The University of Toronto may be the highest ranking university in Canada, but when it comes to hands-on experience, there is no doubt that it is lacking.

Enter the extern job shadowing program.

The program runs twice a year and is available to all students. It gives them the chance to explore a career area they are interested in by visiting professionals in the workplace.

The first session runs during Reading Week from February 22 to 25, and the second session runs from May 2 to 6. Placements vary in length from an hour-long informational interview to a week-long placement. U of T places about 450 students every year.

“Students, many times, get all the academic info they need but don’t have an opportunity to have a glimpse of the real world,” said Bibian Aguirre, coordinator of career exploration programs and services. “This program gives students exposure to a career they might be interested in pursuing.”

However, she stresses, this program does not offer students experience in a profession, but rather exposure to what it is like. It cannot be listed under work experience in a resume, and students do not get paid, nor are they guaranteed a job out of it — in fact, they shouldn’t expect a job at all.
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But Aguirre believes that the opportunity this program offers makes it worthwhile.

“[Students] can participate as much as they want,” she said. “The program does not necessarily end when they say goodbye to their host. Many times we have had students who have kept up relationships, and their hosts become their mentors. […] It’s a great way to network.”

Renita Persaud, a life sciences major who graduated in June, received a placement at Mount Sinai Hospital with two orthopaedic surgeons.

“I wanted to gain additional perspective and practical understanding of the field that I intended to enter,” said Persaud. “I also wished to see the day-to-day interactions, demands, and specifications of the profession. What I wanted to investigate was the effects of the occupation on the professional.”

During her five-day placement, Persaud was able to observe surgeries, interact with residents in the surgical skills labs, and visit pre-op and post-op patients. She also managed to attend a lecture with visiting specialists from the Mayo Clinic in the US.

“I believe that this experience allowed me to understand not just the professional requirements but the personality requirements of the occupation that I want to pursue. I found that information to be instrumental in my decision to pursue further studies.”

Students apply for up to four placements from a list posted online in December by the Career Centre. Along with an application, students hand in a resume which is reviewed by a panel of staff.

If selected, students attend a briefing seminar. They only learn what company they are going to connect with during this seminar. This ensures that students apply based on a career interest rather than a company. Students receive a certificate upon completion of the program.

The career centre has built up a database of organizations willing to host students for placements. Many of these hosts are U of T alumni.

“For them it is really good to give back to their community,” said Aguirre. “They know what it is like to be in the students shoes. […] Our hosts really appreciate that they’re making a difference in the lives of students.”

Saim Siddiqui, a fourth-year economics and political science student, got a placement at the US consulate that lasted a few hours.

“I suppose [it helped],” he said. “My placement, unlike that of many others, was much shorter […] but it gave me a good idea of the workplace. The placement company can be quite helpful.”

These short placements, usually informational interviews, can be a challenge, said Aguirre. “Many students think, ‘I’m going to have to go through that process for a two hour placement?’ We tell our students it’s very valuable and gives relationships of mentorship and networking.”

The next orientation sessions will be held in February and March of 2011. More information is available on the U of T career site.