students/ etc. in the future.

If the internship is decent, receiving tasks that you work on alone would be pointless. No intern should be able to make a whole lot of progress on the tasks they're assigned without interacting with someone. Someone is going to have to help you understand the problem, talk about ways to approach the solution, help when things don't go quite right, etc. Sending you off with none of that support would just make you terribly frustrated.

If the professors could assign you similar tasks and you were able to do them reasonably with no interaction, that's a lousy internship. People do hire interns and hand them simple tasks to do-- fetching coffee, doing laborious data input, etc. That's fine; any job has value. But that's a lousy internship because you're unlikely to know anything more at the end of it than when you started. It's perfectly fine if Professor Smith wants someone to spend the summer alphabetizing 30 years of files. But if you start the summer knowing your A, B, C's, you're probably not going to have learned much by the end of the summer.

Bottom line, if your plan was reasonable, that would strongly imply that you're applying for a lousy internship. If you're going to be doing scut work that doesn't teach you anything, you should be getting paid for it. Shadowing people in that environment would be pointless. If you're going to be doing real meaningful work that would teach you something, it wouldn't make sense to do so without the professor/ post doc/ grad student supervising you. Trying to do tasks on your own in that environment would not be helpful. Whichever camp the internship you're applying for falls into, your plan isn't going to work.

  • Yes, it's not a valuable internship without the interaction
    – Kilisi
    Apr 2, 2021 at 19:34

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