Friday, 15 June 2012

I still can't remember what I did last summer

Can you remember what the lecturer said in your management lecture 9 months ago? What about that really important conversation that you had in your politics seminar just after Christmas? Surely you can remember when The Queen stood on a boat in the rain for her Jubilee?

In all likelihood, if you were to try to recall fine details of things that took place in the last year, the most recent events will be the most memorable. Throughout university, students attend lectures and make notes, so that when it comes to writing essays or revising for exams, things can be more easily remembered. Yet when it comes to work experience, the same principles of recording your learning for reflection at a later date are seldom applied.

I always advise my students to keep a diary of their placement year, to document their learning and progression. It may sound like an onerous task, but if you spend just a few minutes a week logging what you have done and the experiences you have had, you will benefit in the long term. A placement isn't just about the 12 months you are working for an employer - the experience you gain is what will help you to stand out in the highly competitive graduate market.

The net result of keeping a diary of your placement will mean you have a bank of evidence to call upon when making graduate applications. Those competency based questions, asking you to detail examples of leadership, problem solving, teamwork etc will be so much easier to answer, but only if you can remember what you actually did. The steep learning curve of your first few weeks will blur into the distance by the time you reach the end of your internship, so if you are starting a placement shortly, remember to take note of what is going on and reflect on your learning.

The student in the animation below is obviously greatly exaggerated, but I'm trying to make the point that just because you do a placement, a positive graduate outcome is not guaranteed. You will still need to articulate in your applications and interviews what you have done whilst on placement, so in the same way that notes are made in lectures, maintaining a detailed account of your experience is a worthwhile activity.

You may find that your university already asks you to record your experiences, whether as part of an accredited module or as part of your PDP. If that is the case, you may see this as just another piece of university work and therefore have reluctance to do it. However, you have made the decision to take a placement because of the benefits it can have upon your early career. Don't keep a placement diary just because your university will give you a few extra credits - do it for yourself so that you build up your portfolio of evidence enabling you to hit the ground running when the graduate jobs start opening up in the late summer.

Thursday, 14 June 2012

Some days are better than others

'Life was like a box of chocolates. You never know what you're gonna get.' So said Forrest Gump and I can see the comparison with a typical day in The Placement Office. Some days are dull and predictable, but most of the time the element of surprise is there. You don't know who is going to walk through the door, or which employer is going to give you a call.

Keeping with the chocolate theme, if I had to describe my morning, it would probably be the last remaining sweets in the Roses tin that everybody has left after Christmas. Lets call it a coffee cream.

Things had started so well too. My favourite type of student email was sat in my inbox, letting me know their good news of securing a placement. But then things started going downhill. First I discovered that one of my students, who only started their placement a couple of weeks ago, had walked out on the job. This was followed up shortly afterwards by a panicking employer who was looking to backtrack on a placement offer made to one of my students earlier in the week. The reason for this dramatic u-turn appears to stem from an unwelcome intervention from one of my academic colleagues. So much for universities embracing the employability agenda.

In the same way that I encourage my students to embrace the challenges they may stumble across during their placement, I've spent today putting out fires and striving for positive outcomes. Regrettably, it is not uncommon for a student to leave a placement shortly after commencement. Sometimes the job isn't what they were expecting, or they hadn't quite realised how far away the location was from home. Whatever the reason, if a student can't be persuaded to stay, I find myself going into damage limitation mode. I want to maintain good relationships with employers, and though students leaving their role prematurely presents difficulties, there is always the chance that the door is left open for another student to fill that role.

With regard to the other student, who finds their placement under threat, a number of conversations have taken place with the employer and I'm optimistic that everything will progress as planned. I work hard with student and employers to ensure that both find what they are looking for. Spanners do get thrown into the works, but you don't necessarily expect them to be planted by people who you are working alongside. I suspect there will be interesting dialogue in the coming days.

To the students who read this blog, particularly those who will be starting placements in the coming weeks, you cannot prepare for the unexpected, but you can react positively to challenges. You will find there will be difficult days or even weeks in your role, but solving problems and finding resolutions is a valuable skill. Take the time to record the issues you faced as you will often be asked on graduate application forms how you overcome adversity.

Today was a coffee cream. Tomorrow may be a giant Galaxy bar. Some days are better than others.