Your work experience options: shadowing, internship and much more
Careers and recruitment events | Competitions | Extracurricular activities | Freelance work | Gap year | Industrial placements | Insight programmes and spring weeks | Internships | Open days | Part-time jobs | Working abroad | Work shadowing | Volunteering
Many university students have heard that they should get an internship if they want to get a graduate job – and it is true that work experience is an asset to any student or graduate CV. It enables you to develop your skills, prove your interest in the career sector and makes you workplace ready.
But work experience doesn’t only include summer internships or year placements. There are many alternative forms of work experience that you can pursue in order to boost your graduate job prospects, both as a student and as a graduate. There are also other ways that you can meet with employers and find out about the sector. We go through the options available for you, from A–Z (well, C–V).
Make the most of opportunities to network with employers through attending careers events. Find out about roles and employers that will suit you and take advantage of talks, presentations and workshops to develop your professional skills. Careers events can range from careers fairs and employer presentations, arranged by your careers service, or recruitment events organised by TARGETjobs.
There are lots of business- and sector-related competitions open to students that can either allow you to practise and develop your skills or prove your interest in a specific career. Professional bodies, particularly in sectors such as engineering, often run competitions that can lead to a bursary or a prestigious mentor. There are also a number of business-related competitions. Some competitions for students are aimed specifically at first or second years. If you enter the TARGETjobs Undergraduate of the Year Awards, you could win an internship with a top employer and a host of other prizes.
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; it will give you great examples of your skills for applications and interviews.
If you have certain marketable skills – for example, you have a flair for writing or web design – you may be able to work freelance for companies or charities (particularly smaller ones). It can help you build a portfolio of work that is particularly relevant for media careers (especially journalism, design, working in film or TV,) and in IT. You will be expected to work to a professional standard, however, and you will need to negotiate your rates of pay. You may undertake unpaid work initially to build your portfolio but, over time, as you grow your reputation and client list, you may begin charging for your work.
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. Scroll down to the bottom of the TARGETjobs Internships advice homepage for tips on planning and making the most of a gap year.
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 penultimate and final year of study; most last 48 weeks, but a few employers offer placements lasting for six months. 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.
The Institute of Student Employers' (ISE) 2018 annual survey report that 53% of its members offer year-long placements with an average salary of £18,277. Be aware, however, that the employers who are members of the ISE tend to be the largest organisations and have a well established tradition of hiring students and graduates.
Many investment banking employers and solicitors’ firms 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 the first step towards offering promising candidates graduate jobs, 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 employers offer paid, structured work experience programmes to students, usually lasting between two or three months over the summer. Most are open to penultimate-year students, but a few also accept applicants from first years, final years and graduates. Internships are also offered to students and graduates at other times of the year by smaller employers.
Most large organisations expect to hire a number of their graduate recruits from among former interns ; the employers among the ISE membership hired an average of 52% of their interns as graduates in 2018. Note: if you haven't done an internship with a company you can still apply to its graduate programme.
According to the ISE 2018 annual survey, the median salary for interns was £376 a week. Before accepting an internship that is unpaid, make sure you know your rights.
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 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. Some careers services also run work-shadowing schemes and can put you in touch with local employers.
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.
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