There are so many things to think about at school and university simply when it comes to academics, but should you be throwing work experience into the mix as well? In the past we have written about extra curricular activities and supra-curricular activities supporting your uni applications. However, thinking towards the long-term goal of a career, does work experience really matter?
What is work experience?
Work experience comes in lots of different shapes and sizes. It can vary from company to company and industry to industry. In some places it is more formal than others, and to some extent it depends on your age.
Lots of school students do a couple of weeks of work experience after their GCSEs for example, to start getting a sense of what they might like to do as a career. However, that can be quite different to formal internships.
Either way, work experience is essentially what it sounds like – it’s experience of a working environment. Sometimes that means observing whilst helping out with minor tasks and getting the coffee. Other times it’s more hands on. Mostly it’s unpaid.
Some of the main examples of work experience are as follows:
This is a catch-all phrase, but we will use it in this context to also describe the idea of doing a few days or a few weeks of experience in a working environment. For example, you might contact a magazine to help out in the office for a short period of time to get a sense of what it’s like to work there. You might attend meetings to see how the team operate, you might be set small research tasks, or you might be asked to help out with admin.
This is when your role is predominantly to observe. For example, you might spend a day or a week following a key member of an organisation about in their daily work. You might join a lawyer for a couple of days, attending meetings to see what they do, and getting a sense of what the job is like.
More formal internships are available at some organisations. Usually these are for those who have left school or university. Sometimes they’re paid; sometimes they cover travel only. They tend to be for a longer period of time than general work experience. They might be for three months or even longer (although those would tend to pay a nominal salary). They can be a great way to get a foot in the door of an organisation, leading the way to apply for a job if a vacancy turns up.
Sandwich degrees include a year of work in a field linked to your degree. These are more formal and students are paid for their work. Often you will get support applying for these through your university, and they tend to be fairly structured positions. Again, they can be a great way to get into a company, and when you go to apply for a job when you finish your degree, it can show a real level of experience that sets you apart from other candidates.
The benefits of work experience
There are lots of different benefits to doing work experience, and some people will find it more helpful than others. In highly competitive industries it can really set you apart, but perhaps most importantly it gives you a flavour of the reality of a particular working environment. You might have always thought you wanted to do a particular job only to find that it really isn’t the right place for you. In that case, it’s time well spent! Ucas is a big fan, and some of the key benefits of work experience include:
The working environment is very different to the world of learning. Spending time in an office or space that you are not used to, where different things are expected of you, can be daunting and it’s definitely a change of pace that can be a bit of a shock for some students. Work experience is a great way to ease yourself into that environment, especially if you do a few different placements over the course of school and university.
You definitely learn different skills in the workplace. Sometimes you don’t even realise what you’re picking up until much later. Some of the skills might not seem all that important, but will prove invaluable if they enable you to be an empathetic and helpful team member in the long run. For some industries you will also pick up more technical knowledge by spending time in the workplace.
It demonstrates your interest
For prospective employers, showing that you spent some of your holiday time at school and university putting in the extra effort to find out more about your career will really set you apart. It shows that you’re really interested in your chosen field, not just because it sounds good on paper, but in reality as well.
Meet people in the industry
Meeting people in the industry is one of those things that only experience can really give you. It might mean that your name stands out on a job application. It might give you a greater sense of the industry and how it operates. Or it might be part of building a network that will be valuable both to you and a future employer.
See if you like it
Like we said, work experience isn’t just a chance to gain skills and let prospective employers get to know you. It’s also a great way for you to get a realistic insight into the industry. You might have spent your whole life thinking you wanted to be a barrister, only to find out that you would much rather be a solicitor or something totally different entirely. It will help you to make much more informed choices about life after uni.
How do you get work experience?
Formal internships, sandwich courses and graduate programmes are available at some organisations and will usually have very clear application processes. Perhaps you need to submit an essay or questions, perhaps some of it can be done through your university, there might be an interview process as well.
Lots of companies don’t have formal work experience programmes but are very happy for someone who’s genuinely enthusiastic to come and spend time learning about what they do. You may simply be able to email them and ask if you can come and spend a day or a week with them. Doing this can feel quite strange, but taking the time to research a company, who is best to contact and being clear about who you are, what you would like and why you want to spend time with them is, in itself an extremely valuable set of skills to learn. Sometimes you will be successful; other times you won’t, but even a rejection is an experience that you will learn positive things from.
CamVision’s partnership with Britbots – the largest UK robotics venture capital fund – gives current university students and recent graduates the chance to gain the work experience and personalised guidance necessary to succeed in this competitive sector.