What’s the Difference Between a Placement, an Internship and Work Experience?

These three terms can all get quite confusing. Am I on work experience? Is this an internship? Or is this a placement? Do they all mean the same thing?

As I’ve had experience in all three, I thought I would break it down and explain the difference between these terms. When I first started looking for work experience, I didn’t know if I should be looking for an internship. And when it came to looking for a placement, I didn’t know if I should be looking for a 12 month internship. Some employers may overlap the terms which doesn’t help make things easier, but this is the general gist of what each means.

When it comes to taking that first step into the professional world and wanting to get your foot on the ‘career ladder’, you will need to know the difference between these terms so that your expectations are the same as your employer. (And so you don’t get tricked into working your butt off ‘voluntarily’ – AKA: for free).

Work Experience

Work experience is what you should be doing at the very start of your professional career. It usually lasts from one day to a few days, or even a week. The general theme of work experience is getting an inside view to the career you think you want to go into. Typically, you would be shadowing someone while they perform their day-to-day role in your dream career.

You would usually have very little responsibility as you are only there for a few days and would be carrying out tasks of little importance. You are not there to solely make tea and coffee (I’ve never had to make one cup), but you may be sent out on errands or asked to photocopy documents or help with admin work.

My first encounter with work experience was during my AS year when each student had to spend 5 days at a company of their choosing, or split their week into two if they were unsure of their future career path. Of course, I fell into the latter category.

I spent three days at a PR company and two days at an accountancy firm. The three days I spent at the PR agency are the reason I am where I am today. If it hadn’t been for those three days work experience, God only knows where I would be right now or what I would be doing. The two days at the accountancy firm was a huge wake-up call to see that a career with numbers and sitting in an office 24/7 was definitely not for me.

The beauty of work experience is that it allows you to see if a certain job is for you, or alternatively, if it isn’t. While you are a student, make the most of being able to benefit from work experiences and visit as many different sectors/careers as you can. This way, you’ll definitely know what you want to do with the rest of your life.

Also note that 99% of the time, work experiences are unpaid. You are there to shadow and get an insight to your potential future career. Some companies may pay travel expenses, but don’t expect too much.

Internship

An internship is usually a set time agreed by the employer and intern, which typically lasts between two weeks and three months. A lot of companies offer summer internships or, for some students, they may have to complete an internship during the year as part of their university degree.

Internships are much more hands-on than work experience as you are treated like more of an employee than just an extra pair of hands for a few days. You are usually given your own desk and a list of tasks to complete during your time there. Internships allow you to put your studies into practice, to see how you would perform your chosen role once you finish your degree.

As you are at the company for more than a few weeks, you start to build relationships with existing employees, which allows you to make contacts for the future. A lot of internships and placements often lead to full-time jobs further down the line, so can be a great way to get your foot in the door at your dream company.

Depending on the length of the internship, more often than not they are unpaid. However, there is a current emphasis on companies paying their interns as they are working the same hours as full-time employees, and sometimes doing the same level of work, if not more at times.

It’s important to carry out internships while you can, before you go out into the working world as it is easier to get by on an unpaid internship alongside your university studies than when you come out of university with a degree. Where you can, try and find paid internships as you shouldn’t be made to work as hard as a full-time employee for nothing in return. It’s just not sustainable.

Placement

I am currently on a placement year with a large company in London (did you know I moved to London? I may have mentioned it a few times…) and you will find that it’s mainly large companies that offer these types of placements. Placements can last between a few months to a year.

A lot of university courses offer a sandwich year where the student can opt to go on a placement after their second year to experience a year in industry. In a career such as PR, there was no question that I would take a placement year, as experience is everything in this field.

Placements are offered year-round but students usually start applying around October/November time for the following year. For Coty, I applied in October and had my interview in December, starting the 12 month placement in July.

Other companies that offered placements in PR when I was applying were Boohoo, L’Oréal (hey Lucy!), The Body Shop, Walt Disney, Unilever, Jaguar, Airbus, New Look and so many more. There’s a lot of year-long placements in Europe which I wished I had applied for but there was no way I could turn down an opportunity like Coty.

Placements are usually salary based as you are an official employee of the business, working full-time hours the full year round. Some may involve having to move location (like I did) but if you’re lucky to find one near to home, then you’ll be able to save a lot of money.

A placement is the biggest form of insight to your future career, but by gaining a placement, you should already be 95% certain that that career is what you desire to follow.

What I’ve learnt so far is that what I learn at uni does not prepare me for working in public relations, especially in the beauty sector. Yes, it has given me a background to the art and the basis of what it is, but what it doesn’t make you aware of, is the craziness of it, having to multi-task constantly, liaising with journalists, pitching to journalists, creating coverage reports or taking control of a brand and creating campaigns.

My year working in PR is priceless as I definitely need a year to perform in the role of PR Assistant so that when I go to apply for graduate jobs, I will know how to perform the role and I will also know what to expect and not be overwhelmed.

There you have it

Hopefully I have explained the three concepts well and this makes it easier to understand the difference between them.

Work your way through the three, by starting off with some work experiences to add to your CV, then once you think you know what career you wish to follow, try and find a few internships to gain even further experience. Then, once you know for sure, throw yourself in the deep end and find a placement where you’ll really know what it’s like to work in your chosen career.

Best of luck!

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