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If you’re unsure about your career path, shadowing someone can make all the difference.

One conversation is all it takes to discover your career. Consider the 2006 film Pursuit of Happyness. The main character, Chris (Will Smith), introduces himself to a stock broker who is parking his car and asks him only two questions: What do you do and how do you do it? As the result of their brief exchange, he pursues this career. The film subtly highlights the benefits of speaking with and shadowing professionals in the fields you are considering. Through these experiences, you can narrow your options, identify specialty areas and expand your network.

If you have not connected with someone in the occupations that you are considering, I have some good news for you. Each February, students across the country participate in National Groundhog Job Shadow Day (NGJSD), a national campaign that gives young people a new perspective on their studies through hands-on learning and one-day mentoring experiences. This year, NGJSD — a joint effort of America’s Promise – Alliance for Youth, Junior Achievement and the U.S. Department of Labor — is Friday, Feb. 1 (Groundhog Day is Feb. 2).

How do you go about arranging a job shadow? It’s actually quite simple. You just ask. Most people are flattered that you are interested in their occupation, or they remember their own desire for first-hand information when they embarked on their career.

Contact your campus career center to identify how it can help you arrange a job shadow or conversation with a professional in the field you are considering. Many colleges participate in NGJSD or have already identified alumni who are willing to mentor students. LinkedIn also makes it easy to identify nearby individuals in your area of interest.

Most job shadows last three to five hours. Nearly all of your time will be spent observing the professional activities of the work environment. During the event, note as much as you can about the environment. How do the co-workers interact? What type of supervision is provided? What activities do you see the individuals completing? What is the pace of the environment? What percent of the time are people working on computers or interacting with clients? What technology are they using?

Throughout the day, ask questions about the occupation. In preparation for this discussion, learn as much as you can about the organization and career. Identify the factors that would affect whether or not you decide to enter the occupation. Then convert these attributes into questions. A list of example questions is provided below.

Strong shadowing questions

About SELF

• Why did you decide to work in this field?
• How long have you been in this position?
• What surprised you about your profession when you started?
• What aspects of your career have been the most rewarding?
• What aspects of your career have been the least enjoyable?
• If you could start over, what would you do differently?
• What kind of work schedule does this career require and how does your job affect your lifestyle (e.g., dress, leisure time, business trips, time with family)?

About the TASKS

• Do the activities I observed reflect a typical work day and the primary duties of your position?
• What does a typical work week look like?
• What kinds of problems or challenges do you often respond to?
• Which departments, organizations or other professionals do you collaborate the most often with?
• What changes or new trends are emerging in this field?
• What is a common misconception that others often have about your position?

About the REQUIREMENTS

• What education, coursework, licenses or credentials are needed to perform this job?
• What skills do you use most often during your day-to-day activities?
• What advancement opportunities or mobility exists within this field?
• How long does someone typically stay in this position?
• How important are internships, part-time jobs, campus involvement, GPA or cross-cultural experiences?
• What professional organizations should I join?

About the ORGANIZATION

• How does your department carry out or contribute to the mission of your organization?
• What sets your organization apart or distinguishes it from others in the same industry?
• What is the reporting structure and management style of your organization? How are decisions made and how much autonomy do you have?
• How is your success defined and measured by your organization?

About your NEXT steps

• What activities should I pursue to build my resume and prepare myself for this career?
• What should I expect when looking for my first job in this field? How competitive are job openings in this field?
• Can you identify any other professionals that I should contact to learn more about this career?
• What is one key piece of advice for me as I launch my career?

Once you have finished the shadowing experience, send a thank-you note to the professionals involved. Reiterate your appreciation of their time and the important information that you gathered. Stay in touch. You never know when a part-time opportunity, internship or full-time job might surface. If you decide to apply for a position down the road at the organization, be sure to mention the shadowing experience. Demonstrating your company knowledge, connection with an existing employee and passion for the field may give you an advantage.

Finally, stay positive. If the event confirms that you are no longer interested in the field, do not make it obvious while you are there. The world is a small place, and offending your host could catch up with you. Sometimes occupations are what we expect. Sometimes they are not. If the experience decreases your interest in an occupation, speak with other professionals to confirm the information that was shared with you.

Regardless of whether or not you walk away loving the occupation or deciding it is time for a plan B, you have collected valuable information. In a survey sponsored by the National Career Development Association, 59% of respondents reported that they would seek out more information about jobs if they were starting over. Seeing your shadow now will give you the information you need to avoid surprises later.

Billie Streufert is director of the Academic Success Center at the University of Sioux Falls in South Dakota. With nearly 10 years of experience in career and academic advising, she is passionate about helping individuals discover and achieve their goals. She is eager to connect with students via Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook and her blog.

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