Innovating student placements: how one university aims to kickstart students’ careers

<span>Portsmouth’s careers service advertises internships and helps students with the application process.</span><span>Photograph: Helen Yates</span>
Portsmouth’s careers service advertises internships and helps students with the application process.Photograph: Helen Yates

Taahirah Sidibe-McIntosh isn’t your average fourth-year student. She spends three days a week working on an all-male, low-secure ward in a forensic mental health unit, and one day working from home. “I get up at 5.50am, and I’m on the train at 7.18am,” she says. Most people on the ward have come from prison or mental health hospitals. She was initially apprehensive, but the experience has been a hugely positive one. “I’m so supported and I’m seeing so much progress with the patients.”

Sidibe-McIntosh has always wanted to be a forensic psychologist and doing a placement while studying at the University of Portsmouth is setting her firmly on course to becoming one. She works with a team of health professionals, from social workers and nurses to senior clinical and forensic psychologists. “I go through reports, attend meetings and ward rounds, make notes and observe psychological assessments. There’s a lot to learn. It fascinates me.”

Portsmouth is the only university that offers “Connected Degrees”, which allow students to do a placement either in the traditional period after their second year, or at the end of their final year. The idea behind the latter is that they have the flexibility to use their full degree journey to explore paid placement options, be more employable when they finish their placement and also have the option to stay with their friendship group for the three years of study beforehand without having to break that time up.

Previously, taking time out has deterred some from doing a work placement. “Sometimes a student may think: ‘I want to get work experience, but I can’t as I’m signed up to a house,’ or ‘I want to stay with my friends,’” says Marc Lintern, director of student employability and employment at the University of Portsmouth. “Connected Degrees give them the opportunity to do that.”

This was key to Sidibe-McIntosh’s decision. “I’m happy that I’ve done it in my fourth year as I wanted to get my degree done. It doesn’t make sense to do it sandwiched in between, as you have to come back, and you don’t know what [degree classification] you’re going to get.”

To help students prepare for the world of work, many of the university’s courses have the option of a work placement, whether that’s a year’s placement, short-term placements or a self-employed placement. These have been shown to boost a student’s career prospects. At the University of Portsmouth, those undertaking a placement year are about 15% more likely to secure professional level employment within 15 months of graduating, compared with those who don’t do a placement year. Graduate earnings are also about £4,000 higher.

What’s more, they build confidence, develop commercial insights and give students credible examples of transferable skills, which they can include on CVs or application forms, and discuss during interviews.

Portsmouth provides plenty of support for students to find work placements. Employers will advertise internships with the university and the careers service helps students with the process of applying. “We help them with their applications because it’s like getting a job as a graduate – it’s hard. We organise careers and placement fairs where employers come and talk about opportunities. Most year-long placements are paid,” says Lintern. The careers service holds mock interviews, looks at CVs and gives feedback.

There are also short-term placements available, such as business consultancy, where students on business courses work with employers to solve real problems. There are also approximately 20 to 30 students each year, keen to start their own business, doing self-employed placements. “We have business incubation spaces on campus, startup advisers, and we do workshops on how to run a business, give advice on accounting, tax, applying for funding, all of those kinds of things,” says Lintern. “If you are thinking about running your own business, this is a chance to try it out in a protected environment.”

Related: ‘Smaller, cheaper and faster satellites’: how industry-academic partnerships are changing missions to space

Once they’re on a placement, the support continues. Staff will keep in contact with the student throughout the year and help with any issues that arise. Students pay a much reduced tuition fee during this time.

Ultimately, Portsmouth’s aim is to help students and graduates into the workplace. Lots of businesses tend to recruit placement students because it’s a way to try them out to see if they might be good hires.

Six months into her placement and despite the early starts, Sidibe-McIntosh feels she is on the path to her dream job. “I needed this experience and these roles are hard to get. I’ve put in all the work, and I’ve got a good understanding of working life. I don’t feel like a student, especially when I’m waking up early in the morning going with my handbag to work with a whole team. It’s very intense, but it’s definitely worth it.”

To find out more about work placements and studying at the University of Portsmouth, visit