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Making the Most of Your Shadowing Experiences

How did you decide that you wanted to become a physician…a nurse…a physical therapist? Chances are you learned about these health careers by seeing them portrayed on TV shows, or perhaps inspired by seeing a member of the health care team in action, maybe treating you or a member of your family . That’s great! Many health professionals were motivated in the same way.

But that’s just the beginning of your career search. Shadowing health professionals is one of the most important parts of ensuring that the health professions career you choose is the best match for you.

Who should I shadow?

It is essential to shadow more than one individual in the health profession you have chosen to explore. College students may want to start with their health professions advisors; they may have contact information about professionals in your area who welcome students to shadow. Ask the health professional who inspired you if you can shadow. But don’t stop there. Ask the first person you shadow if he or she know others in their field you can follow and interview as well. Also, some professional organizations may be resources for shadowing experiences. For example, the American Dental Association’s Career Mentoring Program (www.ada.org) lists dental societies that will match prospective students with practicing dentists in the area.

What will I learn from shadowing?

Hopefully, you will see and experience what a “day in the life” of a health care provider is like. If you’re simply meeting and talking—rather than actually shadowing them throughout the day—ask about what a “day in the life” is like.

Consider asking the person you’re shadowing these three questions:

  • What do you like best about your role as a health care provider?
  • What do you like least about your job?
  • If you had it to do over, would you consider the same career?

Ask these questions of everyone you shadow, as there are always both great and less appealing aspects to every career. Does the passion or excitement expressed by the person you’re shadowing resonate with you? Are the challenges or drawbacks about the career as expressed by the person you’re shadowing of concern to you too?

Shadowing experiences should contribute to developing a realistic perspective of the career you are exploring. You may come out of the experience more excited than ever to pursue your health career. Or, you may learn that certain aspects of the career—perhaps the hours worked, the types of patients you will deal with, or the emotional strain of the job—may not be appealing at all. Most importantly, don’t make your career decision based on a single shadowing experience, as one person’s perspective may not reflect the perspectives of others in the field or that day may have been unusual.

Shadowing vs. Volunteering

Many students are finding it harder and harder to shadow health professionals, particularly due to legal restrictions at hospitals and other health care settings. For example, many physicians are no longer able to have premedical students shadow them throughout their day’s activities of seeing patients. Your involvement may be restricted to meeting and talking with professionals, rather than actually shadowing them throughout a day’s experiences.

If you seek to gain experience in patient care, consider a volunteer activity in addition to your shadowing. Health professions advisors as well as volunteer coordinators at local hospitals and clinics can direct students to volunteer experiences that offer the opportunity to interact with patients and see health care providers in action.

Finally, keep a log of your experiences—both shadowing and volunteer—as you will want to provide this information in your applications to health professions programs. Take time to reflect on your experiences, be prepared to discuss what you learned from them, and share how they shaped your view of the profession and the health care system.

This article was written by Anne Wells, Ed.D., Senior Vice President, Division of Educational Pathways at the American Dental Education Association.