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Is there a difference between work experience, an internship and a placement?

By UCL Careers, on 10 September 2015

With much being said about the value that employers place on job candidates having previous work experience UCL Careers has seen the amount of opportunities for work experience, internships and placements rise drastically over the last few years.  At the same time the terminology has become quite confusing and often the words “work experience”, “placement” and “internship” are used interchangeably by students, employers and the general public even though they could mean very different things in terms of what the student will actually experience.

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When you apply for opportunities it is important that both you, and the employer, have the same understanding as to what the opportunity is, how involved you will be and what you will gain from it. We thought we’d attempt to come up with descriptions of how we use the terms to help build an understanding of what the differences are.  So, here goes:

Work experience

Traditionally was associated with a short period of time within a company, such as one to two weeks to gain exposure to an organisation. It might include an element of work shadowing staff to observe what they do in order to understand a role better as well as getting involved in relatively low level tasks to help support the business in a very practical way.  Recently the term “work experience” has become an all embracing title for any form of participation in a working environment, and could include volunteering work with a registered charity which may not be paid but would still be counted as work experience.


Generally last anything from four weeks to a year. They may or may not relate to your studies and could vary greatly in terms of what the role will involve. Often, and in particular for large companies where they have an established summer internship scheme, the work will be of a similar nature to a graduate role.  For these companies the internships are likely to be structured with possibly an element of training. For some sectors such as banking and finance, having an internship on your CV is fairly important if you want to pursue a career in that field. Undertaking an internship on a summer scheme in these sectors can sometimes lead candidates being offered a place on a graduate scheme once they have graduated. However, there are also many other organisations that will offer internships that are not part of a scheme, but will enable you to experience what it is like working in a particular role and sector.


The word “placement” varies in meaning but at UCL, placements are thought of as an assessed, integral part of an academic programme and the tasks undertaken will most likely relate to your programme of study. However, many courses at UCL do not have this element within them.  If they do, they will usually range from three months to a year, depending on the requirements of your course. The level of work in a placement is usually similar in scope to an internship or graduate role. Placements are likely to be structured and may involve an element of training. Often you would be assisted by course staff in your search for a placement.

There are also other opportunities out there such as “insight sessions” which are usually offered from employers in the finance, management consultancy and law sectors.  These are short periods (days or a couple of weeks) where you have the opportunity to attend events and activities within a company designed to help you understand more about that company, the sector it is in and what roles are available.  Often there is a chance to undertake some level of skills training as part of the insight session with the aim to help you understand the skills necessary for the sector.

The key thing is to find out more about an opportunity in terms of what you will actually be doing and what, therefore, you might gain in terms of skills, experience and insight into a particular industry or working environment. You should also make sure that you understand what you are entitled to with regards to payment. By law companies must pay the National Minimum Wage, if you are classed as a worker, unless they are exempt (for example if they are a registered charity).  There is also an exemption of payment if the experience is a placement as part of an academic course. Be informed – see information on National Minimum Wage

For more information about work experience, internships and all the other types of opportunities use UCL’s Careers Tagged resource and see The Careers Group sheet on Securing Internships and Work Experience.

– Rochelle Symons, Placements and Vacancies Manager, UCL Careers.