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Learning About Careers Through Observation

Learning About Careers Through Observation

Michelle Tullier MC Writer

August 10, 2009

Monster Contributing Writer

Many of today’s college students follow people around, look over their shoulders and eavesdrop on their conversations. But nobody seems to mind.

It’s called shadowing, and it’s an excellent way to learn about careers and make valuable professional contacts. Shadowing involves going to someone’s workplace for a day or part of a day to observe the routine — and not-so routine — events of their jobs.

Before investing a whole semester or summer in an internship or part-time job, shadowing can give you a quick feel for a job or industry. Then you can decide if it’s worth exploring more. So whichever career field you’re considering, you’ll get a glimpse into a day in the life of that occupation.

Setting It All Up

Your college or university may have a formal shadowing program that matches you with alumni who work in fields that interest you. These programs are particularly common during winter and spring breaks when you have full days off from classes. If your school doesn’t have an established program, talk to your college career counselors about arranging a shadowing opportunity.

If all else fails, take the initiative to arrange one yourself. Ask friends, family, people you’ve worked with on past jobs or internships, professors and anyone else if they can put you in touch with someone who does the sort of work you might like to do. Call or write to those people explaining that you are considering pursuing a career in their field after graduation and would like to visit their workplace to help you make your career decision. Politely ask if you can spend a day observing them at work. Be respectful of their time and offer to visit whenever it’s convenient for them.

Be a Good Shadow

Below are some general rules to keep in mind on your visit to the office, classroom or wherever you choose to go:

  • Always show up unless you have a very good reason for not doing so. People often rearrange their schedules to accommodate you and may even plan special events for your visit. This is one of your first opportunities to project a professional identity, so you want to show that you have your act together.

  • Dress appropriately. If the shadowing is arranged through your school, someone there may be able to give you suggestions for what you should wear. If not, it’s OK to ask the person you’ll be shadowing. Your attire should be appropriate for the environment.

  • Be considerate and courteous. Though you are there to observe, give the person you’re shadowing some space from time to time throughout the day. Use your common sense and offer to excuse yourself if it sounds like the person you’re shadowing could use some privacy for a phone call or meeting.

  • Bring several copies of your resume, but don’t force them on everyone you meet. Just have them on hand in case anyone asks for a copy. If you reach the end of the day and no one has requested one, leave a few copies with key people before you depart.

  • Introduce yourself with confidence. You will most likely meet a number of people on your shadowing day. Always give a firm handshake, look the other person in the eyes, and state your name clearly. Also, get in the habit of asking for business cards from people you meet so you can contact them in the future.

  • Follow up with a thank-you note to everyone who spent any time with you. It is helpful to take notes during the day to keep track of who discussed or did anything with you. Also, thank whoever helped you arrange the shadowing day.

    Shadowing is an important reality test that should be a part of your career planning process; so try to schedule as many of these visits as you can. The more work situations you experience, the less chance you’ll make a big career mistake down the line. Shadowing can give you an accurate picture of the good, the bad and the ugly sides of jobs you’re considering. It can also help you develop contacts that can be great sources for future job leads.