By watching, instead of doing, you'll gain an in-depth understanding of the workplace and a real sense of whether the job is right for you

Work shadowing explained

Also known as job shadowing, work shadowing involves observing a professional in their job to gain a better understanding of the role.

Students and graduates often use work shadowing opportunities to get a taste for a particular job that they might be considering. Shadowing 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.

Shadowing differs from internships and work placements as it usually only lasts a couple of days, is generally informal and unpaid. The purpose of shadowing is to achieve an insight rather than to gain hands-on, practical experience.

Types of work shadowing

  • Observation - Time is spent observing the work of your host, watching what they do on a day-to-day basis. This type of job shadowing is particularly useful to students, recent graduates and career changers who are looking to gain a greater understanding of a certain role.
  • Regular briefings - Shadowing a host for specific activities over a period of time you'll receive a mini brief beforehand and a follow up debrief. Providing short periods of focused activity, this type of work shadowing works well when individuals already work alongside their host, for example for those looking to change departments.
  • Hands-on - A progression of the observation method, hands on job shadowing is where you start to carry out some of the tasks you've been observing under the supervision of the host. This type of shadowing can be time consuming for the host and so isn't always possible.

Who you can 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 sensitive nature of the work and issues around health, confidentiality and safety. For example, it may not be possible to shadow all professionals in healthcare, law, property and construction, social care and science and pharmaceuticals. 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 away from their workplace. For contact details, see employer profiles.

When trying to discover who you can shadow careers fairs are also a useful resource. Attend job fairs and speak to representatives to enquire about work shadowing opportunities. If the particular role you had in mind is unsuitable for shadowing the company may be able to offer a different form of experience.

Applying for 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. Find out how to ask employers for work experience. Send them your CV and cover letter explaining why you would like to shadow them and how you feel this could benefit you.

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 to 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, watch customer or client interactions 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 to answer obvious enquiries so make sure that your questions can't be answered with an internet search or by looking at their website. Instead ask questions such as:

  • why did you choose to work for this particular company?
  • how did you get your job?
  • what was the application/interview process like?
  • what do you enjoy about your job?
  • what challenges does the role and sector face?
  • what does a typical career path look like for this role?
  • what would you look for if you were recruiting for this position?

Prior to your period of work shadowing make sure you know where you need to be, who you're reporting to and what you should wear. To prepare and to make the most of the time that you have ask yourself 'what do I want to know about the job the most?' Are there any specific elements of the role that you'd like to see demonstrated?

Following up your experience

Making a good impression during your shadowing experience could lead to a more formal placement or at the very least a contact for you to call on in the future.

To make sure that you're not forgotten, follow up on your experience by writing a thank you letter or email expressing your gratitude for the opportunity. You could call your host directly but be wary of taking up more of their time.

Ask for feedback on the time you spent shadowing your host. Is there anything you could have done differently? Are there any areas where you particularly impressed? All feedback will help fine tune your approach when looking for more formal experience.

Remember to keep in touch with the person you were shadowing, this could be as simple as connecting with them on social media channels. They could prove invaluable when looking for a job.

Benefits of work shadowing

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 vital 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.

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