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.

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, Credentialed Career Master (CCM), is a former speechwriter and college instructor who provides content for Quintessential Careers, edits QuintZine, an electronic newsletter for jobseekers, and prepares job-search correspondence as chief writer for Quintessential Resumes and Cover
Letters
. She is author of Dynamic Cover Letter for New Graduates; A Foot in the Door: Networking Your Way into the Hidden Job Market; and, with Randall S. Hansen, Ph.D., Dynamic Cover Letters and Write Your Way to a Higher GPA, all published by Ten Speed Press. She can be reached by e-mail at kathy@quintcareers.com.