I recall last July coming home after another interview, completely exhausted and angry at my own critical thoughts on my performance. I remember thinking, “That’s it, that is the last interview I’m ever doing this year.” I had been searching for a placement year since the start of my second year, eager to get some professional experience after feeling a little motivated from a few compulsory career lectures as part of a year-long module in my second year.
Throughout the year, I went through countless of applications – mostly in the biopharmaceutical industry and lab-based roles – where I was invited to a few interviews on the phone and in person but failed each one. My self-confidence took a hell of a beating, I was on the verge of giving up at so many points especially as I didn’t have much time to focus on applications, study, complete assignments, work part time and volunteer at once, but I made time. Sometimes at ridiculous hours of the day.
Now I’m not saying you should sacrifice sleep, in fact, I strongly recommend that you get your 8 hours as consistently as possible! What I’m saying is even though I had endless rejections or no responses, I pushed through.
“Don’t give up” is so cliche but is so true! Sometime in March 2016, I was offered my first professional experience in a digital marketing agency, Diva Creative, where I was interning as a Developer. Totally not in the world of Biomed but totally worthwhile as the professional experience helped me “get my foot in the door.”
Shortly after this, I went to one of the interviews I will never forget. It was in Oxford, advertised as a graduate job (but they were impressed with my LinkedIn profile and phone interview that they were willing to turn it around into a placement for me and be their first intern if I succeeded!), it was the longest hour and a half interview ever and I didn’t end up getting it but I didn’t leave empty handed, instead got:
- Further insights on the life sciences industry
- A better understanding of how important research actually is
- Understanding of the work culture
- An awareness of myself: what role didn’t fit me and what role did.
It was from this along with the experience with Diva that pushed me to look at alternative careers with a science degree.
Fast forward to over a year later… today I complete my placement year at the University of Sheffield, working as their first intern. It was an experiment for the university as they had never had a 12-month placement student-hybrid staff before. I felt a little pressure to do well because of this; I wanted the programme to continue to give other students a chance to have such a rich experience given.
One of my personal aims for the year was to ensure that I do well enough to allow this to happen… you’d be glad to hear that it is actually continuing (ding, ding, ding – achievement unlocked!)
Apart from the obvious change such as working as staff and getting that shiny, orange, full-of-power card (with great power comes great responsibility) and working full time, I was experiencing a lot of changes and sudden realisation when I first started. For instance, it hit me that I would not be graduating with my friends whom I started University with and I wouldn’t be getting the long breaks during Christmas, Easter and Summer. I quickly realised through my experience that every second of my time working has brought nothing but value to University experience and degree at the end! Also, yes, annual leave had limited days but they felt great and earned more than anything else.
Working full-time, 9 – 5, 5 days a week didn’t really affect me as much as others. Mainly because I naturally wake up early so the 9 am lectures didn’t phase me as a student either, also I was used to the working life from my constant juggle between two part time jobs and volunteering throughout the last two years at University. I have to comment though, that it was nice to have more of a structure, in one place, rather than jumping around places that I had to get to in less than an hour (which sometimes was impossible)
I enjoyed the routine because it allowed me to be flexible on the times outside 9 – 5, including my self-care 5 am – 9 am routine and 5 pm – 9 pm “play time” including the organisation of my weekly community coding courses, learning more of what interests me, creating, blogging and building.
The routine also reminded me of the importance of weekends, something I took for granted as a student because sometimes my weekends would start in the middle of the week and not end until the next week or two (which, as you can imagine, greatly affected my productivity)
There was a lot of change to adapt to, but I welcomed it with open arms!
Working as a Communications and External Engagement Assistant
One big thing I learnt throughout the year is that my job title is not what I actually do. I attended a number of conferences, events and training sessions and picked this up from other colleagues in the University. It’s SO true. I did a range of things that didn’t fit into my ‘Communications and External Engagement’ title nor job description – and that’s great because I was able to experience a range of different areas I wouldn’t have explored if I only did Comms.
Throughout the year, I assisted in several projects in areas of learning and teaching, marketing, research, employability, internal engagement including staff and students.
The workload was reasonable and much better managed than my student life. Obviously there were certain points in the year where it got demanding for example, during points in the year (e.g. freshers’ week etc.) there was always extra assistance needed for student support, when deadlines for a project all clumped up together in a week or during a time in the spring when certain members of the team started moving on to other things and I had to take responsibility and cover areas for a couple of months.
Some days were hectic with my 7 working hours feeling like it wasn’t enough to fit everything in (which I’m sure we’ve all felt before!) Being under pressure taught me to better manage my time, stay organised, and be adaptable with work. I got better over the year at labelling tasks required much more of my urgent attention.
As well as being much more organised (which has helped a lot in my personal life and projects) other ‘softer’ and transferable skills I have built on include:
- Communication – information-flow to external partners, internal staff (PSS and academic) and students with updates of what developments are happening in the Department, Faculty and University-wide. Sometimes through various channels…
- Creativity – thinking about taking a more creative approach to communications, I created frequent e-newsletters which condensed information into a simpler format. Also making use of my self-taught abilities in front-end development and Photoshop helped a lot with building more presentable and student-friendly online tools.
- Presentational skills – I do enjoy giving presentations especially when I’m well prepared! I got the chance to do a few!
- Rapport building and networking – more on this later!
- Teamwork – Working with a diverse number of people across the University and externals.
- Project management – the most notable project that I managed was the Green Impact project. I took a lead in liaising tasks to fellow team members, executing ideas and plans to ensure that it was the most engaging delivery.
As a team, we ended up winning the Bronze project award and overall Gold award (from the previous year’s Bronze award. Some said it couldn’t be done but if you put your mind to it, anything can be done – including jumping and skipping a level! 😉)
I was also nominated for Innovation for Engagement and won the Special Award of “Environmental Hero” for overall enthusiasm and commitment towards the project. If you’re interested, you can find out more about Green Impact here.
- Commercial awareness – better understanding and insight on HE generally but also became more aware of current challenges HE is facing and information of how the business operates.
Out of the all the skills I’ve developed over the year, the most valuable was understanding how to network. Initially, I wouldn’t know how to network at all and would dread the networking lunch breaks.
Throughout the year, however, I attended various events, conferences, external trips and meetings, which allowed me to build up my confidence in talking to strangers during the events, pitching myself well to others, obtaining a connection where by I have successfully continued to build on those relationships.
Work trip to Bradford
I’ve been able to apply what I’ve learnt from my placement about networking and have confidently communicated and made connections at other events outside of work for instance at Women in Tech events. Which has, in turn, allowed me to make connections with those in industries I’m interested in working with in the future!
Sustainability Showcase event
Other things I got involved with (because I wasn’t tied to a job description!):
- Playing around with shiny new technology – Bryony Olney, the most talented, innovative, enthusiastic technologist I’ve ever come across inspired me with applications of AR and VR in Higher Education. Throughout the year I got a chance to try the shiny HTC Vive!
- Using my web-development knowledge and revamping two websites
- Creating 360 virtual tours as a resource for students
- Event photography!
A couple of photos of me taking photos of students graduating
I have gained a lot professionally and as I’ve mentioned all the transferable skills I’ve learned, I have been able to apply in other parts of my life such as extracurricular community activities e.g. Code First: Girls.
Coding community course
But I think it’s important to highlight that I’m very thankful for the year out opportunity because it’s allowed me to spend more time on myself – during my student days, I completely just abandoned my needs which resulted in a worsening of my mental health. With more time to focus on myself outside my set routine and with my colleagues being very supportive, I’ve been able to step out of my comfort zone and face multiple fears and anxieties.
I was encouraged by my colleagues to take breaks and annual leave despite my unwillingness to at the beginning; my reasoning being that I didn’t want to ‘miss out’ on my placement experience with lots of things going on throughout the year, only to realise that part of the working experience was the well-deserved breaks that come with it.
I spent most of my breaks going to an all-day conference, doing nothing (which actually drives me crazy so it wasn’t as relaxing as I thought) or travelling. Travelling doesn’t seem like such a crazy achievement but for someone who couldn’t even get on trains alone until last year, travelling around Europe and a small part of the US is such a personal achievement.
Trip around Europe
Now let’s talk about money. 💸
My previous professional experience was unpaid and so it felt like a bonus getting paid in this placement. This is a totally different blog post altogether so I won’t go into it too much but previously, I was always all about working unpaid as long as I got the experience but now I have seen the impact and value of my work!
Earning a lot more money than I ever could earn in a month from my casual work and part time jobs throughout university has taught me a lot – I have definitely been more mindful of how I handle my money; less on stuff and things, more on experiences and future investments.
This clearly shows that I got more out of my placement than professional development, life-long skills and incredible experiences for personal growth!
Some of my personal highlights from my placement include:
- On my second week, I went to an event and won a Kindle and £50 Amazon voucher.
- Delivering briefing sessions – presentations aren’t scary anymore!
- Just 4 months in, I won my first ‘The Deal’ reward for my flexibility at work doing multiple projects at once.
- Winning 3 awards and nominated for another award for Green Impact
- Receiving 2 ‘The Deal’ rewards in a short amount of time in June – July
- Featured on the University’s front page where my colleague then commented this.
- Being recognised by new staff
- Being told that other people at the University know of the impact I’ve made
- Recommendation for projects (e.g. web-dev based projects with White Rose)
- Comments from students who have said I’ve been very helpful this year!
- Work trips to Bradford, Manchester, Rotherham
- International Women’s Day all-day event
- Being nominated for “Best Placement Student” award at the National Undergraduate Employability Awards
- Using AR to bring my placements review poster to life – it wowed a lot of colleagues!
International Women’s Day
A couple of photos of me holding cool things
Returning to University
Working at the University has given me the opportunity to explore areas of the institution I never thought existed such as the community of professional services who work hard to ensure that processes run smoothly.
I’m looking forward to successfully applying the worthwhile range of experiences, knowledge, skills and routine I’ve obtained from my placement to the final year of my studies.
As it is my final year, I’ll be going through the process of applying to jobs in addition to completing the last push of my #shefunilife. I’ve learned a lot from working with Amy Woolley; about employability generally, the graduate market and alternative careers paths, which I know will be incredibly useful in my search.
My placement year was not the most obvious one that a science student would’ve chosen – in fact, out of other five placement students I am the only one who had not gone on to do a science-based placement. But that does not make my placement less valuable or worthwhile because I have gained so much – personal and professional development, networks, friends, mentors and I think most importantly, better awareness of who I am and my potential!
So to my colleagues and everyone I’ve worked with: thank you so much! I’ve had an amazing year and will be forever grateful for the opportunity, its challenges and the support throughout.
I wish the new placement student, also from the Faculty of Sciences, Sarah Biggins a wonderful year ahead! Let’s keep the “you aren’t tied to what you can do because of your degree” momentum going and I hope you gain as much from it as I did!
If you’re a student wondering whether or not you should take a year out and work full time, don’t doubt it! It’s the best decision you could ever make not only for your future self (when you’re looking for jobs after University) but for your present self. The various things you learn on placement (when you make the most out of the opportunity) ensures that once you leave, you are the best version of yourself you can be – the one with a belt of professional experience but also a more well-rounded individual! I know that when I leave today and compare my August ’16 self to now, I know that I’ve grown into the most confident version of myself I have ever been who is ready (and never been so ready) to take on what’s next!
Now I’m off to Canary Island to relax for a week, start two placements in the tech industry (because I’m not done with working full time yet! 😜) and then start my final year in Biomedical Sciences. If you need me, I’ll be in the corner of the various University libraries learning about how to reconstruct a face.
Because this is hard-cold facts that we all need know.
Note: I’ve also posted this on LinkedIn. You can read it here.
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