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Careers Centre

Work experience matters

Work experience is becoming ‘essential’ in the UK when it comes to securing graduate level employment.

During the 2015-16 academic year, more than 90% of the UK’s leading graduate employers offered paid work experience programmes for students and recent graduates. Altogether, 55% of St Andrews finalists had completed some element of work experience with a graduate employer whilst at university – much higher than the survey average. More than two-fifths had a part-time job during term-time and three-fifths had some form of casual vacation work.
Source: High Fliers - The UK Graduate Careers Survey 2016

Why work experience is important

Work experience is now a necessity in many occupations and sectors, and a huge advantage in most.  Sometimes it may lead to a permanent job offer.  There are a number of benefits you can acquire from work experience, including:

  • developing specific knowledge of a sector
  • developing sought-after employability skills such as commercial awareness, teamwork, verbal and written communication, project management and IT skills
  • finding out what jobs would suit you
  • finding out more about your strengths and weaknesses
  • developing a network of contacts to help you in the future

Types of work experience

Employers look to recruit graduates who have some knowledge of the world of work.  Each opportunity, no matter how short, can help you build up a portfolio of experiences to impress future employers.

This work-related learning can be can be obtained from a variety of work experience options:

Internships or summer placements / vacation placements

These are offered mostly to students in their penultimate year by firms who need large numbers of graduates, eg law, accountancy, banking and management consultancy. Most last between 2-12 weeks. Many law firms offer placements at Christmas, Easter and the summer, and some banks offer short Easter placements to first and second year students. They aim to give you an insight into the company and the work involved, and you are usually expected to work on a specific project. Companies are increasingly using internships to find future graduate recruits, so if you are successful you may be offered a graduate job at the end of a placement. Some smaller organisations in more varied areas offer them too, but they will not be advertised in just one place. Searching the web is one step forward. Also it is often possible to “make your own” internship, particularly in sectors where they are not advertised or if you are in an earlier year.

Work Shadowing

These are unpaid opportunities which are on offer from our Work Shadowing Programme, which runs during the Winter, Spring and Summer holidays. These shadow days last between one day and one week, and allow you to spend some time observing a member of staff in an organisation of interest to you. It is a great way to gain a better, hands on understanding of a job, sector or potential employer.

Some larger employers advertise Work Shadowing/insight days as part of their outreach programmes to 1st and 2nd year students – check the websites of employers of interest to you. Or, if you want to see what alumni have been up to since graduation, you can shadow them with the Work Shadowing Programme.

Casual or part-time jobs

Work experience in a pub, shop or other type of “student” job is recognised by graduate employers as valuable, so long as you can demonstrate in your applications and interviews the transferable skills, insights and achievements you have gained. For information about part-time job vacancies in the St Andrews area register to become a member of the Job Shop.

Insight/Spring internships

Insight (or Spring internships), are short programmes aimed mainly at 1st and 2nd year students to gain an insight into how an organisation works. They tend to be found in corporate sectors, eg finance, banking or law and can last from a few days to a couple of weeks. As well as gaining some work experience, these opportunities could provide you with useful contacts and possibly a place on the company's formal placement or internship scheme in future.


Students choose to volunteer for a variety of reasons.  For some it provides an opportunity to find out more about a sector or an organisation, to develop new skills or build on existing experience and knowledge.  For others it offers the chance to give something back to the university, their community or make a difference to the people around them.  Whatever your motivation, volunteering can give you the edge in a competitive job market.

Industrial Placement

An industrial placement is a period of work built into your degree course, usually between your first two years and final year at university. At St Andrews, students studying some science subjects can opt to spend up to a year in industry, and there are also opportunities for students studying other disciplines to work abroad as part of the Erasmus programme.

Entrepreneurial organisations

If you are considering starting your own business at some stage, undertaking work experience in an entrepreneurial organisation is a great way to find out what it takes and contribute to building a business. Visit the Starting a business page for more advice.


Projects may be offered as part of your degree programme. These give you the opportunity to work on a “real life” project  for an outside organisation. These can often involve presenting your proposal to a panel from the organisation which can provide impressive content for your CV.

Finding hidden opportunities

the st andrews cathedral
Up to 80%

of jobs and internships are never advertised

By spending a small amount of time seeking out these opportunities you will find a much wider range of opportunities than advertised vacancies alone.

Why don’t some employers advertise their vacancies?

“Hidden” opportunities are mainly found within smaller organisations who don’t have the finances or dedicated HR staff to advertise and process applications.  They are also found in career areas such as fashion and media, which have more interested people than the number of vacancies available.

How do I find ‘hidden’ opportunities?

Do your research
Understand the organisation – what do they do, what differentiates them from their competitors, who are their clients and which area of the company you wish to work in. Use all the information sources at your disposal – social media, press releases and personal contacts.

Tell people you are looking - you never know the connections people have. Many students have accessed opportunities through their friend’s parents. Alumni can also be a great source of contacts. Using social media such as LinkedIn  can be a great way to build your network. Visit the Networking section for more advice.

Work out your strategy
A targeted approach is more likely to be successful. Draw up a list of potential organisations and if you can work out who is the best person to contact.  LinkedIn company information can help you identify key personnel. A phone call is less easy to ignore than an email, but you will need to be both confident and prepared if you decide to call.

CV/Covering Letter
This needs to be structured and tailored to the company and role you are interested in. Include information such as dates available and the opportunities you will consider, ie work shadowing as well as work experience. Covering letters and speculative applications.

Unpaid work experience or internships

This is a contentious topic as many employers exploit students and recent graduates through offering only unpaid opportunities to gain experience. They do this knowing that the positions will be taken up as getting relevant experience is a vital step towards securing a first paid position in many sectors. The media, politics and fashion sectors are notable offenders.

The terms internships and work experience have no legal standing, what is important is whether your relationship with an organisation where you are providing your time is that of employee, worker or volunteer. In broad terms, an organisation is only legally entitled to the unpaid labour of a volunteer. See Employment rights and pay for interns for more detail.

The Careers Centre does not support or condone exploitative employment practices and we recognise the dilemmas in which students often find themselves as they seek useful experience. We will only advertise unpaid UK opportunities which are either genuinely volunteering in nature or are short term (ie less than four weeks) opportunities where the primary purpose of the work experience is to offer useful experience to the student or graduate. This will be demonstrated by a commitment to explain the organisation’s activities and to provide feedback and advice to the student. In other words such short-term/ part time opportunities offer an experience and benefits which are similar to those of work shadowing.

In addition, many of our Careers A-Z resource links, eg for recruitment agencies or representative employers in some sectors, may take you to advertisements for unpaid opportunities. We recommend that you investigate whether any particular unpaid opportunity which interests you is legally compliant or not. We only undertake to have vetted those opportunities which are advertised through our vacancies database.

Funding resources for travel, projects and unpaid work experience