Job shadowing and placements
Undertaking job shadowing or placement schemes can be very useful to help you to decide whether a particular career path is for you. It can also provide you with skills, experience and contacts that can facilitate your entry into your chosen career path.
There are a large number of schemes offered to encourage students, doctoral researchers and professionals to engage in job shadowing (observing someone at work) and knowledge exchange schemes. We have linked to some examples from this page, but you should do some research to look for opportunities in your field. Your institution's business development office is a good place to start, but you may also find out about opportunities from your careers service, supervisor and your funder. An official placement scheme is very useful in facilitating work placements, but as discussed below you can also set something up on your own initiative.
Even if you plan to remain in academia after your research degree undertaking a placement can be valuable. In a work placement you will have the opportunity to build your network within the workplace, identifying possible collaborators for future research. You may also be able to apply aspects of your research and demonstrate its potential impact.
Some doctoral researchers will have a formal link with a non-university partner. If this includes you, you can use this opportunity to gain an insight into other contexts in which you can conduct a research-based career. The non-university partner may also help you identify contacts and opportunities that may be useful for your career.
Job shadowing and placements are also applicable within universities. If you are interested in knowledge transfer, training or in the work of another research group (in the same or another institution) you can always approach them to discuss the possibility of undertaking a placement of some kind. It is common and very useful for doctoral researchers to spend time in research groups related to their own area of expertise to learn new skills and techniques.
‘ My experience working in Poland for six weeks in my final year was the first time I worked truly independently. I could pass on my knowledge of the field and I learnt a lot about a field which was closely related. ’
UK GRAD survey of doctoral graduates (2007)
Setting up shadowing and placement opportunities
If there is no obvious opportunity for shadowing/placements built into your doctorate you may wish to try and set it up yourself. This is good thing to do as it shows initiative and will enable you to gain useful skills, experience and contacts. If you are interested in doing this try the following.
- Investigate whether any formal arrangements exist or can be made. Your institution may have a placement scheme or officer who is involved in setting up just this kind of opportunity. You might also find it useful to talk to the Human Resources department in the organisation that you would liked to be placed in
- Approach the person you want to work with/shadow and explain what you would like to do and why. Don't be apologetic, but be prepared to be told no
- Set out clearly what you are looking for. This should include:
- length of time
- level of commitment from the company/individual
- what you can offer
- what you are looking to get out of it.
Making the most of a shadowing opportunity or placement scheme
A placement will be most useful if you have thought clearly about what you want to achieve. Be realistic about what can be achieved in the time available. Placements can vary in time from a few days to an entire year so the nature of each placement will differ. But in all placements try to:
- talk to a variety of people at different levels. This will give you a better insight into how the organisation works and what it is like to work there
- take notes. You may come away with a very useful list of phone numbers, email addresses, facts, thoughts and observations. Spend some time sorting through these notes afterwards to make the most of them
- volunteer to do things. People like someone who is helpful. If you do basic things well they are more likely to offer you work with more responsibility
- watch. You can't expect to start doing high-level work straight away but you can learn a lot by watching how others work
- ask questions. It is easy when you work in an organisation for a long time to feel that everything is self-explanatory. Let them know when it isn't
- socialise. Have lunch with people and join them for social activities if you are invited. A lot of work happens outside of the office environment
- be aware of what you were promised. If your experience falls short, let someone know to address this.
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