If you’re a pre-med student hoping to attend medical school, you’ve likely heard about the benefits of shadowing a doctor. Indeed, shadowing allows aspiring med students a unique window into the day-to-day realities of working as a practicing physician. As well, shadowing is a great addition to your resume or CV and application, and you'll likely walk away with experiences you can discuss in a medical school interview. Even if you understand why shadowing a doctor is a beneficial experience, the process of asking to shadow a doctor may not be clear. Not to worry! Once you understand the basic reasons behind shadowing, why the medical community welcomes requests for shadowing, and see a sample request for shadowing opportunities, you’ll see that the process is relatively painless.
In this blog, we’ll provide tips for choosing the best shadowing experience(s) for you, guidance in finding doctors to shadow, and a sample letter asking to shadow a doctor.
Want our help to get into med school?
Shadowing a doctor generally consists of following a physician through an entire day (or sometimes several days), from the moment they step into their hospital or practice, until they prepare to leave at the end of their shift. It is a novel experience that allows you to see all the details and minutiae of the work of a doctor – from the spectacular to the mundane. It’s one thing to read or hear about the routine and workload of a practicing physician, but quite another to witness it from start to finish. When shadowing, you’re essentially a “fly on the wall”, silently observing the doctor as they run their practice, see patients, review notes, conduct procedures, complete paperwork, connect with colleagues, and even eat lunch. It is a largely passive experience, where you are able to soak in the day-to-day, moment-to-moment realities of the career you’re pursuing. During breaks or at the end of the shift, you'll likely be able to ask the doctor questions, as well, where you can gain valuable insights from their own live experiences as a medical practitioner. The path to becoming a doctor is a long and difficult one, so you need to ensure that this truly is what you want to do and be, day-in and day-out. Shadowing is the perfect opportunity to do just that.
Shadowing can also give you the opportunity to meaningfully interact with the medical community. The experiences you have while shadowing are great for personal and professional development, and they can be very useful in completing your activities sketch or the AMCAS Work and Activities Section.
Before you start compiling a list and gathering contact information for doctors whom you may want to shadow, you first need to think about what kinds of medicine you may be interested in pursuing, as this will help you begin narrowing your scope. Note that in making such a list, you’re not making any commitments in terms of what you’ll actually go on to study, and the shadowing you do may or may not align with the specialty you end up pursuing in your education and career. At this point, you probably don’t have enough information to make such decisions – another reason shadowing is so beneficial! You may not yet know what the different specializations actually look like “on the ground”, so shadowing is an effective way to explore different possible avenues and to see if the lifestyle of such specialists matches your own interests, strengths, and goals. The daily routines of a family doctor, a neurosurgeon, and a pediatrician working in a neonatal intensive care unit are all very, very different. So, if there are several areas that catch your eye and stir your interest, add them to your list. If you’re completely unsure of what you may find engaging, that’s okay, too. Consider reaching out to a wide variety of doctors and see who is open and available for shadowing; having several different kinds of shadowing experiences may give you some new ideas and insights you hadn’t considered before!
Once you’ve got a manageable short-list of 5-10 possible specializations, it’s time to start finding doctors alongside whom you may be able to work on a shadowing shift. Start with what’s familiar – do you know any doctors already? Are there any doctors in your family or circle of acquaintances? Do you have a good relationship with your own doctor(s)? Might any of these be open to a day (or more) of shadowing? Even if they aren’t, they may be able to give you names of other doctors who likely have such availability, or open other doors or avenues of connection you may not have considered.
If you don’t have any such contacts, not to worry! If there’s a medical school or hospital on your campus, this is a great potential resource – connecting with the med school directly and/or the volunteer office of a local or school-affiliated hospital are both perfectly logical and effective ways of gathering contact information for a shadowing opportunity. You can ask your professors if they have any recommendations for doctors open to shadowing pre-med students. As well, you can reach out to the pre-med advisors at your school – it’s very likely that they are either in contact with, or directly associated with, local hospitals, clinics, and practitioners who are willing to accommodate shadowing requests from students. Even if they don’t have specific contact information, they will usually be able to provide you with information to help you find such resources. Remember, although this may be the first time you are doing this, you’re hardly the first pre-med to seek out shadowing opportunities! Make use of all the resources available to you on campus, so that you’re able to take full advantage of all the advising and connections made accessible to you through your medical school tuition fees. They know that pre-med students will likely want to shadow a doctor, and their purpose is to help students access precisely these kinds of experiences.
Once you’ve established your list of possible specializations and gathered contact information for various physicians in such fields, it’s time to start planning and actually reaching out. You’re going to want to contact these doctors several weeks in advance of your ideal shadowing dates, giving each physician time to prepare and ensure their schedule aligns with your own. To make contact, you can simply send an email or letter, or call and leave a message for the doctor, depending on the contact information you get.
Now, at this point, you might be feeling a little nervous, thinking that making such a call or sending such an email or letter out of the blue will be awkward, or you may fear rejection or some other negative response to your request. These are understandable fears, but we need to work past them! While this may be your first time asking a doctor about a shadowing opportunity, you’re hardly the first aspiring med student to make such a request. It’s not at all unexpected for potential medical students to reach out like this, and such students shadow doctors all the time. While it may feel awkward to make such a request if it’s your first time, the established generations of physicians have a vested interest in supporting the next generation of medical professionals, and generally welcome such opportunities. Of course, you are making a request of a very busy working professional, so you want to be respectful in doing so, but your request won’t be met with hostility, shock, or annoyance. Many doctors are happy to help! That doesn’t mean that every doctor you contact will have the availability or flexibility needed to accommodate your request, but that doesn’t reflect negatively (or at all) on you. So, remember, while all of this may be new to you, it’s not at all new to those you’ll reach out to with your request. Once upon a time, they were aspiring medical students, too, and it's entirely likely that they went through this very experience themselves!
Whether you decide to reach out by phone or by email (and let’s face it, if email is an option, you’ll probably send an email, right?), the content of your message should be pretty much the same. Do note that if you choose to call, you’ll likely have to leave a message for the doctor, so be prepared with a short version of your request in this case.
Begin by providing your name, major, and the school you’re currently attending. Acknowledge your interest in the doctor’s particular field, mention how you received their contact information, and let them know in a few short sentences why you’re writing/calling. Don’t write a long tome or recite a long script begging and pleading for the opportunity, or laying on accolades about their prestige and reputation. Doctors are busy, they get loads of emails and calls every day, so be respectful of their time by being concise. Let them know why you’re reaching out and what you’re hoping to achieve. You can also note whether you’ve done any specialized training or have any certification relevant to their specialization or the work you'd be observing, if applicable. Politely ask if they are able to accommodate your shadowing request, how long they might be able to let you shadow (e.g., one day, three days in one week, one day per week for 4 weeks, etc., based on your own needs and goals), and if so, when it would be most convenient for them.
I can't emphasize this last point enough:
While you likely have many other responsibilities, you do need to be as flexible as possible, and work with their schedule as much as you can. If you know there are times that will definitely not work for you, it’s fine to say so (e.g., if you know you’ll be out of town during a given week, if there’s absolutely no possibility for you to come in on Tuesdays, etc.), but you may have to make some compromises or work a few extra-long days to make this work. Whatever is on your plate, it's easier for you to make changes or compromises in your schedule than it is for pretty much any practicing physician. Hopefully, the doctor will reply with a few options/time slots, and you can choose the times that work for both of you. Repeat this process with the other doctors on your list and coordinate your schedule accordingly.
Note that it’s perfectly fine if scheduling will only allow you to shadow a doctor for a single day – this isn't uncommon. That said, if you are able to secure multiple dates/shifts with one doctor, either in a row or over a few weeks, that will offer a deeper and more nuanced experience. Rarely are any two days identical in practicing medicine, so if your schedule allows for such an opportunity and the doctor is open to it, consider taking advantage of such an opportunity.
Dear Dr. X,
My name is Sophia Student, and I’m a 3rd year Neuroscience major/Biotechnology minor at XYZ University. I’m contacting you because of my interest in your work in neurosurgery, and I am grateful that your colleague, Professor Edwina Chow, was able to provide me with your contact information.
In particular, I wanted to ask if you would be open to allowing me to shadow you for at least one full working day, sometime over the next 3 months (April-June). If you are able, I’d be especially interested in shadowing you a minimum of 3 days in that span of time, so that I might see you both in your own practice and in your work at ABC Hospital – though I’d be thankful for any opportunity to see your work in action, even if only for one day.
Please note that I will be away at a conference from May 27th to June 1st, but other than that, my schedule can be rather flexible. If you are able to accommodate this request, I'd welcome you to suggest some dates and times that work well for you, I will gladly work with that to find times that fit both our schedules and send back a proposed plan of action.
If there is any other information you need from me in consideration of this request, please do not hesitate to let me know. Thank you for your time in reviewing this message.
That’s it – short, sweet, and to-the-point! It really is that easy.
Check out our video for more information:
Due to the busy schedule all doctors must maintain, it may take some time for them to return your call or email (another reason to reach out well in advance of your desired time frame!). Though many of us are used to 24-hour turnarounds on emails and calls, don’t be concerned if it takes a week or so for them to get back to you. If 7-10 days go by with no response, it’s okay to write or call again. In this case, you can simply re-send the original email or call and give the same message. Avoid emails that begin with something like, “As noted in my previous email...” – the general conventions around email etiquette suggest that this can come off as passive aggressive or annoyed, without the cues present in face-to-face communication (tone of voice, posture, smile, etc.), and that’s definitely not the impression you want to give! It would be better to say something like this: “Apologies for the repeat email, but I wanted to follow up to see if you’d had the chance to review my previous request, the original text of which you can find below, for your convenience.” This sounds much better than, “As noted in my previous email”.
Wait, that's not all! Expressing gratitude after a shadowing experience
In the event that you do get the shadowing opportunity, be sure to use the same contact information to send a brief thank you message to the doctor(s) you shadowed. This should be simple and thoughtful, again being respectful of their time. Express your gratitude for the experience and the time they spent with you, and wish them all the best in the future.
If you absolutely can’t find a physician to shadow, don’t panic. Shadowing is great, but it’s not always possible and not always required. You’ll need to look at the specific medical school requirements of each institution to which you are applying, to see if shadowing is required, and if so, how many shadowing hours you need to get into med school. If a doctor responds to your initial request but has to decline, you can reply thanking them for the response, and asking if they have any colleagues who may be available for shadowing. If you genuinely need shadowing hours and haven’t been able to find a match with independently-practicing physicians, you can reach out to medical residents, too – they may have a more flexible schedule or be more open to such opportunities, and they are doctors in their own right.
If shadowing hours are not specifically required, you can look into other ways of interacting with and learning from medical professionals. For example, you could explore volunteering opportunities at clinics, in hospice care, in various hospital departments, etc. Any of these will look great on your resume or CV, in your application, and you'll likely be able to reflect on such experiences in your interviews (follow this link to learn more about average volunteer hours for medical school). Reaching out to such institutions directly will help you get the information you need to sign up as a volunteer; many hospitals have a specific volunteer office, and they'll be able to give you everything you need to get started.
While you should definitely try to get at least one shadowing opportunity, don’t stress too much if it doesn't work out. This is a great experience, but it’s not the only way to see many of the ins and outs of medical practice, and – unless shadowing is specifically required by a program to which you’re applying – it’s unlikely that a lack of shadowing would make or break your application.
Would you like our help getting into medical school?
About the Author:
Dr. Sarah Lynn Kleeb is an admissions expert at BeMo. Dr. Kleeb holds a doctorate degree (Ph.D.) from the University of Toronto where she examined the connections between Critical Theory and Liberation Theology. She brings 10 years of experience teaching, advising, and mentoring undergraduate students to her role as an admissions expert, having taught extensively at UofT.
To your success,
Your friends at BeMo
BeMo Academic Consulting
Image credit: Axelle Geelen, via the Creative Commons License: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/legalcode