What is a job shadow?
A job shadow is a short-term engagement (one day up to 1-2 weeks, typically) where you “shadow” a professional at their workplace so you can see what a company or job is like on a day-to-day basis. This can help give you clues as to whether or not you would enjoy the type of work or work environment.
By conducting a job shadow, you can explore a brand new area of work (ex. you don’t know much about marketing but want to learn), or a sub-area of work you are already interested in (you want to work in higher education, but you only have experience with admissions and want to learn more about student activities).
Securing a shadow
You can set up a job shadow similar to how you would set up an informational interview (see our guide on informational interviews for more information), by finding somebody through your network and reaching out to them. However, rather than asking to learn about their career path, you would ask to shadow them at their workplace. You may also consider setting up an informational interview before asking for a job shadow, because this gives you the chance to get to know your potential host and figure out if their work is interesting to you. If your informational interview goes well, ask them if they would be willing to host you for a job shadow!
Remember that it’s okay if a job shadow doesn’t work out with any of the people that you ask, because some individuals may have procedural hurdles that prevent them from taking on a student. Just thank them for their consideration and ask somebody else on your list!
Some shadows are exactly like they sound, meaning that you are there to observe what the professional does. Other shadows may be more participatory or even project-based, which means that they will ask you to work on something for them (do some research, lead a presentation, etc.). When you set up your own shadow, you can identify what learning outcomes you want to achieve, express these to the professional, and advocate for the types of activities that will be effective for you but also achievable by them. It takes a conversation with a mutual exchange of ideas and goals to create an effective shadow experience.
Preparing for your shadow
There are several things you can do to prepare for a successful shadow experience in terms of logistical preparation and goal setting:
- Stay in close communication with your shadow sponsor and respond to all emails within 24 hours.
- Complete any paperwork that is necessary for your participation in a timely manner (ex. background checks, non-disclosure agreements, proof of immunizations, etc.). Remember that you may not be able to access certain sites without completing required paperwork, so failure to complete paperwork on time could prevent your participation in the shadow.
- Research the organization so you can ask thoughtful questions and have a base level of knowledge that will facilitate your integration and understanding of how you can work towards your goals.
- Also research the staffing structure at your organization so you can decide if there is anyone you want to ask for an informational interview.
- Plan for the type of attire you may need (ex. business casual, winter clothes) and ask questions if you are unsure.
- Plan your transportation, including getting to the shadow site and getting around the city where your shadow is located (ex. look at bus fares and routes).
- Plan your accommodation if the shadow is not where you live (use alumni directory or Switchboard to see if there are any alumni to stay with, or reserve a hotel room or hostel).
- Pack something to take notes with and any other materials you may need.
- Make a LinkedIn profile so you can connect with people you meet.
- Remember that when you set up a shadow, you are making a commitment to that professional. It is important that you show professionalism and respect by following through with your commitment.
- Think about what you hope to get out of this experience and what you will do if those expectations do not materialize.
- Think about how you will use downtime during your shadow.
- Think about learning outcomes you want to achieve and write them down. Some guiding questions:
- What skills/knowledge do I hope to gain?
- How will I gain this experience?
- How will I measure/quantify/know that I gained these skills/this knowledge?
- What do I anticipate gaining personally?
- How will my experience affect my further studies or trajectory?
- Important note: While a shadow is a wonderful opportunity to gain valuable information about what you think of certain industries/careers/workplaces/or functional areas within a career area (ex. law, medicine), remember that you are only witnessing one situation through this shadow, and this one situation may not be representative of a career or industry. Shadowing can help you figure out your next step and clarify your goals, but it should be regarded as one piece of information rather than an opportunity to decide if you definitively do or do not want to pursue a certain career path.
During your shadow
As a visitor in somebody’s work environment, it is very important that you display professional, respectful behavior. Read these professionalism tips more information:
- Pay attention to the culture of dress around you. Organizations vary vastly in how their employees dress, so respond to what is specific about your organization. Also note that even in organizations that have a more casual dress code, there may be certain days that necessitate attire that is more formal. Be prepared for this possibility and talk with your sponsor about what type of dress is expected.
- Learn how your organization expects its employees and interns to act in different situations by asking questions and observing the organizational culture.
- When you communicate via phone calls or text, make sure to identify yourself.
- Do not text or take care of personal matters/go on social media while at your shadow site. This is acceptable if you have designated break time, but also note that some organizations may not allow work computers to be used for these purposes even during breaks.
- Always show up on time, both for your shadowing time frames and for specific meetings/sessions/etc.
- Ask questions when you’re unsure. Remember that you’re there to learn and not expected to know everything from the outset.
- Remember those goals you set before your shadow began? It is helpful to communicate those goals to your shadow sponsor at the beginning of the experience.
- If your shadow involves working on projects, ask clarifying questions about projects rather than guessing.
- Complete projects and tasks on time.
- If you finish your project ahead of schedule, it makes a good impression if you ask for another project to take on.
- Remember that there may be downtime during your shadow. Use that time productively and be proactive about asking for opportunities to do more (informational interviewing, attending meetings, completing a project, doing some research).
- Collect contact details from people you met at your shadow site so you can stay in touch.
Informational interviewing with your shadow sponsor or their co-workers may be a part of your shadow. An informational interview is a conversation with a professional about their career, and it is a great opportunity to gain valuable advice. If you have not done an informational interview before, read our guide on informational interviews.
After your shadow
- Think about what next steps you want to take. For instance, did you enjoy this field and now want to seek an internship in this same area? Did this show you that you may want to consider other career paths and do you want to create an action plan for exploring more potential careers?
- Stay in touch with the people you met, rather than letting the connections fall away. There are several things you can do to stay in contact:
- Connect on LinkedIn and comment on their posts.
- Send LinkedIn messages to check in.
- Check in at milestones (ex. congratulate them on a promotion or new job).
- If you come across an article relevant to what you discussed during your shadow experience, send it their way.
- Keep them informed of your progress. It is very important to let people you have connected with know what you are up to. For example, if they gave you advice that helped you find an internship, they would be excited to know that!
- If you would like to add this experience to your resume, make sure to call it an “externship.”