Gaining work experience: shadowing, internship and more

Last updated: 22 Jun 2023, 13:24

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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, proves 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.

Brand/campus ambassador roles

Being a brand or campus student ambassador is a specific kind of part-time job. The role is to promote a brand and this brand may be a product or a service (eg an energy drink) but it may also be an employer. Many big-name employers, such as City law firms or Big 4 professional services firms, hire current students to get their name and opportunities in front of other students and to liaise with the recruiters to answer any queries. It’s typically a paid role and, if you work for an employer, you may be invited to networking events or put straight through to the interview/assessment centre stage for any graduate opportunities.

Careers and recruitment events

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 fairs and employer presentations, arranged by your careers service, to recruitment and networking events organised by gradireland . Careers events may be held virtually or in person.

Competitions

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 often run competitions that can lead to a bursary or a prestigious mentor.

Individual employers and recruitment companies may also run their own competitions. For example, if you enter the gradireland Undergraduate of the Year Awards, you could win an internship with a top employer and a host of other prizes.

Extracurricular activities

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.

Freelance work experience

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.

Industrial placements

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.

Insight programmes and spring weeks

Some large graduate employers – especially those in the finance, consulting and law sectors – offer insight programmes to first-year students. They are designed to form a short introduction to the employer, the sector and the work they do.

A few employers also allow second-year students to attend insight programmes and still others open them up to all undergraduates. Recruiters often regard insight events as the first step towards offering promising candidates graduate jobs. As such, some may fast-track insight day participants through the internship or summer placement selection process.

Internships

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, but if you haven't done an internship with a company, you can still apply to its graduate programme.

Many internships are returning to the workplace or being run as hybrid-working opportunities, but others are remaining virtual. Check with the organisation you're interested in.

Open days

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.

Part-time jobs

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.

Working abroad

Working abroad can be used as proof of your initiative and independence (although always check the government's foreign travel advice before planning your trip). 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.

Work shadowing

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.

Volunteering

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.

gradireland editorial advice

This describes editorially independent and impartial content, which has been written and edited by the gradireland content team. Any external contributors featuring in the article are in line with our non-advertorial policy, by which we mean that we do not promote one organisation over another.

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