/ Money, Parenting

Where does the value lie in work experience?

Work experience

As students, we’re told that work experience is expected of us upon graduating, but how can we ensure those experiences are worthwhile?

I sit writing this, at the beginning of my month-long placement at Which?, where I aim to gain invaluable experience in the industry I want to go into now that I’ve graduated. Coincidentally, it’s also nearly seven years to the day since I successfully interviewed for my first ever part-time job.

When I was 15, I didn’t immediately recognise the value in spending my Saturdays selling greetings cards and scented candles (beyond the £30 that lined my pockets at the end of each shift, of course).

However, one job led to another, and by the time I went to university, I had a solid three years of customer service experience under my belt.

And now, here I am, graduated and working in an office in London, where I’ve swapped my midnight cans of Red Bull for 9am coffee runs, and my XL university hoodie for a pair of floral-patterned slacks that scream: ‘I have an actual grown-up job!’

Would I be sitting here if it weren’t for all the time spent in part-time work, volunteering, or other CV-boosting pursuits? Probably not. To the surprise of no one, employers value the time spent gaining work experience over the grades we graduate with.

But I do wonder how much of that time is considered valuable or relevant by employers, or what I could have done differently.

Working world

University is a balancing act of short-term and long-term planning, and work experience falls somewhere precariously between the two. We need to work because our student loans rarely stretch far enough to cover the cost of living, yet we’re also desperately aware that graduating without work experience is as good as not graduating at all.

While I would have loved to have spent my afternoons in an office learning about working in the media, it was serving burgers in my student union that was going to pay my bills.

However, through finding time to get involved in relevant extracurriculars and learning to really big-up the transferable skills I gained through my part-time work, I’ve found myself in a relatively comfortable position in the post-graduation void.

There will always be more that I could have done; more hours, more relevant experience, more money saved than spent that could have allowed me to temporarily work unpaid in a field I ultimately want to end up working in.

But when I think of where I started out at, and where I am now, I realise the value lies not necessarily in where I gained my work experience, but what I learned from it. 

Did you do a work experience placement at school or university or even after you’d graduated? What did you do and what did you learn from it? Or, if you’re currently at university, or you’re going this autumn, where do you gain, or plan to gain, experience of the working world?


You can not be sure! Pick a reputable company.


Before university I worked on a building site and on the railways at different times. During university I sold ice cream, worked in a power station. I took a job relevant to my degree on graduating, but the experience those four jobs gave me mixing with people in the real world and seeing how employers operated was invaluable.

The one thing that took me time to conquer was using the telephone (we never had one at home so used one very irregularly). I would think hard about what I was going to say before I picked up the phone. It took quite a while to use it more naturally.


I struggle with this too and I’ve grown up with mobile phones! Phone anxiety is a real thing…


I’m 24 and in my second full-time job. I’ve worked since I was 15, constantly in retail – even in my final year at university. I was doing a degree, editing a magazine, freelancing, and working part-time. Somehow I passed with a great degree, probably not with my sanity intact. To achieve in my job as a writer, I’ve had to spend less time at home watching BBC iPlayer, or gossiping with friends over cocktails. I’ve had to work non-stop. I did an internship (for free) for 4 weeks. I had to claim jobseekers allowance, and constantly battle to be accepted into my industry. To become a writer I had to fork out £5k for a course, and move cities thrice. To take time out would have been unacceptable, and impossible. Not to mention detrimental to my career or future. Work experience has been invaluable to get me where I am, but even in my dream job at 24 – I’m still freelancing and working for free ‘for the future’. But everyday I wake up happy, despite the overhanging dread of £30k+ in loans – surely that’s all that matters?


I did not do a placement at university but made good use of the long vacation. Thanks to a friend of my father I was offered a place working with a small specialist company and had the opportunity to repair and use specialist scientific equipment. It was not only very rewarding but gave me my first opportunity to work in a very different environment from my university. The downside was that I had to stop what I was doing and go home at 5pm prompt every day, even if I was in the middle of a job. It convinced me that I should look aim for a job that offered more flexibility. For my efforts, I was paid £5 a week. The next two vacation jobs I had to compete for. They were respectably paid and more relevant to my subsequent career in research.

When interviewing, I have taken an interest in what students have done before university, during the vacations etc. Working behind a bar or in a supermarket are easy options and help in development of interpersonal skills, time management, and so on, but better candidates often find more challenging and useful temporary work. It’s worth exploring to find out whether this was good fortune or the result of their determination. In the past I have seen students who have done worthwhile unpaid vacation work but with most students now living in debt, this might no longer be a valid approach, however valuable it can be on a CV. Work placements or how you spent the vacations makes for interesting discussion in an interview, or should do.


If there’s one thing I would change about how I spent my time at university it would be to have used my summers better – if I’d saved up, I could have used the time to do some valuable unpaid work and lived of my savings, but spent most of my time doing more customer service work since it was reliable hours and money, and that’s what I needed at the time. Hindsight is 20/20 though I suppose!

Lauren says:
22 August 2017

Unfortunately, for many students taking on relevant summer work would mean giving up a steady term time job. More students seem to be staying in their uni cities over summer to work because they can’t afford to look for a new part time job every year! I’ve been able to apply most of what I learned in retail to my first graduate job, and still think it taught me things uni couldn’t have.


Well said! Almost all work is an invaluable learning experience, both the good and the bad.