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Responsibilities May Include

A guide for running a job shadow program

These programs offer the chance to explore new career paths, make connections in a field of interest and facilitate future employment.


Two universities are taking unique approaches to provide meaningful career development opportunities through job shadowing.

At the University of Waterloo, the Centre for Career Action (CCA) recently piloted a job shadowing program for PhD students, focused explicitly on alt-ac careers on campus. Students were matched with hosts who hold a PhD and are currently working in academia but outside of a traditional tenure track faculty position. The University of Waterloo selected a niche group, engaging 15 PhD students during the pilot, and are on a trajectory to grow the program as long as it continues to meet the desired learning outcomes. The goal: for participants to explore a variety of untraditional PhD career paths.

Moving beyond campus, the University of Alberta career centre’s expansive job shadow program involves community and industry partners and is open to all undergraduate and graduate students, postdoctoral fellows and alumni. Over the past 10 years, the program has evolved into a valuable engagement tool for employers and a way for university relations to strengthen its ties with local industries. From 33 matches in its inception, to over 400 in 2019, this program has increased capacity based on demand. The goal: for participants at all stages in their career to experience new career possibilities.

Thinking about launching your own job shadow program? Here’s how:

Job shadow programs offer participants valuable opportunities to explore new career options and evaluate career fit. When well-run, they also benefit hosts who develop leadership and mentoring skills.

Here’s what you need to know to design a job shadow program that’s right for your campus community:

1. Start the host recruitment process early
Hosts are the backbone of any job shadow program since shadowing cannot happen without them. The number of hosts is not the determining factor of success; it is the quality of the host and participant matches that are crucial to the success of your program. Keep your host recruitment goals realistic at first – 10 to 30 hosts is a big achievement in the first year.

The U of A finds the best host recruitment strategy is having a champion in an organization who believes in the program and encourages colleagues to participate. If you’re planning to go off campus with your program, begin by contacting local municipalities and governments who are mandated to support youth employment and/or community growth.

2. Find the right fit between shadowers and hosts
The best way to match shadowers with hosts is through an application process. At the U of A, the application process requires aspiring shadowers to indicate up to three hosts they believe match their career exploration goals using the profiles hosts create as their guide. Applicants share their motivations for participating by explaining what they want to see, do, learn and explore. The program coordinator matches applicants to hosts based on the quality of their application. Once matched, hosts personalize their job shadow day based on the learning objectives of their job shadow participant.

U of Waterloo’s job shadow program also involves a matching process. Applicants provide a written submission articulating their host of interest, and matches are made accordingly.

3. Prepare shadowers for the experience
Set job shadow participants up for success by offering a preparation workshop. Both the U of A and U of Waterloo offer workshops that focus on sharing best practices for: writing a professional introduction by e-mail, providing context on how to professionally introduce oneself in person, offering tips for asking thoughtful questions during an informational interview, identifying what to expect in the workplace, analyzing how to write a meaningful thank you to the host, and listing what to do in case of emergency. At U of Waterloo, the pre-shadow preparatory workshop also fosters connections between participants, providing yet another opportunity for students to grow their own professional peer network.

4. Move beyond traditional job shadowing
Make the shadow experience meaningful. U of Waterloo moves beyond the traditional observation-focused job shadowing by asking each host to develop an interactive case study. The case study is created by the host based on an example or real problem the host is working through as part of their role and provides an element of experiential learning that challenges the student’s critical thinking and analytical skills. To help future hosts prepare, U of Waterloo plans to create a resource book outlining everything a host needs to know, including a confidentiality agreement and examples of case studies.

The U of A asks hosts to plan an experience that might include a tour of the workplace, discussions with colleagues about team dynamics and workplace culture, an overview of their own career journey, or a mock interview with someone in human resources. To ensure a mutually beneficial experience for both host and participants, the U of A provides hosts with sample itineraries and a guidebook outlining expectations and the steps needed to prepare.

5. Inspire active reflection
Experiential learning is not complete without thoughtfully considering how to incorporate newfound knowledge into the career development process. At U of Waterloo, students are prompted to self-reflect on their shadow experience prior to attending a post-shadow workshop led by a career advisor. The advisor guides students through sharing their reflections to assist in transforming their experiential learnings into career development insights.

6. Evaluate and evolve
Build in an evaluation tool to measure learning outcomes and illuminate areas for program improvement. The U of A and U of Waterloo administer feedback surveys to both job shadow participants and hosts to evaluate their experience.

We invite you to make work integrated learning a part of your student experience and career development process. There is no single way to run a job shadow program, only different ways to make an impact.

Kira Bruschke works with graduate students and postdoctoral fellows as a career advisor at the University of Waterloo’s centre for career action. Vanessa Thomas is CCA’s former experiential learning project and events coordinator of graduate studies, and Kathryn Fedy is a career education programming and communications specialist at the CCA. Amy Roy Gratton is a career education coordinator working with students, alumni and postdoctoral fellows at the University of Alberta career centre.
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