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Undergraduates gaining industry experience through work shadowing

Dr Tse-Hui Teh (Careers Liaison Tutor) explains why the UCL Bartlett School of Planning offers undergraduates the chance to build on their learning with two weeks of work shadowing.

3 July 2017

Since 2013, students from all three undergraduate programmes within the Bartlett School of Planning department have been given the opportunity to consolidate their learning and to find out how it applies in a professional context. Beginning with 19 students in 2012-2013, there are now 35 students taking part in the work shadow programme, which is optional to third year undergraduate students in the third term of their final year.

Students are offered a two-week work shadow experience, bookended by two careers workshops as part of their studies, which is designed to get students thinking about their academic studies and professional future whilst they are still at UCL. For many students, this can be their first exposure to a working environment.

The academic and administrative team utilise strong industry partnerships within the department, as well as a growing alumni network, to reach out to organisations and secure placements for students. As the scheme has grown, the reputation of previous student engagement has helped establish on-going relationships and placements at charities, councils and consultancy firms both large and small including Arup, London Sustainability Exchange, Network Rail Property, JLL, AECOM, and British Land.

Students are made aware of the programme throughout their time within the department and then apply on Moodle, through a streamlined, non-competitive application process which attempts to match them up with their professional aspirations. Students are placed on a first-come first-served basis.

The work shadow experience is bookended by two half-day workshops which students have found very helpful accompaniments to the professional experience.

The first takes place before the two weeks begin and concentrates on maximising the work shadowing experience. The workshop explores goal-setting and presenting skills to give students a chance to reflect on these aspects before they start their placement. 

The second takes place shortly after the work shadowing has been completed and focuses on building upon the experience. Students share what they did and learnt from their experience, and what they hope to take from it in future. It exposes them to professional development exchanges, reflection and networking right at the start of their career.

Following this, students feed back through a short questionnaire which has helped refine the scheme. To date, student feedback has been extremely positive. Many students have been offered internships and jobs as a result and others have commented that the experience has begun to build a valuable network of contacts. For international students, they have been able to get experience of the UK industry.

One student said: “This work shadow programme had provided an insight and practical experience that we cannot learn from reading.”

One of the challenges of the placements has been that it is not possible to guarantee what the placement will cover as it varies between organisations. There is also an element of expectation management as students and organisation anticipations may not align. The team try to be as clear as possible to both sides about this.  

Another issue has been that on occasion, a student or two after committing to an organisation, chooses to pursue other plans. When the placement falls through, this can lead to a loss of trust with the organisation. To combat this, the work shadowing guidelines issued to students state the importance of following through with commitments for the sake of professionalism and for future students. They are also told that an alternative would be able to negotiate a different start date to be able to make the most of the work shadow opportunity.

The programme exemplifies one way for students to connect their academic learning with workplace learning, a dimension highlighted in the UCL Conected Curriculum. The work shadow experience gives them a direct way to simultaneously practice and apply the skills and attributes they’ve developed over their three year degree and identify further things to learn. The workshop structure reflects the transferability of university learning to the workplace and gives them the chance to discuss the varied experiences they have had with their peers and to consolidate how these experiences relate to further learning as well as how to build their careers.

In the future, the team will ensure that the placement is recorded on students' HEAR record (Higher Education Achievement Report) if they attend the work shadowing and two workshops. This will serve as encouragement to students to attend and take part fully.

The success of the work shadowing scheme has led to the inclusion of an optional placement module which runs over a full term in the department’s new two-year postgraduate programme, MPlan City Planning.