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What Is Job Shadowing? Complete Guide for Students

What Is Job Shadowing? Complete Guide for Students

what is job shadowing complete guide for students
  • Job shadowing is when a student or job-seeker follows and observes a professional for a short period of time, such as a day or a week.
  • After you’ve shadowed, you should have a better idea of what professionals do each day and whether or not you can see yourself following that career path. 
  • Finding a job shadowing opportunity in your future field may be easier than you think with the help of your school or personal connections.

Learning in a classroom is great and all, but it’s not the only way to gain know-how. In fact, studies show that hands-on learning helps students retain knowledge and score better on tests. It’s for these reasons that many institutes of education have begun to implement more and more real-life learning programs, from the science classroom to career development initiatives. 

two professionals in discussion

In this guide, we’re covering how one specific type of hands-on learning — job shadowing — can help students discover new careers and decide which one to pursue. Because breaking out of the classroom may be just what you need to succeed!

What Is Job Shadowing?

Now let’s cover a few basics of job shadowing. What is it, exactly? Essentially, job shadowing is a short-term experience where a high school or college student follows and observes a worker in a professional environment. In essence, when you participate in one of these programs, you’re staying in the “shadow” of an employee, going where she goes and doing what she does throughout the day. Think of it like a “day-in-the-life” experience where you get to see exactly what certain professionals do all day.

As you go through your job shadowing program, you’ll get to see the real-life, non-textbook version of a specific job environment. Not only will you observe the main day-to-day tasks, but you’ll also discover nuances you hadn’t considered and get one-on-one access to a person who has real experience in the field. Often, you’ll get a tour of the workplace and be able to engage in a question-and-answer session at the end of the day. 

In other words, when you shadow a professional, you’re effectively giving yourself a behind-the-scenes look at a certain career path. At the end of the day or week, you’ll be able to answer questions like:

  • Can I see myself working in this field for my entire career?
  • Would I feel fulfilled and rewarded on a daily basis?
  • Would I leave each day feeling stressed or worried?
  • Do I have the personality, soft skills, and knowledge to work in this field?
  • Would I enjoy working with these kinds of people?

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What Is Job Shadowing Not?

Job shadowing is not a job, an internship, or an externship. Typically, job shadowing programs only last for a day to a week, so they’re a lot less of a commitment than any of these roles. Many undergraduate programs require students to do multiple shadow experiences throughout the academic year so they can effectively compare roles. What’s more, usually shadows are doing a lot more observing than working, whereas interns and externs typically have their own job duties to perform each day. 

Internships are more about helping budding professionals learn and sharpen their career-related skills, whereas job shadow experiences are more about helping students decide if they want to follow that specific career path to begin with. While interning and externing can also help you determine whether or not you want to fully follow a specific career path, they are usually done later in one’s education or training.

There’s one more important distinction. Most internships for college students also allow participants to earn money or college credit, whereas job shadowing is almost always unpaid and uncredited. It makes sense, since you’re not really working. But that doesn’t mean shadowing is not worth doing. While you may not be gaining cold, hard cash, you are definitely gaining cold, hard insight, and that is just as valuable, as far as we’re concerned!

The Benefits of Job Shadowing

If you’re more of a visual or kinesthetic learner, then you already know that reading about something is usually only about half as good as actually doing it. Being face-to-face with real workers and experiencing a professional environment first-hand will provide you with a realistic view of a certain job and teach you some skills of that trade. Here are some more measurable benefits of job shadowing.

  • Job shadowing helps students rule out careers. Figuring out what you don’t want to do is just as important as figuring out what you do want to do, and shadowing is a great tool for that task. It may help you decide that a role you’ve always considered just isn’t for you, and that’s totally fine.
  • Job shadowing helps students stay in school. Interestingly, a survey conducted among students who had recently completed a job shadowing program showed that 88 percent of students felt that participating in the program helped them realize the importance of staying in school.

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  • Job shadowing teaches students professionalism. Spending time in the workplace can leave students with core values that will help them maintain jobs in the future, such as how to speak and dress professionally and how to be on time in the morning.
  • Job shadowing lets students ask questions and get real answers. Think of it like an extended career day at school, where you get eight+ hours of access to professionals and you can ask them anything you want. From the nitty-gritties of the schedule to the fringe benefits of the career, you can — and should — ask everything you want to know!
  • Job shadowing demonstrates the use of applied skills. Math? Science? Reading comprehension? Yep, they’re all actually used in the “real world,” and mastering them is super important to helping you get ahead in your career. Sometimes it helps to see how classroom learning translates in a professional environment.
  • Job shadowing helps students zero-in on one role. You may know that you want to work in medicine, marketing, or media, but not be totally sure in what capacity. Job shadowing is a quick and easy way to compare one specific job to the next so you can get super-specific about what job you want in the future.
  • Job shadowing emphasizes the realness of certain roles. It’s hard to understand from a classroom setting, but there’s a reason why good paying jobs are good paying jobs. They often come with stressors and pressure that simply can’t be felt through schooling, but shadowing programs help illuminate them.

carpenter training female apprentice

How to Shadow a Professional

Ready to get your shadow on? You can’t just show up at any old workplace and start following people around, because that would be weird. Typically, you need to go through a more formal application and request process to be considered as a shadow candidate. Remember, companies and organizations have a set of privacy and security considerations, so they can’t just let anyone through the doors. Here’s how to find job shadowing programs.

  • Talk to your counselors, advisors, and teachers, because chances are they already have formal job shadowing programs put in place for this very purpose. If you’re in college, stop by your school’s career services office to get some options. They may have specific relationships with employers who let students come and observe on occasion. This is a great way to go about it, because the school’s connections could also lead to an internship or even a job down the road.
  • Reach out to workplaces directly. If it’s a bigger company or organization, such as a hospital or a government agency like the U.S. Postal Service, they likely already have a set program in place for individuals who want to shadow. Do a quick Google search to see if they’ve outlined any programs on their website, and if you don’t see anything, it doesn’t hurt to give them a call or send an email directly.
  • Talk to people you know who work in the field. Getting out of your comfort zone is an important part of transitioning from school to career, but it doesn’t hurt if you already know someone in the field who can make you feel a bit more at ease on your shadow day. Smaller businesses may be more likely to allow you to shadow if you already have a personal connection.

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  • Reach out to professional organizations. Different professional groups, including associations and unions, are often concerned with getting more young people into the field and may have programs set up for shadowing. If you’re looking to shadow within a skilled trade, such as plumbing or HVAC, reach out to your local union representing that trade. If you think you want to be a lawyer, the local bar association can help connect you with shadowing opportunities in your area.

Prepping for Your Shadow Day

It doesn’t matter if you’re a future tradesperson planning to follow a worker for a day, an officer-in-training heading out for a ride-along experience, or a pre-med student getting ready to shadow at a hospital, the preparation is the same! Here are our best tips for preparing for your job shadowing day.

  • Write down a list of questions to ask throughout the day or during a question-and-answer session at the end. Add to it as you go. Get specific with your questions and try not to be too vague or open-ended. Some great questions to help you get a better idea of the job include:
    • What classes or certifications can I take to get ahead in the field?
    • Do you like working in this field and at this company/organization?
    • What is your work-life balance like? Do you have free time?
    • Do you consider your job rewarding or enjoyable?
    • What are the biggest challenges of the job?
    • What are some fringe benefits of working here?
    • What’s your favorite and least favorite part of working here?
  • Figure out what to wear. Talk to an advisor or someone in the field about appropriate attire for the specific workplace where you’re shadowing.
  • Don’t stress! You’ll be out of place, and you’ll probably feel out of place, too. It comes with the territory, and it’s totally fine to be nervous.
  • Know that some things will be off-limits. Patient, customer, and client privacy are a huge deal, so don’t be offended if you can’t see everything.
  • Keep a diary or a page in your Notes app dedicated to your thoughts and feelings on each experience, adding to it as soon as you get home (not while shadowing). This will help you remember how you felt and help you weigh your options later.
  • Turn your phone on silent or power it off completely. You want to absorb everything you possibly can without distraction while showing professionalism and respect. Some workplaces, including many hospitals, even ban phones for safety reasons, so make sure you follow any and all rules regarding tech.
  • Bring lunch or a snack, just in case. Lunch isn’t a guarantee, so make sure you’ve got something on hand so you don’t get too hungry on the job!

engineer with intern student

A Day Well Spent

Even if you come away from your job shadowing experience and decide to follow a different career path entirely, you can count it as a worthwhile endeavor, since that one day probably saved you a ton of time and energy in the long-run. The goal isn’t to come away from your shadow day as an expert in the field, but instead to come away with a little bit of a deeper understanding so that you can decide whether or not it’s worth a more time-consuming investment.