Job shadowing is a great self-discovery tool for anyone in a career planning stage. High school or college students who are just getting started and preparing for future careers can discover more about specific career areas through shadowing someone.
Anyone looking to advance their career or move into a different field or department could also benefit from shadowing someone. The culture of learning has become a lifelong trend. Workplaces are embracing more modern ways to develop talent, and many have launched formal job shadowing programs.
What is Job Shadowing?
Shadowing someone on the job is a great way to get a firsthand look at different careers. Choosing a career is a big commitment. It is a decision that most young people are not yet equipped to make. Luckily job shadowing activities can help provide some experience to help.
A job shadow is when a person observes another person in a profession they are interested in pursuing. The activity can provide a very authentic look into what the day-to-day job is like. It also offers an excellent opportunity to gather information and ask questions.
Job shadowing is common among high school students as part of preparing for college and choosing a career path. Most young high school students have no practical work experience, so job shadowing is their first real look into the professional world.
Undergraduate students also benefit from job shadowing hours, either in preparation for career placement or as clinical experience towards graduate programs. While college students are the largest group seeking out job shadowing activities, it can be handy for anyone considering a career change.
Job shadowing provides a level of real-world experience that cannot be taught in a classroom or read in a book. In addition to work experience credit, there are plenty of benefits to shadowing someone.
Benefits of Job Shadowing
There is a lot that you can learn about a company, a boss, or a profession simply by spending a day shadowing someone. From the details of the daily grind to industry insider tips and trends, the nuances of the workplace cannot be learned in a classroom.
You might not find your dream job on the first swing, but job shadowing can help you narrow down an industry to focus on. The healthcare industry operates much differently than the banking and financial industry. Shadowing someone in different sectors can help you find where you fit in.
Learn About an Employer’s Behavior
Just like every job candidate is putting their best foot forward in an interview, companies are portraying their best selves on their website or literature on their company culture. Sometimes a day on the job is the only way to sort through the self-promotion. Observers can get an idea of what it is truly like to work at the company.
Job shadowing someone at a company that you are interested in working at can provide a real look at the company’s culture from the inside. If you are interested in evaluating company culture, pay close attention to how employees interact with one another and especially with management.
Prepare a list of questions to ask real employees to find out more about how the company perpetuates its culture. Are employees provided regular constructive feedback? Does the company provide ample recognition? What are the attitudes towards breaks? Overtime?
Shadowing someone to find out more about the culture a particular company can save you a lot of time and wasted energy from taking a position with a company that doesn’t fit your values.
Learn about the Work Environment
Some people work in comfortable offices. Other people work outdoors in the elements of weather. There is a good chance that you already have some idea of the work environment for your chosen profession. It may still be a good idea to spend a day actually in the thick of it.
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As a student, maybe you are interested in pursuing a career in the legal field. You imagine that the job will be much like the high-intensity legal dramas on tv. Through a job shadow experience, you find out that lawyers spend plenty of time in the office with clients or researching cases. Only a fraction of their time will be in the courthouse.
The job shadow experience can provide useful information that helps you niche down into a specialty within a field. It can give you more focus on where you truly want to go and influence your decisions regarding courses and opportunities along the way.
Network with Important Individuals
A job shadowing opportunity can provide an invaluable chance to network with key individuals in your target profession. Whether you are shadowing for career advancement, or you are just getting started, the right relationships can make your career moves easier.
A positive job shadow experience can be the start of a professional relationship with someone who can serve as a reference for you later down the road.
Do’s and Don’ts of Job Shadowing
The problem with job shadowing is that the students who are seeking out this opportunity often lack real-world professional experience. Here is a quick list of do’s and don’ts to help inexperienced students have a successful shadowing experience.
When looking for someone to shadow, do:
- Workaround their schedule
- Choose a successful person in your dream profession
- Prepare beforehand. Do your research on the person and company.
Not all job shadowing experiences are equal. The quality of the company and individual that you choose to shadow will have a significant impact on what you get out of it. Try to be very selective about who you will shadow.
While actually on the job, do:
- Be discreet and unobtrusive
- Come prepared with questions
- Dress professionally
The biggest thing to remember when shadowing someone is that your presence is an interruption to their workday. Try to be as courteous and professional as possible. Do not interrupt your host with their clients, but rather save your questions until the client has left.
After the shadowing experience, do:
- Send a personalized thank-you note
- Keep in contact. LinkedIn is a great social media platform for professionals.
- Reflect on your experience.
The job shadow experience will only be as valuable as you make it. Be intentional about processing the information that you gathered during the job shadow experience. Consider journaling on reflection questions to process your feelings.
How to Choose Someone to Shadow
When you are brand new and completely inexperienced, how do you go about choosing someone to shadow? If you want to teach, do you send out inquiries to all of the teachers at your local school and see who responds?
That is certainly one method, but it may not be the best at getting a quality shadowing experience. A better approach is to identify the company or organization (or at least type) and start there.
Then research the individuals who work in areas of interest within that company or organization. See who is active on LinkedIn or in professional organization topic boards. Start with some low-key networking by asking for a connection or posting a comment.
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Personality Traits to Look for in a Good Host
The Q&A portion of your job shadow will probably only take 45 minutes to an hour and a half. What are you going to do with the rest of your day? You will spend the entire day with the person you have selected, so you will want to make sure to choose someone who makes you comfortable.
Open & Friendly Communicator
Not everyone is a social butterfly. It is key to a good shadowing experience that your chosen mentor is an open and friendly communicator. They should have an inclination towards teaching and should be happy to share the many details about their career with someone like you.
Avoid anyone who uses a condescending tone or who puts off the vibe that they are superior to others in their field. This type of personality is not very conducive to learning. They will likely be very open to having you shadow them, but for very selfish reasons. This type of personality will take every opportunity to let the world know how great they are at their job.
Passionate About What they Do
Education and skill is only part of the equation. The greatest success comes from having heart. Shadowing someone who is genuinely passionate about what they do can be an energizing and positive experience.
People who are passionate about their career field are the ones that are out there actively doing and achieving. They are the ones that are disrupting the business-as-usual and making an impact.
Successful in their Career
Someone who has not been able to accomplish the same things that you are aiming for will be of little use to you. Someone who has already achieved your goals can give you real, anecdotal advice about what it took to get there.
You will feel more motivated to go after your goals after shadowing someone who has been there and done that. Similarly, you might feel deflated after a conversation with someone who is struggling to achieve those same goals.
As a word of caution, ‘successful’ does not necessarily mean ‘good role model.’ There are plenty of people in this world who have accomplished success by stepping on others, being dishonest, or otherwise working the system. Look for authenticity first and success second.
How to Prep for a Job Shadow
Once you have the details ironed out for who, where, and when you will shadow someone in your dream job, the real work begins. What kind of prep work should you do before the big day arrives? At a minimum, prepare a list of questions to frame your conversations to get the most useful information.
Confirm the Details
Go over the specifics of your arrangements in advance. Make sure you know who you will be meeting, what time to arrive, and where to be. A misunderstanding of important details reflects poorly on you. A job shadow experience is often the first foray into the professional world.
Ask for the Agenda Ahead of Time
Knowing what to expect before you arrive can ease some anxiety. It can also help trigger some ideas about what questions you can ask or what else you might want to do while you are there. If your host does not have a plan, gently persuade them to provide one.
Some job shadow hosts underestimate the commitment that they have made. A more structured job shadow is experience is much more likely to be valuable compared to lets-see-what-happens approach.
Research the Company
A great way to show a little initiative is to come prepared with a list of company-specific questions that your host can answer. If some specific departments or processes are of interest to you, make sure that you let your host know.
Prepare a List of Questions
The best way to make sure that you get the most out of your job shadowing experience is to get clear on what you are expecting in the first place. Brainstorm some questions that you can ask your host about their career path, advice, and opportunities.
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10 Questions You Should Ask During a Job Shadow
As the person looking to gain the most from the job shadowing experience, most of the work is on you to prepare. If you are at a loss for what questions you can ask, here are some ideas to get you started.
What Is a Typical Day or Week Like?
The main goal of a question like this is to gain insight into what is like every day. It is easy to build up the highs. It is even easy to sugarcoat the lows. But if you choose to pursue a career in the field you are shadowing, you need to know what it will be like on the job.
What is the quality and quantity of work available in this field? Will you spend a large amount of time working with data? Will you need to be creative? Is it a high-stress field with tight deadlines? Make sure that the type of work you are pursuing is a good fit for your personality.
What Do You Like Most About This Position?
This type of question is a little more subtle way to find clues about what it is really like working in a particular field. The important thing to keep in mind is that what your host may like or dislike may not be the same for you. Consider the details they are providing more than whether that person likes them.
For example, if you are interested in becoming a teacher and your host says that he or she dislikes how their district does lesson planning, this might prompt more questions. If you had not thought about how a particular school district might interfere with your teaching profession, now is a great time to pick someone’s brain who has experience with it.
What Are the Biggest Challenges of Your Position?
Unlike an interview where you are a job candidate trying to paint a nice picture for the interviewer, this question is aimed at uncovering real obstacles so that you can prepare for them.
Specifically, challenges are opportunities for growth. If you can get a leg up on identifying and developing necessary skills for your chosen profession, you will have better chances of landing your dream job.
What Is Your Educational Background?
Find out what your host has done to prepare for a successful career in your dream job. Compare their path to your own and identify ways that you can shape your future to better align with your chosen career path.
Keep in mind that everything changes over time. Industries evolve, and opportunities that were once limited are now plentiful. Do not expect to follow a carbon copy of someone else’s career path who came into it twenty years before you.
What Are the Entry-Level Opportunities in This Field?
As a fresh graduate, you will have to start somewhere. It is pretty naive to think that you can step right into a professional position right after graduation. In some careers, the path to the top is not always clear. Or it may look different for different people.
As a follow up to this question, make sure to ask about opportunities for advancement. How easy will it be to move up? Will you have to move around a lot between different companies to see upward growth? How long can you expect to work in one position before looking at the next?
What Characteristics Does a Person in This Field Need to Have?
You have probably already spent some time thinking about the qualities that fit well with a particular career field. You have also probably analyzed how well you fit the typical profile. It is still very useful to ask this question of your host to gain insight from another perspective.
Remember that you are someone who is hoping to break into a field. Your host is someone who has real and significant experience in that field. Your perspective will be natively different than your hosts. The point of the job shadow experience is to gain insight from a different point of view.
What Are Some of the Trends in This Field?
Everything that remains relevant evolves. Change is both healthy and necessary for growth. Trends are the currents of change that directly affect your profession. They come and go based on what is working at the moment.
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Some trends are functional and lead to real and valuable change. Others are flighty and aimed at cutting costs or saving time. Good or bad, industry trends will have an impact on you. Learn more about what you can expect in a particular industry by identifying common themes with current and past trends.
Are you looking for a career in IT? Are you worried that your job will be outsourced to another country? Are you interested in teaching in early childhood education? Do you know how much control the state and federal government impose on this industry?
These are some examples of trends that seem to be industry-specific. There is a good chance that you have not even thought of what trends might impact your intended industry. But someone who is in the trenches can fill you in.
What Are Some Occupations Related to This Field?
One of the things that commonly happens as a result of a job shadowing experience is that you find out that the job is not at all what you thought it was. Through years of childhood imagination and in-school preparation, many people idealize their chosen dream job.
Unfortunately, the reality can be a let down for some. But this is good news because you are not committed to that job yet. At this point, you can easily change your course based on what you learn in the job shadowing experience.
An excellent peripheral question for identifying possible alternatives is to ask your host about related careers. If you have time during your session, you might be able to get introductions to some key people in those other positions.
What Supplemental Activities Do You Recommend Outside of My Coursework to Break Into This Field?
A college degree alone does not look that impressive. But, when paired with related volunteer experiences or work history in the same field, it is almost always a leg up on the competition. You can probably come up with a decent list on your own, but the view from a different perspective is still helpful.
Your host may have some particular recommendations of service organizations or employers that you can target for additional experience. For example, someone in the learning development field might benefit from attending local chapter lunches from a professional organization like the American Society for Training & Development.
What Advice Do You Have for Me?
Finally, do not forget to offer an open-ended question to your host. Let them share with you anything that they want. Generally speaking, people love to share about themselves. Most hosts will be eager to tell you about what has worked for them and what hasn’t. They will tell you about their regrets and what they might do differently if they were in your shoes.
Don’t miss the opportunity to ask this valuable question to get the view from an experienced person on what they might do differently. At the very least, this information can frame your approach and help you avoid some common mistakes.
Post Job Shadow Reflection
After you have completed the job shadowing activity, dedicate some time to intentional reflection. This is a useful step to help you process your feelings and retain what you learned. Journaling can be a powerful way to reflect and retain. There are a couple of different methods to try; each has its benefits.
The Brain Dump Method
Start with a simple brain dump method just to purge all of the thoughts in your hard. Write down everything that you remember from the job shadow experience without worrying about what is important or relevant. The point here is just to get everything out. You can edit and organize the thoughts later.
Guided Journal Prompts Method
After you finish the brain dump method, take a break, and come back with a clear mind. Then, try applying intention-setting journaling prompts to guide your thought process. This is one part reflection on what you have learned and one part self-discovery about where that information will lead you.
Here are a few ideas for journaling prompts that will help you:
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- What does work/life balance look like to you? How does this career path fit with that idea?
- What is one thing that you desire to achieve in your career? What might that look like on this career path?
- What does it mean to be successful for you? What will it take for you to be successful is in this career path?
- What does your ideal workday look like in terms of activities, environment, and time? How does that idea fit with your current career path? Are there any other careers that might fit this idea better?
- What is one thing that you admire about your job shadow host? What can you learn from that trait? What is one thing that you can do right now to be more like that person?
A job shadow experience can be a very useful self-discovery tool to launch, grow, or change your career path. When seeking out an opportunity to shadow someone, don’t be afraid to be selective. Having high expectations for your job shadow host will help you attract better quality experiences.
Seek out high-quality experiences with exciting and impactful companies. Don’t settle for shadowing someone; take the time to find individuals whose values and goals look like your own. When you set your standards high, others rise to the occasion to provide top-quality experiences.
Your job shadow experience will be what you make of it. Choose high-quality hosts, prepare ahead of time, engage during the experience, and reflect afterward for a full-circle experience that will yield useful results.