Internships vs Work Placements: What’s really the difference?

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Gaining experience in your area of work is key to succeeding in any career. However, the many different options such as work placements and internships that students can go for in order to get this can make the process confusing and stressful.

Experience of work is key, but the anxiety that usually accompanies this process definitely is not! In this article, we will help you to understand work placements and internships, so you can make the best choice for you with confidence.

The main difference between work placements and internships is the duration, with internships lasting only a few weeks while work placements last around a year. Work placements are usually part of a university degree, and often pay a small salary, taking place during term time.

Internships usually are undertaken by students in high school or during holidays, and as such do not pay, but sometimes have scholarships or bursaries included in their programme. Both are excellent opportunities to gain real-world work skills in a professional environment while creating industry contacts and trying out a career path.

While this should have given you a short answer to your questions about internships and work placements, for full detail of the differences, please read on.

What is the difference between a work placement and an internship?

The main difference between internships and work placements is that internships are much shorter in duration. This is because they are usually intended for students below university level, or for students during the holidays.

Therefore, they take less time in order to not interfere with your studies. They typically last around a few weeks.

In contrast, work placements are intended as an integral part of study for a degree. They are undertaken during term time and then assessed and accredited by your university.

They require active engagement in work at a professional level. For more on this, check out this guide by Prospects.

Whereas internships are more focused on learning new skills. Work placements usually last around a year and are sometimes referred to as a “year in industry”.

Work placements often pay a living or entry-level wage. This is because the students undertaking them are less likely to live at home.

Internships rarely pay a wage. However, some may offer a small bursary or even scholarships for doing the internship.

Work placements are usually specific to a university and a business they have contact with, as they form part of a university course. This means they are usually only offered to university students on a course that has a placement opportunity.

However, internships are open to all students and can be undertaken during the summer. This is so that they do not interfere with studies.

For more information about work placements and internships, check out their respective sections below.

Why should you do a work placement or internship?

Work placements and internships have essentially the same goal: to help you to gain practical work skills.

Learning to interact with people in a professional environment is absolutely key to future success in any career. This is because personal relationships and networking are the key to have for most industries.

Working in a team and with others is key in almost every industry, so learning before you start is the best way to prepare.

Another huge benefit of work placements and internships is the ability to try your chosen career before committing to it. It helps to master your field of study in future, but also to ensure that the course you have chosen is the right one for you.

There is no shame in choosing to change after doing work experience of some sort, as this is part of the point.

As well as this, learning to lead, and make compelling arguments are soft skills that can be gained through work placements or internships. While these are also gained at university, the workplace environment has specific challenges which you can learn to face through work experience.

Problem-solving under pressure is also a great skill to gain, helping you to hit key deadlines, but also dealing with school pressure better. Work experience helps all areas of life, not just work, and the skills you will gain are valuable no matter what industry you eventually enter.

All of these skills will help you when you eventually enter the real world of work, as part of your CV, but also interpersonally. They will help you to stand out against the competition and impress employers when you look for a job after graduating, as there is always high competition for jobs.

For more on the pros (and cons) of doing a work placement, check out this Think Student article.

What is a work placement?

A work placement is a common part of a degree in the UK. It involves being placed with a company or organisation related to your field of study for six months to a year. They usually take place between the second and final year of your degree.

Work placements are typically completed during term time, and these degrees are often referred to as “sandwich years”. They are also sometimes referred to as a “year in industry” or “professional placement”.

University placement years can be confusing, but this Think Student guide can help with understanding this difficult topic.

Work placements are sometimes paid, depending on the length of the placement. For placements of 1-3 months, you are usually not paid. However, if it lasts between six months to a year, it is normal to receive a small salary.

For more information on being paid for university work placements, check out this Think Student guide.

Salaries differ according to the industry and role that your work in. They usually amount to the common entry-level wage for your industry, or the living wage.

If you have concerns about finance, discuss this with your university and employer before beginning a work placement. There may be bursaries available to help with transport and living costs.

Work placements give you the opportunity to apply the knowledge from your degree to a professional environment while gaining valuable experience and practical skills. It also helps many students to break into their chosen careers after leaving university, having made industry contacts.

What is an internship?

An internship is usually 2 weeks to 3 months spent with a company, often during the summer.

Internships can be taken by any student (or adult) at any time of their life. They are similar to work experience. However, they typically last longer, allowing you to create long-lasting connections to others in the company and industry. To learn more about work experience, check out this Think Student article.

Internships can be done in almost every industry, and for many different ages. However, they are most common in the technology industry and other desk job workplaces.

If you cannot find an opportunity online to apply for, contact local businesses and ask if you could be considered for an internship with them. The worst they can say is no, and many will be happy to accommodate a student worker for a few weeks.

During an internship, you act as essentially an employee of the company, with a desk and a list of tasks. They allow you to put your studies into practice and see how you like a role without the pressure of long-term commitment.

Many interns are part of a scheme where there will be other interns at the same time. This offers a fun opportunity to get to know others looking at the same job as you and make connections for the future.

As internships are relatively short, they usually do not offer payment. Some may come as part of a scholarship or have a bursary included, but this is unusual and should not be assumed.

However, some companies have recently started to pay interns if they work full-time hours, as they are doing the same level of work as employees.

For more information on what an internship is, please read this helpful guide from Think Student.

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