Pros and cons of doing a placement year
Updated: Jun 8
Placement years are becoming increasingly commonplace, with more and more undergraduate courses offering an optional “sandwich” year spent working in industry. Doing an industrial placement year will usually turn a three year course into a four year one - you'll spend the extra year working in your chosen industry, learning 'on the job'. Placement years differ to traditional, shorter internships in that the extended duration allows students to take up a role within a business that carries real responsibility.
Some courses in which hands-on experience is vital to learning – like medicine, nursing and teaching – have always included compulsory placements; placement years have also long been highly encouraged, if not always mandatory, with other 'hands on' courses like engineering as well.
Now, however, more courses are offering students the option of getting some real work experience while still studying for their degree. Economics, marketing, pharmacology and even music are just some of the subjects you can study at degree level with the option of a year of practical training included.
After my second year of my BSc Economics degree, I decided to take a year out working in industry at PwC Banking and Capital Markets department in London. During my placement year I was working full-time while also studying for the ACA exams and completing some university coursework related to my placement year.
Taking a year out of university was daunting at first, but it was more than worth the effort in the end!
Here’s a list of pros and cons based on my experience for students contemplating whether to do a placement year:
1. Increase your employability
By far, the largest benefit of doing a placement year is your increased employability. It’s the main reason I chose to take the plunge. Most students will graduate with little to no work experience relevant to their degree, so having a full year of experience is guaranteed to propel you miles ahead of the competition.
Completing a year in industry provides you with the soft skills needed to be successful in the workplace, as well as more technical skills required by your chosen industry. Additionally, the fact that you took the initiative to complete an extra year demonstrates you’re career focused and think strategically about your future. This is the kind of commitment that future employers want to see from candidates.
If you perform well during your placement year, you may get offered a permanent role one you graduate. If you’re on a tier 4 student visa like I was, this is a great opportunity to remain in the UK after graduation to work. Student visas expire shortly after graduation which doesn’t give international students the opportunity to apply for jobs and gain work experience.
2. Gain direction for your future career
At the end of my second year at university, I was torn about what I wanted to do post-graduation. After working at PwC for a year I realised this is the path I wanted to take in the short term.
A year in industry is a terrific way to trial a career before jumping head-first into a permanent graduate job. The best-case scenario is you find a sector you love and would like to pursue further and the worst case is that you decide that particular path isn’t for you. Even if that happens, you’ll still have gained a plethora of valuable, transferable skills.
Also, most graduate programmes involve signing a contract for 2-3 years whereas when you do a placement you only need to commit to a contract for 9-12 months.
3. Develop your social and professional networks
In the workplace, you’re likely to make friends with people of all ages and life stages and by diversifying your social circles, you’ll gain useful insight into the lives of people different from yourself, which helps you become a more well-rounded person.
With regards to the growth of your professional network, there’s no knowing the future opportunities that might arise via the connections you make during your year in industry. As mentioned earlier, many companies offer graduate roles upon the successful completion of your placement year and it’s your professional network that advocate for you, and your work that will result in that.
4. Money, Money, Money
When on your industrial placement year, you will earn a salary (yay!). There’s a special novelty that comes from earning your first steady income.
It won't be as much as you'd probably earn in your field one you've graduated but it should still be a decent wage. I earned £5k less than a first year graduate even though we did the exact same role, but when I returned to the company I came in as a second year graduate which made up for it. How much you get will depend on the size of company you work for and what industry you are in.
5. Develop better habits, confidence, focus and work ethic for your final year
Doing a placement year helped me develop a strong work ethic and a routine which I carried with me into my final year at university which translated into better results. Even though my final year was more intense, I felt my time management had improved massively and I found myself getting up at 7am every morning hitting the library and finishing at a reasonable time which enabled me to do other things I enjoyed.
I felt a lot sharper and more focused. I was more confident in my abilities and understood better the importance of relationships both socially and professionally.
6. Experience living in a different part of the country (or the world!)
For some, a placement year provides the chance to live in an entirely different part of the country, or even the world. There are plenty of opportunities at home and abroad, so go ahead and pair your year in industry with the opportunity to experience a different culture, or way of life.
I lived in London during my placement year which was very different than Brighton which is where I used to live for university. The City of London is a financial district so I didn't consider anywhere else.
1. Missing out on a year with your university friends
FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) can set in when considering a year in industry. If your friends are staying at university to finish their degrees, you’ll worry about missing out on all the laughs of final year. Although, fear not, third year is unlikely to be filled with nights out and lazy late nights watching movies on the sofa with your housemates, as dissertations really do take a toll on your social life.
While it’s true some of your friends may not be there when you return, others could stay and do masters courses or even end up doing a placement year as well. So, it’s unlikely you’ll be lonely in final year.
I made new friends in my final year some of which I grew much closer to than people I met in my first year, so if anything on the plus side you end up knowing two cohorts of students!
2. Balancing applications with your studies
Trying to secure a placement year in the first place is time consuming. The application process for bigger companies tends to have many stages and can span the course of months. When you reach the final stages, typically consisting of face-to-face interviews and assessment centers, this will involve travel and potentially missing lectures. Although this isn’t ideal, lecturers will usually be understanding and send you the content you will miss if you explain your situation.
When you begin to apply for graduate jobs, having already gone through similar application processes for your placement year, you’ll have a base of experience to draw from and will perform better because of it.
It takes a lot of dedication to stay persistent with the applications and interviews because it can get really tiring. I remember having to travel into London and practicing assessment centre tests till late at night during exam season. So definitely treat it as a priority otherwise you won’t give it the time it requires.
3. Some courses don’t officially offer a year in industry
For some, there’s the slight issue that a placement year isn’t offered as part of their course. If this applies to you, don’t assume that it’s not an option. Talk to your course leader and ask if a year in industry could be accommodated for. After all, it’s in the course leader’s interest for their students to become more employable.
That’s exactly what I did and they basically made it an option after I built a business case for it.
4. You still have to pay for university fees
Although you won’t be attending university for the duration of your placement year you’ll still have to pay a largely discounted fees.
I couldn’t rationalise why at first, but when I questioned why I was being charged the university explained that during the year I had to report to my placement officer who was my Finance lecturer, he came to visit me once in the office which was lovely and I had to prepare some coursework related to my placement so the fee was to cover that admin cost as I was still technically enrolled at the university, which makes sense!
Overall, optional placement years are optional! If you’d rather finish your degree quickly or don’t want to pay fees for an additional year there are other ways you can get great practical work experience, like a summer internship or part-time job.
However, if you want to guarantee a full-time job offer right after graduation, are keen to gain some practical work experience or are unsure what you want to commit yourself to after graduating then a placement year is a safe option.
Yes, there are sacrifices that must be made to do placement year, but I think it’s 100% worth the investment!