A valuable and sometimes essential part of your degree, work placements provide an opportunity for you to apply your skills and knowledge in a real work setting

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'. 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.

Arranging a placement

If you're studying for a course which 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 arrange work placements.

If you're arranging your own work placement, ask for the terms to be agreed in writing beforehand, as placements are not 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.

How to apply for a placement

The way you apply will be influenced by the purpose of the work placement. If it's part of your course, opportunities will be arranged on your behalf so you may be able to bypass the application process.

Alternatively, if you're arranging your own placement, 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 now holding formal interviews and assessment centre days. It's therefore essential that before you apply, you thoroughly research the company and the role.

Length of programmes

Some work placements are undertaken 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 will need to spend a year in industry. These industrial placements are commonly found in engineering, science and construction-related degrees. 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 is not 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:

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

The benefits include:

  • finding a supervisor who might 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 lunches.

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 who is prepared to get stuck in, you could quickly become an asset at an SME.

Find out more

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