The Shadow Knows! — A Few Points on Pre-Health Shadowing

People_ShadowYou may have heard that it’s important to shadow a physician or dentist before applying to professional school, but have questions about it:  How important is it for me to shadow?  Is it the same as clinical volunteering?  How many hours should I shadow somebody?  Here are a few points about shadowing to help you plan your time before applying to graduate school:

  • Shadowing and clinical volunteering are different.  Shadowing is an opportunity to observe a health care professional at work.  You are like a shadow — present, but not taking an active role with responsibilities.  Clinical volunteering means that you are giving your time to serve as a volunteer and assuming some responsibility in the clinic.
  • Medical schools do not consider shadowing to be medically related service work, which is very important to them.  You should not shadow and think you have done clinical volunteer service.  As a medical school applicant, you are likely to have spent more hours volunteering than shadowing.  Shadowing tends to be a more significant part of dental school applications as volunteer service opportunities are more limited.
  • Shadowing is an excellent way to confirm your interest in medicine and learn more about doctor-patient relationships.  It is often while observing professionals at work that potential applicants find the “spark” within that motivates them to pursue a health care career.
  • You can shadow a single person or several different people over time.  It isn’t inherently better to stick with one person vs. more than one.  You can gain a great deal of insight from both ways of shadowing.
  • Finding shadowing opportunities can be tricky and may involve some persistence in the face of being turned down.  Understandably, professionals must consider the privacy of their patients and the policies of their clinic.  Student pre-health groups and medical/dental school alumni groups can be excellent contacts with established shadowing programs.  Any personal/family connection you have with a health care professional can be pursued.  Many applicants have shadowed relatives or their personal doctors or dentists.  A faculty member or research colleague you know may be open to having you shadow her or him.  Lastly, try high school and college alumni.
  • Be professional and gracious when requesting a shadowing opportunity.  Express your thanks to anyone who gives you an opportunity and keep them posted on your career developments.  It can also mean a lot to a patient to be thanked, briefly, as well.

Author: Carol Hagan

Carol Hagan is a pre-health and pre-grad advisor in Career Services. She has a Ph.D. in art history from Penn and did her undergraduate work at Wesleyan University.