Your work experience options: shadowing, internship and much more
It takes more than academic ability to impress graduate employers. Regardless of whether it's a bar job or a placement with a multinational company, work experience will enable you to develop your skills and improve your employability. Depending on the nature of your placement or work, you may also be able to make useful industry contacts and earn some extra cash.
There are many different kinds of work experience, and over the course of your degree you’re likely to sample several of them. There is tough competition for internships and placements with big, well-known graduate recruiters, and when you apply for these opportunities you are likely to need to draw on the work experience you have already got under your belt, whether it’s from taking part in competitions, attending insight days, your extracurricular activities or part-time job.
Don’t overlook small businesses, which offer plenty of scope to develop your skills and gain valuable experience. Organisations such as Step and ScotGrad offer summer placements with a range of employers. Other, more informal ways of building up your work experience, such as personal projects or taking part in recruitment events, can also help you show employers your potential.
Careers and recruitment events
Hone your ability to market yourself by making the most of opportunities to network with employers. Find out about roles and employers that will suit you and take advantage of talks, presentations and workshops to develop your professional skills.
Whether they are business-related or focused on a particular ability, competitions test your resilience and give you experience of new situations. Business competitions may call for numeracy and good communication as well as the ability to thrive under pressure. Some competitions for students are aimed specifically at first or second years.
Get involved in university clubs, sports and societies and strengthen your CV while pursuing an interest you love. Some universities offer employability awards that validate this kind of experience. The more committed you are, the more you’ll gain from it.
Freelance work enables you to build up a portfolio of work that can then be used to present to future employers and is particularly relevant for media careers, especially journalism, design and working in film or TV. You may well find that you have to work unpaid at the start – but, over time, as your portfolio and relationships with clients grow, you may be able to begin charging for your work. Undergraduates and graduates with IT skills may also be able to find freelance work that draws on their expertise.
Planning to take a gap year? Whether you go overseas or stay in the UK, time out can be a chance to gain experience of new roles and working environments alongside colleagues from a range of backgrounds.
Are you taking a vocational course such as engineering or logistics? You may need to arrange a year in industry. These often form part of a four-year sandwich degree course and are typically taken between the second and final year of study. Other subjects where an industrial placement may be a degree requirement include IT, construction, hospitality and the performing arts, and they are sometimes available in other sectors as well.
Insight programmes and spring weeks
Many investment banking employers offer insight programmes, sometimes called spring or summer weeks, which are typically a short introduction to their work, aimed at first years. Some big graduate employers in a range of sectors offer insight days that work in a similar way.
Some employers also allow second-year students to attend these events and others open up these opportunities to undergraduates at any stage. Some recruiters regard insight events as part of their talent pipeline, with internships as the next stage, and some may fast-track insight day participants through the internship or summer placement selection process.
Many big graduate recruiters offer paid, structured work experience programmes to penultimate year students, usually lasting between two or three months over the summer. Internships are also offered at other times of the year by smaller employers, some of which are open to graduates.
Graduate employers may regard internships as a ‘pipeline of talent’, offering opportunities geared up for undergraduates at different stages in their studies and seeking to identify potential candidates for their graduate schemes. Some students who perform well during their internships may be able to skip some or all of the graduate recruitment process; it is not unknown for employers to offer graduate scheme places to outstanding interns when they complete their placements. When you are on an internship with a graduate employer, it’s a good idea to treat the experience as an extended assessment centre.
If you don’t succeed in obtaining an internship with a big graduate recruiter, however, there are plenty of other ways to build up your work experience, and it doesn’t mean that you’ve missed the boat when it comes to getting a place on a graduate training programme. These employers typically recruit the majority of their graduate intake from outside their internship schemes.
Just under three-quarters of employers belonging to the Association of Graduate Recruiters (AGR), which typically represents big multinational companies that recruit large numbers of graduates, provide internship programmes, according to a survey of AGR members published in September 2015. Overall, 73% of employers who took part in the survey offered this kind of work experience opportunity, while 56% offered sandwich or industrial placements. Only 2% of the employers surveyed did not pay their interns a salary. Half of interns were paid more than £300 a week.
In the 2014/15 recruitment cycle 45% of interns went on to become graduate hires. More than half of AGR employers (62%) accept applications from graduates for their internship programmes, and almost three-quarters (71%) use the same selection processes for interns as for graduates.
Popular graduate employers such as big law firms often offer open days to give students an understanding of their working life and culture. These can also include talks and sessions designed to enhance skills.
Your part-time or casual holiday job can help you develop skills such as teamwork and customer service and give you invaluable real world experience. If you’re able to find work that dovetails with your career plans, so much the better.
Typical part-time student jobs include bar work, working behind a till or waiting on tables. You could also consider tutoring, translating or transcribing, temping for a university administrative department or stewarding at an arts or music venue or event.
Not only can you earn some cash while travelling, meeting new people and exploring a new culture in a different country, but your activities can also be used as proof of your initiative and independence. You could find yourself working overseas with organisations such as BUNAC or Camp America. Be aware, however, that employers are interested in skills such as how you manage a project or work with others; climbing a mountain can display great strength of character, but may not be as relevant in the workplace as arranging the logistics of the trip with your team.
This allows you to observe the work of a (usually senior) professional, usually for a day, giving you an insight into what working life is like in a particular career and with that employer. You can arrange work shadowing yourself by applying speculatively, and may be able to draw on your network, including your friends and family, when deciding who to approach.
This is a great way to develop your transferable skills while enjoying the personal satisfaction that comes from helping others. If you’re interested in a career in charity work or the public sector, it could also help you get a foot in the door.
Volunteering can include anything from helping the homeless to conservation work, or from archaeology to sports initiatives. The drawback to voluntary roles is that they are unpaid, so you may need to be selective about how much time you devote to volunteering and the activities you choose to get involved in.
Overseas voluntary projects are often based in developing countries, and students should be aware that some organisations will charge for accommodation and flights in order for you to take part.