Placements: What to Expect by Rachel Fisher

Posted on Wednesday 29th January 2014

By Rachel Fisher – EPS Special Features Editor

This is the third instalment of a series of articles geared towards giving advice on all topics surrounding placements. If you’re still unsure whether a placement in industry is for you despite reading the first article in the series, or if you’ve begun your search after reading the second article, this article hopes to enlighten you further. In this article University of Birmingham Students from the College of Engineering and Physical Sciences share their experiences of placement work.  What better way to learn about what to expect as a student working in industry?

The article aims to be representative of all the schools within the College of EPS. To access the responses to the questions asked, click on the links below. 

What were your initial expectations of the placement?

James | Chemical Engineering | Supply Chain Management Industrial Placement 

“I expected a very varied job, in which I’d apply my Chemical Engineering knowledge and learn from those in Industry. I expected to be given my own responsibilities and contribute to the work carried out on site. I was hoping to travel and see other sites within the company and how they differ. I expected a very professional atmosphere which would teach me how to conduct myself in the industrial environment, and build my communication and teamwork ability.”

Andy | Mechanical Engineering |Design & Quality Engineer Placement

“I expected to be under supervision at all times, possibly completing menial tasks or being sent to factory floor.”

How did your experience compare to your expectations?

James | Chemical Engineering | Supply Chain Management Industrial Placement 

“The job was relatively varied. The projects differed and I gained a technical knowledge of the different processes on site. I did not apply much Chemical Engineering knowledge, and I learned very little technically. I did however learn a lot in the context of management and organisation. I was given my own responsibilities and I felt my work was a significant contribution to the site. I was given my own budgets to manage as I saw fit and I was given the freedom to get the work done according to my design, whilst still benefitting from the advice offered by much more experienced engineers. I did not travel as much as I would have liked, and I only saw one other site. The atmosphere was not as professional as I expected, but this did teach me a great deal about the work environment and how to communicate effectively to different types of people.”

Andy | Mechanical Engineering |Design & Quality Engineer Placement

“Contrary to my expectations, I was emailed my main project several weeks before my placement was due to begin; it would involve product and machine testing in addition to software work. Upon arrival I was shown to my desk, logged on to my PC and given a quick run through of the software I would need. The trust and independence I was given from this point on was a pleasant surprise.”

Did you have a mentor? If so, describe their role and how your experience benefitted from their involvement.

Phoebe | Mathematics with Business Management | Risk Advisory Scholarship intern

“Yes, we are allocated a counsellor which is a formal person you go to ask about something related to your work/the placement. Also you have a more informal buddy; you do more social activities with them –we went out for lunch and even went on a night out with a group of the scholars and buddies!”

Alsharif | Civil Engineering | Civil Engineering Consultancy Placement

“I was given mentors at each placement, typically graduates. I had experienced line managers to speak to also, built good relationships with the other interns, HR staff, graduates and experienced engineers. Plenty of support from everyone which made me feel like a part of the team. My advice: talk to everyone and keep asking questions!”

How did the company support your professional and personal development?

Phoebe | Mathematics with Business Management | Risk Advisory Scholarship intern

“Very well – I had meetings with my mentor to discuss my progress regularly.  My project teams always gave me feedback as well as advice on what to do in the future to get into the job I want.  I still keep in contact with some of them now I am back at university. Also the scholars had many social events to get to know each other as well as all living in the same halls over the ten-week placement and this was a great way to socialise and talk about our internship experiences.”

James | Chemical Engineering | Supply Chain Management Industrial Placement 

“The company did not support my professional or personal development. No training was offered. I had occasional meetings with my supervisor to discuss things, but it was specific to projects and less about me. I received support from particular members of staff, who helped develop me professionally and personally, but this was credit to their efforts, and not the company itself.”

Molly | Civil Engineering | Site Manager’s Assistant

“I had weekly meetings with my mentor to check I was happy with the experience I had gained that week and make plans for the following week to ensure I was getting the experience I wanted, and that we agreed would be beneficial to both my interest and academic learning to date. Still now George emails me from time to time to check that University is going well, so even now the company continues to support me. I also gained qualifications which will be of huge benefit for a future career in this field.”

Rosalind | Chemistry | Chemistry Internship

“Alongside the project work, the company ran skills training opportunities, as well as inviting the interns to the events put on for the employees currently on the graduate scheme. We were also encouraged to attend the site meetings, where company members from different department showcased their work. These were very interesting as they enabled me to see what else was happening in the company.”

How did your placement support your academic studies and/or further your career prospects?

Phoebe | Mathematics with Business Management | Risk Advisory Scholarship intern

“I worked in the Derivatives section of the Quantitative Advisory team and this relates to some work I have done this term in my degree; for example, Financial Decision Making and Statistics. Also to become a financial analyst I need to do a Masters degree and so, by doing the internship, it has made future academic and career planning much easier and clearer for me.”

Joseph | Civil Engineering | Highways Design

“It provided me with some industrial experience which seems to be vital these days as well as confirming for me that highways perhaps isn’t the department I’d like to work in. However, it has provided me with some contacts and a placement for the coming summer if I choose to take it.”

Chris | Civil Engineering | Civil Engineering Consultancy Placement

“I have a grad job with them, so pretty decent career prospects! Work experience helps academic studies as it puts study into context -if you are aware of how you would apply what you are learning in the workplace, it gives you a good reason to take everything in.”

From the responses it is clear that industry experience is often very different from student expectations. While placement students are also supported by their host company through buddy or mentor schemes, many find that the experienced colleagues around them will always offer a helping hand; after all we all had to start somewhere. It seems that not only industrial experience is gained, but a placement can also direct your career path as you may realise that the sector is not for you after all. Whilst gaining industrial experience, many students also found that they had the chance to employ the skills they had learnt on their degree course within the workplace, enabling them to see the true benefit of the skills taught at university in a working environment. This in turn encourages further learning as well as understanding of topics covered when academic study resumes.

If you still have some questions about industrial placements and what to expect from them, many companies provide this information within the Graduate Careers section of their website. Alternatively, Gradcracker has a “hub” for the companies advertised which includes lots of great information as well as graduate experiences. This means that not only you can prepare yourself slightly more with an idea of what to expect, but you can also gain insight into individual companies, and decide that they may or may not be for you. The key is to make as informed a decision as you can.