I’m now 10 months into my placement year at the Office for National Statistics and the time has flown by. Given my experience, I thought it might be useful to talk about what I’ve learnt about pushing myself, networking and making the most of my placement.
You are more than just a placement student
It can be easy to stay in your comfort zone, especially when you’re in the habit of doing so. This applies to work too. It can be an easy trap to fall into for many sandwich students to just try to get through the year without putting too much effort in, but, for the most part, you’ll get as much out of the placement as you put in.
Although you’re only there for a year, don’t see yourself as “just a placement student”. Whilst initially it will take time for you to get up to speed with how your team works and what is expected of you, once you have got to grips with your role, don’t stop there - use your year in industry as an opportunity to develop yourself. Depending on the size of your employer, there may be other opportunities for you to get involved with.
At the start of the year, I was given the opportunity to join the ONS’ Student Engagement Team, a group of students who run placement student initiatives. The responsibilities included running/presenting weekly meetings, organising the Techniquest charity volunteering scheme for students and answering any queries other placement students may have.
The thought of presenting in front of 40 odd placement students was pretty daunting and initially held me back from applying, but eventually I bit the bullet and got into the team (to my initial delight and horror). Looking back, it’s a part of year that I have really enjoyed, and I feel that I’ve developed my presentation skills. I realised that the only way I’m going to become more confident presenting is through practicing and putting myself in those situations.
Whilst it was nerve-wracking at first, its not something I have to worry quite so much about anymore, and so I’m really glad I made that decision despite my initial concerns. Recently I gave a presentation to my division which received great feedback from several people, but I might not have had the confidence to do this had I not built up presentation experience in other environments.
Its likely there will be similar opportunities in your role. Try to ask yourself what the reasons are for not taking the opportunity, and how valid they are. If those opportunities are less obvious, try to ask your line manager if there are any extra responsibilities you can take on. The more you take on, the more value you’ll be getting from your placement, and the more examples you’ll have to draw on in future interviews. Don’t shy away from development, your future self will appreciate the effort.
In many organisations there may be opportunities to join teams outside of your usual business role. Through these teams, you will likely develop new skills, meet new people, and better understand how different areas of your organisation work. I have really enjoyed working in several teams, as it has given the placement year much more variety and allowed me to develop my teamwork. It also allowed me to work with other placement students – one project that I am particularly proud of was updating the ONS’ GDP and events in history page. I only got this opportunity as a result of joining a team of volunteers.
Take training opportunities
Working for the ONS, I have found that they offer lots of training courses for a wide array of development areas. In fact, once a month employees are encouraged to take a few hours to join a training course. Whilst not all employers will offer as much training as ONS, try to find time to make the most of any available/relevant courses, as they are often ran by more experienced co-workers who have valuable insights.
Think about your career/network
During my time in ONS, I’ve felt keen to return to the civil service after university. Through some of these calls, I have met some civil servants with some really interesting careers. By signing up for these calls I have had the chance to ask various questions, such as advice for people in my position. These discussions are invaluable for thinking about your future career. I was lucky enough to have a career chat with the chief economist at the ONS, just because I asked for one, which proved to be an interesting talk given his role and work experiences.
It’s worth spending some time thinking about whether you would like to return to your organisation, or somewhere similar. Some employers may have schemes that give you the chance to return after your final year at university, so look out for these. Even if your placement year has put you off applying for a job there, it may be worth contacting people from other departments to talk about their experience. Use the networking opportunities available to you.
Working in the civil service, there have been many opportunities to network across various departments. There are many coffee roulette schemes which randomly pair you up with someone from any of the government departments. These give you a chance to chat to somebody and learn about the work that other departments do, giving you an idea of whether you may like working there. I would really recommend signing up for these, if not just for a chat with somebody!
Record your achievements
It can be easy to get to the end of the placement year having forgotten many of the smaller projects that you worked on. Something I have found useful is keeping a record of whenever I have accomplished something noteworthy, like publishing a new webpage or presenting in a high-attendance meeting, as well as the skills I developed during these tasks, and any setbacks I overcame. This allows you to have past-experience examples ready for when future interviews come along, as well as helping you to better remember the placement year.
To finish, I thought I’d share some practical tips that have helped me this year. At the start of the year, I wasn’t great at managing my emails. Keeping on top of these by using folders and regularly sorting them will help you feel less overwhelmed. Similarly, keeping a to-do list with all your priorities has helped me feel less stressed because seeing a list of tasks makes sure you’re not forgetting anything. Finally, if you can start on a piece of work, then do it sooner rather than later. Especially if you have the time, as this may not be the case in the future.