Shadowing and Externships

You don’t have a lot of free time in dental school. But when you do find yourself with some availability between exams and clinical requirements, you should consider spending it shadowing or on an externship. Here are the benefits:

Explore a specialty. Perhaps you’re stuck deciding between periodontics and oral surgery. Book time with practicing dentists in those fields and see what their average day looks like. You may be able to narrow down your choices and find your true passion.

Network. Get to know dentists in your community. You may find a new mentor who can help guide you along your career. If you’ve done a summer externship at a post-grad program, you’ll already have your foot in the door when you apply.

Get inspired. Dental school can be stressful. If you are feeling a little lost, you might be able to recharge and refocus by observing dentistry outside of the walls of your school.

Shadowing and externships may both accomplish the goals listed above, but they are quite different experiences.

Shadowing a practicing dentist

Observing a dentist in private practice can be done once or several times, depending on your availability and the dentist’s availability. There can be significant variability between practices, so you may want to spread out your visits across several different offices. Two methods of finding shadowing opportunities are to ask your professors and to reach out to your local dental society.


Externships are more formal than shadowing. You’ll need to apply for the opportunity well in advance of your start time. Some externships are quite competitive, so be prepared to put your best foot forward if there is an interview. Externships can last from a few days to a few weeks, so you’ll need to check your school schedule to make sure you don’t get double-booked.

What to Do Next (and What Not to Do)

Once you’ve booked your opportunity, your homework continues. Think about what you would like to get out of this experience. Let your contact know about certain procedures you’d like to see. Prepare a list of questions to ask while you’re on site. It’s up to you to get the most out of your time there. That being said, you are also a guest in someone else’s house. Be mindful of other people’s time and always respect patient privacy. After the experience is over, it’s polite to reach out to your contact and thank them. There is no need to buy gifts or send other favors — a simple thank-you note will do.
Shadowing opportunities and externships are a chance to build a network and leave a great impression. Hopefully you’ll also soak up enough information to help you decide where your journey into dentistry will go next.

This content was developed in cooperation with Dr. Chris Salierno, Stony Brook ’05, general dentist in Long Island, N.Y., and ASDA president, 2004-05.