An essential part of some degrees, work placements have a number of benefits. Completing one will help you to increase your skills, expand your networks and clarify your career goals

Work placements explained

  • Usually completed during term time, work placements are a compulsory element of some degrees.
  • They can be taken as part of a 'sandwich' year and are also known as a 'year in industry' or 'placement year'.
  • If you're on a sandwich course, 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.

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.

Arranging a placement

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

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.

If you're 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 to apply for placements

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.

Length of programmes

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

Some work placements are arranged for during the holidays, and so 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.

On some degree courses you'll need to 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 longer placements. Most universities have a placement tutor to help you arrange your year with an employer.

Assessment methods

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.

Wages

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 for.

It's unlikely that you'll be paid for short-term work placements and for placements that you have arranged yourself. As 'sandwich placements' last longer and are a requirement of your course, they usually come with a reasonable wage. Salaries range widely, but generally fall between £11,000 and £25,000.

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

7 reasons to 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
  • payment (more likely in longer work placements)
  • subsidised travel or meals.

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.

Find out more

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