Student perspective: A professional start - my experience and growth during a placement year

Posted in: Work Experience

Matthew, a Doctoral student in Pharmacy and Pharmacology writes about his placement experience.

During your undergraduate studies, the primary aim is to establish the theoretical foundation in your chosen field of study. It offers an opportunity to immerse yourself in real-world work relevant to your area of study.

I had the opportunity to go on a placement year during the third year of my studies. Pursuing this opportunity involved an extensive search for positions, numerous applications, attendance at various applicant days, and facing multiple rejections before securing a placement that was right for me.

My placement year was an eye-opening experience, presenting both challenges and rewards. Ultimately, it served as a pivotal experience, teaching me valuable insights into the practicalities of the working world within the specific sector I aimed to pursue.

Application Process: Securing the Right Opportunity

Placement opportunities are usually released from September and throughout the academic year, peaking between November and March. Most positions will start in the summer and typically last between 11 – 13 months (even though it is called a placement year!).

I started by looking at big companies soon after the academic year started in October. I was mostly looking either directly at company websites, as most larger companies will have webpages dedicated to placement opportunities, or the website Rate My Placement. This site provides current placement opportunities, as well as reviews from past students. Glassdoor is also another good website that provides reviews of workplaces and companies, they aren’t specific to placements… but can help to provide an overview. The university's careers page, MyFuture, also lists placement opportunities from companies both in and outside of the UK, just filter your search by ‘Work Placements (Sandwich)’ to find them.

The applications themselves usually consist of submitting a CV and cover letter, although the bigger the company the longer the application process, which is unsurprising considering the number of applications they must get! In some cases, you may have psychometric tests, situation assessments, or even applicant days (we’ll touch on that next).

Navigating Applicant Days

After numerous applications, I got invited to an applicant day. Applicant days are typically 4 – 8 hours spent with a group of other applicants whilst being assessed. Usually, the day will consist of exams, group activities, interviews and even networking events (I bet you can’t wait!).

In my case, there were around 8 of us, and the day started with icebreakers, followed by a group activity, and a maths exam. We then paused for a networking lunch with management and then had individual interviews where I gave a presentation about my suitability for the role. We finished around 3 pm and found out the result a few weeks later. Spoiler alert… I didn’t get the position, but it did teach me valuable lessons about applicant days.

As opposed to psychometric testing, or interviews alone, applicant days assess multiple skills in one day, some more directly than others. Math tests are obvious, but group activities and even networking are all assessed. These are usually through observation, so the aim is to stand out but not too much. But these days are nothing to be worried about, ultimately it is your personality and fit for the role that matters most, so if you’re not right for the role that’s fine, there’ll always be other positions around the corner.

Getting the Most Out of Your Placement

Placements are great opportunities to learn about the working world, build experience, and learn transferable skills that will help you in the future. To get the most out of your placement the key is to throw yourself into it. Placements provide unique opportunities to try out new things, so saying yes to these new tasks, and overcoming new problems builds transferable skills (… or failing that, some good interview stories).

My placement was based in a laboratory, so training in certain techniques was a large part of the role, in addition to using new equipment and gaining general experience working in this environment. This is the primary area of learning for placement, whether it is learning job-specific skills or new techniques and theories.

But placements are also great for learning soft skills that universities don’t necessarily cover. This can include things like email etiquette, something that may seem simple to some, but there is a true art to creating easy-to-follow, short and sharp, polite but forward, informative without fluff, and achieving all of this before your recipient falls asleep. Other examples are learning how a company works on the inside, interacting with management and the ability to meet targets. After working and having completed my degree I can say from experience that these lessons I learned were very valuable, and I’m grateful that I did it.


Placement schemes are ideal for students who wish to get hands-on experience in their desired field before heading out into the world. They are incredibly useful to assess whether a career is right for you and whether it suits your working style, for me being able to get hands-on experience in a laboratory was exactly what I wanted, and it helped to show me that I wanted to work in a lab after graduating. However, it also showed me that the career path I had chosen was not right for me and allowed me to rethink what I wanted out of a career and what route I wanted to go down, making it an invaluable experience.

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Posted in: Work Experience


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