Friday Special: My Thoughts on Placement and Study Abroad
In this Friday Special I wanted to discuss two aspects of university life that many students highlight as some of their favourite memories. Depending on your course, these aspects may be mandatory. Lots of language courses require you to spend a semester or year abroad, while placements are common requirements of business degrees. The great thing is that these opportunities are widely available for everyone, and it’s worth considering what they could add to your university experience.
Firstly, I want to talk about why I didn’t choose study abroad. At my university you could either take an entire year out or just the first semester of second year. People I know ended up studying in the USA, Australia and The Netherlands, so there were loads of countries and universities to choose from. I ultimately decided not to go abroad because I had become settled at university and didn’t want to have to try and figure out housing. I’d secured a place in halls as a retuning student, and didn’t want to give that up. Also, you had to decide whether you wanted to do a study period abroad quite soon into your first year, and I simply didn’t feel ready to make the commitment.
Funding is available for those who want to take the plunge, as well as contacts within your department and in the university support network generally who will help you to sort out any admin that’s needed. Quite a few people who studied abroad said that once they were there, it was great, but the paperwork needed to make the whole experience happen was a lot of time spent, which wasn’t particularly compatible for me and my lifestyle.
Ultimately, there is a lot of support out there for those that are interested, and I’d recommend going to the presentations and meetings so you can get all the details you need before committing. Missing a whole year of study and watching your friends graduate without you might be a deal-breaker (it was for me), and that’s perfectly okay, as your friends are just as much a part of the experience. In terms of employability, no-one I know personally has been offered work in the countries they studied in, or perhaps have chosen not to pursue jobs abroad because of the current pandemic. If you make an effort to learn a language, then studying abroad is a great way to practice, so that could definitely make you more employable in the long run.
Placements occur in both industry and charity settings, and these opportunities have led to many employment offers for graduates. Lots of people I know that took on a placement (either a year out or a summer internship) have been fast-tracked for training schemes, graduate roles and funding for further education. Getting a placement in the field that you’re looking to enter is a great way to get your foot in the door, as well as trying out the work-life balance, location and community a workplace offers.
I didn’t take on a placement as by the end of my second year, I had decided that I wanted to study for an MA. Also, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do career-wise, so I didn’t want to waste time on a placement that I ended up hating. In the Humanities, placements are less likely to be paid, as students are often used as free researchers and museum workers, which isn’t fair or equal to placements offered in STEM. All of these factors led me to continue on with my degree, although I did make the effort to take part in some (paid) widening participation teaching opportunities.
My main point here is that it’s okay if you look for placements and decide that nothing fits your career aims or lifestyle, because there are plenty of opportunities to develop your skills in a place of paid employment. I can’t afford to work for free, so prioritising paid work is something I’m not embarrassed about.
There are of course red flags when it comes to placements and study abroad, so I’d recommend seeking both through official university channels, questioning anything you’re not sure of and asking your student services to read through contracts before you sign anything. Pulling out of a placement can be more difficult if you’ve had to relocate, so doing your research and asking the right questions can help to identify whether it’s right for you.
Ultimately, although I didn’t take them up, I think that a placement or study abroad period are fantastic ways to enrich your university experience. Even if you’re not sure, make the effort to attend a few meetings or speak to staff about the logistics involved before you rule it out, which is what I did. Placements are great for employability, but remember that it’s just as valuable to spend time working on your academic prospects and earning money to support yourself than being a low-paid work horse for six weeks. Prioritise yourself and your lifestyle when looking for opportunities, and see what takes your fancy.