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 much more capable candidate than when I started the experience, and I will continue to benefit from these rewards for the rest of my professional journey.
In this post I’ll be sharing my thoughts and tips on applying for a placement year, how to make the most of your internship, and the benefits of the whole experience.
My experience explained
I 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.
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 attain an immense amount of experience, which helped me develop 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 focusing on 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! My experience 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.
Is it hard to get a placement year?
The biggest obstacle for me was volume, because there’s usually immense competition for every internship opportunity. 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.
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 lots of time and effort, and in many circumstances, you have to also be prepared to receive no response at all from the employer! This is, in my opinion, the hardest part of the placement finding process.
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.
- Submit a cover letter where possible, even if the application process says that it is optional
- To give you the most chance to stand out, your cover letter and application answers must be personalised to the company
- Find something that sets you apart. 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 mainly 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 you might then be invited to an assessment centre to take part in solo and group activities.
Recruitment for my position was adjusted due to COVID restrictions,and so the assessment centre was replaced with a second interview over Zoom.
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
- Have some examples lined up so that you can draw from non-academic experience, and try not to always link your answers to school or university life
- 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
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.
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
How can you get the most of your 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 might be able to move you on to more diverse, and more interesting projects. Getting involved in a range of projects will likely expose you to a new array of technical and interpersonal requirements, which will allow you to cover much more ground. 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 converse with 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 also curious about the interpersonal aspects of working life. Most of all, I 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
- 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
1. Immense knowledge
- Industry specific information – By immersing yourself within 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 – Any 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 at 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
- 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, who were super supportive, and happy to help. I also had a dedicated ‘mentor’ who was my go-to for any burning questions or advice, and who I had regular catch up calls with. Throughout the year, I got to know a lot of these people well, and I’ll keep in touch with some of these guys for the rest of my career – you never know who 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 in dealing with different people, into the mix.
3. Valuable insight into business
Throughout the year, I was able to see and experience how different parts of an organisation work 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.
As presentations and public speaking were a weakness of mine, I used the opportunities as a playground to improve this crucial skill, with great 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.
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, 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. 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.
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.
Placement experience reflection: was it worth it?
In my experience, it is 100% worth doing a placement year.
It’s an opportunity to grow as a person professionally, particularly in developing flexibility and gaining experience across a variety of tasks. The job market is getting ever more competitive, and you need something to differentiate yourself.
Committing to a year in industry will make you individually more capable, and give you something unparalleled to move your CV to the top of the pile!
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