You know how it is. You sign up for your undergrad, you get halfway through second year, and once you’ve finally settled into uni life, a spanner gets thrown into the works. A lady from PWC comes in to do a talk on ‘sandwich placements’, there’s whispers of an exotic year in industry, and somebody’s dad tells you that the only thing better than an education is experience. Add to the mix phrases like ‘good salary’ and ‘student for longer’, and a placement year can start sound mighty appealing. It’s not right for everyone, however, and once you’ve done three months of merchandising in L’Oreal, it can be pretty tough to rescind on your decision and re-enrol into the academic year. So it’s best that you know what you’re getting into before you commit to one. And by know, we mean read this article, of course.
When to take a placement year
If you’re wavering between two sectors
Frankly, if you’re in your second year of uni and only struggling to choose between two career paths, then you’re already way ahead of the game. It’s estimated that only 5% of people end up in a first job that they actually want to do, and a lot of that is down to people having no idea what they want to do. Having a year in industry means that you’ll be able to gain a much clearer idea of what at least one of your options entails on a day-to-day basis, and if you find yourself loving your placement year, then the decision has probably been made for you.
And if you don’t love the placement year? Then the decision has probably been made for you.
If you’re planning on entering a highly competitive field
By which we mean: law, engineering, medical research, or anything creative (especially if that anything involves journalism). Sadly, there are no two ways around it; some career paths require much more than a 2:1 and three years of good service in a respected institution. According to a survey done by City & Guilds, 80% of employers consider work experience to be ‘essential’ in recent grads, and if you’re entering an industry known for its dog-eat-dog culture, then this figure rises closer to 100%. It’s also worth mentioning that a well-strategised placement year doesn’t just give credence to your CV, it also connects you to people in high places, and if you’re one of the hundreds of new grads vying for an entry-level role, then it may really boil down to who you know.
If you want to travel once you’ve finished your degree
It’s a right of passage for many students; they graduate, they get their TEFL, and then they leave the freezing shores of England for red-hot ones abroad. And while bar or farm-work is a life-saver for supporting yourself down under, it doesn’t exactly line up interviews for when you decide to travel home again. If you are planning to jet off as soon as you graduate, then taking a sandwich year to gain meaningful experience could make all the difference to your career prospects. And what’s more, you could easily save the cost of flights with that salary.
When not to take a placement year
If your best mate is doing a languages degree, and you want to do final year together
Ditto your boyfriend, your flatmates or your crush. It can be tempting when your diehards are taking a year out to want to join them, but if you’re madly scrambling for something to do, then you can pretty much bet that it won’t be time well spent. And besides, if you really don’t want to spend another year apart, then you can always look for a grad-job in your university city when they come back.
If it’s already built into your degree
Medicine, dentistry and modern languages all have placement years built in, and rightly so; you can hardly become fluent in a language if you’ve never lived in the country it’s from. But unless there’s a compelling reason for you to take another on top, then one placement year is probably enough. If you’re going to spend 5+ years as a student then you may as well have a masters to show for it. Plus, too much time away from the classroom and it becomes increasingly difficult to return.
If you could get the experience elsewhere
Summer internships, term-time placements and work experience are all great ways to get in with your dream company, and often these are easier to secure than a year-long placement scheme. When the ‘year in industry’ applications are emailed around, it can be tempting to jump on the bandwagon and apply for one, but if none of the openings are relevant to your chosen career path, then it may be best to just continue with your course. A year is a long time to waste on an impulse, and you could find yourself resenting the job when you realise that, though they are greatly reduced, you are still charged university fees throughout your year in industry.
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