When Should You Start Shadowing A Doctor?

It’s come to my attention that there are some conflicting views on the topic of when you should start shadowing as a premed student. Some advisors say that you should start as soon as possible. Others say that you should wait until your later years because physicians want students to be further along in their programs.

I have lots of experience shadowing physicians as a premed student and I’ve also advised other students on shadowing as well. Here is the quick answer:

Start shadowing as soon as possible. You need to know whether a career as a physician is right for you sooner than later. You also want to complete your shadowing experience long before your application is due so that you aren’t scrambling to find a doctor or get a letter of recommendation written in time.

In this article, we will go more in-depth on the reasons why you should start shadowing now as well as general tips for having a successful shadowing experience.

You Want To Know If Medicine Is Right For You Sooner Than Later

This point needs to be stressed a lot. Premed students tend to have tunnel vision for getting into med school. This tunnel vision is important for getting through all those difficult classes but it can also blind you from the realities of what this career entails.

Becoming a doctor is a long and expensive process. The last thing you want to do is spend 4 years of medical school and 2-7 years of residency training only to find out that you hate being a physician. 

This is why shadowing is so important. This kind of experience will give you a much better understanding of what the medical profession is like. You can learn a lot about being a physician from books and youtube videos, but nothing comes close to personally observing the day in a life of a doctor.

The longer you wait to shadow, the deeper you will be getting into your premed program. Find out early if this career path is for you so that you still have time to change your mind if needed.

When you shadow, make sure you have an open mind. Don’t let that tunnel vision convince you that everything is great and there are no drawbacks.

Most likely, you’ll realize you made the right choice and being a doctor is a great profession. The point is to make sure before you waste too much time.

Getting A Shadowing Gig Set Up Can Take A Long Time

Not everyone is lucky enough to know a doctor personally. Oftentimes, you will have to find a doctor to shadow which can potentially take a long time.

Here’s an example that happened to me. As a college student, I set up a week to shadow an orthopedic surgeon during my Christmas break. After setting it up, I crossed that off my mind and continued school. 

After waiting months, I found out the day before my shadowing opportunity that the physician retired early. I wasn’t able to find someone new to shadow that winter break, so I had to wait until summer for my next opportunity. 

The point of this story is to illustrate that setting up a shadowing opportunity might not go as planned. It’s better to start early knowing that things can go wrong and get delayed. 

Therefore, if you wait until just a few months before your application, you risk delays and not being able to list that shadowing experience. You are much better off locking in a shadowing experience as early as your freshman or sophomore year of college.

How To Find A Physician To Shadow?

Finding a doctor to shadow can be tough. We wrote an entire post on this topic which you can find here! To summarize, here are the top 3 strategies you should use to find a physician to shadow (Assuming that you don’t already know a physician via family members or friends):

  1. Talk to your school’s doctor. This is often overlooked but your university should have a school doctor. Is there an open job at your University’s student clinic? This can easily lead to a quick shadowing opportunity.
  2. Does your school have a preceptorship program? Sometimes your premed department will set up shadowing opportunities for you. A preceptorship program has connections with hospitals so that you can shadow physicians that are used to having students with them.
  3. Cold calling. Don’t underestimate the power of cold-calling different physician clinics. Understandably, it can be a little nerve-racking to call a doctor out of the blue and ask to shadow him or her. But you would be surprised by how many physicians are willing to let random students shadow them.

What Is The Best Time Of The Year To Shadow?

This is going to depend on your own preferences and schedule. Personally, I think you should avoid shadowing during the school year and only shadow on breaks.

You get a lot more out of shadowing when you can devote full days and weeks to the experience. The point of shadowing is to get an insight into the pros and cons of the medical profession you are following. It’s difficult to really understand what a day in the life of a physician is like when you are only getting a snapshot of one particular day.

When you are a full-time student, you’ll probably only be able to spend a few hours here and there as it fits into your busy schedule.

How Long Should You Shadow A Doctor?

We ran a survey on premed students to see how long they shadowed physicians. I recommend you check out that article for more context, but the short answer is that you should aim for about 50 hours.

50 hours is a little more than a full workweek and should give you a solid idea of what a life of a physician is like.

How Do I Prepare For Doctor Shadowing?

Let’s say that you found a doctor that is willing to let you shadow him or her. The first day is approaching and you are wondering how to prepare for your first day. Here are some tips for how to prepare:

  • Dress appropriately. When in doubt dress business casual. You can’t go wrong with business casual in a shadowing environment. Sometimes, scrubs are okay too. However, only wear scrubs if you were told to. Don’t assume you can wear scrubs just because you are in a clinical/hospital environment.
  • Bring a notebook. When you shadow a physician, you will be learning a lot. Not only are notes good for your future science classes, but taking notes gives the impression you are taking the shadowing opportunity seriously. Also, it gives you something to do besides standing awkwardly in the corner of the room.
  • Don’t bring lunch on the first day. Seems like silly advice but there is a reason for it. You don’t know if there is going to be somewhere to store your lunch. Also, you don’t know if there is going to be a sponsored lunch and who wants to miss out on free food? Don’t forget, you can always step out and buy something when you get hungry.
  • Find out the parking situation beforehand. You probably won’t get access to employee parking on day one. Make sure to contact someone beforehand to know where to park because oftentimes hospitals don’t like when you take up patient spots unnecessarily.
  • Show up early. Should be obvious advice but I figured I should emphasize the importance of being early. You don’t know what traffic is going to be like or how long the walk from the parking lot to the practice will be. The physician is doing you a favor but letting you shadow, don’t be rude by showing up late.

By the way, I highly recommend you check out our all-inclusive guide to shadowing a physician. This guide answers even more questions you might have about shadowing so that you can get the most out of your experience!

I Waited Till Senior Year To Shadow A Doctor: Is It Too Late?

It’s never too late to start shadowing! Even if you have already applied to medical school, you should still shadow a doctor. If you are invited to an interview, you will most likely be asked about what you did since your application. Having shadowed someone could make or break your acceptance into medical school!

I can’t stress it enough. You need to make sure that medicine is right for you before committing to 4 years of expensive medical school. Being a doctor can be a very lucrative and fulfilling career. However, there are plenty of doctors out there who are miserable and forced to continue working in order to pay off their huge student loans.

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