The thought of working alongside a practicing physician can be intimidating. Maybe this is what defers a lot of PreMeds from pursuing solid shadowing experiences. Perhaps, you are like me and associate early shadowing experiences with a series of awkward and embarrassing moments. Regardless, there is a lot to be gained from a shadowing – and most PreMeds willingly acknowledge this. The problem is that a lot of PreMeds feel they are not fully equipped to nail a shadowing effort seamlessly. Like many others, not all of mine have been so smooth – but I have learned in the process some unsaid tips that I wished I would have known earlier. Whether you are completely new to shadowing or simply just trying to sharpen a current commitment, I believe I can help you conquer your next experience.

Learn the importance of shadowing

There are few other settings in which you can observe a doctor’s practice, evaluate their field, and ask any burning questions almost at will. At its core, shadowing is a way to bridge the gap between being a PreMed student and being a doctor. Doctors can really enjoy it as well as they get the opportunity to be tour guides for their field – matching your perceptions with the reality (whether good or ugly).  Ultimately, long-term shadowing commitments can lead to strong letters of recommendation and a better understanding of the field. Oh, and did I mention it is free?

Learn all of the staff’s names the first day

When a physician welcomes you, you are also being welcomed by the other 80% of individuals who are not the doctor. If you are shadowing in an office setting, there may be 3-4 nurses and several receptionists. Introduce yourself, write their names down on your notepad, and study them briefly before returning the following week. Not only does it break the perception of being the random PreMed that comes in every week, but also much of the staff will have great advice for you. This shows that you are not just there to put in hours. Besides the fact that it is common courtesy, it also shows that you have leadership potential.

Follow the doctor – everywhere

I remember sitting in front of a patient with the doctor I was shadowing. Halfway through our visit with the patient, the doctor left the room very quickly – leaving the patient and I alone. For a lot of reasons, ten minutes being stuck in the room with a patient can feel more like a really uncomfortable eternity. Unless the doctor specifically tells you to stay put, follow them straight out of the room. You will most likely thank yourself.

Do your homework

If you are shadowing for the first time, get familiar with a couple procedures that you are interested in. This may lead to an interesting conversation with the doctor, or simply look very impressive on your behalf. If you are in a long term shadowing commitment, the doctor might give you one or two things to read up on before showing up the following week. Obviously this would be a wise thing to do, but try to expand on that information by asking a few questions about it when you return. Doing this consistently shows that you are actively learning and respect their field.

Ask questions

Let’s be clear: without asking questions, you could very well miss the opportunity to stand out to your doctor. It seems simple, but there is a method to it. Write down questions that come up in your notepad as you are with the doctor and patient. Then, filter through them at least once before asking. This serves as a system to keep from asking embarrassing or obvious questions. Along with this, make sure that you are asking them at the right time. Asking the doctor while they are with the patient may be poorly timed. Instead, try asking questions between patients or at the end of the day.

Embrace the awkwardness

Remember whom you are dealing with here – doctors. These are people who hear things they wish they had not on a frequent basis. Patient A will tell them (in detail) about their disturbing late night party endeavors that brought them into the office the next day. Patient B will tell them how they did not think at the beginning of the day that they would end up swallowing a children’s toy. I am not totally certain, but I think all physicians would profess that being in a position of help to others inadvertently puts you in a position of hearing these kinds of stories. The point is that asking a few embarrassing questions are infinitely easier to swallow for the doctor than the stories they hear almost every day. As long as you are committed to learning, laugh at your occasional mistakes and learn from them as you go.

Maybe you are like me. Maybe over time you have accepted that the journey to becoming a physician seems less like a point A/Point B endeavor. It has dips, turns, and twists – but maybe this is important to becoming a physician after all. No matter how much we prepare, sometimes things are out of our control. Regardless of whether it is lab, attending lecture, or shadowing, learn to embrace the occasional awkwardness that comes with the duty of being a PreMed student. In fact, it might just make you a little more prepared for the future.