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Transitioning into and out of Work Placements

1. Introduction

Much has been written on the benefits of work placements (sometimes referred to as year in industry, industrial placements or just placements) in terms of improvement in degree performance (Jones et al., 2017; Mansfield, 2011) and graduate outcomes (Delis and Jones, 2023; Brooks and Youngson, 2014). It has also been argued that work placements have a stronger effect on academic performance compared to other sandwich programmes, such as studying abroad at a foreign institution (Jones and Wang, 2023) and are associated with greater satisfaction with work in first employment following graduation (Auburn et al., 1993).

Lots of resources are available to help support students find work placements. As well as bespoke material that is typically provided by universities’ career services, there is a wealth of online resources and dedicated websites such as

Less has been written on how to be successful on work placement and especially support for the transition out of a work placement and back to university. In this document I will draw out some key themes as well as providing insight into support and guidance we provide at University of East Anglia (UEA) in my role as Placements Director within the School of Economics. Discussions here are restricted to work placements associated with sandwich courses, where between 6 months and a year is spent in industry in the third year of study.

2. Transition Model of the Work Placement Journey

A useful starting point to contextualise the transitions to and from a work placement is the transition model of the work placement experience introduced by Auburn et al. (1993). An adapted version of the model is provided in Figure 1 and demonstrates the role transitions occurring between the higher education setting and the work setting. The focus here is on the transition from 1 to 2 (from higher education setting to work setting) and from 2 to 3 (from work setting back to higher education). It is acknowledged that transitions from 3 to 4 are also important but this is not the focus here. The dashed arrowed line from 2 to 4 can also play a role (i.e. an offer of a (graduate) role with the same organisation following completion of studies).

Figure 1 – Transition Model of the Work Placement Journey

Source: Adapted from Auburn et al. (1993) and Auburn (2007).

3. Transitioning into a Work Placement

At my own institution (UEA) we provide a series of dedicated workshops for work placement students to support their work placement journey. These workshops cover: Where to Find Placements; Preparing your CV and Perfecting Your Application, Preparing for Interviews and Assessment.

Towards the end of year 2 (usually around May), a further workshop on the transition into a work placement (called “Get Work Ready“ / “Step into Work”) is delivered. This session is primarily delivered by Placement Ambassadors, who are employed by UEA’s career service (CareerCentral), work with students across three faculties (Science, Social Science and Humanities) to share their experience and promote the value of work placements. During the session, participants are provided with information, guidance and advice about making the most of their work placement, what to expect in the first few days and weeks and some key work themes. In doing so, the Ambassadors are reflecting on their own experiences. This is something that most students on work placements are expected to do by keeping a record of skills and achievements (such as Personal Development Log) and in the completion of a reflective report / presentation that typically forms part of the assessment that features on many courses.

It is increasingly common for students to have had some form of work experience prior to their placement. In most cases this is likely to have consisted of work in the hospitality, retail and leisure sectors. Some students may have also had opportunities to undertake short-term internships or taster/insight days but generally their experience of working in an office-based environment is likely to be quite limited. It is important therefore that sufficient guidance is provided prior to the work placement on what to expect from an office-based role, offering guidance on conducting oneself in a professional manner, whether that be in appearance or the way they communicate with other work colleagues — verbally and via email.

A feature of most work placements since the COVID-19 pandemic has been the greater use of hybrid working. Whilst some work placements are completely on-site and some others completely remote, the majority are hybrid where at least one day a week work is done in a remote setting. This can create challenges associated with, for example, isolation and loneliness which in turn may affect mental health and well-being.

At UEA we have two touch points in which we gather feedback on the transition into work placements. The first of these is “check-in email” that is sent to students about one month after the start of the work placement. The second, more substantive, touch point is within the placement meeting / visit (at around the 6-month mark) where there is a more detailed discussion which, amongst other things, includes the transition from education setting to work-place setting.

4. Transitioning out of a Work Placement

Whilst a work placement is likely to be a positive experience for many students the initial transition back to university is not always easy and the thought of returning can often bring up mixed feelings.

On the one hand, students might be eager to share their experiences with other returning work placement students and the opportunity to incorporate skills learned on a work placement into their final year (such as in dissertations and project work). On the other hand, there may be apprehension about returning to their studies following a year of work. This may be because, for example, they are out of practice writing academic essays or contemplating the sporadic nature of a university timetable and more independent study in contrast to the more structured workplace setting.

Some reflections have been documented in case studies and blogs on university websites. There has also been some reflection in academic literature. Auburn (2007), employing a discourse-analytic methodology with a sample of recently graduated psychology students who had completed a work placement, found that these students experienced significant personal development through the acquisition of new knowledge and skills. However, the opportunity to demonstrate this development during their final year was somewhat constrained by the limited opportunities available within the academic and learning environment. Anderson and Novakovic (2017) also identified difficulties in the transition from a work placement to final year of study for students on an accounting and finance course.

From the viewpoint of those supporting work placement students, some useful advice has been provided by Universities UK (UUK) as part of the suicide-safer universities initiative. They suggest that universities should:

  • implement check-ins to ask students how they are settling back into university life
  • offer academic study skills refresher workshops
  • encourage placement students to keep in touch with one another

There is also some guidance provided by ASET, the Work Based Learning and Placement Learning Association where they suggest there should be opportunities to the celebrate the successes of students and employers involved in work placements. One way of showcasing this is through a placement conference. In my School, we introduced a placement conference in 2022. The aim of the conference is to create a platform for returning students to showcase their work placement journey, experiences and reflections on the work placement. This is delivered primarily to current students, but it also provides returning work placement students to connect with other returning work placement students, which helps to build a shared sense of community amongst work placement students.

5. Concluding remarks

Undoubtedly, work placements provide invaluable skills and experiences that can significantly enhance employability and graduate opportunities. However, universities must not become complacent and should ensure that tailored support and guidance are available to students before, during, and especially after work placements. Additionally, sufficient opportunities should be integrated both within and outside the curriculum to allow students to showcase their learning and skills.

ASET Good Practice Guide for Work Based and Placement Learning in Higher Education

Bright Network. Top Tips to make the Most of your Placement Year:

Department for Education. Employability programmes and work placements in higher education:

RateMyPlacement. Guide to Industrial Placements:

Unifrog. For Students: A Guide to Placements/Work Experience:

Universities UK. Supporting Placement Students:


Anderson, P. and Novakovic, Y., 2017. Listening to student views on the transition from work placement to the final year. Accounting Education, 26(4), pp. 377-391.

Auburn, T., 2007. Identity and placement learning: student accounts of the transition back to university following a placement year. Studies in Higher Education, 32(1), pp. 117-133.

Auburn, T., Ley, A. and Arnold, J., 1993. Psychology Undergraduates' Experience of Placements: A role-transition perspective. Studies in Higher Education, 18(3), pp. 265-285.

Brooks, R. and Youngson, P.L., 2016. Undergraduate work placements: an analysis of the effects on career progression. Studies in Higher Education, 41(9), pp. 1563-1578.

Delis, A. and Jones, C., 2023. The impact of work placements on graduate earnings. Studies in Higher Education, 48(11), pp. 1708-1723.

Jones, C. M., Green, J. P., & Higson, H. E. 2017. Do work placements improve final year academic performance or do high-calibre students choose to do work placements? Studies in Higher Education, 42(6), pp. 976-992.

Jones, C. and Wang, Y., 2023. The performance effects of international study placements versus work placements. Higher Education, 85(3), pp. 689-710.

Mansfield, R. 2011. “The Effect of Placement Experience Upon Final-Year Results for Surveying Degree Programmes.” Studies in Higher Education 36(8), pp. 939-952.

Reddy, P. and Moores, E., 2012. Placement year academic benefit revisited: effects of demographics, prior achievement and degree programme. Teaching in Higher Education, 17(2), pp. 153-165.

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