Internships, placements and work experience

Internships, placements and work experience

In an increasingly competitive graduate job market a good degree is not always enough to secure the job that you want when you graduate.  Experience is critical!

As well as looking at your academic achievements, employers will want to see evidence that you have developed a range of skills that will be beneficial to them.

One of the most useful and beneficial ways of doing this (and helping you to decide on the types of jobs that you want to apply for after graduation) is by gaining work experience.

Work experience provides you with the skills and exposure that will allow you to stand out to potential employers and is a crucial part of becoming ‘workplace-ready’.

Work experience is anything that gives practical experience, from working with a large city employer to working unpaid as a volunteer at the local wildlife charity; this all counts as work experience.

Employers increasingly, want new recruits to be able to add value to their company straight away.  If you can demonstrate that you have already achieved a certain level of competence, you will be far more likely to get the job you want.

What are the benefits of work experience?

Securing some work experience whilst you are at university will help you to:

Decide what you might want to do: it can help to confirm career aspirations or even help you to realise that the career that you thought was right for you, is perhaps not.  Work experience enables you to see for yourself, what working in that particular career could be like.

Allow you to put the theory about what you have learnt at University into practice: some students choose to base their dissertation or final year project around an initiative or project they have worked on whilst on placement. The support that the organisation can offer in this situation can be invaluable, whilst it allows the student the opportunity to see how something works first hand.

Improve your chances of getting a higher degree result:  research has shown that students who have completed a placement or an internship are more likely to obtain a higher degree result, and with increasing competition for highly sought after graduate jobs, your degree classification is crucial.

Networking: a placement or internship provides you with a foot in the door and the opportunity to meet and network with people who can help you with your future career plans.

Secure a graduate job early: lots of organisations use periods of work experience as a recruitment tool. Increasingly, more and more organisations are using students working with them (particularly on placements or internships) as part of their recruitment strategy. Recruiters could be much more likely to employ a student they have seen ‘in action’ rather than one they have only met in an interview situation.

Different Types of Experiences on Offer

Work experience is any opportunity that provides you with the work-related learning that will help you to prepare for employment.  It can take many forms including work-shadowing, part-time work, vacation work, voluntary work, placements and internships.

  • Work Shadowing: involves observing a professional in their job to gain a better understanding of the role. Usually lasting only a couple of days, the purpose of shadowing is to achieve an insight rather than hands-on experience.  These opportunities are usually short-term, unpaid and arranged through speculative applications.

  • Work Placements: A work placement will allow you to put the knowledge and skills you have gained throughout your degree into practice in the world of work. They are unpaid opportunities. On some programmes, work placements are compulsory in order to achieve your degree. This might mean that some of your grades are dependent on tasks completed for the employer who you are on a placement with.  On other programmes, you can opt to do a placement as one of your modules.  Some work placements are undertaken during holidays and last between one and three months, whereas on some degree courses you may need to spend a year in industry.  This is often referred to as a ‘sandwich placement’.

  • Sandwich Placement: A sandwich placement enables a student to gain graduate-level work experience with one or more organisations, over a twelve month period, as part of their degree.  The sandwich year would usually occur during the penultimate year, returning to university for a final year.  A sandwich placement would usually involve agreed learning outcomes and monitoring by your University Tutor. 

  • Internship: An internship is work offered by an organisation lasting for a fixed or limited period of time.  Internships are usually undertaken by students and graduates looking to gain relevant skills and experience in a particular field.  The aim of an internship is to introduce students and graduates to potential future work environments so that they can decide whether these meet their career aspirations.  They are also useful in terms of developing supplementary skills, increasing confidence and the opportunity to network and develop new contacts.

  • Graduate Scheme: These are available to newly qualified graduates and are paid opportunities usually lasting for a period of 18-24 months.  Available in most sectors, graduate schemes provide an overview of the company and allow the graduate to spend time in a range of different departments. (Please see our guide on Graduate Schemes for more detail).

  • Volunteering: Volunteering involves giving up your own time, free of charge, to support a charitable cause or project.  Evidence suggests that employers look favourably on those students and graduates that have undertaken volunteering.  The University of Bolton has a long tradition of working with local voluntary groups and charities, and there are a wide variety of options available.  You can volunteer on short-term projects or provide your time and support on a longer-term basis.   

  • Part-time and Vacation Work: An increasing number of students choose to work part-time throughout their degree or during the holidays which not only provides financial support, but also helps to develop skills and experience.

Before embarking on any work experience it is important to consider your reasons for engaging in a work placement or seeking work experience.  What are you attempting to gain?  It is always useful to discuss your expectations with your tutor, Careers Adviser and even the employer, before you start.  This will enable you to set reasonable and relevant objectives.

Recording your experiences

It is always a good idea to record your experiences and activities that you engage in whilst undertaking any work experience.  Things to note are:

  • Projects you are involved in

  • Skills you have developed

  • Training you have undertaken

  • Personnel and departments you have worked with

  • Useful contacts you have made

  • Personal reflection and thoughts about your experiences

The last point here is very important.  The ability to record and reflect on what you have learnt, and then to articulate these thoughts to others, will become vital once you start to apply for jobs and attend interviews. 

Some questions to consider are: What went well? What did not go so well and what were the reasons for this?  How could things have been improved?  What would you do differently next time?


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