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Why Job Shadowing is the Career Boost You Need

Ambitious women, listen up. If you haven’t had a job shadowing experience before, now may be the time to change that. This could be just the career game-changer you didn’t know you needed.

To put it simply, job shadowing is the act of following, or shadowing, a professional as he or she goes about the day-to-day responsibilities of his or her job. It’s common for students both in high school and college to shadow professionals in order to learn more about a variety of career fields.

Why you should do it

Getting an inside look at a company you’re interested in will help you decide what you want to do with your life. During your time as an undergraduate, it’s likely that you’ll cycle through many different career goals and interests. There’s no shame in this; exploring different career paths is one of the many advantages of going to college. Shadowing actual professionals as they do their job can provide you with enough insight to narrow down that ever-present question of, “What do I really want to do?”

Plus, spending time with a professional just may get you a foot in the door. For those of you who have graduated, are graduating soon, or who already have a pretty solid idea of the career you want, job shadowing presents an invaluable opportunity to get a first-hand look at the field you’re aiming to break into—and maybe even a foot in the door, if you play your cards right. Spending a few hours at a place of business with the express intent to learn can mean making connections with those who work there, which can come in handy later, once you’re on the job market.

Most importantly, it’s an opportunity to gain experience. Job shadowing is a chance for you to acclimate yourself to business settings and interacting with professionals. This is especially helpful for students who may not have any experience interacting with others in these environments; not only can a job shadowing experience demystify how things work in an office setting, but also it can get you accustomed to being in that world, which can decrease any general anxiety you may have about one day entering the workforce.

Ultimately, being proactive and seeking out opportunities such as these shows that you’re a go-getter. In short, participating in a job shadowing experience displays a dedication to your own professional goals and sets you apart as someone willing to take the time and effort to get involved in hands-on research.

How to make it happen

You career services center may be able to help, but even if they can’t set anything up, don’t hesitate to take matters into your own hands. First, you’ll have to narrow down what it is you’re interested in learning more about. To keep things simple, decide on a single field and search within it. For example, those interested in journalism can research local magazines and newspapers. A good tip is to look into companies you’d love to work at one day, though smaller companies may be more accessible if you don’t have any prior contacts.

Emily Miethner, founder and CEO of FindSpark, a career development community for young creatives, stresses the importance of picking someone you’re truly passionate about meeting and whose job really interests you. As long as you do your research (via LinkedIn and company websites), your genuine interest will come across when you talk to them. “If you’re more specific as to why you’re reaching out, you’re more likely to get a response,” Miethner says.

Diana Martinez, assistant director at the Wasserman Center for Career Development at New York University, recommends reaching out to companies through LinkedIn, your school’s alumni database, through faculty at school, or through your own networks of past colleagues, friends and family.

Martinez recommends starting out with an informational interview: Express your interest to spend between 15 to 20 minutes meeting wherever and whenever it’s most convenient or even just talking over the phone. Following that, you can hopefully then build your way up to spending a whole day shadowing someone.

“Cold calling somebody and asking to shadow them might spook them out,” Martinez says. “It’s always best to start out small and then build your way up to something more concrete. You can outreach to the person who has the title or works in the area of your interest because that shadowing experience would be the most meaningful to you. When pitching your idea to shadow an employer, always reiterate that your presence will not be invasive and that you will not be affecting the overall operations of the company.”

The date is set—now what?

Once everything is in place, you’ll want to make sure you have a few key things prepared: your research, questions, and a killer professional outfit. Include questions about dress codes when setting up the initial appointment.

As with any interview, you want to come prepared by having done your research about the company and armed with thoughtful questions. “If you get invited to a company staff lunch or are able to mingle with staff members, use that opportunity to discuss your interest in the company, your educational and professional background, and to exchange business cards, if the staff member asks for it,” Martinez advises.

This should go without saying, but always be as respectful and professional as possible; recognize that even if you’re as unobtrusive as possible, your being there does mean the office  has to make certain concessions for you. You’ll also want to bring a small notebook for jotting down notes. If your nerves are a problem (and during what can feel like an all-day interview, no one would blame you), do all you can to calm them beforehand (meditation, soothing music, yoga or ice cream—whatever it takes!) and just remind yourself to follow the lead of the person you’re shadowing throughout the day. How he or she acts will set the tone.

If you’re curious about another department, proceed with caution. Some may be fine with introducing you to coworkers during your time there, but some may be offended, and there’s no real way to tell beforehand. “You’re there to shadow a particular person, so it would be rude to say that you want to learn about a different department while you are shadowing him or her. However, if you want to ask for the contact info of a person from another department in order to hold a separate informational interview or shadowing experience, this is fine,” Martinez says.  

Goodbyes can be awkward, but they don’t have to be. Beyond the staples (getting contact info if you don’t have it already and thanking him or her for his or her time), Miethner suggests asking the professional you’re shadowing if he or she has any final thoughts or advice for someone who’s at the point in your career where you are. Another idea is to ask a question or two that clearly grew from something that happened during the day —it shows that you’ve been paying attention.

Miethner also recommends students write or blog about their experiences. That way, you can end the day by taking a photo to publish or tweet (but always ask permission to share photos first, and double check that it’s okay to post about your experience and if there’s anything they’d like you to leave out).

Connecting on LinkedIn or on other forms of social media after—or even before the experience—is also recommended.

How to follow up

The importance of following up with thank you letters or emails cannot be stressed enough. It may seem like an insignificant step, but it’s what will set you apart. Whomever you shadowed took time out of his or her schedule to allow a stranger to accompany him or her for a day on the job. It benefits you exponentially more than it does the professional, so be sure to show your gratitude with a sincere note (a simple “I wanted to thank you again…” is a good starting point) by email within 24 hours.

“If you want to impress them even more, you can send a hand-written thank you card to each person whom you met to reiterate your gratitude and how impressed you were by the visit. They will definitely remember this,” Martinez suggests.

If he or she implores you to keep in touch during your meeting, absolutely do so. Who knows? They may be able to put in a good word for you one day. An added benefit of job shadowing can be expanding your professional network, so don’t let opportunities to do so pass you by.

“Ultimately, people will get you jobs, so the more people you know in the industry of your choice, and the more they remember you in a positive way, the better your chances are of landing that coveted job or internship interview,” Martinez says.

Job shadowing can seem intimidating at first. It’s not as popular as it was in the past, and the idea of asking a complete stranger to basically let you hang out with him or her for an entire day can be nothing short of terrifying. It’s important to push past any hesitation and go for it anyway—taking the steps to make it happen, no matter how awkward you may feel at first, is akin to investing in your career and, more importantly, yourself. Whether you’re a freshman, a senior, or a recent college graduate, and whether you know what you want to do one day or you’re more likely to follow in the footsteps of women who have created their own careers, job shadowing can benefit you exponentially, so it’s in your best interest to give it a shot!

Sharon Lynn Pruitt is a senior at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, where she's studying English and Gender Studies. She's passionate about social justice and the power of independent media, and wants to one day combine her love of both by launching a progressive women's magazine in conjunction with a community mentoring program that will encourage empowerment through the creative arts. In her spare time, you can usually find her writing, watching '90s sci-fi shows on Netflix, or re-reading her favorite books. You can also find her writing about nerdy things like Harry Potter and feminist theory on her blog, The Black Feminist Geek (www.theblackfeministgeek.wordpress.com), or thinking out loud on Twitter (@SLPruitt).