I can’t believe it’s almost been a year since the start of my placement. The time has absolutely flown by and it's hard to see where it all went. As I’ve began looking towards my final year at university, I’ve spent some time reflecting on the last year.
Last September, I began my 12-month placement at the Office for National Statistics (ONS) and moved to Cardiff. I wasn’t entirely sure how much I’d be going into the office (it only ended up being 3 times over the year!) but I’m glad I moved. Despite my very limited exposure to working in the office, I enjoy independence, and it gave me the chance to make some new friends, as well as to explore another part of the UK.
I worked on a weekly bulletin, which meant I learnt how to talk to data suppliers and stakeholders, process and analyse data and work to tight deadlines. At times I found that I felt really drained after work, with little energy to do much in the evening. This was generally after a long week and was amplified if I hadn’t had much time off for a while. I saved most of my annual leave to finish early, but I think I might have been better off taking small chunks of time off sporadically, helping me to avoid burnout.
Many civil service roles offer flexi-time which generally allows you to take time off as long as you have made up - or will make up - the hours. I really enjoyed the flexibility this gave but fell into the trap of often trying to build up my hours for the future, rather than allowing myself to finish early here and there. This is something I might do differently in the future.
In terms of productivity, I found that organisation was key for me. Before I kept a list of my priorities, I had a fuzzy idea of things that needed to get done in my head. You can very easily become overwhelmed with things to remember, and those things are often forgotten until they present themselves at the least convenient time! It doesn’t take long to make a to-do list and allocate some time for each task during your day, but it makes a big difference to your stress levels.
Another thing I’ve learnt about productivity is that the hardest part of a task is getting started. I often build up easy tasks to be more taxing than they realistically are, but if you can get started on a piece of work, you’ll have some momentum behind you and it wont feel like so much effort. We also fool ourselves into thinking we’ll feel more motivated later on, giving us more reason to procrastinate. But this is very rarely true. You shouldn’t wait to feel motivated to start something, you have to make a start before you’ll feel more energised to complete a task.
One idea I’ve come back to a lot over the year is ‘getting out of your comfort zone’. People say it all the time (me included now!), but it is really valuable to spend time working on skills that you might not feel comfortable with yet. For me, it was presenting – I imagine this is the case for a lot of people.
At the start of the year, I would be worrying about a presentation I had to do a week in advance. Having taken up various presentation opportunities, I find myself a lot more comfortable with them. I still worry more than I’d like, but I’ve made a lot of progress, and I intend on keeping that up. Getting out of your comfort zone is the most valuable thing you can do for your development.
So, if there’s an opportunity you think would be worthwhile, but you’re nervous about it, it's often best to sign yourself up without overthinking it. You’ll be fine. Nervous probably, but fine, and it won’t be so daunting the next time. You’ll get as much out of your placement as you put in.
Up to Christmas, the time went relatively slower as I got to grips with work in my new team. But since then, it really flew by. On a social level, I wish I had made more effort to meet up with placement students when I had free time. I feel that I had just started making some really good friendships, and now everybody’s moving back to university! So don’t leave it to the last month to start making plans. When you’ve got a whole year, you might think there’s plenty of time for these things, but it’ll go so quickly, so be proactive.
If I were to give myself some advice to my September 2021 self, it would be to not worry so much. I’m a worrier, but things generally work out just fine. Yes, you obviously have to put in effort, but if you think you’ve worked hard on something, you can probably afford to stop stressing.
Looking forward to next year, there’s a lot that I’m excited about. I can’t wait to spend time with my university friends again, and I feel pretty good about that small aspect of university called studying. Having worked 9-5 for a year, I feel ready to spend more time studying than I might have in previous years. I’ve heard that students who have been on placement do better on average than those who haven’t, and so I’m hoping that magically happens without any additional effort on my end!
This placement has reinforced to me that I would like to work in the civil service, because of the opportunity to work for the public good. I think the work-life balance is also better than most private sector firms, although the pay is significantly lower in a field like economics. But right now, pay isn’t the most important aspect of work for me. Maybe that will change someday, but I would rather work in a role where I can make a (hopefully positive!) difference to the country, and the civil service seems to be a good place to start.