Friday, 29 June 2018

Lessons From A Sandwich Year In Work


Taking a 'Sandwich' course that includes a year in work can provide a fantastic kick-start to your career. Having recently completed his placement year, our Editor-in-chief Mohammad Lone explains how you can make the most of it.


Regrettably, most undergraduates' sandwich years have little do with the actual sandwichery.

Adding a year to a traditional Bachelor's degree to spend a year working in industry is an increasingly popular option for many undergraduates in the UK. For some courses in some universities, it is becoming the norm- around 70% of my Economics cohort at the University of Bath go on to do a year long placement.

A year in industry can provide some great opportunities for personal and career development, but given that more and more students are deciding to go down this path, it is becoming increasingly important to stand out and make the most of this year. Simply having a position and an employer's name on your CV may well not be enough to compete in the competitive grad job market.

I've just completed my industrial placement working for a niche management consultancy firm. The year was at times fascinating, at others daunting and occasionally gruelling- here are three of the lessons I've learnt along the way.

1) People

It is highly likely that as an undergrad placement student, you'll be one of the youngest employees in your office- meaning it can be very easy for you to hide yourself out of view and go quietly unnoticed. The common insecurity faced by any young employees is that their older, more 'experienced' colleagues and superiors always know better, and so they should never be challenged or questioned.

Forget your age- yes, you may not be as experienced as your older colleagues, but you are still there to contribute, to ultimately leave an impact. Be sure to reflect on your own skillset and areas where you actually may be stronger than others- be it creativity, use of technology, or anything else, and leverage this. Value yourself, don't be afraid to speak up and make yourself heard.

This means not being afraid to ask questions, contribute ideas in meetings, and being open with your colleagues. Yes, you will not be spinning gold with every question or idea you have, but those you do release will be valued by colleagues and superiors, and make sure they remember you specifically.

What's more, being interactive with others will open the door for you to maximise your network while on placement. Get to know your seniors, and gain their trust. Don't be afraid to reach out to important people you might not work with, like your area Director or even CEO. Ask them to meet for a quick coffee chat to learn from their experiences- if you write the invite succinctly and politely, the worst result you'll get is a "sorry, I'm too busy" but the best result could be an insightful chat, and a connection made.

Also, don't be afraid to get to know colleagues around you on a personal level- even those who you don't directly work with. Work is not always easy or enjoyable, so at least being in a friendly environment can keep spirits up.


2) Feedback

Don't forget why you're on placement. Up there with networking and getting to know important people, you're there to learn. Learn about the world of work, about a particular career or sector you are pursuing, about yourself and your own abilities. The placement experience is part of the learning experience of university- hence why it's engrained into the course. What you learn, and how you develop with these lessons, is what later adds value to you from a future graduate employer's perspective, making you more 'employable'. Even if the career you go on to have is wildly different from that in your placement, there will be transferrable skills.

One of the primary ways you will learn is from feedback- and this is why you should regularly seek out feedback, from your colleagues and particularly your seniors. There are certain times where feedback is absolutely necessary- notably in the first weeks of your placement, and towards the close. However, you should seek feedback throughout the year. This may be on a weekly or monthly basis, whenever your team closes a project, or some other landmark occasion. 

Asking for feedback consistently enables you not just to learn what you do well and what you can improve on, but it allows you to put into practice what you've learnt- it allows you to develop.

Don't forget that feedback can also come from yourself- so keep a diary of your daily activities and notes, with any lessons you learn on the job noted down for future reference.


3) Freedom

Freedom? Isn't being tied to a desk (if you're unlucky) from 9am - 6pm 5 days a week the opposite of free? Especially compared to a university life of free Wednesday afternoons and regular lie-in opportunities?

Well, the hours may not present you as much perceived freedom as university, but you can in fact take advantage of even more freedom if you recognise and utilise the free hours you have. Unlike university, most jobs will not require you to take work home, meaning you will have truly free evenings and weekends. Without the worry of preparation for any upcoming class work or test.

Of course, given that you will be at work, it's crucial to apportion some of this time for rest and relaxation, getting you recharged for the next day of work. 

But, your job itself isn't the only source of personal development on your placement year- your free time can be, too. You can use it to hone a certain skill or hobby you have, or find new ones. You can join sports clubs, whether at your work or in your local area. You can even, if you're real keen, read up throughout the year on your final year course content*.




You could very easily breeze through your placement year, doing the minimum required and just letting time pass by- trust me, I've been through periods of this myself. But if you take a moment to reflect and remember why you're delaying your studies, and actually your graduate life, for a whole a year, you will understand that to make the most of it, you have to work hard and go over and beyond the basic requirements. You'll need to actively question and contribute to discussion, develop connections, collect and utilise feedback for self development, and make the most of the free hours you probably won't have when you go back for final year. This will help you make the most of your placement.

* though, do remember to relish your year free of formal studies.
Mohammad Lone Editor