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Research Companies and Careers Through Job Shadowing
by Katharine Hansen, Ph.D.
The Internet has opened up whole new worlds of information and is a fantastic resource for researching companies and careers during a job search. But for all its wealth of information, even the Internet can't beat the experience of learning about a company or career by experiencing it in person in the shadow of a working professional.
That's the premise behind job-shadowing, an activity that enables a person to spend some time observing a professional on the job.
Job-shadowing is often touted as a career-exploration activity for middle-school and high-school students to help them determine a career path to follow. Shadowing also helps students see how their textbook learning can be applied in the real world. But there is absolutely no reason why college students and older job-seekers cannot also participate in this invaluable practice.
The career-exploration aspect of job shadowing is certainly one of its benefits. Young students just starting to think about careers and college students about to embark on careers can try on jobs by visiting workplaces and observing what goes on. But the experience can be just as valuable for established job-seekers considering changing careers. If you know you want to change careers but are not sure what career is right for you, job-shadowing can give you a taste of what various careers are like. By experiencing a workplace first-hand, you can learn a great deal more about a career than you can through research in print publications and on the Internet.
You can also learn a lot more about companies by experiencing them in the actual trenches than you can in any other way. If, for example, you know what type of career you want to enter but are unsure of which companies in that field to target in your job-search, job-shadowing can reveal inside information about company culture that can guide you in determining which companies to apply to. Do you prefer that breezy dot-com atmosphere where the attire is ultra-casual and folks roller-blade through the corridors and get regular chair massages? Or do you fancy the corporate world of plush corner offices, mahogany furniture, and suits and ties? You can find out about these cultural differences through job-shadowing.
So, just like any kind of company/career research, job-shadowing can occur at various stages of one's career development:
- while still in school and trying to determine a career path.
- after your career is launched but you've decided to explore new career directions.
- when you know what career path to follow but want to learn more about specific companies by getting your foot inside. You can even narrow your search to the department level by shadowing people in different departments of the same company to see which team you'd rather work with.
And what exactly is job-shadowing and what does it entail? Job-shadowing is a close cousin of informational interviewing, in which career-explorers or job-seekers conduct short interviews with people in their prospective professions to learn more about those fields. Job-shadowing can be thought of as an expanded informational interview. Where an informational interview typically lasts about a half hour, a job-shadowing experience can be anywhere from a few hours, to a day, to a week or more, depending on what you can mutually arrange with the person you've chosen to shadow. Many of the same rules apply to job-shadowing as apply to informational interviewing, from preparing for the experience, to scheduling it, getting the most out if it, and following up on it.
During your job-shadow experience, you follow the professional you're shadowing through his or her work day. You observe the rigors of the job, the company culture, and ask lots of questions.
Setting up a Job-Shadowing Experience
- Before you try setting up a job-shadowing experience on your own, look into resources in your area for this kind of activity. College students, investigate whether you school has a formal job-shadowing program. Others should check into whether local or state government agencies offer such programs. Sometimes companies themselves offer job-shadowing programs. And check out the resources at the end of this article.
- A job-shadowing experience can also be the outgrowth of an informational interview. At your interview, you might be asked if you'd like to stick around a little longer than the planned time for the interview; thus your informational interview segues into a job-shadowing experience. Or let's say you really hit it off with the person you're informationally interviewing, or are extremely interested in his or her job function, or especially like the company atmosphere. You can ask if you can come back to spend some more time with your interviewee in a job-shadowing situation.
- Whom should you shadow? Ideally, someone who is in the same type of job you think you would like to have or one you aspire to in the not-too-distant future. For college students, the ideal person to shadow is a recent graduate of your school, perhaps someone who had the same major as you. Connect with your school's alumni network to identify appropriate alumni.
- Once you've located someone to shadow, write a letter or send an e-mail, allowing several weeks' lead time in advance of when you'd like to do the shadowing. (Here's a a sample letter requesting a job shadow). Follow up with a phone call about a week later to pin down a date. Be prepared to be very flexible. The person you're shadowing is probably a busy professional who is going out of his or her way to accommodate you for the period of time you're asking for. While the idea is for the professional to go about business as usual while you observe, it's obvious that he or she may feel a bit restricted by your watchful eyes, so he or she is doing you a big favor.
- It's a nice touch to invite your professional out to lunch on the day you're shadowing. Even if he or she declines, extending the invitation is a good way to find out about the lunch scene, such as whether you might need to brown-bag it if that's what everyone else does.
- Research companies where you plan to shadow. While your best research will come from the actual shadowing, find out enough about the company so that you won't seem ignorant to the person you're shadowing.
Getting the Most out of the Job-Shadowing Experience
- Dress as you would for a job interview with the company or at least at the level of dress others in the company wear. See our article, When Job-Hunting: Dress for Success.
- Arrive on time and be polite, courteous, and enthusiastic. Show the person you're shadowing how much you appreciate the time and opportunity to learn.
- Don't be afraid to ask questions, but don't bombard the professional with so many questions that he or she can't get any work done. Any question that can be asked in an informational interview can be asked while job-shadowing, and we offer a set of appropriate questions. Take a notepad or even a small tape-recorder to record observations and answers to your questions.
- If your professional attends a meeting on your shadow day, by all means ask if you can sit in. You can learn a lot about a company's culture by how it conducts its meetings.
- While your aim is to observe a typical work day, be open to unexpected opportunities such as attending a trade show or meeting of a professional organization with your professional.
- Be open to meeting as many people as possible during the experience. If you'd especially like to meet people in certain job functions, be sure to ask if your professional will introduce you.
- Observe everything! Note what technology is used in the job. Identify the must-have tools without which your professional can't function. Observe the surroundings in your professional's cubicle or office and determine how much of the environment reflects the professional's personality and how much is related to the job function or company. A stark workplace may indicate that the company frowns on personal touches. Notice how people dress and how casual or formal the atmosphere is. Determine whether workers seem bubbly and happy, stressed and harried, or sullen and morose. Note whether people stay late or rush out at quitting time. Learn more about determining company culture in our article, Uncovering a Company's Corporate Culture is a Critical Task for Job-Seekers.
- Notice the communication channels in the workplace. Is most communication done by e-mail? Do co-workers frequently communicate with your professional by dropping by his or her workspace? Is communication primarily phone oriented? What's the level of formality in your professional's phone conversations? Is there a lot of gossip around the workplace?
- For truly nitty-gritty research, consider asking to see such documents as the company's organizational chart, a job description of your professional's position, samples of your professional's work products, and a sample performance review form to get an idea of how workers are evaluated.
- Be aware of the professional's and the organization's needs as you're shadowing, and do your best not to interfere with the normal workflow.
- If you have good rapport with the person you're shadowing, consider asking for a resume critique and advice on interviewing at the company, as well as thoughts on coursework, internships, and work experience that will enable you to break into a job at that company.
- Remember that the professional you're shadowing is now a valuable member of your network. Ask for a business card when you leave, and ask if the professional knows others in similar jobs that you might shadow. Also ask if you can stay in touch.
After the Job-Shadowing Experience
- Be sure to write a thank-you note to the person you shadowed. Again, he or she made a significant time and energy investment in you, and it's just common courtesy to say thanks.
- You will certainly want to reflect on the shadowing experience, and you may want to do so in a guided or formal way. If you've gone through a school or other organization to arrange your job-shadow experience, see if there is a formal process or form to use for your reflections.
- One of the most creative uses of the job-shadow experience comes from the world of informational interviewing. The scenario goes like this: At the early stages of job-hunting when you're trying to determine which companies to target, you do some job-shadowing at several companies. Then six months later or so, as you're applying to your target companies -- including some where you job-shadowed -- mention some of your observations about the companies in your cover letters. Job-seekers who demonstrate company knowledge almost always have an edge, and this technique can be especially effective if your observations and questions have uncovered an employer need that you can fill. Explain in your cover letter how you can solve a problem you observed or meet a need you saw, and you will have a huge advantage toward getting an interview with the company. Be sure to put a positive spin on the problem or need you observed; if you bash the company while trying to show why you should be hired, your efforts will have the opposite effect.
Directories of Job Shadowing Opportunities, sponsored by Reach Out! Michigan, this site offers Michigan shadowing opportunities organized by occupational category and geographic area. Geared to high-school and younger students.
Job Shadowing, from UNITE-LA School-To-Career describes shadowing activities and events in the Los Angeles area.
Job Shadowing Tips & Guidelines, some great tips and questions to ask -- from the Career Services Office at Texas State University-San Marcos.
Virtual Job Shadow offers a video profile product that students can use to explore career opportunities.
JobShadow.com provides an ongoing collection of interviews conducted with people involved in various careers and professions.
Definition of Job-Shadowing
"Job shadowing is a work experience option where students learn about a job by walking through the work day as a shadow to a competent worker. The job shadowing work experience is a temporary, unpaid exposure to the workplace in an occupational area of interest to the student. Students witness firsthand the work environment, employability and occupational skills in practice, the value of professional training and potential career options. Job shadowing is designed to increase career awareness, help model student behavior through examples and reinforce in the student the link between classroom learning and work requirements. Almost any workplace is a potential job shadowing site."
-- Paris, K., & Mason, S. (1995). Planning and Implementing Youth Apprenticeship and Work-Based Learning. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin, Center on Education and Work.
Questions about some of the terminology used in this article? Get more information (definitions and links) on key college, career, and job-search terms by going to our Job-Seeker's Glossary of Job-Hunting Terms.
Katharine Hansen, Ph.D., creative director and associate publisher of Quintessential Careers, is an educator, author, and blogger who provides content for Quintessential Careers, edits QuintZine, an electronic newsletter for jobseekers, and blogs about storytelling in the job search at A Storied Career. Katharine, who earned her PhD in organizational behavior from Union Institute & University, Cincinnati, OH, is author of Dynamic Cover Letters for New Graduates and A Foot in the Door: Networking Your Way into the Hidden Job Market (both published by Ten Speed Press), as well as Top Notch Executive Resumes (Career Press); and with Randall S. Hansen, Ph.D., Dynamic Cover Letters, Write Your Way to a Higher GPA (Ten Speed), and The Complete Idiot's Guide to Study Skills (Alpha). Visit her personal Website or reach her by e-mail at kathy(at)quintcareers.com. Check out Dr. Hansen on GooglePlus.
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