Being fearful of a career change is a little bit like refusing to try kiwi. If you decide not to buy one and cut it open just because it’s a little hairy on the outside, you’ll miss out on the fresh, sweet juiciness inside. We tell kids they won’t know they don’t like it until they try it—and there’s logic in that—but some people would rather stick with a boring known quantity than risk discomfort for a shot at greatness.
Switching career fields or simply taking your job skills into a new setting can be equally fear provoking. But you can take a small bite without incurring risk simply by job shadowing.
It’s typically thought of as the domain of high school seniors or college students. Like a career day but out in the field, job shadowing involves learning from an active practitioner, going to his or her place of business and following him or her around. Job shadowing doesn’t involve any pay, and it usually doesn’t involve any actual responsibilities, either. You’re truly a shadow in every sense of the word.
There are a few challenges with job shadowing. The biggest is finding someone who’s doing what you want to be doing and where you want to be doing it who will let you look over their shoulder for a couple of days. Look at your LinkedIn network or join a local professional organization; check with your alma maters to see whether any high school or college alums are engaged in that line of work. Consider cold-calling a nonprofit or educational institution—even if that’s not the setting you’re seeking, you might be able to experience your desired role, and they may be more open to sharing their time and teaching.
Be clear about what you’re asking for. With job shadowing, it’s usually the bare minimum: an opportunity to watch as they go about their workday. Ask if you can come in for a day, watch quietly and take notes. Don’t expect to get to jump in while they’re brainstorming a new campaign. Be prepared to handle your own lunch or occupy yourself during a private meeting. Make it known that you’re not expecting a job or introductions. If you’re offered more time, responsibilities or opportunities, great! But a busy professional can recoil from the prospect of keeping someone else occupied. Explain that that’s not necessary.
Bring something on which to take notes. That way if a question arises, you can jot it down and ask at lunch or at the end of the day rather than interrupt their flow. Sweeten the deal by offering to buy lunch or dinner for your host. (And don’t forget to follow up with a handwritten thank you note!)
Stay flexible, positive, open-minded and realistic. Job shadowing might not exactly represent an average day in your desired field. You might only be able to swing an hour or two because of their schedule or yours. But it can also be dramatically eye opening. You might discover that you hate being at a desk in front of a computer with fluorescent lights overhead. You might learn that a busy medical practice requires a lot of time on your feet. You might even confirm that you truly love the work and feel more confident about pursuing a career change.
Job shadowing for grownups can be just as valuable as it was back in high school—perhaps more so, now that you have something to which you can compare your experience. Don’t let the hairy unknown scare you—sample the sweet possibilities!
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