What Is Job Shadowing and How Can It Help Your Career?

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Job shadowing is a useful way to learn about a particular job of interest. It involves spending time following a professional in that job. By observing the life of the professional for anywhere from a few hours to as long as a week, you'll get a sense of what that job is really like.

Job shadowing can be a great way to learn whether or not a job of interest is right for you.

How Job Shadowing Works

Every job-shadowing experience is different. However, you typically will follow an employee and observe them partaking in their day-to-day work. They might ask you to help with certain tasks as well.

Some employees will give you opportunities to ask questions throughout the day, or at the end of the experience.

Depending on how long you shadow an employee, you might even learn skills critical to the job.

Benefits of Job Shadowing

Job shadowing can be useful in a number of ways:

  • By providing a snapshot of a day in the life of an experienced professional, it can help you decide whether or not you think you would enjoy and feel passionate about the job.
  • It also can help you decide if your skills match the career field of interest and how your skills from school and other jobs might translate to this job.
  • Because job shadowing is a short-term experience, it is a great way to decide whether or not you want to pursue a particular career before applying for jobs or internships. 
  • Job shadowing helps you develop contacts in your career field of interest. When shadowing someone who is competent in his or her career field, you have the opportunity to gain a useful resource as you begin to seek and apply for jobs and internships.

Formal Programs vs. Informal Job Shadowing

Job shadowing can be done as part of a formal program organized by a high school or university, or it can be scheduled informally.

To find a formal job shadowing program, check with your high school guidance counselor or your college’s career services office. Schools might also have a list of alumni who are willing to let students job shadow.

If you cannot find a formal program through your school, you might meet with a career counselor for help finding a shadowing opportunity. Make a list of potential companies where you would like to job shadow and see if anyone in your network works at those companies. You can then reach out to one of them to ask for a job shadowing opportunity.

Some large organizations and government agencies offer job shadowing programs to students. It's a good idea to check out organizations of interest to see if any of them have such a program.

Though most job shadowing opportunities are designed to help high school or college students determine their ideal career choices, it's possible to job shadow as an adult too.

It can be a good idea to job shadow if you are thinking of changing careers. You can meet with a career counselor or get in touch with your college career services office if it provides assistance to alumni. You also can just reach out to professional contacts, friends, and family to see if you can spend a day with them in the office.

Prepare in Advance

In order to get the most out of a job-shadowing experience, it's important to be prepared and to follow some of these tips:

  • Prepare questions ahead of time. You likely will have an opportunity to ask the employee questions about the job. While you will come up with questions throughout your experience job shadowing, write down some questions ahead of time. You should also be prepared to talk about your career goals, where you're worked or interned previously (if anywhere), why you're interested in this job, and so on.  
  • Be informed about the job and company. Before you show up for job shadowing, spend some time familiarizing yourself with the person you will be shadowing — for instance, look up the person's profile on LinkedIn. It's also a good idea to visit the company's website. This context will be helpful during the experience. 
  • Dress professionally. Because you are going to a person’s workplace, you need to dress professionally. What is considered “professional” depends on the job and the industry. When in doubt, ask your guidance counselor, career counselor, or even the person you are shadowing for advice.
  • Bring something to write on. You will want to take notes throughout your shadowing experience. You will also want to write down questions that arise. Bring a notepad and pen, so you are prepared.
  • Pick a good time. Pick a time to job shadow that works best for you. If you are a student, this might be your summer break, spring break, or winter break. However, you also need to consider the job. For example, if you want to shadow a teacher, it will be hard to find one working in the summer. Take both your schedule and the job’s schedule into account.
  • Behave professionally. As well as wearing an appropriate outfit for the work environment, you'll also want to behave professionally. Be attentive and enthusiastic, and participate throughout the job shadowing experience. (Make sure to keep your phone on silent, and avoid social media distractions.) 

Take the Time to Follow Up

Job shadowing often is done as a favor by established professionals to help people looking for a job, so if you do come across a job-shadowing opportunity you should be polite, professional, and grateful for the opportunity.

Be sure to write a thank-you note to the employee for giving you the opportunity to learn from them.

You also might ask to meet with the employee briefly after the job shadowing experience or on the last day you shadow to ask follow-up questions about what you saw and experienced.

Be sure to stay in touch with the person you are shadowing—he or she will be an invaluable networking contact as you begin to look for a job.