Internships and placements

What is a work placement or placement year?

26 Sept 2023, 08:36

Placement year, work placement, year in industry, industrial placement, sandwich year: regardless of what it’s called, this year of work experience helps to boost your job prospects.

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The terminology around work placements at university is confusing. Is a work placement the same as a placement year and is that the same as a year in industry, a sandwich year or an internship? In this article, we define all of these terms and then answer key questions around getting this form of work experience – but go straight to the targetjobs placement search if you're ready to apply.

Jump to:

  1. What is a work placement, placement year or year in industry?
  2. How do placement years work?
  3. Which sectors and employers offer placement years?
  4. Why do a placement year?
  5. Are placement years paid?
  6. Do you still get the maintenance loan during a placement year?
  7. Do you have to pay tuition fees?
  8. Do you have to organise your own placement?
  9. When do you apply for placement years?
  10. How do you apply for a placement year?
  11. Can you do a placement year even if you’re not on a sandwich-year degree?
  12. Can you do a placement year after you graduate?
  13. How can you make the most of a placement year?
  14. What can you do if you don’t get a placement?

What is a work placement, placement year or year in industry?

A university work placement is a form of work experience you undertake during your degree. In most cases, ‘work placement’ is the name given to an additional year taken between the penultimate year and the final year of your studies, in which you gain experience in industry. It is primarily taken as part of a ‘sandwich-year degree’ or an ‘industrial placement degree’. Therefore, a work placement can also be called:

  • a placement year
  • an industrial placement
  • a year in industry
  • a year-long internship
  • a sandwich-year placement.

It is this type of work placement that we talk about in this article.

But be aware that the term work placement may be used slightly differently depending on your degree subject and the sector you’re interested in. On some practical courses, such as teaching, social work and medicine, you will go out ‘on work placement’ during term time to undertake professional training.

And some industries, including engineering and construction, regularly use the term ‘placement’ instead of ‘internship’. They therefore advertise summer placements instead of summer internships. Find out more about internships in our companion article.

What happens on a placement year? How do they work?

As a placement student, you will complete proper work, similar to that of a graduate employee, joining a team in a specific entry-level role. You will have a line manager and your own responsibilities. You usually receive a similar period of induction and training as graduate employees and access to the same support systems – for example, a dedicated buddy (typically a graduate employee to whom you can ask all of the questions you don’t want to ask your manager).

Placement year opportunities with employers may not actually last a full year – typically they last anywhere between 24 and 50 weeks, depending on the employer. If the timings work out, you could even do more than one placement as part of your year in industry. Your choice of placement (or placements) has to be approved by your university once you have received an offer and you will have to enrol at your university at the start of your placement year.

Which sectors and employers offer placement years?

Placement years are most frequently offered by employers that require, or prefer, a subject-specific degree. This means that placement years are most commonly found in:

  • finance, especially banking
  • technology
  • engineering
  • construction
  • property
  • business and marketing
  • life sciences and other branches of scientific research.

Opportunities are typically with the large employers that offer graduate programmes, but some smaller and start-up organisations also take on placement year students.

Search for placement years.

Why do a placement year or work placement? Do they make you more employable?

One benefit of doing a placement year is that you could be offered a job at the end of it; many employers offer impressive placement students a position on their graduate scheme the following year. Some job offers also include sponsorship for your final year of university, meaning that employers will pay for some or all of your tuition fees and living expenses.

But even if you don’t get a job offer – or choose not to accept it – there are other good reasons to do a placement year:

  • It gives you the opportunity to properly try out a role and industry over an extended period of time to work out whether they are for you. As well as ensuring you are making the right career choice, it will also help you when answering the ‘why have you applied for this role?’ question in applications and interviews.
  • It enables you to put the theory you’ve learned on your course into practice, enhancing your understanding.
  • In addition to technical knowledge, you will have gained transferable skills, insights into the working world and a sizeable chunk of work experience to add to your CV.
  • Committing to a placement year is a good example of your work ethic and ability to take responsibility – traits that often come up in competency questions at interview.
  • You will gain a useful network of contacts who may be able to help you with your job search or in your future career, by letting you know of any opportunities, putting in a good word for you with recruiters and keeping you informed about developments in the sector.

As such, a placement year does boost your employability.

Most placement years are paid and most placement students receive paid holiday and similar benefits to the company’s graduate employees. The largest employers typically pay around £20,000 a year, according to the Institute of Student Employers.

Note that a placement year salary is offered on a pro rata basis according to the length of the placement (so a six-month placement paid at £20,000 per annum would mean a total pay slip of £10,000). Find out more about salaries and benefits in our decoding payslip jargon article.

However, legally speaking, work placements don’t have to be paid if they are a mandatory part of your degree course and don’t last for longer than a year. Find out more on the law around work experience and pay .

Do you still get the maintenance loan on a placement year?

In England and Wales, you will typically receive a reduced maintenance loan for the duration of your placement year in industry – no matter whether the placement is paid or unpaid. In Scotland, there is no reduction. However, there are exceptions and things can change, so do check with Student Finance England, Student Finance Wales or the Student Awards Agency Scotland as appropriate. Your university should also be able to advise you, along with pointing you towards any funds, bursaries and scholarships that could ease the financial burden.

Do you have to pay tuition fees during a sandwich year?

You are required to pay tuition fees for the placement year you spend in industry, but the amount is typically reduced to 15%–20%. Your university will have specific details for you about what you need to pay and should be able to direct you towards financial assistance if needed, such as bursaries and grants.

Do you have to organise your own placement?

Generally speaking, it is up to you to arrange and apply for your own year-in-industry placement. Careers advisers and faculty placement officers support you by actively encouraging employers to promote opportunities to their university students and advising you on your application and interview, but you need to do the leg work.

However, this doesn’t apply to you if your sandwich-year degree is being sponsored by an employer, as you will complete placement years and summer placements with them as part of your agreement – but you will know this in advance if this is the case.

When do you apply for placement years?

Start looking and applying for placement years in the autumn term of your penultimate year. Deadlines for placement years typically fall then, although there might also be some in the new year. Search for placement opportunities .

How do you apply for a placement year?

The recruitment process for a placement within industry is typically very similar to the employer's graduate recruitment process . With larger employers, it most typically involves an application form (usually asking you to answer application questions and/or attach a CV), psychometric tests, a first-round interview and/or an assessment centre or final interview. With a smaller employer, it is likely to involve submitting a CV and covering letter via email or LinkedIn and sitting at least one interview.

All employers will want to see that you genuinely want to gain work experience with them in particular – not just any employer. You don’t need to say that you are committed to a long-term career with them, but you need to have done sufficient research into the company to provide concrete reasons for wanting to work for them, what you would gain and what you can contribute.

Employers also want to know whether you are beginning to develop the soft skills and technical knowledge to be an asset on the job. They know you are a current student and don’t expect your skills and knowledge to be fully formed, but they want to know that you have the potential to learn with them. Refer in your application and interviews to times when you have demonstrated skills that will help you in the workplace and your interest in your subject area.

Can you do a placement year or work placement even if you’re not on a sandwich-year degree?

If you are not on a course with a built-in industrial placement year, talk to your university about deferring your final year to enable you to take up a placement. Many will be happy for you to do so, as it will provide you with real-world experience. However, you will need to think about any implications it will have in terms of tuition fees and loans (see above).

Can you do a placement year after you graduate?

You will need to check the individual employer’s eligibility criteria, as many are only open to current students. However, it is perfectly possible to undertake another type of internship or work placement as a graduate – see our advice on getting work experience as a graduate .

How can I make the most of a placement year?

Go in with the attitude that you are there to learn: take the initiative to try new things, ask lots of questions (but make sure you listen to the answers so that you don’t keep asking the same questions!) and pay attention when being taught something, whether in a formal training session or while on the job. Make notes of both what you’ve learned and what you’ve achieved (this will be useful not only while on placement but also when applying for graduate jobs.

At the same time, show that you can be a professional colleague who can be trusted to get things done: for example, proactively managing your time and being respectful towards others. We have more advice on how to be a star intern (or placement student) here .

What if I don’t get a placement year?

If you aren’t successful in getting a placement, you can spend the time on other activities that would develop your skills and give you a taste of working life. For example, you could do any combination of the following:

  • apply for summer internships and other formal and informal work experience opportunities held throughout the year – start by searching on targetjobs and read our advice on how to apply speculatively for work experience
  • volunteer, especially in a way that is related to your chosen industry. For example, some aspiring engineering and construction professionals volunteer on construction-focused charity projects abroad, while some future marketeers get involved with a charity’s social media
  • apply for temporary or fixed-term work in your chosen industry – even if this work isn’t ‘graduate level’, it can give you insights into the day-to-day work and will prove your work ethic and interest in the sector to employers
  • find other temporary work that will develop your transferable skills: teaching English as a foreign language is popular, alongside retail and hospitality work
  • seek out informal ways to develop and prove your interest in your chosen industry. Aspiring software developers, for example, may choose to devote themselves to hackathons or developing their own app.

Many universities will require you to take the year out rather than continue a year early with your studies, so use it as an opportunity to develop your skills and knowledge.

targetjobs editorial advice

This describes editorially independent and impartial content, which has been written and edited by the targetjobs content team. Any external contributors featuring in the article are in line with our non-advertorial policy, by which we mean that we do not promote one organisation over another.

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