How To Shadow a Nurse (With Steps)

Updated January 26, 2023

Shadowing gives nursing students the opportunity to learn valuable techniques through on-the-job training before they enter the workplace. It's an ideal strategy for those who are considering nursing but aren't sure whether it's the best career for their skill set. Shadowing also gives students the opportunity to ask questions and solicit advice from those who already excel in the nursing profession. In this article, we explain what nurse shadowing is, outline its benefits and provide a step-by-step guide for getting started.

Related: What Can You Do With a Nursing Degree?

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What is nurse shadowing?

Nurse shadowing refers to the activity of a student following a nurse as they perform their day-to-day tasks. When a nursing student shadows a nurse, they typically work alongside the nurse as they provide guidance and instructions. The student can ask questions about the nurse's workday, professional duties, job experience and other helpful information.

Benefits of nurse shadowing

There are several benefits to shadowing a nurse as a student. Here are a few of the most popular reasons to consider nurse shadowing:

Find your career path

Many students use shadowing to find their career path, whether it's nursing or a different profession. If you enjoy the shadowing process and believe you have the skills required to become a nurse, the shadowing experience can help validate your decision to pursue a nursing degree. However, if you decide nursing isn't the best path for your future, shadowing can still help provide valuable insight and direct you towards a career that's more suitable for your goals.

Related: 12 Unique Nursing Jobs

Determine your specialty

Shadowing can also help nursing students determine which nursing specialty they want to consider post-graduation. For instance, you might become a neonatal nurse or family nurse practitioner. The shadowing process gives you an opportunity to narrow your niche.

Create future opportunities

Ideally, you will forge a strong relationship with the nurse you shadow, which can help you access networking opportunities. If you perform your duties well and form a good working relationship with the nurse, you can ask for a letter of recommendation to use for future job opportunities.

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How to shadow a nurse successfully

Here are 13 steps you can follow to ensure you have a successful nurse shadowing experience:

1. Consider different nursing specialties

If you want to shadow a nurse, the first step is to make a list of your preferred nursing specialties. There are various different nursing specialties to consider, and your goal is to find a nurse in a field that interests you.

Common nursing specialties include:

  • Acute care

  • Critical care

  • Dialysis

  • Emergency

  • Family nurse practitioner

  • Geriatrics

  • Home health

  • Infectious diseases

  • Informatics

  • Labor and delivery

  • Neonatal care

  • Advocacy

  • Anesthesiology

  • Education

  • Midwifery

  • Mental health

  • Research

  • Occupational health

  • Oncology

  • Surgical

  • Pediatrics

  • Psychiatric

  • Public health

  • Rehabilitation

  • Trauma

  • Women's health

Read more: 20 Types of Nursing Positions

2. Find a nurse to shadow

Once you've narrowed down your list of preferred specialties, it's time to search for a nurse to shadow. This task may seem challenging at first, but you likely have several resources already available:

  • Ask your friends and family. You may know at least one nurse who might consider the shadowing opportunity. If not, ask your friends and family for referrals. This is one of the quickest ways to find a nurse to shadow, and it's helpful to shadow someone you already know.

  • Call the hospital or clinic directly. If you don't personally know a nurse within your chosen specialty, call local hospitals and clinics to find an opportunity. You may ask for the human resources department and explain the situation. Many healthcare facilities provide the opportunity for students to get on-the-job training.

  • Connect online. The internet offers a wealth of opportunities that you can independently research. Visit nursing forums or look for nursing programs that offer nurse shadowing as an option.

  • Volunteer. You can volunteer at your local hospital or clinic, which may allow you to access better opportunities to shadow a nurse in the future.

  • Ask your school. Your instructor or advisor may direct you to a nurse shadowing opportunity. In addition, many nursing schools offer shadowing opportunities through clinical rotation programs. You can ask for a list of potential resources.

3. Dress for the job

Once you find a nurse to shadow, you'll likely need to dress for the experience. Your uniform for the day depends on the specialty, though, so ask for guidance. A pair of scrubs and comfortable shoes are common in the nursing profession, but sometimes business casual attire is more appropriate.

4. Follow instructions

It's important to remember that you're a shadow. Your job is to follow instructions so you don't interfere with the nurse's tasks. Sometimes the instructions may be quite simple, but others may be complex depending on the task. Following these commands helps ensure you get the most out of the experience while also allowing the nurse to do their job effectively.

5. Be polite and professional

Whether you're interacting with nurses, doctors, other medical staff or patients, it's best to act polite and professional. Healthcare is sometimes a stressful field, but professionalism is still important and a positive attitude goes a long way in this career.

6. Follow regulations regarding patient contact

As a shadow, it's likely you will need to follow special regulations regarding patient contact since you don't have medical credentials. However, you can complete simple tasks if directed by the nurse, such as fetching supplies and other simple errands. It's likely you'll be able to greet patients and exchange pleasantries as well.

7. Adhere to safety guidelines

Because you're working with the general public, it's important to follow safety guidelines. These may include simple tasks like wearing a face mask or other protective gear, washing your hands thoroughly and using hand sanitizer as needed.

8. Ask questions

It's important to ask questions throughout the shadowing experience to help prepare yourself for the job. Most nurses are happy to offer advice, tell you about their daily tasks and highlight the pros and cons of their profession.

9. Offer help

While you likely won't be able to perform medical tasks, you may have the opportunity to assist the nurse. They may ask you to get supplies, for example. With this, you should feel comfortable asking if it's okay to help when it seems appropriate.

10. Shadow as much as possible

Ideally, you will shadow a nurse for more than a single day. Many nurse shadow programs take place over a duration of a week or longer. When possible, shadow as much as you can. The goal is to gain insight and the longer you shadow, the more you will learn.

11. Try different specialties

Once you've completed one shadow program, try to find another nurse to shadow in a different specialty so you can compare the two experiences. You can also watch other nurses as you work. For example, if you're shadowing a labor and delivery nurse, you may observe the neonatal nurse as well. This can help you identify what career path suits you best.

12. Express your gratitude

When you finish your shadowing program, consider sending a simple thank-you card to express your gratitude. A small gift may also be appropriate. While many nurses offer to help students, shadowing adds to their workload, which can be extensive without such duties.

Related: 5 Must-Have Skills for Your Nursing Resume

13. Stay connected

You can stay connected to the nurse you shadow via social media, email or text message. Ask if they're open to communication, then exchange contact information. You can also ask for a letter of recommendation, which can be useful when you're applying to nursing positions post-graduation.

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