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Is it worth doing a Placement year?

A-level students have numerous life-changing decisions to make including which university to attend and what course to undertake. Another decision that should require attention is whether or not to do a course with a placement year included. Placement years are placed between the 2nd and 3rd year of university and are usually between 9-12 months in duration.

Degrees are more common than ever and just because you have one, does not guarantee you a job. UK unemployment fell by 37,000 between September and November 2013 [1]. Despite this, unemployment between 16-24 year olds rose by 1,000 to 957,000. Thankfully unemployment between 16-24 year olds in 2014 has fallen to 853,000, down 2% compared with the previous year [2]. There are still an alarming number of people unemployed between 16 and 24 years old due to an ageing population and many employers favouring experience of the old workforce. Sandwich placements offer students a great opportunity to gain relevant work experience and set their CV apart from others, vastly increasing the chance of finding a job after university. A placement year can help break a common cycle that some young people will be all too familiar with ‘need a job for experience, need experience for a job’. Employers offering temporary placements don’t expect students to have any or much relevant experience and this is why placement years are a great opportunity to break the cycle before your career has even begun.

The main advantages of doing a placement year are quite obvious...experience you can only gain in the workplace and the chance to earn some money whilst at university. Other positives of doing a placement year include meeting new people, making new friends and gaining contacts that could be useful after university. A year of working should help you become a more rounded person, teaching you what is expected of you in the workplace from day to day and hopefully improving social skills and communication skills. Research by ASET in 2008 suggested that students with placements years were more likely to achieve better grades than students who did not do a placement year. Some students will leave university still unsure about what career they want. A placement year will definitely help in making career decisions after university [3].

The question is... why wouldn’t you want to do a placement year? For the fortunate individuals who get offered placements at the first or second time of asking, finding a placement will not seem particular difficult. However, many students will have several unsuccessful applications and some may not get one altogether. The disappointment of rejection will be taken with a pinch of salt for some, but for the more self-conscious characters unsuccessful applications can affect confidence. You also have to take into consideration the time it takes to search for available placements, the time to fill out application forms, completing personalised covering letters and preparing for interviews. These factors are time consuming, consequently they can reduce available study time and therefore grades, if you are still looking for a placement around exam time especially.

I am a Biomedical student, unsurprisingly the majority of placements available are laboratory based, but not all. There are many alternatives if you would like something different; education, business, museums and zoos are just a few examples of other options. If you decide that the work your course prepares you for is not for you, there are other lines of work which will overlap with your course which you may find preferable. This applies to most courses; law for example has placements with solicitors in the courts, legal departments of commercial and industrial companies and the public sector on local councils.

Another factor that needs mentioning when considering a placement is money. Placements are an excellent opportunity to earn money whilst at university, money which can be saved and used in the final year giving the option to take a reduced loan, lowering the reliance on student finance. However, some placements are unpaid and the maximum loan from student finance is £2,347 for students on placements living away from home in England [4]. Obviously this money is not sufficient enough to live off even for the shrewdest of spenders. Therefore prospective placement students need to be aware they may have to fund their placements via other means, perhaps the bank of mum and dad or savings. Unfortunately you still have to pay tuition fees during your placement year although the fees are reduced; the degree of the reduction will depend on the university you attend and household income. If you opt for a placement in Europe you may be eligible for an Erasmus grant, the amount received will depend on the country you will be living in.

Placements also offer a great opportunity to experience something new and work abroad temporarily for a year, an opportunity that may not present itself again in the future. Working abroad is not just limited to Europe with many universities offering placements in Asia, Africa, North and South America. The number of work-abroad placements are limited and the competition for these places is high. Due to 2nd year students having understandingly little or no work experience in their respected studies, grades from your 1st year at university will play a significant role in the placement you get or don’t get. If you intend to do a placement year, especially abroad, good grades are essential to give yourself the best chance of getting a good placement. You cannot afford to cruise through your 1st year of university, not that you would anyway!

You don’t have to be on a placement year when you arrive at university to do a placement. Universities will allow you change courses provided they overlap, for instance Biology can switch to Zoology or vice versa. You can also add the placement year to your course if you decide you want the experience. In my opinion doing a placement year is a no brainer and I’m surprised that not more people elect to take one on. The experience you gain will significantly enhance your chances of getting a job immediately after university. On top of that a placement will help progress your knowledge and maturity, doing your grades in final year no harm whatsoever.

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