Allowing you to step away from your studies and into the world of work for a fixed period of time, work placements help you to increase your skills and clarify your goals

What are work placements?

  • Usually completed during term time, a work placement is an optional or compulsory element of some degrees.
  • Placements are typically taken as part of a 'sandwich' year and are also known as a 'year in industry' or 'placement year'.
  • If you're studying on a sandwich degree, you'll typically complete the placement between your second and final year of study. You'll be assessed and receive academic credit for the placement.

What's the difference between work placements and internships?

 People often confuse work placements with internships, but the two types of experience are different. While internships are usually undertaken over the summer months or after graduation to gain experience in a particular field, work placements are taken as part of a degree. Students on a placement year are completing a module and receive academic credit for the year.

How do I arrange a placement year?

If you're studying for a course that includes a work placement, you may find that the organisation is simply allocated to you.

However, if this isn't the case then you should arrange your own placement. Your first port of call should be your university careers service, as they will have a huge database of employer and alumni contacts. Careers advisers will also be on hand to help with applications. Take advantage of work experience fairs to make contact with employers and search for suitable placements online. You can also target employers speculatively to find and secure work placements.

When arranging your own work placement, ask for the terms to be agreed in writing beforehand, as placements aren't covered by employment legislation. If you're in any doubt about the organisation or the activities, you should seek further advice from your careers service.

If you struggle to arrange a placement there are a variety of things you can do to build your skills and gain experience. You could apply for virtual work experience, get involved in online volunteering opportunities or apply for temporary or part-time roles. All these activities will build your transferable skills and demonstrate to employers your tenacious, proactive, outside-the-box thinking.

How do I apply for a placement?

If the placement is part of your course some universities may organise opportunities on your behalf, while others will assist you in identifying and applying for placements yourself.

Alternatively, if you're arranging your own placement - one that isn't an essential element of your course - companies may require you to complete a formal online application, detailing what you could bring to the role. Applying for a work placement can be as competitive as applying for a permanent job, with many companies holding formal interviews and assessment centres. It's therefore essential that before you apply, you thoroughly research the company and the role.

How long do they last?

This varies depending on your course and the type of placement you're undertaking.

Optional work placements are often arranged during the holidays, and last between one and three months. Other placements involve working one day a week over a longer period of time. In the law sector, one or two-week schemes are available in the form of vacation placements and mini-pupillages, which you can apply for at any time of the year.

For mandatory placements you'll likely spend a year in industry. These industrial placements are commonly found in engineering, science and construction-related degrees. Social work degrees and those in healthcare and teaching also typically include placement years. Most universities have a placement tutor to help you arrange your year with an employer.

How is an industrial placement assessed?

If the work placement is a compulsory part of your course, it's likely that it will be formally assessed or accredited. Assessments vary and might include the completion of specific tasks or projects, writing a report or reflective log, or using the learning from a work placement in another assignment or course activity.

If the placement isn't a compulsory element, then it's a good idea to write about your learning in a personal/professional development portfolio (PDP). This will help you if you need to call upon your experience later to answer interview questions.

Will I be paid?

Whether you receive a wage during your work placement will depend on the type of placement you undertake and the length of time you work.

If a placement year is a mandatory part of your higher education course then you don’t usually get paid for this.

Other types of work placements are paid, for example if you find and apply for a placement yourself the majority of opportunities come with a competitive salary.

Short term work placements are often unpaid, although many organisations cover expenses.

Always discuss matters of payment with the organisation you'll be working for and be clear where both parties stand before starting your placement.

Why should I do a work placement?

There are a number of advantages to completing a work placement. For example, they:

  • let you apply your knowledge and skills in a work setting
  • increase skills and competencies highly sought after by employers
  • give you an insight into the way organisations operate and the challenges they face
  • help you to understand a particular job or industry
  • provide you with networking opportunities
  • enable you to attend training courses
  • clarify your career goals.

The benefits include:

  • finding a supervisor who may be able to act as a referee for you in future job applications
  • attendance at in-company training courses.

Where can I search for opportunities?

Small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) can provide students with fantastic practical experience; so don't discount them when it comes to work placements. They're often overlooked, but small businesses are great for allowing you to act on your own initiative and develop your own way of working. What's more, they provide superb opportunities for networking. If you're a confident, creative and motivated team player, you could quickly become an asset at an SME.

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