Careers

Curious About A Career? Consider Job Shadowing

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Are you wondering what career to pursue or curious about a career shift? Then you may want to consider job shadowing. To shadow someone means to explore a career by following a professional at their workplace, observing day-to-day activities, and developing an understanding of the challenges they face and what keeps them going. In other words, you experience the career without committing to it.


Job shadowing is an aspect of internships and onboarding new employees, but that's not the only way to experience it. As a student, visit your career office to check on available job shadowing opportunities. As a professional looking for a change, consider tapping into support via your alma mater or through your current employer (speak with HR about shadowing an employee in the department or role of your interest). Job shadowing can also be an excellent follow-up to informational interviews or career treks.

With the winter holidays upon us, why not devote time on your career in addition to celebrating with family and friends? Here's how to go about it.

Research Roles to Explore

Whether you are a college student looking for that initial opportunity or a professional interested in pivoting, you want to first determine what's possible. One resource to help you come up with a list of potential roles is the Vault's Day in the Life (I recommend it to all my students!).

Perusing the daily activities of professionals in different roles within an industry or across industries helps you examine typical workdays for different professions, understand the main responsibilities for each role, and glimpse the work environment and expected lifestyle. Some contributors to Day in the Life offer insights on what drew them to the role and share advice on how to get started. Using the resource, take note of what positions appeal to you; these are the ones you could further explore through job shadowing.

Some roles really lend themselves to job shadowing -- for example, positions in healthcare, the skilled trades, and the food and retail industries -- but you could create an opportunity for any role, as most positions include aspects that can best be learned by observation. Don't limit yourself! If a role attracts you -- even when you don't have the necessary skills and knowledge -- job shadowing can help you identify gaps and learn how to close them.

Identify Target Employers

Once you have an idea of what roles appeal to you, you want to create a list of target employers. Some of them you may already know -- these are likely your top choices. In my experience, however, the employers that immediately come to mind are the ones everyone knows, the big players in an industry. There's nothing wrong with having them on your list; you just don't want them to be the only names on the list, especially when you are still exploring.

Conduct an online search for employers in an industry of your interest and focus on your target geographic area. Consider companies of all sizes. Keep in mind that adding an employer on your list and shadowing an employee at that company doesn't imply commitment. You simply want to get a sense of what the role entails and how the place makes you feel (because your workplace can influence your experience tremendously).

Find Hosts

So far, your research has helped you come up with potential roles and employers. Next, it's time to identify people you want to shadow in your target companies. To come up with names, think of anyone you already know -- either because you follow them on LinkedIn or because you're familiar with their work through articles, blogs or podcasts. Reach out to your network, chat with connections you already have, and solicit ideas for additional people to complete your list.

Another way to secure a job shadowing opportunity is through informational interviews, and I know that as a job seeker, you are already setting those up! As you cultivate meaningful connections, consider asking if you could shadow them for a day. That said, be flexible and show appreciation. Professionals are busy and if they aren't able to commit to a full day, suggest shadowing them for half a day instead. Lastly, reach out to the HR departments at target employers to inquire about job shadowing programs.

Clarify What You Expect

When you identify a professional who agrees to be your job-shadow host, in order to have a meaningful and valuable experience, be sure to clarify ahead of time what your expectations are. Don't assume that the people you reach out to have an idea of what job shadowing entails and how to go about it. If they've been a host before, wonderful, but if they haven't, it's in your interest to make sure the experience is worth it.

You want your host to set time to speak with you, explain things and answer questions, and you also want them to engage in typical activities so that you get to observe them and build an understanding of their primary responsibilities. When setting up the job-shadow experience, say something along the lines of, "I'm curious about the everyday aspects of this role and would really appreciate it if you'd allow me to observe how you tackle the responsibilities."

Plan to Bring Value

Similar to powerful mentoring relationships, an effective job shadowing experience requires active engagement on your part. Avoid being a passive observer, relying on your host to carry all the weight of creating value. Mention to your host that you'd appreciate a more active and involved experience. Depending on the role and your knowledge and abilities, offer to help. If asked about your opinion on a project, be ready to show up and deliver. Being able to contribute, even in a minor way, ensures you make the most out of your job shadowing experience.

Be Professional, Act Professionally

This one may seem obvious but I'll mention it anyway. While job shadowing doesn't have to be an interview, it offers you the opportunity to shine, so take it seriously. Prior to your experience, confirm appropriate dress code as well as any other specifics about the workplace. Research your route and have a plan or two of how to get to the location on time. When shadowing, follow directions, greet other employees you may meet, and be prepared to introduce yourself. When appropriate, ask questions and take notes. Keep in mind that as much as you'd like to, there may be certain aspects of a role you won't have access to (for reasons of confidentiality).

As with interviews, it's a good idea to prepare a set of open-ended questions you'd like to ask your host or their colleagues (when given the chance). That said, questions may come up as you shadow your host so bring a notebook and a pen. This way, you can also record reflections and observations while they are fresh on your mind. Following your job shadowing experience, send a thank you note to your host as well as anyone else who helped you secure the opportunity.