Work shadowing

Author
Rachel Swain, Editorial manager
Posted
December, 2016

Gain an in-depth understanding of the workplace, build up a network of contacts and discover whether a job is right for you by observing someone in their day-to-day role

What is work shadowing?

Work shadowing involves observing a professional in their job to gain a better understanding of the role. Usually lasting only a couple of days, the purpose of shadowing is to achieve an insight rather than hands-on experience.

Students and graduates often use work shadowing opportunities to get a taste for a particular job that they might be considering. It also allows you to experience how the same job can be different depending on its setting. For example, a nurse who works in an accident and emergency department in a hospital will have a very different role from one who works in a small community practice.

Who can I shadow?

When looking for opportunities it's important to only choose roles that are of interest to you, as the time spent shadowing is so short. You also need to be aware of how time-consuming the process can be for the person being shadowed, so preparation and a genuine interest in the area are vital.

Some jobs are not suitable for shadowing due to the nature of the work and issues around health, confidentiality and safety. To find out which roles are suitable take a look at our job profiles. In these cases, it's still worthwhile contacting the company involved to see if you can speak to someone in the job role away from their workplace. For contact details, see employer profiles.

How do I apply for work shadowing opportunities?

Securing a position requires hard work and effort. Opportunities are very rarely advertised publicly, so it's up to you to formally approach the individuals or organisations that you're interested in working for. Send them your CV along with a cover letter explaining why you would like to shadow them and how you feel this could benefit you. Get tips on creating the perfect CV and cover letter.

Networking is extremely useful in these situations. Use any contacts made through internships, work placements or paid work to help secure your desired role.

Your university careers service or department may also be able to recommend individuals or organisations that are open to approaches for work shadowing.

Periods of work shadowing can be arranged at any time but the more notice you give to an individual or company the more likely they are to agree to your request.

What can I expect?

As it's only a short stint of experience it's unlikely you'll get to carry out any tasks, although this will depend on the employer. Instead you can expect the person you're shadowing to show you what they do and explain why things are done in a certain way. You may also be able to sit in on some meetings and there may be time set aside for you to ask questions or speak to other departments.

Whether there's specific time for questions or you ask them throughout the day you should make sure that you have some prepared. The person you're shadowing will still have to carry out their day-to-day job so won't have lots of time. Make sure your questions can't be answered with an internet search or by looking at their website. Instead ask questions such as why they chose that company, how they got the job and what challenges the role and sector face.

Make sure you know where you need to be, who you’re reporting to and what you should wear. Making a good impression at this stage could lead to a more formal placement or at the very least a contact for you to call on in the future.

How will it help my career?

The main outcome of work shadowing is an increased knowledge of an area of work or role that you might be considering in the future. It will help you gain an understanding of the workplace and build your network of contacts, which can be invaluable when you come to apply for roles. Most of all, work shadowing brings a job to life and can help you decide whether it is really for you.

If you've tried work shadowing and would like to gain more in-depth work experience, search internships and work placements.