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"I'm currently looking at journalism courses; several of them mention work placements. Is work experience useful and do you have any tips on making the most of it?"
It may seem like a Catch-22 situation, but the adage 'You can't get a job without experience, and you can't get experience without a job' is neatly solved by work experience.
Work experience is an opportunity to learn what a work environment, such as a newsroom, is like. Sometimes they give you the chance to try your hand at a particular job. Other times you might move around a company watching and learning about a variety of different roles.
So what is in it for me?
If you are not sure of the sort of job you want to do, or which course to study, then work experience can help you explore what is out there. Maybe you have thought, "I want to work in the media" – well, a placement might focus you on a particular area or role. It is a chance to see real work in a real working environment. If you are already studying, it is an opportunity to put theory into practice and can help you gain actual skills, such as using a piece of equipment or software.
Learn to work
At school, work experience is an obligatory part of the National Curriculum. At college, many courses include placements. Course tutors will often expect prospective students to gain some work experience before starting their courses and might include this in their criteria for shortlisting applicants for interview.
People looking to change career can use work experience to test out alternatives to their current employment.
Types of work experience
• Internships: An intern will often work in an actual job or a specific project lasting several months. Internships are usually postgraduate and paid.
• Sandwich courses: These are commonly four-year degrees in which the student spends the whole of the third year working in a paid job related to their studies.
• Job shadowing: This involves overlooking someone as they go about their work. Most often this will just be a day or two in which you would accompany the individual who would explain what they were doing and may give you the chance to have a go at some of the activities.
• Work placements: These are the most common form of work experience. They are sometimes paid and could be anything from a few days to several weeks, though they are mostly unpaid and last two to three weeks. You will usually have a specific role to undertake under supervision.
How do I get work experience?
Many broadcasters, newspapers, magazines and online media offer work experience. Use the internet to search for companies and check out their websites to see if they advertise placements. If you cannot find any information on their site, then call them and ask if they have a scheme, what the requirements are and how you go about applying. If you are at school or college, your career service or tutor may have suggestions.
The BBC offers a wide range of work placements. In journalism, work experience is available in radio, television and interactive, both in network programming and in regional and local newsrooms. The minimum age for BBC work experience is 14 years, though most require you to be over 18. Placements are unpaid and last for a maximum of four weeks.
A good way to find out about work experience is through media organisations (like Skillset, the NUJ or the British Film Institute). Go along to seminars and talks - they are always a good opportunity to network and speak to people who might be able to suggest companies and contacts.
Another good route in is to use specialist knowledge - especially if you are a career-changer. Whilst you are lacking in the experience that you hope a placement will give you, capitalise on the expertise you already have. For example, if you work in finance and are thinking about going into journalism, try targeting a financial magazine.
Making your application stand out
Demand for work experience is high. At the BBC, we receive 25,000 applications each year. Remember that perseverance is one of the top skills required in journalism. So be determined. Plan ahead – approach companies three-to-four months before you would like to be on the placement.
It is crucial that you give your application the time it deserves. Some companies will require an application form to be completed. If you are making a speculative approach, you will need a CV with a covering letter. Think about all the reasons why you want a placement. Tell them:
• what your ambitions are;
• why you want to work in their industry and for their company;
• what you hope to gain from the placement;
• what you can offer them.
Detail your skills, interests and experience. Be enthusiastic. Demonstrate your knowledge of their programme, paper or magazine. Make it clear that you have done lots of research. Tailor your CV, letter or form - do not just copy and paste the same one for every placement. The more applications you make, the more likely it is that you will successfully gain a place.
Making the most of your placement
Once you are offered work experience, make the most of it. Be clear about all the details – the location, dates and times, who is responsible for you, what to wear, whether or not you are paid (and if you are, what paperwork you need to take with you, such as a P45) and whether expenses are available. You may need to sign a contract (usually covering confidentiality, intellectual property and copyright). Employers should have suitable insurance, but do ask. Take responsibility for your own health and safety and follow instructions from the person supervising you.
Set goals for your placement. Ask if you can have a mentor - someone who will help you, give you feedback and share his or her knowledge. Your supervisor will probably fill this role. Go through your goals with your supervisor or mentor.
Maintain a log or a diary. Use this to record what you do, what skills you use and what you learn. If you are at college, maintaining a log will usually be a course requirement, but it is useful to do this anyway and it will help you build your CV.
Contribute your ideas. What you get out of your experience depends on what you put in. Remember, they are giving you an opportunity, their time and resources – so respect it. Do not act bored. Every job has its mundane tasks. If you do not understand something, ask. If you are not enjoying your placement or you are experiencing any sort of problem, then speak with your supervisor or mentor.
Ask lots of questions and for advice. Ask people how they got into the industry and what work experience they did. Journalism requires building and developing contacts, so start now.
If you are at school or college, then ask advice on making the most of your placement. They have probably placed other students with the same company before.
Alternative work experience
As we have said, work experience is usually unpaid. It is also a time commitment and might require travelling or staying somewhere away from where you normally live. Consider what you can afford. If you are already working and looking to change career, it might be very hard for you to spend a couple of weeks away from work on a placement.
Do not despair - there are plenty of ways to gain experience. If you work in a company and want to experience a different role or department, then ask if it is possible to 'shadow' someone by spending a day or two with them to get a feel for what they do.
You can gain valuable experience in hospital or student radio and television. The Hospital Broadcasting Association can help you find your nearest service, or contact your local college and see if they run a station. Community radio programmes often need people to help in the evenings or weekend. Get involved in school, college, charity or voluntary organisation magazines and websites. Sports commentary is a good way to gain experience; with so many local games, radio stations are often pleased to hear from people with knowledge of a local team.
Do not underestimate the long-term value and experience any of these will give you. If you cannot find anything, then maybe you could develop your own website. Most local colleges offer courses in basic website design to get you started.
After your placement
It is best to ask for feedback throughout your placement. At the end, ask your supervisor or mentor to read your diary and add comments. What have you learnt? What skills have you used? What weaknesses have you identified? This is a learning experience, so realising what you need to go and learn about is crucial. If you are published or broadcast, keep a copy of your work. Always keep printed copies of web work in case it is not archived.
And once you have left - stay in touch. That is the best way to find out about future opportunities, as well as building your crucial contacts’ book. It could always lead to further work experience - or even a job.
Daniell Morrisey is recruitment account manager at BBC News. To find out about vacancies at the BBC, visit the jobs portal at www.bbc.co.uk/jobs. To get your careers questions answered, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Daniell Morrisey is leading a CV and job interview clinic in London. Click the link to find out more.