While placements can have tangible outcomes such as greater earning potential, the same is not true of them all, according to Professor Ilke Inceoglu

Work placements undertaken whilst at university can improve job prospects – but quality of supervision matters

Thousands of university students are spending the summer doing work placements and internships and this is likely to see them return with more professionalism and improved self-belief, according to an expert from the University of Exeter Business School. 

However, while placements can have tangible outcomes such as greater earning potential, the same is not true of them all, according to Ilke Inceoglu, Professor in Organisational Behaviour and HR Management.

Professor Inceoglu, along with Dr Eva Selenko of Loughborough University, Professor Almuth McDowall from Birkbeck and Dr SV Schlachter from Justus Liebig University Giessen previously carried out an in-depth review of 40 studies into work placements from around the globe. They found that graduates who had completed a work placement while studying became more professional and developed greater self-belief, knowledge and skills; and some - but not all studies - suggest that placements also have tangible outcomes such as greater earning potential.

“There are positive benefits to undertaking a placement at university as the direct experience of the workplace and observing others is of value,” said Professor Inceoglu. “However, those benefits often depend on many things including the quality of supervision and whether the work itself is meaningful. But it’s fair to say that doing something different and being in a new environment changes a person’s understanding of themselves and their own skills and abilities.”

Dr Selenko added: “Between us, we have observed first-hand how students come back with a changed mindset from placements – more confident and more mature. But as a note of caution, our research shows that they are not a ‘cure all’ to improve students’ employment prospects.”

According to the last Destination of Leavers from Higher Education (DLHE 2016/17) survey, 94.4% of University of Exeter Business School UK graduates were in graduate employment or postgraduate study and in 2018/19 205 students from the Business School were on an industrial placement, a rise of 42%. The careers team has worked intensively with both students and employers to ensure the placements are meaningful and valuable, and they believe that work has had a significant impact on graduate career outcomes.

“The Business School’s flagship year-long With Industrial Experience programme has unequivocally shown that students who complete the programme are more employable than students who haven’t,” said Dominic Prosser, Graduate Careers Manager in the Business School.

“We rigorously assess the programme’s outcomes and  99% of 2018 graduates who had been on With Industrial Experience got a 1st or 2:1, reflecting the increased focus, work ethic and maturity that returning students bring to their studies.”

The research by Professor Inceoglu and colleagues also shows that the experience can alter fundamentally how students see themselves and their own abilities, leading to them appearing ‘changed’ afterwards.

“Overall the research showed that work placements are very valuable,” she said. “While there is a suggestion that some can improve the chance of getting a job, they can’t always be seen as a panacea for success in future employment markets.”

Work placements from around the world can vary widely, according to factors such as the quality of supervision and the work assignment. For example, experiencing more autonomy to carry out tasks was associated with an increase in self-esteem. Occasionally, placements can result in negative attitude changes.

“What we have discovered is that we need more research in this area and for the sector as a whole to evaluate their placements more rigorously, so that we can get the best outcomes possible for students as they graduate,” added Professor McDowall.

Their research, called(How) do Work Placements Work? Scrutinizing the Quantitative Evidence for a Theory-Driven Future Research Agenda was supported by a Research Stimulation and Impact Fund awarded to Dr Eva Selenko (School of Business & Economics, Loughborough University) by the University of Sheffield Management School. It was published in the Journal of Vocational Behavior.

Date: 9 August 2019

Read more University News