My Placement Year Experience: A student’s perspective (2021)
My Placement Year Experience: A student’s perspective (2021)

 

Placement, internship, year in industry, sandwich year – whatever you want to call it, they’re all terms for when a university student takes time out of their (presumably busy) schedule to get practical experience in the workplace, working among actual employees.

I’ve done one, and I want to tell you all about it; read on to hear about my placement experience, right from the beginning stages of searching for an internship, to ten months in to my year in industry.

This information will be super helpful for anyone wondering if they should do a placement, those currently looking for a placement, people who are wondering what to expect, and those wanting to see how another student got on on their year.

 

My Overall Placement Experience

My placement experience has supercharged the trajectory of my career.

Not only have I legitimately learned a lot more about the industry that I’m in, and have mastered ‘untaught’ areas of knowledge, but I’ve experienced transformational personal development from when I first joined the organisation.

Both of these elements make me a tenfold more capable candidate than when I started the experience, and I will continue to reap the rewards for the rest of my life.

 

My Experience Explained

For context, I’m currently doing a ‘Computer Science with Management’ degree at King’s college London, and had my year long placement experience at a medium sized cyber security firm, in their ‘Technical Services’ department.

As my year in industry fell in the 2020-2021 season, I spent most of my time working remotely from home, but was fortunate enough to make it in to their London office on a couple of occasions.

 

My desk with my work computer.
My daily setup.

 

Admittedly, going in, I didn’t fully know what to expect, as ‘Technical Services’ is quite a broad area, and the job description could be quite ambiguous for someone without practical experience.

Though in this instance there wasn’t a concrete and formal ‘programme’ as to what I would be doing, I ended up:

  • Working alongside other members of my department, doing the exact same job as them. (Customer facing)
  • Working on my own projects to improve the quality of life of the processes within the department. (Internal facing)
  • Working on inter-department projects, making integrations with our department and other departments more effective. (Internal facing)

 

Given the variety of all of these areas, I was given the opportunity to exercise every professional skill you could imagine, from technical aspects, to planning and organising, and public speaking and crisis management.

This wide array of situations and high volume timeframe of a year allowed me to garner an immense amount of experience in every skill that I touched, which has led to a more capable and well balanced skill set.

But this growth was only possible because the position consistently put me outside of my comfort zone. For example, I am not a natural presenter, but managed to skill up in this area because I was given the opportunity to trial and improve. Staying within my comfort zone, and just further exercising skills I was already confident in, would not have led to as much of a pay off as this position did, which constantly challenged me.

In my circumstance, this was fortunately easy to come by, as the demands of the position mean that every day is different, and I was forcibly exposed to a wide array of circumstances and projects.

This was strengthened as I felt part of the team and wasn’t treated differently from other employees, and was given the same opportunities as my colleagues.

 

Industrial Placement Stages

There were definitely ‘stages’ to my placement experience, summarised in this infographic I’ve pulled together:

 

  • Knowledge Transfer – I spent time with the previous placement student to get a brief overview of the tasks I’d be taking over from them.
  • Introductory Tasks – Over the next few months, I spent time getting comfortable in the corporate environment, and understanding the ins and outs of the processes I had inherited.
  • Getting Involved – I was ready to step up and take on more responsibility, and begun taking on more consequential tasks. This led to a monumental learning curve, as I was almost ‘thrown in at the deep end’. However, I definitely had the best progress to time ratio during this period.
  • Involved – I was acquainted with the processes and technology, and the intensity gradient began to shallow. At this point, my output value was at its highest.

 

Though I can’t guarantee that this timeline will be the same for you, I would expect this to be the natural progression of most experiences.

 

Is it Hard to get a Placement Year?: My Placement Finding Experience

Application Process

Unfortunately, I found landing a placement to be a difficult experience.

The biggest obstacle for me was volume.

Because there’s usually immense competition for every internship opportunity (one position within my company had over 300 applicants!), to increase your odds, you really have to apply to as many positions as possible.

This makes finding a placement a numbers game; even though it’s completely fine to have a preference, I wouldn’t get your heart set on one particular experience, but would instead recommend to keep your options open.

Consequently, I advise applying to as many opportunities as possible, and applying for opportunities even if they’re not 100% what you imagined yourself to be doing. This is how I found my placement, and I couldn’t be happier.

However, the caveat of this strategy is the effort required to give your all to every application process. Not only will each application form have different long form questions, but you’ll frequently be required to submit a cover letter.

To stand out, you have to research and personalise all of your material to the company and industry, and inject your own personality into the mix. This process can take immeasurable time and effort, and in many circumstances, my intense research and personalisation efforts led to no response at all from the employer.

This is, in my opinion, the hardest part of the placement finding process, and what separates those who get the amazing experience from those who don’t; submit as many as you can, and put maximum effort in to each.

 

Industrial Placement Finding Tips

  • It’s a number’s game; apply to as many positions in your industry as possible, even if they’re not necessarily aligned to what you think you’ll be doing when you graduate.
  • I’ve been told that, if a cover letter is optional in the application process, most companies reject applications without a cover letter.
  • To give you the most chance to stand out, your cover letter and application answers must be personalised to the company; my winning cover letter linked this blog to the company’s objectives, and along with my CV, got me whittled down to the last 3 candidates.
  • Find something that sets you apart. Going to a good university is not enough these days; from my experience, employers are looking for experiences that show that you have depth, and that you have more to offer than just academics. Any experience that shows good social or communication skills or confidence will set you apart, and will likely be a huge benefit.
  • I would advise looking for placements at small/medium sizes businesses. Here, there will likely be a lot more flexibility for you to take on a greater variety of projects, which will get you the most out of your experience. Larger companies may be more rigid and reluctant in their approach.

 

Interview and Assessment Centres

If you get through the application process, the next stage of recruitment is generally a phone interview, where the interviewer will ask you questions relevant to the placement, and general enquiries into your experience, and university work. Here, I hear it’s all about likeability, and importantly not saying anything that will raise a red flag with the employer.

Following this, the pool of applicants is whittled down, and an assessment centre is conducted to pit all candidates against each other in solo and group activities.

Fortunately, as the recruitment for my position took place at the incipience of COVID restrictions, they replaced the assessment centre with a second interview over Zoom, with solo activities incorporated.

In some organisations, there may be more, or less, stages to the recruitment process. But what’s true for any stage is that they can be a nerve wracking experience, so it’s important to prepare yourself for proceedings, and be okay with the idea that you may get rejected.

 

Industrial Placement Interview Tips

  • With most positions, it’s best to not come across as overly academic. Ensure you are able to draw from non academic experience, and don’t always link your answers to school or university life. If you’re struggling to think of extra curricular activity, I implore you to start something now, to not only benefit yourself, but increase your credibility.
  • Thoroughly research the industry. For example, if you are applying to cyber security, make sure you are clued up on recent news from the industry, so you can link to it in any answers you give. This will likely thoroughly impress the interviewer, and I was specifically asked about this in my interview.
  • Come to the interview prepared with really great questions; on multiple occasions throughout my internship, I’ve heard interviewers talk about some incredible questions applicants have asked, and that that was the standout feature that sealed the deal. They usually recall applicants asking about the industry as a whole, 5 year company plans, or how they’re reacting to a piece of relevant industry news. The more these questions make the interviewer think, the better.
  • Make sure you direct questions to their appropriate target. For example, if you’re having your first phone interview with a member of the HR department, they will likely be less impressed with questions about the Product, than if you are being interviewed by a member of the Product team.
  • Have energy – but not too much. You generally want to walk the line between enthusiastic, but professional.

 

When should I start applying for a placement year?

You should start applying for a placement around October and November of the year before you are due to start your placement. Though some placement applications are open until March, applying to the earliest advertised opportunities will give you the best chance of getting a placement experience.

 

What Do you do In an Internship

The exact tasks you’ll get up to on your placement year will change depending on the industry and programme that you are enrolled in. However, you can expect to take on jobs similar to those working full time in your department. If in doubt, check the job description.

In my experience, throughout the year, I was specifically tasked with:

  • Customer deployments
    • This is the job that the rest of the members of my department undertake.
    • When a customer purchases our product, you discuss with their technical team how best to deploy it on to their architecture, customise it for their use cases, and lead the technical implementation of our software on their specific system.
  • Managing and improving internal Technical Services processes
    • Managing our ‘case’ system, whereby other departments could submit pieces of work that didn’t fall within our typical remit, but we deal with.
    • Completing the work myself, or allocating it to a member of my team.
    • Renovating the system, and leading its migration to a different software, which required communication among multiple different departments.
    • Becoming the ‘go to’ within the whole business for certain topics.
  • Creating a training initiative for new graduates, to get them up to speed and familiar with our software and deployment process in a quicker and more robust way.
  • Internally documenting processes, to futureproof knowledge.
  • Leading the improvement of problematic processes within our department, and between other departments.

 

The above are just examples of what you may get up to in a work placement. I was very privileged in the fact that, as this was a medium sized company, and I had evidently showed my capability in the early stages of the internship, I was given the opportunity to work on projects with a company wide impact, sometimes alongside management and C level executives.

 

How I Got the Most of My Placement Experience

So, let’s say you’ve got a position, congratulations!

You may think you have all the time in the world, with a whole year at your disposal; but be rest assured, that will be over in a blink. How can you make sure that the year doesn’t pass you by, and that you get the highest return on investment of your time?

The simple answer is to do as much as possible, and get as much exposure as you can. To achieve this, it’s all about being proactive.

A can-do attitude and a display of excellence within the first few months will likely set you up for a great rest of your experience.

In doing this, you’ll show that you have the capability to be an asset for the organisation, and, if they can, they’ll move you on to higher ticket, more diverse, and more interesting projects.

Getting involved in the aforementioned will likely expose you to a new array of technical and interpersonal requirements, which will allow you to cover much more ground.

This is exactly what happened in my circumstance, and is a blessing of a small-medium sized company, as they have the power and flexibility to be able to involve capable interns in more important and influential work.

Once you’re playing at that level, saying ‘yes’ to most things that come your way, regardless of your comfort levels, will categorically lead to you getting the most out of your time.

If you’re in a position to, I would also recommend using your freedom (as you may not be fully ‘part of the department’) to conversate and shadow members of other departments, to get a feel for how the whole process works.

 

What Did I Want to Get out of My Internship?

Going in, most of my focus was on technical experience.

I was aware that the interpersonal aspects of work life would also be exercised, but not to the degree that they actually were.

As I’ve already touched on, I also really wanted experience to put on my CV, to differentiate me from other graduates.

All of these points were met and exceeded:

  • I gathered an immeasurable amount of technical experience, that otherwise goes untaught.
  • I was able to take my interpersonal skills to the next level, which will set you up for success in any career.
  • All points considered, and the depth of tasks I got involved with, it was an unparalleled experience for my CV.

 

The Benefits of My Internship Experience

As we’ve already ascertained, doing an internship is an extremely beneficial experience that goes beyond the obvious. If you’re torn whether to apply for a year in industry, closely review the following, to see how much of an impact it could have on you.

 

1. Immense Knowledge: What do you learn on a placement?

  • Industry specific information – By surrounding yourself with an industry for a year, you will certainly pick up an understanding of the nuances of its operation. In my instance, I garnered a good understanding of different network technologies, specifically communications, which I previously had no idea about. This information can be useful in wider contexts.
  • General practical skills and theoretical knowledge – Industry independent, a placement will likely expose you to a multitude of technologies and areas of interest in your field of study that just don’t get covered in university. No matter which ‘industry’ you go in to, this knowledge will give you experience to draw from in the future, and a head start. In my case, this was exposure to different customer architecture setups, which stay consistent with any business – extremely useful, but untaught, stuff.
  • Your strengths, weaknesses, and where you need to improve – If you’re honest with yourself and get the most out of your placement, you’ll be thrown out of your usual comfortable routine, and will have to face the reality that you’re not superman. In doing this, you’ll find areas where you can improve, which will allow you to put a plan in place to legitimately grow.

 

2. Relationship Building

I was very fortunate to have a great team to surround myself with, with mostly everyone being super supportive, and happy to help. This was exacerbated as I had a dedicated ‘mentor’ that was my go to for any burning questions or advice, who I had regular catch up calls with. Throughout the year, I got to know a lot of these people well.

This hospitality extended in to management and beyond, with mostly everyone displaying a friendly and positive demeanour.

 

Six employees at a London bar
First time meeting the team in person!

 

You shouldn’t expect all of your colleagues to become lifelong friends, however I can categorically say that I’ll keep in touch with some of these guys for the rest of my career (and in a couple of cases, personal life), some of which, by chance, may provide opportunities in the future.

What’s more, as I was working with many other teams such as Sales, Sales Operations, and Architecture, I was able to build good relationships in many different sectors of the business, which adds variety, and experience dealing with different people, into the mix.

 

3. Valuable Insight into Business

Thinking you know how a business works, and how it actually works, are two different things.

Throughout the year, I was able to see and experience how the cogs churn together to achieve one objective, and the ‘routes’ and processes in place that allow that to happen.

This knowledge will allow you to move to and settle in to any similar business with ease.

 

4. Transformed Presentation Skills

I was given multiple opportunities to present material during my experience, including regular ‘presentations’, and ‘technical demos’ of our products.

Historically being a weakness of mine, I used the opportunities as a playground to improve this crucial skill, with remarkable results.

I’m now much more comfortable presenting anything to any party, and can usually radiate confidence during my delivery – I’m not perfect, but immeasurably better than 365 days ago.

If you want to get far in a career, you have to be able to master the art of high-ticket one to many conversations; cultivating this skill in an environment where you’ve given the benefit of the doubt is one of the best ways to do it.

 

5. Robust Adaptiveness

As I had such a variety of tasks, I was required to be very adaptable, and be able to switch between different frames of mind and skill sets on the fly.

This was at first tricky; managing multiple different projects, all requiring different skills and knowledge, is inherently a difficult task.

However, with practice, it became much easier to balance the load, and understand the priority and way to respond to my responsibilities.

 

6. Professional Confidence

This benefit really wraps up all the above into one package.

At its core, confidence is really just understanding and capability. The whole experience will give you the opportunity to understand the industry better, and your own personal strengths and weaknesses, which allows you to be come more capable based on that.

 

7. Financial and Work Prospects

I was paid for my placement, so you get the obvious financial benefit of wages. More about this in the next section.

However, I was also offered a generous package to return back to the organisation. This only makes sense; companies are always looking to add high quality and capable people to their roster, and hiring from someone who has worked for them previously is a win-win scenario. You’re already aware of their methodologies, workflow and products, and they’re not taking a gamble on a graduate with little experience. Use this to your advantage, and become someone they can’t let go.

 

Did I Get Paid for my Placement Year?

I was paid a base salary of £18,000 for my placement year.

However, it is not standard practice for interns to receive a salary; some programmes require students to take on unpaid positions, which just have the benefit of experience.

That said, some universities, including mine, only allow their students to take paid opportunities.

If you impress, you may qualify to be put on to the bonus scheme.

 

Placement Experience Reflection: Is it Worth Doing a Placement Year?

In my experience, it is 100% worth doing a placement year.

Regardless that it’s opportunity to grow as a person more so that a full time position, as you will likely have more flexibility and variety of tasks, as I’ve also mentioned, it isn’t enough to just have a degree from a good university anymore.

The job market is getting ever more competitive, and you need something radical to differentiate yourself.

Committing to bagging a year in industry will make you individually more capable, and give you something unparalleled to always move your CV to the top of the pile.

Want more? Check out my video for more advice, and information on my year in industry!

 

 

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