Updated: Jan 31
How To Shadow A Professional In Your Target Career by Monikah Schuschu
Even as small children we are asked to ponder the question of what we want to become when we grow up. By high school, you probably have an idea of what career you’d like to pursue, or at least several options that sound interesting. That career plan is an important consideration when you’re choosing a college; you want to find a school that will prepare you effectively for the career of your choice.
Whether you have a firm idea of what career you’d like to pursue, or you’re feeling uncertain about career planning, shadowing a professional in a field you’re interested in can go a long way to help you make these decisions. Spending a few hours or days witnessing the everyday activities that make up a particular job will give you unique insight into whether a particular career is a good match for you.
Great shadowing experiences usually don’t just happen by accident; as with most activities, the work you put in before and during the experience will determine how much you get out of it. In this post, we’ll go over how to find a shadowing opportunity, what to do during your shadowing experience, and some helpful tips to make sure you take full advantage of your shadowing appointment.
Finding Shadowing Opportunities Start out with general questions. What subjects interest you? What jobs or career fields are you thinking about pursuing? Is there a path that sounds intriguing, but that raises questions for you in practice? It’s okay if you’re not sure yet what you want to do; shadowing is not at all a commitment to a particular college major or career.
You’ll also need to think about whether it’s practically feasible for you to shadow someone in a particular career. Most people don’t travel just to shadow a career mentor, and not every type of job exists in every city. Your options may be limited by your location and the employment options available there, or on the flip side, your location may offer certain shadowing opportunities that are particularly valuable.
Once you have some general parameters to work with, you can start looking for specific shadowing programs and opportunities. To find leads, start with the organizations and networks that you’re already part of. Your school’s guidance office or career center may already have shadowing programs and relationships established, and community organizations and youth groups may offer additional resources. Personal connections through friends and family can also be very valuable in opening these doors.
You may not be able to find a workable shadowing opportunity that’s an exact match for the career you want to pursue. That’s okay! Shadowing a person in a similar position or related field can still teach you a great deal about what kind of job or career will work best for you. It’s a valuable experience that can help you to make better-informed choices about your career path.
If you’re working with an established shadowing program, you’ll need to follow whatever procedures they have in place to request or be matched with a mentor to shadow. However, you may find someone outside of these programs whom you’d really like to shadow. In this case, you’ll need to call or email them directly to ask if they’d be willing to work with you.
Requesting a Shadowing Appointment Your shadowing request should be brief and direct. Explain who you are, where you go to school, and that you’re interested in shadowing the person during their daily work. Mention your availability or preferred times and dates to shadow, but be prepared to be flexible—your intended mentor’s schedule may be far tighter than yours.
Include your reasons for picking this particular field, career, and/or person, and demonstrate that you understand at least the basics of what this person does. Showing your knowledge will help assure the potential mentor that you’re actively invested in this experience, not just tagging along to check off a box on your list of high school activities.
It should go without saying that you must be polite and professional when you’re requesting a shadowing appointment—or any mentoring relationship or advice—from someone who’s actively working in your intended field. Choose your words carefully, use correct spelling and grammar, format your request clearly, and respond promptly to any messages you receive. Remember, allowing a student to shadow is unavoidably disruptive to your mentor’s daily work and is an active investment of time and energy, and they don’t have to say yes to your request. When you’re communicating with a professional mentor, always be respectful of their time and other responsibilities. They need time to actually do the work that makes their career interesting to you in the first place!
You won’t always be able to shadow the person that you want to shadow. Some jobs just don’t lend themselves to high-school shadowing; there may be concerns about safety or confidentiality, or the work environment may not be suitable. Your target person may simply not have room in their schedule for the time investment required to create a good shadowing experience. It’s normal to run into problems like these.
Whatever the reason, if your request is turned down, be polite and thank the person for their time and consideration. It’s possible they may offer to speak with you via email, have a short meeting, or provide advice in some other way, and it’s fine to take them up on these offers if you like. If not, express your appreciation and move on to a different shadowing opportunity. You need to be prepared for the possibility that any request you make will be turned down or won’t work for scheduling reasons. If getting a shadowing experience is important to you, always follow up on multiple leads in case your first choice doesn’t work out. (This is good practice for applying to colleges!)
The Shadowing Experience Before you shadow, go over the day’s schedule with your mentor so that you know what to expect, starting with where and when to meet at the beginning of your shadowing appointment. Discuss your mentor’s expectations and rules for you, including what you should wear, what information you might see that’s confidential or shouldn’t be disclosed to others, and whether you can take notes. Obviously, you’ll need to be on your best behavior. Always do some research about the person and company you’re visiting before you come in to shadow. Did the company recently announce a new product or initiative? Is the company facing particular challenges at the moment, or have they been mentioned frequently in the media? Having some background knowledge will help you better understand what’s going on around you in the workplace, and the more you already know, the better the questions you can ask.
During your shadowing experience, embrace your role as an observer. Keep your eyes and ears open, and your phone turned off. Take notes on things that strike you as surprising, confusing, or notable. Ask questions, but wait for an appropriate time— don’t blurt them out in the middle of a meeting, for example. (You can always write them down if you’re afraid of forgetting.)
It’s a good idea to plan a debrief session with your mentor after your shadowing appointment, whether that’s at the end of the day or a meeting that takes place later. In this session, you can ask any questions you’ve stored up, clarify anything you were uncertain about during the day, and make sure that you understand the experience that you’ve just had. Your mentor may also have questions for you about your perspective!
6 Tips for an Excellent Career Shadowing Experience
Every shadowing experience is different, so we can’t say for sure what surprises you might encounter when you shadow—you’ll have to research your individual shadowing circumstances and be prepared to take things as they come day-of. However, we can offer a few more general tips to help you make the most out of your shadowing appointment. Tip 1: Always be polite, professional, and respectful to your mentor, their coworkers, their clients, and whoever else you might encounter while shadowing. This is a good rule in general, but it’s particularly important to make a good impression when you’re making connections that could be valuable in the future. Tip 2: Prepare for the fact that some parts of your shadowing experience may be a little boring. Every career involves some less-interesting tasks that nevertheless need to get done—that’s an unfortunate reality of adult life! Don’t let the slow moments totally discourage you from pursuing that career. Tip 3: Respect your mentor’s work responsibilities. They likely have others depending on them, and they may have to ignore you a little at times in order to get important work done. You can always ask more questions later. Tip 4: Appreciate the time your mentor and others in their workplace are putting in to teach you about their field. Shadowing is a learning experience for your benefit, and professionals agree to do it because they care about helping young people who are interested in their field, but it can still be a lot of work. Don’t treat it as a given. Tip 5: Don’t worry if your shadowing experience convinces you that you definitely don’t want to pursue your mentor’s career. This, too, is a valuable learning experience, and it’s far from a waste of time. If you can define which parts of the career you feel negatively about, you’ll know more about what to avoid in other potential careers. Tip 6: Remember that to a major extent, you get out what you put in. Your personal preparation and active participation in your shadowing experience are necessary if you want to make the most of this opportunity.
Good luck finding and reaping the benefits of your own shadowing experience!