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Work Experience, Placements, Internships: Is it worth it?

We all know someone that has made the decision to spend some time in an industry sector during their degree in order to focus on their career. This article hopes to give you an honest account of what it’s really like doing a period of work experience, whether part of your degree or otherwise. Quench Features has interviewed two Cardiff University students on two very different degree pathways to find out their thoughts...

Interview by: Rhianna Hurren-Myers

We all know someone that has made the decision to spend some time in an industry sector during their degree in order to focus on their career. This article hopes to give you an honest account of what it’s really like doing a period of work experience, whether part of your degree or otherwise. Quench Features has interviewed two Cardiff University students on two very different degree pathways to find out their thoughts…

Mike O’Brien: Journalism and Communications student, took a year out of University to pursue work
Julie Eberhardt: MEng in Civil Engineering student, currently doing a year in industry

Degrees often offer four year courses with a ‘sandwich year’ in between. Was this the case with your degree? If so, is this what attracted you to your degree in the first place?

Julie: I am enrolled in a course that offers to study up to a Master level directly, and that includes a ‘Sandwich Year’, which has made the duration of my degree 5 years in total. The fact that this was a possibility is one of the reasons why I chose this degree, as I believe that it is a great opportunity for valuable experience that is approved by the university, and is a massive help in determining what I would like to do in the future. Getting paid is obviously a huge upside, as it can help pay future student loans.

Mike: Curiously enough, taking a year out of university to pursue work actually convinced me to drop my degree altogether and enrol in another one. I went from Politics and International Relations, Human Geography and Psychology at Lancaster University to Journalism and Communications at Cardiff University. Neither offered sandwich years or work placements.

Did you find your placement with help from your academic school or was it independently sourced?

Julie: The university has sought the help of a separate company to help with CV/Cover letters/Interviews etc… This has been a huge help, as they also advertise jobs that do not appear on jobs seeking sites, like for Cardiff Council, which is where I’m doing my placement.

Mike: I found it myself. When university wasn’t going as planned, I took a spin on Indeed.com (a job-hunting website) and searched for something I actually wanted to do.

Did most people on your course take the same route and opt to take a year out?

Julie: More people than I initially thought have decided to go into a Year In Industry, as around 50% of the people on my course have managed to get a placement.

Mike: Not to my knowledge. Journalism is a competitive space, and its students are conscious of that, so it’s one of the more proactive degrees insofar as work experience/summer internships/student media participation are concerned. But years out are rare and, to my understanding, not necessarily encouraged.

What was the application process like?

Julie: The application process varies depending on the company you are applying for. For example, for the position I am in, it was a simple process, where my cover letter and CV were sent to Cardiff Council, and I was then asked in for an interview. This varies, as mentioned before, as some companies will make you go through specific tests online, through their company interface when applying, as it is a lot more competitive. The company employed by the University can help with these types of tests as they are commonly used in certain job applications, and example tests can be found online.

Mike: Fairly standard. I had to provide a CV, a cover letter, and, because it was a journalism role, an example article about the industry. Around a hundred people applied, ten of us were shortlisted, and eventually, I was selected.

Where was the placement? Did you decide to stay in Cardiff or go somewhere else?

Julie: Whereas most people would take this as an opportunity to leave Cardiff and move to somewhere else in the UK, or, outside the UK for some students, I decided to stay locally, for personal reasons, but also because Cardiff offers a lot of opportunity, despite being a lot smaller then say, London, or other big cities. Obviously, this depends on the course that you are studying, but there are a lot of opportunities here, and it is very easy to move around the different districts of Cardiff.

Mike: The job was in London, though I spent most of it working remotely.

Were you paid or unpaid? Did this influence your decision in any way?

Julie: As this is a Year in Industry, it is paid. This has influenced my decision greatly, as it is a huge upside, and will help with future student loans, or even current living conditions, as the tuition debt is lowered to 1800 pounds for the ‘Sandwich year’ to repay the company that helped to find the placement.

Mike: It was a paid, permanent role. Naturally it did impact my decision to pursue it, as I was fresh out of my first year of university at the time and wasn’t sure if I would return.

Can you describe what a day-to-day life on placement looked like/your daily routine?

Julie: The job I have is a regular 9-5, and I attend meetings with clients, members of the team, or even members of other teams within the organisation.

Mike: It was brutal in a way that, in my opinion, JOMEC does not prepare you for. JOMEC discusses journalism with an air of caution and cynicism, touching on things like ‘churnalism’ and the corrosive influence of PR, but it’s usually in the macro context of journalism as a trade. They rarely discuss or prepare you for the realities of professional journalism pertaining to the individual experience. I would start at 8am, access a nexus of press releases, and bang out eight to ten articles a day, with a feature on Friday. There were only two of us on a news team that should have had three times the staff. We were handling various responsibilities that journalists – and certainly not entry-level journalists – should be doing. During particularly intensive periods, like press conferences/conventions, our work hours were something ridiculous like 8am-5am.

Did you feel like you had a lot of responsibility, or were you just treated as ‘intern’?

Julie: Thankfully I was treated as an equal from the start, and was given responsibilities that match my level of expertise in the department. Slowly, I have been given more and more responsibilities, and I have now been assigned to my own project. They have always been happy to help and have shown support when I need it.

Mike: I had much more responsibility and faced a great deal more pressure than I think any entry-level applicant should.

What do you feel was the hardest part of doing an internship/placement for such a short space of time?

Julie: With a Year in Industry, I believe that there are not really any downsides to the length of the internship, as long as the internship is a right fit for you and that you are able to develop all types of competences and acquire viable experience during that time.

Mike: I applied for a permanent role, so neither I nor my employer entered the relationship with the expectation that it would only go on for a few months. But that came with its own challenges. I worked for a start-up company with an unreasonably ambitious CEO who evaluated success purely by the site analytics, but also invested nothing into marketing. He just expected writers to produce content and, voila, as if by magic, the work would speak for itself and gain enough traction to compete with other companies in the industry. That’s a lot of pressure on your writers, especially on an entry-level wage. It really wasn’t a great environment for your first job.

What are the main things you feel you learnt from taking this opportunity?

Julie: Despite have recently started my Year in Industry, I believe that I have already learnt more than I expected. I have gained a lot of experience and knowledge, both of engineering and about the working world in the engineering department. I have also met a lot of interesting people during my time.

Mike: It taught me volumes about the expectations of the industry, the reality of the climate and political economy of games journalism, and perhaps most importantly, the art of self-advocacy. In terms of how I developed on a strictly professional level, it was great in forcing myself to be honest with my work and my editorial responsibility in a way that only a challenging full-time role can.

In your opinion, do you think doing a sandwich year/placement is worth it?

Julie: Honestly, I think that any experience is a bonus, as it can help determine what you would like to do after your studies. A year in industry is a massive bonus, as, not only is it a year break from studies (and a sometimes well-needed break), but also an opportunity to gain a lot of experience, and make future contacts, as many companies have been known to offer a full time job to the interns that perform well, after they graduate.

Mike: A lot of journalism students get their start from editorial roles in the student media or on their own personal site. It’s something I cannot recommend enough – but it doesn’t prepare you for the world of work. The responsibility and the oversight are simply not there. Most of it is self-regulated, and unless you are a person of relentless self-criticism and principle, it’s unlikely that you will develop meaningfully under pressure of your own creation. Oh, and you don’t have to deal with consumer backlash the way you do in a real journalism role. After my critical review of Uncharted 4 blew up online, I received a deluge of offensive comments and threats from people who disagreed. The student media is a great place to hone your skills, but unless you produce something of inconceivably poor quality, it’s unlikely that you will face any real criticism, constructive or otherwise.

The environment within the company I did work experience with made it a dreadful place to work, and I feel vindicated in saying that considering it fell apart after my departure. But it was a sobering experience that I do not regret. The company had no HR department. I was at the mercy of my editor-in-chief, who was under similar pressure to me, and the delusional CEO of the business, a person so unempathetic and pretentious that he ordered everyone beneath the editor-in-chief to never contact him personally or refer to him by name. When I expressed concerns about my worsening depression, which I later discovered was a facet of bipolar disorder, I was simply told that ‘I should be happy and grateful that I had this job’.  I don’t reflect on the job with a great deal of fondness. But it did harden me. It taught me to stick up for myself, and it made me realise that it’s okay to walk away if something doesn’t work out.

Julie’s Advice:

  • A lot of companies put their application deadlines in early-mid October, so make sure to have your CV updated as soon as possible.
  • Be open to any and all opportunities. For example, a lot of people will aim to go in the big companies. Remember that you can also find a job in small companies, local governments, and many more. Not being in a big and famous company does not mean that you won’t learn a lot during your year.
  • Make sure to be prepared for the online tests, for the companies who require them, by either talking to your tutor, or the people who organise the year in industry, as they might give you an insight as to what those tests are used for. Some of the tests have mock tests online.
  • When writing a cover letter, make sure to research the company, as they might advertise what they look for in their future employees (capable of adapting, fast paced working, etc…).
  • If you are asked in for an interview, it is crucial that you prepare for it:
    • For example, research the company, find out what they are currently working on, find out what they stand for, and what they are planning for the future, and manage to mention it in the interview. This shows a lot of interest in them, which goes a long way.
    • Prepare your answers. Find out what the typical questions are online and plan your answer.
  • During your placement, do not hesitate to ask if you are stuck, they are here to help.

Mike’s Advice:

Confidence and fluency come from a place of comfort in knowledge. Know your stuff. Research the company. Be ready to talk about their previous work (and not just their recent material). If you really want to make a good impression, be ready to suggest improvements.

This is the biggest piece of advice I can give: carry yourself professionally, but don’t forget to be affable. You ever see that episode of The Simpsons titled Homer’s Enemy? It’s about the dichotomy between Frank Grimes, a hard-working newcomer to Springfield’s nuclear power plant, and Homer Simpson, a lazy and incompetent buffoon. Throughout the episode, Grimes’ superior output and innovations are declined in favour of promoting and rewarding the inadequate but popular Simpson. This maddens Grimes to the point of his literal demise. The episode is meant to be a satirical, if extreme, commentary on the myth of meritocracy in America. But the main takeaway for me is that it’s not enough to be the best at what you do. Being liked is as crucial to the gamble of employing you as it is to be skilled. Working relationships are much easier to develop with a person you connect with. Smile, be positive, ask questions, develop an interest. Do your utmost to transform the interview into a conversation that organically, but subtly, reveals your qualities.

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