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Work Experience terminology

There are a number of different terms used to describe the very wide range of work experiences on offer to students. This section reviews the term ‘work experience’, its meaning and also of the common usage synonyms and closely related terms with the objective of clarifying the landscape and removing any confusion in terminology. Clarifying terminology is also important for information searching purposes as different countries use different terms for what is, in some cases, according to the local definition, a synonym.

In the UK there are a range of terms commonly found on University, Company and relevant Government Agency websites and publications relating to work experiences. The following is a summary of the way the terms are commonly used.

Work Experience

“‘Work experience’ is defined as a period of work that is designed to encourage reflection on the experience and to identify the learning that comes from working.” - Harvey:1998

In the report 8 types of work experience that form part of the academic study programme are identified: Sandwich course, professional experience, work experience element, overseas placement, work-linked individual project, work-linked group project, work-place visit, and simulated case studies. 12 types of organized work experiences are also identified. They are relevant to work but do not form part of the academic study programme. These consist of: structured vacation work, work-experience vacation placement, organized world-wide placements, short vacation courses, work shadowing and mentoring, traditional vacation work, term-time part time work, working in family business, voluntary work during term-time, voluntary work during vacations, time off during programme, gap year before or after the programme. The report summaries the different types of work experience into three distinct groups:

The National Council for Work Experience (NCWE) also identifies a number of other opportunities through which students can gain work experience:


The common UK definition of intern is one who stands in for someone else, usually in a professional capacity such as a doctor (also locum) and schoolteacher. In the HE sector a useful definition is: An internship is a short-term paid work placement available to graduates. Internships tend to be project-led and include an element of graduate development.” According to the National Council for Work Experience, Internship is “A phrase that is increasingly used by large companies and refers to a placement within their organisation.”


The dictionary definition of a placement is: “The action or process of finding a person employment; a position or job found for a person. Also (Brit.): (a period of) attachment to a workplace or educational establishment in order to gain experience.” Oxford English Dictionary. A placement can be defined as a period of time spent in an organisation for some purpose. Examples of usage of the term in HE are:

“The term "placement" usually refers to a year spent in an employer organisation between the second and final year of a degree course.” Some employers offer shorter sandwich placements of four to six months and also vacation placements, usually involving two or three months work over the summer … “

A placement is when a student does work experience in industry, and is usually a part of their course. This is generally for undergraduates and can last from a few weeks to a year. Placements have specific aims and objectives of what a student will learn and gain from the placement.” 

Work Placement

“A period of work experience, which can be paid or unpaid, and is part of a course of study. This can be arranged through your university with an employer or by yourself and is for an agreed period of time.” - NCWE

Industrial Placement

“An "industrial placement" (or "industrial work placement") is an extended period of (usually paid) work experience that many major firms offer to undergraduate students. Students who enrol on industrial placements are usually required to do so as part of their degree course. Typically industrial placements will last for a year (12 months, although they may last for less) and form the third year of a four year degree course.” 

Industrial placements are similar to sandwich placements but can last for less than a year. They are usually accredited as part of your course or are a compulsory part of a vocational degree.

Sandwich Placement

“An assessed paid work which is part of a student's course. It is often of one year's duration.” 

A Sandwich Placement (also referred to as an "Internship" or "Industrial Placement") is a validated work experience opportunity which forms part of a university degree programme (usually the third year, of a four year course).

Sandwich placements are year-long placements usually during the third year of a four-year degree course.  This year is spent in an organisation where the work you do is related to your degree.

Work-based project

“A specific piece of assessed work for a course, undertaken at an employer's premises.” - NCWE

Summer Placement

Typically 10 to 12 weeks in duration, a summer placement is work experience gained in the period immediately before the start of the academic programme or between years.

Voluntary work

“Any type of work undertaken for no payment, usually outside of your course and in your spare time.”

Part-time work

“Paid or unpaid work undertaken during term-time.”

The technical value of such experiences will be dependent on the closeness of the part-time work to the study subject, the transferable or generic skills development value will be broader.

Work shadowing

“Where a student observes a member of staff working in an organisation, and so gains an understanding of what a particular job entails.”

Vacation work

“This could be paid part-time or temporary work for students or full time work for graduates looking to enhance their CVs or improve job prospects.”


The definitions of the above terms illustrate the divergence of terminology usage from the strict dictionary definition (such as exists) to common, local usage. The most common theme that emerges from this review is that there is no real common strict definition for any of the terms – they all relate to students gaining real world experience in an organisation other than their host academic institution for a period of time. There are examples, where internships and placements are used synonymously, or for internship to be listed as a type of work experience.

The University of Brighton draws the distinction between them with the internship being work experience after graduation. UCL states that an “… internship provides supervised work experience in the ‘real world’ …”. In contrast, the National Grid, the organisation in the UK responsible for electrical power distribution throughout England, Scotland and Wales, defines Industrial Placements as “one-year placements typically aimed at students immediately before their final year, usually as part of a sandwich programme”; Year in Industry as “a UK National scheme for students who want to take a year out either before going to University or during their University programme”; and Internships as “12-14 week placements during the summer of the penultimate year of the University programme with the specific objective being academic programme linked”. IBM uses the same meaning for Industrial Placement.

GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) - Industrial Placements 

GSK define an industrial placement as “a work placement carried out as part of a sandwich degree course and is usually six or twelve months long”. They also offer summer placements which typically last from 10 to 12 weeks.


Deloitte offer Industrial Placements of one-year duration for students on 4-year degree programmes in the UK. They also offer a Summer Vacation Scheme offering 7-week duration experiences.


Nissan offers one-year industrial placements.

Scottish Universities Life Sciences Alliance - SULSA 

The main objective of SULSA, a Scottish Funding Council funded body, is to provide 4th year (MEng) undergraduates with programme linked "real-life" work experience.

These differences in usage and meaning between the supply (Universities) and demand (Companies) sides could be better.

In some words the duration of this time is self-evident, in others it is implied or flexible. In the UK work experience and internships can generally be interchangeable. The term “sandwich” is literally used to mean an experience between two others. In the UK a strong link is made between these activities and employability.

The key dimensions of the different forms of gaining real world experience are: