The Differences Between Work Placements, Work Experience and Work Based Courses

It is often said that the best learning environment is the workplace. Certainly, although degrees and qualifications are very valuable, recruiting companies often put a premium on those with real world, applicable experience.

Despite that, universities and colleges do not necessarily offer students the option of a term, or even a year, of work placement. Often, the expectation is that students will arrange their own placements, either during the summer holidays, or even shorter placements of just a week or two during mid-term breaks.

Short-term Work Placements

This is unfortunate as placement programs during these times are very highly demanded (especially for well-known and attractive companies). This then means that you both have to plan well in advance and be lucky enough to be selected. (Ironically enough, there are also some placements which will require prior experience).

These short-term placements can also be tough to organise as there is no guarantee of being paid for them. Oftentimes, the ‘payment’ is the experience you acquire there. This can be especially difficult for students as:

A)      It can be of great expense having to pay for travel, equipment, appropriate clothing etc.

B)      You will also miss out on potential income from a different job

C)      It can be impossible for students (especially international students) to support themselves outside of term time- rent, food etc.

D)      Working outside of term time may cause visa issues

Furthermore, short-term placements are just that: short-term. While a week or two or even three are undoubtedly more valuable than no experience whatsoever, they are certainly not as useful as a full term or more of experience.

Work Based Courses

Luckily, there does exist courses that incorporate terms or modules of real world experience. Whether it does or not is typically dependent on the topic of study. Typically, courses that are more focused on a specific role tend to have a work based element. Teaching courses, for example, are more likely to include real experience than, say, a mathematics degree.

Part of the attraction of ‘broader’ courses is the option of a number of job roles that are applicable after graduation, though understandably this reduces the opportunity for work as part of your course. Though it is possible for courses such as these to offer time in which you are encouraged to find your own work placement, it is important to research whether this opportunity exists in the curriculum you are subscribing to. It can be very tricky to skip a module or rearrange it if your primary focus is to garner some work.

Do not let that put you off from trying though, universities are very encouraging of work placements even if it isn’t part of the course. It is beneficial for the school to have as many graduates working as possible and providing students the opportunity to work, even if only for a short time, will greatly improve the student’s chances of finding a role in the future. They may, therefore, help you find a role or provide you with some other form of support.

Work Experience

If you are unable to find a course that contains a period of time designated specifically for work, or are unable to support yourself outside of term time while you build experience, there is always the option of traditional work experience.

What form that takes really depends on what your objective for the work placement is. Some may perhaps not be looking for directly applicable work experience. After all, not all university students will be set in their career path. Often, students will pick a subject which allows them the opportunity to choose from a number of options as they may feel that they require more work or life experience in order to make the correct decision.

This is especially true of students who are looking to study abroad. One of the more common reasons for students look to an international education is to learn the language or even just to get basic work experience anywhere, not necessarily related to your choice of course. If either of these are the case, then it becomes far easier to find the appropriate work experience, as there are just a lot more options to choose from.

Obviously, these forms of work experience are less likely to be integrated into your degree and you will have to do the work in making sure you are applicable (especially in terms of visa) and that you have enough free time to work in say, the service industry- a line of business in which many students find themselves as a consequence of the ease with which it is possible to find work, as well as the language and experience benefits they provide.

Work such as this may also be beneficial compared to shorter work placements as you will get paid, making it easier to support yourself if, perhaps, you work outside of term-time. It can also be of great use when supporting your degree as a whole in terms of rent or tuition fees.