How Job Shadowing Can Help You Pick the Right Career Path

The Prepped Team

March 10, 2023

7 minutes

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Making choices is a necessary part of forging your career path and eventually finding a job. From choosing the right post-secondary program to deciding which industry to work in, it’s normal to feel uncertain, if not completely overwhelmed at times. 

With so many options available today, job shadowing can be a valuable way to learn more about a career path before you begin your job search as a recent graduate, or even to help you choose a post-secondary course of study. 

In this article:

What is job shadowing?

Job shadowing is an experiential learning opportunity in which you follow and observe a professional (the host) in their workplace setting for a set amount of time. While this is typically done in-person, some job shadowing opportunities are also available virtually. This type of experience may also be referred to as an externship. The length of a job shadowing opportunity can range from a few hours to several weeks. 

Job shadowing is ideal for university or college students with no work experience who have recently graduated or will soon graduate. However, it also may be practiced in some workplaces to train employees or to help people explore alternative career paths within an organization.

How does job shadowing work?

Throughout the course of your job shadowing experience, you can expect to follow your host to get a behind-the-scenes look at the profession. You’ll often know in advance how interactive the experience will be. 

  • If it’s a quiet observation approach, there will be minimal interaction between you and your host. 
  • Alternatively, in a more hands-on externship, you may help perform duties and receive ongoing commentary by the host on how they approach a particular task. 

Regardless of which job shadowing style you experience, you can expect to spend some time asking questions and learning about your host’s career pathway.

The general purpose of job shadowing is to learn aboutillustrate the duties and skills of a particular profession that you’re interested in. You’ll learn what a typical workday is like, its workplace setting, and a general sense of the duties involved. Of course, this can vary tremendously from one profession to the next, which is why job shadowing can be so illuminating for students or recent graduates who are trying to figure out which career path to choose. This exposure to what your future career may look like can help you make a more informed decision.

To set up a job shadowing experience, you may be able to register with a program provided through your university or college career guidance centre. Certain programs of study may include such opportunities as part of the curriculum. An established job shadowing program will have a structured format to help ensure you get the most out of the experience. However, if your school does not have such a program (or you don’t qualify), you can informally request to job shadow professionals who you know. This requires building and tapping into your existing network and , where necessary, making additional connections in the field you wish to learn about. 

Job shadowing isn’t just for students and recent graduates, some organizations routinely include job shadowing in their employee onboarding and orientation process. Additionally, if you’re a recent graduate who has already started your career and you want to examine different career pathways either within, or outside of your current company, job shadowing may be the right path forward. 

Job shadowing by industry

There are no set rules that limit which industries you can job shadow in. Opportunities may be available in a variety fields, including:

  • Healthcare: There are many healthcare professions that offer job shadowing opportunities for students or recent graduates who are undecided on their future studies or career path. Some examples are nurses, physiotherapists, optometrists, chiropractors, and more. You may also want to experience the different settings of each profession, such as a hospital, clinic, medical spa, and home visits.
  • Finance: For students and recent graduates interested in finance, there are many career pathways to choose from. Job shadowing professionals in different areas of finance, such as accounting, auditing, or investing, can help you determine which direction is best for your studies and career.
  • Teaching: If you’re already attending a program to become a teacher, you’ll be required to observe and practice teaching as part of the accreditation process. However, if you’re a student or recent graduate considering a career in teaching – whether in early childhood education, elementary school, high school, or even post-secondary school – job shadowing an instructor, teacher, or professor can help you determine which path is right for you.
  • Marketing: A career in marketing offers a spectrum of specialties, such as advertising, copywriting, analytics, visual design, and social media. If you need clarity on where to develop expertise for a fulfilling marketing career, job shadowing can help. You may want to consider shadowing at both an agency and an in-house marketing department to learn which is a better fit for your interests and skill set.
  • Skilled trades: If you’re considering a career in skilled trades but are struggling to select the right one for you, job shadowing may help. Apprenticeships are an integral aspect of training for a skilled trade to develop deep hands-on practice and knowledge. However, if you’re not ready to commit to a particular trade, job shadowing is a way to expose you to a variety of workplace settings and skills in a short time frame.
  • Legal profession: The choice to pursue an education to become a lawyer comes with a hefty commitment. Not only is the application process intense, but the path to becoming an accredited lawyer includes years of education and articling. If you want to be certain that a legal profession is right for you, job shadowing a lawyer can help. 
  • Other industries or sectors: Job shadowing can be beneficial to learn about many other professions, including those in hospitality, manufacturing, human resources, and information technology.

Advantages of job shadowing

Not sure if job shadowing is right for you? There may be more benefits than you realize. Even if you commit to just a few hours of job shadowing, its potential advantages include:

  • Determining your career path: Whether you’re still in school or have recently graduated from university or college, deciding your career path can be overwhelming—even confusing. Job shadowing is a simple way to learn about various professions and industries with minimal time commitment, yet can offer clarity before you apply for jobs or study programs.  
  • Opportunities to network: If you’ve recently graduated and have begun your job search, you may have discovered that finding a job takes more time and effort than you’d expected. Job shadowing in your preferred industry can open up valuable connections to grow your network, and potentially lead to job referrals. Growing your network can greatly improve your chances of landing your dream job and may even minimize the amount of time you spend searching. 
  • Identify skill gaps: Shadowing a professional in a role and industry you aspire to can help identify gaps in your skill set that may hinder your job search efforts. Exposure to a typical workday can uncover technical know-how, interpersonal skills, industry knowledge, and formal education requirements that are unique (and essential) to the career you wish to pursue. This will help you determine which skills you may need to develop further before you begin applying for jobs.
  • Develop a career plan: One of the perks of job shadowing is the opportunity to ask about your host’s own career path. You may learn valuable advice to help you develop your personal career plan
  • Informal exposure to a workplace setting: You may have a vague idea of what the workplace setting will be like once you’re in your chosen profession. However, job shadowing offers an inside look at what it’s really like to be part of the professional team, company, and work setting. This eye-opening experience can confirm that you’re on the right track, or help you realize it’s not for you.
  • Learn about a specific company or role: Job shadowing isn’t solely for those seeking clarity on their career path. If you’re clear on your career aspirations, and even know which company (or companies) you want to work for, job shadowing can deepen your understanding of the role and the company culture, which can help you prepare for a potential job interview.

Learn about other roles in an organization: Once you’ve begun your career as a new graduate, you may discover other roles in the organization that appeal to you. Job shadowing professionals in your positions of interest can help illuminate which skills and qualifications you require to move laterally in the company.

How to ask for a job shadowing opportunity

Setting up an opportunity to job shadow a host is straightforward when you apply through a program offered by your university or college. On the other hand, finding and setting up a job shadowing experience on your own will require a little more resourcefulness—from researching where you want to job shadow to making a formal connection, and scheduling the time and duration.

Applying to a post-secondary job shadowing program

Many colleges and universities offer job shadowing opportunities through the career centre or a specific academic program. Although the application process may vary, it’s usually not very complicated. You’ll likely have to submit an application that details your professional interests which may be followed up with questions to help match you with the ideal host. Check your career guidance centre for registration deadlines as some programs may provide only one placement window per year.

Requesting a job shadow opportunity directly

Once you’ve determined the type of professional you wish to shadow, and in some cases selected an organization to target, it’s time to make the ask. If you already have contact with a potential host to job shadow, you should send a formal email directly to that individual. Alternatively, you should reach out to the organization through the department you’re interested in, or human resources, to enquire about opportunities. 

Your email should introduce yourself, describe your academic background and professional aspirations, as well as why you’re interested in the organization. Be sure to include what you hope to learn from the job shadowing experience. Keep it clear and relatively brief. If the potential host is receptive to your ask, you can provide more details and set up a date or time that works for you. Be considerate of the professional’s time. Based on their availability, you may be invited for just two hours one afternoon, or every morning for a week. 

How to prepare for a job shadowing experience

Once you’ve set up and scheduled your job shadowing experience, keep these tips in mind to ensure your time with the host is informative and rewarding: 

Understand the time commitment required for job shadowing

Now that the number of hours and specific dates are confirmed, be sure to plan your schedule accordingly to be courteous of your job shadow host’s time and to make the most of the learning opportunity.

Research the company

You’ve likely already done some research on the company hosting you, especially if you set up the job shadowing opportunity yourself. Even still, it’s helpful to review the company’s website and, in some cases, the host as well. If you’re shadowing a medical professional, for example, it may help to be familiar with the host’s credentials and academic background. Whereas, if you’re shadowing a business professional at a company you aspire to work for, the more you know, the better you can present yourself as a potential candidate. If in doubt, simply ask the host for guidance on how to prepare.

Present yourself professionally 

Whether you’re job shadowing at a healthcare facility, a construction site, or a corporate office, presenting yourself professionally is important. Dress appropriately for the work setting, be punctual, and stay courteous the entire duration. 

Prepare questions before you start job shadowing 

While some job shadow experiences last days or weeks, others may only last a few hours. Preparing questions in advance can help ensure you learn everything you need to meet your objective—whether it’s to help you define your career path or improve your candidacy for your job search. You also want to be prepared if your host asks you to share what you want to learn from the experience. 

Good questions include those related to your host’s career path, skill set, and industry knowledge, along with broader questions about the profession, industry, or company. For example: What skills do you regularly leverage? Why did you choose this discipline? Are there any certifications or skills-based programs you recommend? How did you get started in your career? Do you have any advice for someone looking to enter this field? What’s the most difficult part of your job? Are there any other tasks you do that I did not get to see today?

Take notes during your job shadow experience 

This may not be possible for every job shadowing opportunity, such as a hands-on experience in a skilled trade. Regardless of your work environment, however, bring a notebook or have your phone handy to take notes. Details like recommended programs of study, softwares you should learn, or technical skills are easy to forget.

Thank your job shadow host 

Similar to a post-job interview follow-up, you should send a thoughtful thank you email within 24 hours following your job shadow experience. It’s good practice to include two or three learnings from your time with the host in the email.  This is also the ideal time to connect with your job shadow host to grow your LinkedIn network, if you haven’t already.

Complete a post-job shadow survey

If your university or college set up the job shadow experience, you may be required to share what you learned through a survey. The employer may also ask you to share your reflections. 

Be Prepped for career success

As a student, preparing for the job market and charting out your career plan before it’s time to begin your job search can give you a significant advantage. Sign up for Prepped for valuable career and job search tips and access to our AI Interviewer and ATS Resume Scanner.