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Test-Drive Your Future Career

By Matthew Wilding

A job shadow can tell you what you need to know about your prospective career--and whether it's really right for you.

Four years of your life and seemingly endless dollars of your future income are dedicated to your education: an intellectual blur of all-nighters dedicated entirely to comparative analyses of Plato, Adam Smith, Freddy Mercury, and whoever else, mixed with roughly equal time dedicated to theoretical and semi-hands-on learning environments that may or may not be of any use whatsoever when you get to the real world after graduation.

So what's the pay off? In many cases, your degree itself, and not what you learned with it, is the useful part. For jobs with "Bachelor's degree required" stated prominently in the listing, having that degree allows you to realistically apply. But what of  "experience required?"

Internships are a surefire way to gain some real life experience with your credits, but time and finances often make such major time commitments to non-compensated work prohibitive. If you're looking to learn the ropes of an industry in crash-course fashion and with little time commitment, one great option is job shadowing.

The Benefits

In job shadowing, "students are able to make a connection between what they are learning in a liberal arts college and their practical application," explained Rob Franek of Princeton Review. These single-serving sessions, which often last no more than a day, also give you a taste of different types of jobs within your industry, and an idea of what you're looking for before committing to a position or internship for a long period of time.

"It's a great time to reach out and connect with people that you usually don't have a chance to connect with," elaborated Dan King of Career Planning and Management, Inc. "Spending a day with an employer, you see more than you might at an informational meeting."

Experiencing an entire day alongside a professional in your field can give you a sense of a general day-in-the-life in your future.

Getting a Shadow Opportunity

Getting a shadowing opportunity is easier than you think, and in the cases of most schools, a system for arranging one is already in place. "Don't not use the resources you have on campus," said Franek. "Work with the administration to make the connection [between you and a potential job shadow]. The administration is there to help - that's their job!"

If the school doesn't have connections at the place that you want to job shadow at specifically, be sure to consider what they do have, and don't be afraid to ask them to help you make the connection. While formal ties may not exist, it's likely that a professor in the department knows someone in the business and would be willing to assist you.

If the school comes up dry, don't be afraid to pursue opportunities yourself. If you want to job shadow the president of the biggest book publisher in the country, make a call to their office. You'll most likely get an assistant on the line, but the worst they can say is "no," which puts you no farther back than you were before the call. And a surprise "yes" could open doors that someone without as much gumption would miss out on.

It's also not a bad idea to accept shadows in middle, or even lower level positions. The CEO doesn't generally deal with entry-level employees, and making a good impression on somebody who does-such as an operations manager- can be just as educational and rewarding.

Results and the Long Run                     

Doing a job shadow has many obvious benefits, but there is one that is often overlooked: bad experiences. Working toward a career that seems ideal from afar but turns out to be a poor fit is all too common among graduates, and a day or two of experience can serve as an excellent indicator (although not necessarily a definitive one) of whether or not your desired career path is right for you.

Take note of the workload of the person you're shadowing. Does he or she seem overloaded? Does the job seem interesting to you? Chances are, if you're bored on day one, you'll probably still be bored at the end of year one.

"Job shadowing gives people an excellent opportunity to find out what we don't like," said King. There are few other opportunities to test-drive your life, so take advantage of the chance.


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