How to Shadow a Doctor as a Pre-Med Student
As you begin gathering meaningful experiences to bolster your resume on your path to applying to a Doctor of Medicine (MD) degree program, it’s time to start thinking about shadowing a doctor. You know that having this experience under your belt is beneficial for many reasons. But where should you start?
We’ve gathered some pointers on how to shadow a doctor. But before we dive into that, let’s take a closer look at why physician shadowing is so important.
The advantage of shadowing a doctor
You’ve heard that physician shadowing is a valuable element to strengthen your medical school application, but why is it so important? There’s actually a pretty practical reason to pursue this type of experience as you’re gearing up for med school.
“Physician shadowing is essential for pre-meds because it’s very difficult to know you want to be a physician if you haven’t actually experienced what it means to practice medicine,” explains Dr. Jessica Freedman, emergency medicine physician and founder of MedEdits Medical Admissions.
“Physician shadowing is essential for pre-meds.”
Additionally, gaining exposure to the medical field can help show medical school admissions teams that you’re dedicated to becoming a doctor.
How to shadow a doctor: 6 tips for success
It’s easy to see how physician shadowing can play an important role in your quest for med school admission, but it’s also a valuable opportunity to gain a professional mentor. With these benefits in mind, you’re probably wondering how to ask to shadow a doctor—and how many of these experiences you should aim for.
Review the tips below for answers to these questions and more.
1. Start by researching specialties
It’s likely too early to determine exactly what type of doctor you’d like to become. That said, doing some initial research can help you gain a better understanding of which roles might be a good fit. Be sure to consider what topics interest you most, how you see yourself interacting with patients, and your inherent skills.
Though there are some students who have a very clear idea of what type of physician they ultimately want to become, many pre-meds don’t have such a clear direction — and that’s ok! Aiming for variety is going to be especially helpful for these students.
2. Search for opportunities
Figuring out how to shadow a doctor might seem intimidating, but there are several ways to set things in motion. If you’re still working toward attaining your undergraduate degree, or have recently graduated, make use of your college network. U.S. News & World Report suggests starting your search by meeting with one of your school’s pre-med advisors. Many staff who work with pre-med students at undergraduate institutions have a good understanding of what’s out there.
“They’ll have leads on various summer programs available that might include physician shadowing as part of a health professions program,” Dr. Freedman explains.
You can also reach out to other students who are interested in medicine. And if you know of any graduates who’ve gone on to medical school, ask them about shadowing experiences they gained prior to acceptance.
Speaking to your personal doctor can also be helpful. “Doctors know doctors, so you can even go to your pediatrician from when you were a kid,” Dr. Freedman suggests. If your physician isn’t able to personally accommodate you, they should be able to help point you in the right direction.
3. Voice your request
Even after you have a list of candidates to contact identified, you’ll probably still be wondering how to ask to shadow a doctor. Different physicians may have their own communication preferences, but Dr. Freedman has some suggestions about how to begin reaching out.
“Start with an email, just because people tend to respond faster with email.”
“Start with an email, just because people tend to respond faster with email,” she says. “If, after a few days, you haven’t received a response to your email, then give them a phone call.”
And don’t forget to share your rationale. Explain why you’re interested in medicine and be clear about why you want to shadow the specific physician you’re contacting. Taking the time to make a thoughtful, personal request rather than sending a generic note you’ve copied and pasted can go a long way.
4. Make the most of your experience
Once you’ve lined up an opportunity for shadowing a doctor, the real excitement starts. You might feel a little nervous before starting your first day, but there’s really no need to worry. No one is going to expect anything from you.
“The objective of this experience is for you to gain exposure to that specialty so you can learn more about the practice of medicine,” Dr. Freedman points out. “You’re not there to learn to be a doctor—that’s going to happen later.”
There are some things you can do to ensure your experience is positive, though. Start with dressing the part. “Look professional,” Dr. Freedman advises. “Look the way you would want your doctor to look.”
She also notes the importance of being respectful to everyone—from patients to administrative staff—and making sure you don’t overstep. It’s not always appropriate to ask questions, so make sure you’re following the physician’s lead. Some doctors are happy to teach and may even give you assignments to complete before your next shadowing shift.
5. Don’t stop at one
You may be wondering how much shadowing experience to gain before moving on. The truth is there isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer. It will vary from one experience to the next, and from one pre-med to the next. But Dr. Freedman believes more is better.
“Shadow many different physicians, in many specialties, in many settings.”
“Shadow many different physicians, in many specialties, in many settings,” she recommends. She points out that practicing in a community outpatient clinic is vastly different from practicing in an academic hospital. The more diverse experiences you can gain, the better prepared you’ll be to enter the field.
6. End on a high note
Many pre-meds ask physicians they’ve shadowed to pen a letter of recommendation. This can be a great option, so make sure you start thinking about it in advance. Dr. Freedman suggests bringing it up on your last day shadowing. They may want to see a copy of your CV or ask you some questions, so make sure you discuss a plan for how to proceed.
While it’s great to get a reference letter from a physician you’ve shadowed, don’t feel obligated to secure tons of them. In fact, one is more than likely enough.
“Physician shadow letters are more character references than anything,” Dr. Freedman explains. “They are not the strongest or the most important letters in your portfolio.” She adds that letters penned by instructors and researchers are often more valuable since those individuals can comment on work you’ve done.
When you’ve completed your experience shadowing a doctor, you should consider sending a thank you note. “It’s always good to say thank you in a formal way,” Dr. Freedman offers. Handwritten letters and emails are both appropriate.
Start strengthening your medical school application
Now that you have some tips on how to shadow a doctor, you can see that gaining this type of experience isn’t as difficult as you might have guessed. Many physicians have happily allowed future medical students to accompany them for days, weeks, or even months.
As you continue to gather clinical exposure, start thinking more specifically about how to put together an impressive application. Learn more about how you can do this in our article “5 Ways to Strengthen Your Medical School Application.”