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Dear Career Doctor,I've just started the second year of my degree and am considering taking a year out next year. What are my options? What are the benefits of sandwich placements during degrees? Also, how do I choose a placement that has the most value to me?Maria

Dear Maria,

Adding a sandwich year to your degree (so called because the placement is sandwiched between the penultimate and final years) should bring many benefits, and there are numerous ways in which to spend that year. I'll start by outlining your options and will briefly suggest ways in which you can find a placement before taking you through the key benefits. Identifying which of these benefits have most value to you will help you choose the right placement.

These are the options available to most science undergraduates:

  • A year in industry (or another nonacademic environment) in the UK, during which you will probably work on a significant project or perform a role within a scientific department

     

  • A year working in industry overseas (still quite rare)

     

  • A year in a foreign university learning more about your subject through a combination of taught courses and a research project.

If you haven't got a clear idea yet of how you hope your career will develop after graduation, be reassured that a placement in either industry or academia will enhance most careers. If you intend to work in industry later on, then the first two options are the obvious choices, particularly if you can gain experience in a relevant field. If you are likely to continue in academia with a PhD or beyond, then additional academic research experience may give you an edge. However, I could equally argue that some industrial experience could be very valuable since, combined with a PhD, it shows your ability to work in different research environments. Finally, a year spent studying overseas will demonstrate initiative, and fluency in an extra language will be very appealing to employers.

Don't feel that you can only consider scientific jobs; if your department will agree to you taking a year out, then you can pursue anything that appeals. As a careers adviser, I saw a chemistry student who had worked in retail management for a year, and a nonscience student who had taken every other year out to work on development projects in Africa. She graduated 3 years later than she might have, but she secured a paid job with a development agency straight away, which would have been nearly impossible without the credibility her experience gave her. If you are interested in competitive areas, work experience is invaluable.

If a year in industry or overseas is an option for your degree, then your department has some responsibility to support you in finding a placement; some departments will actually arrange the whole thing for you. If the year out isn't formally offered, then you will need to play a more active role. Most departments have a great network of contacts in academia and relevant industries, so I would definitely sit down with your tutor (or someone with responsibility for your year group or degree programme) and ask for suggestions.

Also make sure you get down to your careers service now--they have details of a greater range of placement opportunities, and closing dates are already on the horizon. You will miss out on some attractive placements if you wait until December. They will also be able to suggest organisations to contact, such as AIESEC, if you are interested in going overseas to work in industry. It is also worth checking out the Virtual Careers Library, even though the organisations listed tend to support generic experience rather than that related to particular degree subjects.

So what exactly can you gain from a year out?

At this stage you may already have a significant debt building up, so the most important benefit for you may be financial. However, salaries for sandwich placements in industry vary hugely and you will be paying tax, so don't spend those first few pay packets in anticipation! Previous placement students are the best guides as to what you can expect from different sectors, but I've heard of salaries ranging from £9000 to £16,000.

You'll need to confirm with your department whether full or part fees are payable during your year out. Many departments assess the year out as part of the degree programme, in which case fees are usually paid. If you decide to arrange your own placement and have no formal contact during your employment, you may be able to suspend your student registration for that year and pay no fees, but you won't be able to describe this as a placement--simply a year out.

For a year spent studying or conducting research in a foreign university, fees are commonly paid to your home institution (that is, your current university). They will have agreed a reciprocal arrangement with other universities so their students can come and study in the UK. You will be eligible for the same grants and loans as you currently have, and you may be able to apply for additional funds from schemes or organisations promoting exchanges, such as ERASMUS. Your department or careers services should be able to advise you on this.

The financial benefits of a placement year could also be felt after graduation, as many employers reflect its value to them (in terms of making you a more effective employee) in higher salaries. And even if you aren't able to secure a better salary, you will find that your additional experience will give you more compelling answers to the dreaded questions on application forms, being evidence of your ability in the work place rather than of your potential. What's more, sandwich students can find themselves on a fast track through the graduate recruitment process. Many students are offered permanent posts after a year's placement, or become so familiar with the employer's requirements that they have a huge advantage when going through interviews and assessment centres.

A year out is also a great way to "try on" a particular career. If you are interested in a scientific career but can't decide between academia and industry, for example, then a placement in a company allows you to explore the reality of working in commercial science without the fear of committing yourself to something unknown. You will also be able to look into the future by talking to more senior scientists and emulating their career-boosting tactics. This was one of my main motivations for doing a PhD: As a summer intern, I saw that virtually everyone with a career I was interested in had a PhD.

Another benefit that is hard to obtain otherwise is access to "warts and all" information on scientific careers. You'll be able to talk to people with different qualifications and backgrounds with experience in a range of jobs and companies, and this will give you the valuable insight of an insider. And if you opt for a year in a foreign university, you will be working with young researchers of different nationalities, so in addition to first-hand experience of academic research, you'll also hear about life and work in different cultures.

Unfortunately, not all placements will be positive experiences. But there are a few things you can do to minimise the risks of ending up as a photocopying assistant or lab cleaner. The main one is to talk to people who have previously done, or are currently on, placements; identify them through your department, the careers service, or the company itself (many will run presentations in your university and bring along former students). You need to build up a picture of the good and bad things that have happened to them so that you can ask potential employers or supervisors relevant questions whilst investigating options.

Finally, the biggest factor in the value of your placement to you will be your own attitude and approach. If you want to get the most out of the experience, you need to keep track of your skill development and set some goals during your year--both scientific and personal. There are a number of tools available to help you record your development, and your department or employer will probably have something specifically designed for your situation. If not, the Work Placement Guide developed by the textiles department at Leeds University is a great foundation for a portfolio. It also includes advice on preparing for your year and suggests key issues to consider, both during the placement (such as health and safety, and contact with your department) and afterwards, such as references and presentations.

Each of the options available to you will bring different opportunities for your career as well as your personal development. Make sure you consider both aspects. It is also important that you don't underestimate the challenge of a year out: You may find the first weeks very isolating as you adjust to a new job or to life in an unfamiliar country. Your career choices may also change as you gain experience, so be prepared to motivate yourself to complete the year, even if you find yourself doing something that goes against your preferences and strengths. I know this may sound like a nightmare scenario, but there actually are a lot of positives even in this situation--for example, it will have saved you going for the wrong job several years down the line.

All the best in your career,

The CareerDoctor