Job shadowing for college students
You may have a clear idea about a career you’d like to pursue. Then again, you might not have a clue. Or maybe you’re somewhere in between. In each of these cases, job shadowing gives you a window to look at a working future–and a diverting break from academic life.
For many students, job shadowing offers the chance to explore an occupation at a given jobsite by observing. Students spend a day or more with a worker who is employed as a chef, an attorney, a rocket scientist, or any one of hundreds of other occupations. During the job shadow, they watch, ask questions, practice people skills, and make valuable contacts.
This article spotlights job shadowing by presenting the experiences of three college students. Shadowing helped them explore various jobs and define their career plans. It might suit you, too.
What It’s Really Like
Kathryn Faust, Jeremy Rosner, and Elaine Chen all had ideas about careers they might pursue. But they wanted more than ideas. They wanted proof concerning where a career path might lead and how best to travel that path. Job shadowing showed them a way.
Kathryn Faust, a student at Indiana University at Bloomington, probed her interest in broadcast journalism by shadowing at a television station in Indianapolis. First, she spoke in hurried snippets with a television producer. “I talked to him as much as I could,” she says, “but everybody was coming in asking this man questions, and I thought, `Whoa, this man is under a lot of stress.'”
Next, Faust spent time with an intern reporter, who proved an excellent source of information on getting started in the field. The young reporter told about her own struggles and satisfactions at the entry level. Faust saw that it takes a certain kind of person to thrive in this work in spite of its low earnings, tight deadlines, and limited job security.
Faust’s half-day job shadow culminated in seeing how everyone worked together to put the 11 a.m. news on the air. “I got to watch the cameras go and everything,” she says. “It’s an exciting feeling.”
Health logistics. Jeremy Rosner, a student at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pennsylvania, wondered about a career in health care administration. He didn’t know much about the field, but a job shadow he did during winter break changed that fast. Rosner shadowed the support services director, the outpatient services manager, and the administrator of the pathology department at a hospital in New Haven, Connecticut.
Rosner saw what the administrators did to keep the hospital running, from maintaining parking lots to coordinating medical laboratory tests. Rosner also learned about the hospital’s plans to reconfigure the physical layout of the outpatient clinic. “I sat in on a meeting with the outpatient services manager and two other people,” he says, “and we looked at blueprints. We were trying to figure out where things were going to be moved and which walls were going to be taken out.”
Seeing and hearing about the work of his hosts confirmed Rosner’s interest in health care administration. Even more importantly, however, Rosner received guidance regarding preparation for a career in the field. He found out about different types of master’s degree programs and the importance of gaining experience. Drawing on the savvy of his successful administrator hosts, Rosner decided he might benefit from a year or two of related work experience alter college, before starting graduate school.
Legal questions. Elaine Chen, a classmate of Faust at Indiana University, knew she wanted to be a lawyer. She shadowed an attorney who practiced family law at a public legal services agency in Bloomington. The experience radically changed her perspective. “TV doesn’t portray the average lawyer,” she says. “A lot of the images you have in your head aren’t necessarily the truth.”
Although Chen didn’t expect frills at a public agency, the drabness of the offices surprised her. Still, she welcomed the chance to sit in on attorney-client meetings. Chen discovered that family law in this setting was nothing like what she had imagined. “I was thinking in terms of keeping people together,” she says, “but it seemed like the attorney’s job was keeping people apart, but safe.” And the clients weren’t always attentive. Chen noted that her host showed great patience in explaining things, sometimes repeatedly, to clients.
Chen found job shadowing helpful in gaining a realistic view of one possible law career. “It’s a great experience,” Chen says. “It’s really good to see what it would be like–to see if this is really what you want to do with the rest of your life. It makes you focus and think about it.”
Job shadowing helps students make professional contacts in a given career field. When a shadow goes well, the rapport established with a job shadow host may lead to future contact, information, and opportunity. “Networking in the field,” observes Rosner, “is the biggest benefit of all.”
Some students, like Rosner, make contacts who offer leads on internships or summer jobs. In Rosner’s case, an offer of an internship at the hospital where he had shadowed didn’t pan out–but only because he hadn’t yet taken a required accounting course. Shadowing may yield other opportunities for learning, as well. After Chen completed her job shadow, for example, she accepted an invitation to attend a court proceeding in which her host participated.
Hosts sometimes invite students to call and chat if additional career-related questions arise after the shadow. Chen and Rosner both think it’s good to know insiders who can answer such queries. “I have all their cards,” Rosner says of his job shadow hosts, “and I would never hesitate to call.”
Programs and Free Agents
Job shadows like the ones Faust, Rosner, and Chen did require preparation. Some schools, including Muhlenberg College and Indiana University, offer formal job shadowing programs through their career centers. These programs help students arrange and prepare for shadowing experiences. Even if your school lacks a program, your career counselor can probably still help you. Or, you can pursue a job shadow on your own.
Formal job shadowing programs often include the following steps:
* Orientation. A coordinator briefs students on job shadowing essentials and program requirements.
In many programs, students fill out an interest survey specifying the type of shadowing experience they seek. The coordinator may recommend background reading on occupations being shadowed. Participation in shadowing is voluntary. Students who sign up, however, must honor their job shadowing appointments and conduct themselves in a professional manner.
* Matching. Each student is matched with a volunteer who has agreed to serve as a job shadow host. Schools rely heavily on alumni to host students. Coordinators either match students with volunteers based on student interests or else students pick from a list of available volunteers. Upon student request, coordinators in some programs will recruit a new volunteer who works in an occupation not represented in the alumni database.
* Student contact. Students call the host to introduce themselves and confirm scheduling and other details. Typically, the coordinator contacts prospective hosts before the student calls. In addition to calling, students may send their host a resume and cover letter.
* The shadow. Students spend several hours on the job with a host worker in a particular occupation.
The students observe and ask questions. Programs at certain schools encourage longer shadowing experiences, which last up to 1 or 2 weeks. These longer job shadows usually involve hands-on work, as well as observation. Regardless of their duration, shadows often take place during semester or term breaks.
* After the shadow. Students write letters thanking their hosts and reflect on what they have learned.
A thank-you letter strengthens the
relationship with the host, increasing
the value of the professional contact.
Students may fill out evaluations of
the shadowing program. They may
also discuss their experience with a
coordinator or counselor.
Faust took advantage of her school’s program when she first shadowed in college. During her first year, her shadow of a vascular surgeon put an end to her plans for a career as a medical doctor. Despite this, Faust still had an interest in health care. Having gone through the shadowing program once, Faust felt confident enough to make her own arrangements for another shadow with an occupational therapist. Then she delved into broadcast journalism. Her experiences emphasize the option of job shadowing on your own initiative.
Students use job shadowing to explore all kinds of occupations and learn how to prepare for them. Faust, Rosner, and Chen agree that job shadowing has aided their career and educational planning. Above all, shadowing taught them the value of learning about work through experience. They’ve all pursued further experiential learning in the afterglow of their job shadowing days.
Faust continues to explore her dual interests in health care and communication. She decided to write for her school newspaper, work at a radio station, and volunteer at a hospital. Rosner immersed himself in the administrative side of health care by accepting summer intern ships at another hospital and the adult daycare center of a nursing home. Chen took a different turn. For the fall semester of her senior year, she arranged her first cooperative education work experience in financial analysis at a large corporation.
Chen still plans to practice law some day, but she–like Rosner–will opt to enter the work force after college. She says she gained a broader view of what it takes to practice law, as a result of her job shadow. “I think it influenced me a lot,” she says. “I plan on applying to law school but deferring for a couple of years.”
Faust hasn’t settled on a career yet, but as a sophomore, she still has time. “I’m going to try to find something by researching it and experiencing it,” she says, “because books help, but books can’t tell you everything. I want to know what I’m getting into.”
Matthew Mariani is a contributing editor to the OOQ, (202) 606-5728.
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