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Work experience during university

Ways for students to gain work experience, including internships, summer jobs, vacation exchanges and part-time work.

The term ‘work experience’ covers a range of opportunities that enable you to experience working life. The most well known are the sort that are specifically focused on the career you are thinking of doing, such as internships, but there is also value in other types of experience, such as part-time and vacation jobs.

The types of work experience available to students can include:

  • open days with organisations
  • work shadowing
  • insight courses
  • internships
  • sandwich placements
  • clinical/professional practice
  • co-operative education programmes
  • summer/vacation placements
  • voluntary work
  • project work within companies
  • international programmes
  • casual/part-time work.

Career-focused experience

Industrial placement/sandwich course

This is typically a period of work experience that you undertake as part of a degree programme; it is usually in your third year and is spent in an organisation where the work is relevant to your degree. Other terms commonly used to describe formal work placements include co-operative education or intra (integrated training) placements.

Work experience or a placement as part of your course is a valuable opportunity to learn from professionals at work and put the theory you study into practice. A placement helps develop personal and interpersonal skills, fosters self-motivation, sharpens analytical skills, enhances subject knowledge and subject-specific skills, and provides an insight into what makes businesses function. Being in a real situation also provides an enhanced understanding of the practicalities of the work environment and encourages you to consider future career paths. The importance employers attach to work-related learning is evident by the number of students who are offered a permanent job after graduation on the basis of a successful placement. Support in preparing for and finding a placement is available from your careers service or placement office.

Professional practice and training

Maybe you want to work in a profession such as healthcare, law or teaching. Work-based learning for these is a compulsory part of the programmes or can be undertaken after academic study; this prepares trainee professionals with relevant, realistic and quality learning opportunities. Students are required to undertake and demonstrate their competence for practice in a number of different field settings or placements. Your higher education institution may work closely with local employers and other agencies to set up placements offering excellent learning facilities and support to students who will enter these types of profession as graduates with eligibility for professional recognition.

Internship

This is sometimes confused with an industrial placement; the main difference is that it is not normally a part of your course so will take place during your own time (for example, during long vacations). These tend to be advertised by employers, with an application process similar to their permanent graduate jobs, so you’ll need to be proactive about finding one.

Internships are usually offered to students in the summer between the second and third years at university. Most of these are highly structured, paid internships or work experience programmes that often work as a ‘talent pipeline’ for employers, giving them the opportunity to observe potential employees in action and, if impressed, to make a permanent, postgraduation job offer when the internship finishes.

In a downturn, graduate employers often continue to recruit students into work experience placements when head count for permanent positions is frozen. In the gradireland Graduate Salary & Recruitment Trends Survey, over 81 per cent of the employers surveyed offer work experience. Over 89 per cent of these companies say that they pay students during the internship. Rates of pay vary but the average is between €1,400–€1,599 per month.

International exchange

This is a period of time spent abroad in a reciprocal arrangement with a similar institution and usually organised or facilitated by a central body. The focus of such an exchange is often academic (studying for part of your degree overseas) but can include work experience.

Vacation courses

A variety of employers, generally major graduate recruiters, offer vacation courses. These are an excellent way not only to show a company that you would be a suitable future employee but also to help in your future career decisions. Depending on the organisation, these programmes may be open to students of any discipline. These courses take place at various times of the year including Christmas, Easter and summer, but you need to apply early.

Specialist options

If you intend to train as a teacher in the future, ask your careers service about programmes that place students in a primary, secondary or special school. For work experience placements in schools, you need to allow time for a Garda Check/CRB check to be processed before you can begin. It may not be possible to commence placement until you have received your Garda Check/CRB document, so allow plenty of time for this.

For science or engineering students, there are many schemes that enable you to put specialist skills to work by carrying out a project or piece of research, perhaps for local voluntary and community groups or a developing business.

Voluntary work may also provide you with specialist skills if you aspire to a career in the charity sector.

Part-time and vacation work

Part-time work

Most students work part time in order to earn some cash to help fund their way through university, so it can be easy to view part-time work as a menial necessity for financial survival rather than as a learning opportunity. However, providing you realise the value of the skills you are developing, it is possible to turn casual work to your advantage for your future career.

The most important thing to remember is that all work gives you some experience, including bar work, volunteering and Saturday jobs. Like any other work experience, these will give you ‘business awareness’ and an understanding of how organisations work, and being able to articulate what you understand about work environments will contribute to your future success. Think ahead and remember that when you are looking for work you will need to give the names of referees. Employers welcome evidence that someone fits well into the workplace.

Vacation work

Make the most of long summer holidays by gaining paid work experience. Don’t forget that some of the biggest seasonal employers such as department stores, supermarkets and hotels are also among the biggest graduate recruiters, so a vacation job could lead you to your graduate career. But any vacation work can give you valuable employability skills.

Work experience with smaller organisations

Small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) might not immediately spring to mind when thinking of work experience providers. However, a large percentage of business is conducted in companies that employ fewer than 250 people, so you’re more likely to find relevant work experience with one of them. There are many attractions to working in a smaller organisation. For a start, your chances of early responsibility and independence are much greater. Because they’re not exactly awash with staff, you can find yourself doing real work that actually makes a difference to the company.