I want to get a placement

What is the difference between a placement/internship, work experience and work shadowing?

A work placement/internship is a structured form of work experience often with a focus on a particular project. The duration is usually between 8 weeks to a year. These opportunities are often targeted at penultimate year students although on occasions there is graduate provision.

Work experience can be defined as a period of time spent undertaking projects and tasks in a work setting, these activities can enhance your programme of study regardless of whether it is an integral or optional part of your university experience.

On the other hand, work shadowing involves closely observing someone at work doing a particular role, rather than taking on a working role yourself.

All of these activities can be recorded as work related learning which according to the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, are planned activities, which use the context of work to develop knowledge, skills and understanding, essential for the world of work. This involves learning through the experience of work, about work and developing understanding of practises and procedures.

Which is best for me?

The advantage of work shadowing is that it usually only lasts a day, giving you an opportunity to experience a variety of professions first hand, which could enable you to narrow down your career options. It is also easier for employers to organise and gives you a unique opportunity to gain a realistic insight into a profession and potentially challenge your current perception of what it involves. It also gives you the chance to ask questions to someone who is actually doing one of the roles you are currently considering, and formulate useful contacts.

You would then be in a good position to negotiate for a work placement/ experience with the organisation you have visited. By doing work shadowing you have demonstrated your interest in a role, which shows you are motivated and employers may only offer work experience to those they perceive to be truly committed. However should you decide that that type of work is not for you, at least you will not have invested huge amounts of time in exploring the role and you can learn from this experience when investigating alternatives.

It may not be possible, due to confidentiality issues to work shadow all roles or all aspects of role, especially in health or security organisations.

Work experience is usually carried out over a longer period of time. It can be a block placement over several weeks, or one day a week over several months. This allows you to get a more varied view of the job. For example in Finance, business demands vary over the year, with the end of March being the peak. Work experience gives you the chance to apply your increasing knowledge and undertake some of the activities that a profession demands. You learn by doing rather than observing, therefore, developing the skills that are needed in the workplace and gaining a sense of what it feels like to work in a team or on your own, and how your responsibilities impact on those of others. The levels of supervision would vary depending on your needs and the company’s resources, and in some cases you may be assigned to a mentor. It is a chance to gain inside knowledge and prove your potential which can increasingly lead to permanent employment upon graduation.

If you obtain your own placement/internship you may not be guaranteed any remuneration although some organisations will pay travel expenses and provide a lunch allowance whereas if you opt for a placement scheme, an allowance of between £150-200 per week is paid. For guidelines please refer to the Gov.uk article, ‘Employment Rights and Pay for Interns’ (https://www.gov.uk/employment-rights-for-interns).

The advantage of a placement scheme is that the employer is offering a well established programme and formal induction and mentoring are in place. For some companies at least 1 in five placement interns convert into graduate level employment. The remuneration is fixed so there is no need to negotiate.

How do I go about getting it?

Whether you are looking for work shadowing or work experience/placements, the principles usually remain the same. If you need to investigate a particular role, then work shadowing may fit the bill but if you need a broader overview of the world of work then, work experience may help to facilitate this.

Finding opportunities

There are two main ways of accessing opportunities: directly through advertised vacancies and indirectly which involves speculatively approaching organisations to see if they would consider you. Only 30% of positions are advertised, so it is well worth building contacts and making speculative applications.

Network: Make sure you make the most of any existing networks you may have eg. Family, friends, tutors, alumni and the Placement and Development Officers. Online networks such as Facebook or Linked In may help you with this.

Research: Source other contacts through professional bodies, chambers of commerce, career directories, and other general and company websites. Set below are some useful sites to get you started.


If a position is advertised then check the application process as for placements/internships some deadlines are early and can vary from year to year. You may need to complete online application forms, undertake psychometric tests and attend assessment centres including a formal interview. Research well so you match the competencies required. Identify experiences which elicit skills needed, keep to the word count, use active verbs and ensure your referees no exactly what you are applying for so they can highlight your relevant attributes. If you are trying to access the hidden opportunities then follow the steps below.

CV: You need to prepare a targeted CV. (See coaching information on I want to write a successful CV).

Covering letter: Write a covering letter outlining what you are aiming to achieve, address this to a named person. A letter addressed Sir/Madam doesn’t get you very far as it shows you haven’t done much research, and may imply that you have sent your details to a number of employers. If you get the basics right, then you’ll get better buy in from the organisations. Name dropping can also help, as if you say Mr/Mrs… from … advised me to contact you about … then this will give you immense credibility.

Phone call: Follow up your written request with a phone call, and try to arrange a meeting to discuss the possible openings.

Email: Follow up any meeting with an email thanking them for seeing you and outline what you agreed.

Beware, if the opportunity provider detects you are doing this to meet a module obligation rather than because you are really interested, they may not be so keen to co operate. On the other hand, if the module relates to what they are about, then they may be keen to assist you. Make sure you pitch it right.

Making the most of it

Email the company to thank them formally, and follow up any action points that they may have recommended to you, especially if you promised to do them!

Keep a record of all your training responsibilities and achievements.

If you’re not gaining sufficient experience say so!

Enjoy yourself network and make new connections.

Take time to reflect and ask yourself the following questions:

  • Would you like to do that kind of job yourself? Why?
  • What would you enjoy most -and least – about a job like this? Do the positives outweigh the negatives?
  • What were the main activities? Do you find them interesting? Or would they frustrate and bore you?
  • What were the skills developed during your work experience? Which ones need further refinement?
  • What capabilities does the job need? Do you have them? If not then could you develop them? How?
  • What have you learned about the work place? What is the culture like? Were there any politics?
  • How could you get into this kind of job? Where would you look for vacancies?

Getting started

  1. Look at your optional work related learning modules and sign up if appropriate.
  2. Identify possible opportunities for work placements, experience or shadowing during vacations. Set up a blog, or get an old fashioned diary so that you can record and reflect upon your experiences.
  3. Refer to Experience works to investigate campus schemes and opportunities
  4. Check the Headstart programme on the SEECC website for presentations on writing CVs and finding work experience.
  5. Develop your networking skills at careers fairs see SEECC website for details.
  6. If you want applications checked, arrange to see a placement and development officer.

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