Unfortunately for many of us students a degree alone will no longer guarantee us a job in our preferred industry, as record numbers of young people flock to university in an attempt to stave off the scary prospect of entering the job market. Well aware of this fact, the number of students realising the importance of unpaid work placements is rocketing, with most companies being fairly open to taking on “workies”.
As an aspiring journalist (along with half the world it seems), I’ve been on my fair share of placements over the last few years. What I’ve learnt along the way is that you really DO get out as much as you put in. Sitting in front of a computer all week, content in doing nothing besides making the odd cup of tea, isn’t going to impress anyone. Most companies have countless numbers of us passing through their doors, so here are a few ways to make sure that you stand out...
Preparation is key
Firstly, make sure that you’ve researched the company, department and area that you’re going to be placed in. A quick browse through the company website and Twitter account can give you a good feel for the environment you’ll be working in. Likewise make sure that you have some knowledge of the local “patch”.
Secondly, have an idea of what you’d like to be involved in whilst on the placement. If you have a particular area that you’d like to learn more about, ask to shadow somebody relevant. Likewise, if you have specific skills that you’d like to offer up (writing, editing, research, etc.) then do so! It can be useful to have a chat with your supervisor at the start so that a) you can find out what is expected of you and b) you can tell them what you’d ideally like to be doing.
You’ve heard it all before, but make an effort to dress smartly, turn up on time (a tad early is a good rule to go by) be polite and conscientious, and act as you would if this was paid employment. Taking overly long lunch breaks and continuously texting on the job wouldn’t be tolerated in your part-time bar/waitressing/retail job. Just because you’re not being paid doesn’t mean you have nothing to lose. Act professionally and you’ll be treated professionally, meaning more opportunities will hopefully come your way.
Don’t be afraid to ask questions
There’s nothing wrong with curiosity, so don’t be afraid to ask questions. Whether it’s learning how something works, finding out if there’s anything you can help with, or even chatting to colleagues about their career paths and advice, it pays to be interested! It really is the best way to learn and will help you to cultivate important relationships with colleagues.
Keep a note
It can be really handy to keep a note of everything you do whilst on placement. Listing what you’ve done is especially helpful when you come to speak about your role in future CVs, applications or cover letters. Likewise, it is invaluable to keep a note of any contacts made during your placement. Finally, and this may just be me, but I find it really helpful to sketch out a quick floor plan and note down the names of people that you’re introduced to. Think back to freshers’ week and you’ll remember just how difficult it is to remember so many new names. When approaching anyone it comes across as really professional to refer to them by name, and hopefully they’ll appreciate it.
Be willing to muck in
It’s important not to expect too much from your placements – that stint at your local radio station won’t land you a guest DJ spot on your first day. However, the more you show willingness, the more likely you’ll be asked to help out with the more interesting and relevant tasks. Be friendly and approachable, take your turn with the tea making, and ask around to see if anyone has anything they need help with. The trust that you build up with colleagues as a result could lead to bigger things. If you’ve got an idea for a story for instance (apologies for the journalism slant) then don’t be afraid to pitch it. You could get your first proper by-line!
Less complaints, more quiet words
Unless you feel you’re really being mistreated I wouldn’t suggest any sort of complaint, but if you do worry that your enthusiasm is being exploited and you’re left completing menial tasks day in day out, why not have a word with your supervisor? Just explain that you feel you would like a bit more variety to help you get the most out of your placement. I’ve had this happen on a couple of occasions and more often than not your boss will respect you for being so upfront. It’s often easy for the workies to get overlooked in a busy office so it’s up to you to make your voice heard.
Networking, networking and more networking!
I cannot stress enough how important it is to make an effort with the people you meet on placement. Be open, identify the friendly faces, and stay in touch! A thank you card at the end of your placement can help to keep you in people’s minds, as well as the occasional email. Even if it is just asking to shadow a colleague for another couple of days, grab any opportunities. Often contacts can introduce you to others which can lead to further placements. See the people you meet on placements as your link to the working world that you hope to be a part of, and make the most of them.
There may be a lucky few of us who waltz into the perfect job after graduation, but for most, a bit of hard graft along the way will probably be needed. Yes that does mean learning how to make the perfect cup of tea! But just as important is perfecting a professional manner, learning how to best offer up the skills you feel make you useful, and most importantly, not being afraid to ask questions.
There’s only so much you can learn from lecturers and the internet. Some things can only be learnt in the workplace, from the people doing the jobs that you’d quite like one day. Just as important as taking the opportunities that come your way is making the most of them. Good luck!