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14 min read

What is a ‘work placement’?

Read this guide to discover:

  • What it’s like to do a work placement
  • What you can expect to get out of work placement
  • The various tasks a work placement might entail
  • What to lookout for when choosing your work placement
  • The key differences between work placements, grad schemes and internships
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You’re in the right place if you’re wondering…

  • “What is a placement year at university?”
  • “What does work placement mean?”
  • “What is an industrial placement?”
  • “What is a placement year?”

A work placement is a form of employment in which university students work full-time in an industry relevant to their field of study.

Work placements usually last for 12 months and take place between the penultimate and final degree years, although in some industries shorter placements are the norm.

Placement years can be an optional addition to an undergraduate degree or a required part of a course. They provide students with an opportunity to apply what they have learned in a professional setting.

After a period of (in most cases) paid work and exposure to a particular job or sector, candidates return to complete their university degree with new skills and experience from their time in the workplace.

Work placements improve the employability of graduates and tend to help students achieve better academic results.

A work placement is sometimes referred to as an ‘industrial placement’, a ‘year in industry’, a ‘sandwich year’ or a ‘placement year’. All of these terms are used interchangeably.

Plenty of degrees are now offered with an optional or mandatory placement year. For example, Accountancy, Civil Engineering, and Data Analytics.

Work placements are different from conventional employment in a few ways:

  • Your role is temporary. Both you and the employer know that you will be going back to university to complete your degree at the end of your placement
  • The purpose of your role is to gain experience and test what you’ve learned in the workplace, but you will still be expected to contribute – particularly if You’re being paid
  • Work placements may be a necessary part of your degree course. Most universities have a team in place to help you organise your placement

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What happens on a work placement?

Every work placement is different and exactly what happens will depend on the employer, how long the placement is for, and in which industry or sector the employer operates.

You’ll leave your studies behind for a fixed period of time in the workplace

In most cases, your workplace will be an office or company headquarters.

But this will vary depending on the employer. Many placements will involve working from different locations.

For example in architecture, engineering, and construction, work placements will include time spent working on different projects.

You’ll put what you have learned to the test

Many university courses are developed around a work placement. During your time with an employer, you’ll be able to put those skills into practice.

You’ll meet new people and get to know your colleagues

Because work placements tend to run for a significant period, you’ll have time to get to know your colleagues and learn from those around you.

How many people you work with and are introduced to will depend entirely on how large the organisation is.

You’ll work the same hours as your colleagues

Work placements are designed to give you a realistic experience of a particular industry. As such, you’ll be working full-time and held to the same standard as your colleagues.

You should be given your own place to work

Because most work placements are for the long term, you’ll usually be given desk space in the workplace and a sense of permanency.

You might be the only student on a placement, or you could be one of several

Large organisations often take on several students on work placement at a time.

But if you’re working for a smaller company, you may be the only one.

You’ll be managed by one or more colleagues

One or more of your colleagues will be responsible for your progression and the work that you do.

Those on placements are usually seen as equivalent to junior/entry-level positions, so your manager will guide you accordingly.

You’ll be placed within a specific department with specific business functions

Work placements and years in industry aim to give you specific insight into a particular role. As such, it’s unlikely that you’ll be shifted around different departments.

On paper, you will be an employee like any other. The employer will hire you as a permanent member of staff to support a particular team.

You may receive extra training and mentoring

Although you will be in many respects an entry-level employee, your position as a student on a work placement may come with certain development benefits.

It may be that you receive mentoring or additional training. Many organisations have programmes in place aimed at building long term relationships with universities and the students they provide.

You’ll be assigned junior tasks to begin with

Whenever starting a new role, you’ll need to prove yourself.

This is particularly the case when you’re coming from an academic environment into a professional one. Your employer will likely assign you fairly basic tasks to start with.

You might be able to shape your placement

Some students on work placements are given the opportunity to influence how the placement unfolds and the focus of their time.

Many on work placements will be less fortunate and have no say in the work and projects they are assigned. This depends entirely on your employer and is something you should discuss before committing.

Your work and responsibilities can develop later in your work placement

If you demonstrate that you’re capable and motivated, you may quickly move from junior tasks to more challenging ones.

You’ll be entitled to the same benefits as your colleagues

As a permanent member of staff, you will be entitled to paid holiday and sick days alongside your salary.

There may also be other benefits included, such as travel, food or equipment expenses.

What do you do on a work placement?

Every work placement is different.

The daily routine and type of work assigned to you could depend upon the following factors:

  • The industry
  • The approach your employer takes towards students on work placements
  • The department you’re assigned to
  • The state of the economy
  • The skills and experience you arrive with
  • The progression and attitude you demonstrate over the course of your work placement

It’s standard for those on work placements to be assigned less challenging work that can be completed independently. But you may be given responsibility over a specific area or recurring task.

Common work placement duties and responsibilities will depend on the industry and your employer. They may include, but are not limited to:

  • Data entry
  • Data analysis
  • Online research projects
  • Devising creative material
  • Organising physical and digital documents
  • Scheduling and attending meetings
  • Updating reports and/or dashboards
  • Assisting in the preparation of / giving presentations

What to expect to get out of a work placement?

Work placements are a valuable addition to your CV, an opportunity to gain skills and experience relevant to your future career, and a chance to earn some money before your final year of university.

Exactly what you get out of your work placement will depend on several factors, including but not limited to:

  • The amount of effort you put in
  • How many transferable skills you have gained from your academic studies and previous work experience
  • How quickly you can pick up and apply new skills
  • How well suited you are to the tasks given
  • The resources the organisation and its employees dedicate towards developing your professional skills
  • The relationship you have with your manager(s) and colleagues
  • How much exposure you get to the business areas that are relevant to your career ambitions
  • The calibre and preparedness of the organisation

Many of the factors above are beyond your control, which means that luck plays a role in determining how beneficial your work placement is.

But there are two things you do have control over.

First, you can choose your work placement carefully and find an organisation that will provide both professional development and the kind of experience you want to gain.

Second, you can approach your work placement with the best possible attitude. This will increase your chances of being given increased responsibility and lead to a more well-rounded experience.

Read our “Work placement pros and cons” guide for more information on the benefits of doing a year in industry.

Are work placements paid?

Most work placements are paid.

You’ll be providing an organisation with a significant amount of your time, with them usually offering development opportunities and compensation in return.

However, if completing an industrial or vocational placement is a necessary requirement of your course, you’re not legally entitled to the National Minimum Wage.

Whether you’re paid will therefore depend on the employer. In the event that you aren’t, many companies will offer to cover your expenses.

Your university may also offer financial support in the case of an unpaid work placement.

How long is a work placement?

The majority of work placements last for 12 months and make up the third year of a four-year undergraduate degree.

You’ll be expected to work full-time for the company during that period. If taking on a paid position, you’ll be entitled to employee benefits, including annual leave.

After completing a work placement, you will go back to university to complete your degree.

What makes a good work placement?

You develop professional skills and gain industry experience

Work placements allow you to gain a huge amount of experience in a profession or field that you’re already studying towards.

Your time in a professional position will improve your job prospects and help you stand out from your fellow graduates.

You make professional connections for the future

The true value of your network will depend on what kind of industry you’re getting into. But in general, the more people you know, the better. A good work placement will give you the chance to build your professional contacts.

These colleagues could end up being a reference for your graduate job. They may even want to hire you in the future.

You gain clarity on your career ambitions

A work placement is a big commitment taken on by those whose studies are already setting them down a particular career path.

You can view the experience as a way to gain clarity on your career plan. You might end the year confident that a certain profession or industry is for you. Or you could end up ruling out a particular organisation as a result. Either way, you’ll be in a stronger position to make informed career decisions.

You’re provided an opportunity to test yourself and show your worth

The best work placements are essentially jobs that come with the same level of responsibility and expectations as any other.

You’ll have the chance to become a trusted part of a team and grow personally and professionally as a result.

You’ll earn a decent amount of money ahead of your final year

If there’s one universal constant of university life, it’s the feeling of being strapped for cash. If you’re fortunate, a placement year will give you the opportunity to escape student poverty and save a decent amount of money before your final year.

What are the differences between ‘work placements’ and ‘graduate schemes’?

You’re at a different stage in your career

Work placements usually form the third year of a four-year degree programme, while graduate schemes begin after you leave university.

Both options come at different stages in your career and the experience you have will reflect that.

Graduate schemes can last from 12 months to three years. Many end with the offer of a permanent position. This makes graduate schemes a more significant commitment with greater potential rewards.

Work placements can be role or industry focused. The company you complete it at probably won’t be the one you start your career with after university.

Your role is likely to be more focused

During a work placement, it’s likely that you’ll take on a specific role rather than providing support across different departments.

Graduate schemes with large organisations tend to run in cycles that shift you around different business areas. This gives you a more varied experience and allows the employer to better assess your future prospects.

You have less chance of staying on permanently

Work placements provide you with a period of time ‘in industry’, but there’s an understanding that you’ll head back to university once it’s over. You may make a positive impression and be invited back after completing your degree, but it’s by no means a given.

Graduate schemes are geared towards developing your skills and defining your future role at a specific organisation. More often than not, those that take part are offered a permanent position at the end of the scheme.

Two colleagues stood in the window of an office talking
What is a ‘graduate scheme’?

Read this guide to discover:

  • What it’s like to do a grad scheme
  • How much you can expect to be paid on a grad scheme
  • What makes a good grad scheme
  • How long graduate schemes last for
  • The differences between a grad scheme and graduate jobs and entry-level jobs

What are the differences between ‘work placements’ and ‘internships’?

You’re treated as if you’re part of the team

During a work placement, your role and responsibilities are likely to be clearly defined. Interns usually take on basic tasks as and when needed and don’t have a specific area of focus.

This is down to permanency. Because interns come and go, the tasks assigned to them tend to be just as irregular.

Work placements are different. You’ll be a relatively permanent member of the team with a clear role, even though the placement will last for a fixed period.

The expectations are higher

Work placements are part of a degree programme that’s relevant to the role or organisation. As a result, you’ll be expected to contribute more than an intern would. That expectation will likely be reflected in your salary and job title.

You’ve already narrowed down your career ambitions

Internships are all about getting a feel for a particular role or industry. A work placement can be viewed as the next step. You’ve already chosen to study a certain subject and want to experience what working life will be like in a related career.

Just like internships, work placements can also help you rule out a particular business area or organisation. But they are generally seen as a step towards specialising within a certain field.

Two young people talking in a large open room
What is an ‘internship’?

Read this guide to discover:

  • What it’s like to do an internship
  • The type of jobs an intern might do
  • How long internships last
  • Whether or not internships are paid
  • What makes a good internship
  • The differences between internships and apprenticeships