Whether you’re in high school or in college, you’ve likely started thinking about your future career. You don’t need to have your career planned to the letter just yet, but it’s always good to know where you’re headed and how to get there.
There are many ways to explore and learn about careers, but job shadowing is one of the best. In this ultimate guide to job shadowing, we’ll tell you why job shadowing is important, how it works, and how to set yourself up with an incredible job shadowing opportunity.
What Is Job Shadowing?
Job shadowing is a way for people, usually high school or college students, to learn about careers. It involves observing someone in a field of interest by following them throughout the workday, like a “shadow.” It’s an opportunity to learn about an average day on the job, including job duties, company culture, and necessary skills.
Job shadowing is not the same as an internship. In most cases, it’s not hands-on, and you won’t be expected to complete any tasks. You won’t earn money or college credit. Job shadowing is more of an introduction to a career you’re considering.
How Job Shadowing Works
Typically, job shadowing is brief. You might job shadow for a few hours, a day, or a week. It’s sometimes part of a formal program, but it’s also possible to informally schedule a job shadowing experience. In some cases, newly hired employees participate in job shadowing as part of their training.
You’ll be paired with an employee, then tag along as they complete their usual job duties and routine. You’re also free to ask questions and learn as much about your potential career as possible. If the person you’re job shadowing is receptive, try to exchange contact information. They may be a useful source for future questions, or even for future opportunities.
Pros and Cons of Job Shadowing
If you’re considering job shadowing, you may be curious about the pros and cons. Let’s take a look!
Benefits of Job Shadowing
Benefits of job shadowing include:
- Taking a close, personal look at a career you’re interested in. This allows you to determine whether the career is truly a good fit. If it’s not, you’ve prevented yourself from heading down the wrong path, which saves you significant time and money. If it is, you can confidently move in the right direction as you enter the world of college, internships, and careers.
- Having the opportunity to ask questions. Asking questions of a real expert in the field is far more meaningful and useful than learning about a job via Google. Plus, you can ask more personal questions, like what they love about the career or what advice they’d give to a young person in your shoes. Is there anything they wish they had done differently? What are some unique benefits of the career, beyond the salary?
- Learning firsthand about the skills you’ll need on the job. Job shadowing allows you to see exactly what skills you’ll need to learn and be able to apply to excel in your future career. This gives you extremely useful direction for the classes you should take, the real-world skills you should build, and any current weaknesses you may have. It also shows you how what you learn in the classroom actually does matter in the real world.
- Narrow down your career options. Let’s say you want to do something in marketing. Marketing is a very broad category, with tons of specific roles that require specific skill sets. Job shadowing can help you zero in on a role that you would love, then ensure you’ll have what it takes to be a rockstar in that career by the time you graduate from college.
- Gain a deeper understanding of the workplace. Some students graduate from college with the right knowledge and skills, but an unclear understanding of how to function in a workplace. Job shadowing helps you learn about professionalism, workplace conduct and relationships, and any stressors or challenges you may face. You’ll be better prepared for both your career and future internships.
Even if it’s a brief experience, job shadowing helps you make a concrete plan for what you want to do in the future. It gives you the insight you need to make decisions about your major, the classes you’ll take, and additional steps that will shape you into an excellent candidate for internships and jobs in your desired field. And if it ends up revealing that your desired field isn’t so desirable to you after all, that’s super valuable information too!
Drawbacks of Job Shadowing
There are no real drawbacks to job shadowing. If you’re looking for an internship or a job, job shadowing isn’t it. But if you go into the experience understanding what it is and how it can benefit you, there’s no downside.
Make sure you choose to job shadow in a career that you’re truly interested in. If you have any control over who you shadow, select a person you admire who is friendly, honest, and eager to show you the ropes. Some people are more suited to a mentorship role than others, and having the right person to shadow enhances the experience.
How to Discover Careers
Of course, to job shadow in a career you’re genuinely interested in, you need to explore your options. There are so many careers available that students often don’t learn about until they’re already in the workforce!
Get curious about careers. Ask your parents, family members, and other adults about the jobs available at their workplaces. Ask your school counselor for advice about careers you’d be a good fit for, or for career resources and information.
You can also find a ton of information online. If you have a general idea of a field you’d like to pursue, research more specific roles within that field. Or research based on your interests and skills with search inquiries like “best careers for people who are good at math” or “careers for people who love helping others.”
Check out sites like CareerOneStop to discover options you may never have known about before. The site allows you to find in-depth information about a career you’re already interested in, but you can search in many other ways too. For instance, you can watch career cluster/industry videos that highlight the type of work available in major industries. You can take an Interest Assessment, complete a Skills Checklist, and even fill out a Work Values Matcher.
Other great websites for discovering careers include Road Trip Nation, Career Girls, CareerShip, and My Future. There’s also a site called Job Shadow, where you can read or listen to interviews with people in over 400 careers about what a day in their work life looks like.
How to Find a Job Shadowing Opportunity
After talking to adults and taking advantage of the plethora of resources available online, you’ll know what career you’d like to take for a test drive. Now it’s time to find a job shadowing opportunity! But where do you even begin?
First, your school may have a formal job shadowing program. Ask your counselor if there’s a program available for students who would like to job shadow. If you’re in college, stop by the career services office, where you’ll probably find a ton of options for job shadowing.
If there’s no formal program available, you will need to reach out to businesses. Large companies most likely have job shadowing programs in place, or procedures that you’ll need to follow in order to apply to job shadow an employee. Most smaller businesses won’t have formal procedures. If you already know someone in the field, contact them directly and see if they can help set you up with a job shadowing opportunity.
Another option is to contact professional organizations, like unions or associations. If there is a local organization for the field you’re interested in, they may be able to connect you with opportunities. Most of these organizations are enthusiastic about helping young people join the field.
Keep in mind that some careers have strict privacy standards, and it may be more difficult to shadow people in certain occupations. If you can’t find the opportunity you’re looking for, aim for something similar. Even exposure to the professional workplace in general is helpful and informative.
How to Prepare for Job Shadowing
To make the most of your job shadowing experience, it’s a good idea to come prepared. Before you shadow, take the following steps:
- Make a list of questions. This is your chance to ask everything you want to know about your future career, so make a list! General questions to ask include challenges, benefits, favorite and least favorite part of the job, and steps you can take now to make yourself a competitive candidate in the field. You should also ask more specific questions related to the job you’re shadowing. Ask these questions when there’s some downtime throughout the day, or at the end. If you think of anything else once you’re at the job, keep adding to the list.
- Do some research. Visit the company website ahead of time, and learn as much as you can about the company and the person you’re shadowing. And if you don’t feel deeply informed about the job you’re shadowing, do some more research on the career itself. This can help you come up with more relevant questions. It can also give you ideas about specific processes or parts of the job you’d like to see.
- Dress appropriately. Appropriate dress depends on the workplace you’re visiting. In an office setting, dress professionally. If you’re not sure what to wear, ask your contact at the job or another professional in the field. You want to look prepared and professional so you can make a positive impression.
- Put your phone on silent. Remember to put your phone on silent or even turn it off while you’re at the job. Don’t text, post on social media, or answer calls. Be fully present for the experience, and don’t risk offending the person you’re shadowing by being on your phone.
- Take notes. Bring a notepad and a pen to record your observations and insights throughout the day. This will help you remember what you learned and how you felt during the experience. Taking notes also demonstrates that you’re paying attention, engaged, and genuinely interested in learning more about the field.
- Be punctual, polite, and positive! Make sure you arrive on time, or even a few minutes early. Allow yourself an extra buffer in case of traffic or getting lost. For instance, even if you know how to find the building, it may take a few minutes to locate the correct office. Politely shake hands, make eye contact, and thank every person you meet. For an extra nice touch, send a thank you email as a follow-up. And even if you find that the job isn’t for you, maintain your politeness and positivity.
By following these tips, you’ll learn and remember as much as possible from your job shadowing experience. You’ll also make a great impression, which could help you when you’re looking for internships or job opportunities in the future. Even staying in touch with the person you job shadow can provide you with a wise and experienced mentor in the field.
Final Thoughts: Job Shadowing
We highly recommend job shadowing as a way to preview your future career. You’ll learn about what a day on the job looks like, whether it’s truly a good fit for you, and how to conduct yourself professionally in the workplace. You’ll also have the opportunity to make connections and ask questions.
Your job shadowing experience will likely solidify your future career path or send you back to the drawing board. Either way, you get important information about what steps you should take next to set yourself up for success in a career that you’ll love!