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Students: How to ensure your work placement is a useful experience

Students: How to ensure your work placement is a useful experience

By Noah Taylor

Volunteering overseas can be great. Aside from bringing about personal growth, volunteering can also be the first step for many in getting into a professional sector. Positions in the aid sector often require a level of prior experience that is hard to come by without undertaking some sort of volunteering or internship.

Whilst these experiences can be invaluable they can also cost time, money and there’s no guarantee that they’ll yield you the experiences you were hoping. Here are some things you can do before, during and after undertaking such a placement to ensure you’re getting the most out of the experience.


Do your research. Before you get to the point of getting on a plane you should have researched to death the organisation you’ll be working with. Get to know their culture, their values and the way they work. Find out as much as you can about the particular context of the country you’ll be working in and the likely challenges you’ll encounter. If you go in armed with as much knowledge as possible, you’ll be much better equipped to deal with the curve balls you’ll no doubt encounter.


Hound your organisation for a Terms of Reference. This will be the guiding document that lays out the specific tasks you’ll be doing during your placement. Agreeing on this before you start is really critical as it ensures that you and the host organisation are on the same page. There’s nothing worse than realising you’re doing a completely different role to what you originally understood. If possible, get a colleague to have a look at the TOR and if there’s an aspect you’re not happy about, change it. But make sure it’s secure in writing before you begin.

Volunteer placements can be a great way to up-skill. Image: Flickr
Volunteer placements can be a great way to up-skill. Image: Flickr


Alongside the TOR make sure you have absolute clarity on what your expenses will be and what costs the organisation will take responsibility for. In some cases, the host organisation will cover food and accommodation and maybe even a stipend. In other cases, you’ll be fronting up for everything. This can get really expensive really quickly so if you’re in that position it’s time to…


If your heart is set on working with a certain organisation but you’ve realised they won’t be footing any bills, then you’re going to have to come up with some alternative funding. Even in developing countries, three plus months of unemployment is expensive. You can pay for out of your own savings but that’s a bit of a gamble. Although just because the host organisation won’t help out, it doesn’t mean you’re on your own. Think about external scholarships. Trusts or religious organisations are another great option if you can demonstrate a connection although that will take some moral and theological consideration. Another option is to link it to your studies and apply for support through your university. Here’s how I got some support for a recent stint in Palestine: After getting approval from my school to get credit for my time away I enrolled in another subject online which qualified for full time student status. That subsequently qualified me for government student support. Think laterally.


Sometimes with the most thorough preparation and a clear TOR, things can still go sideways. When this happens it can be very disillusioning and you might find yourself in a directionless endeavour on the other side of the world. Not ideal. If your placement is linked to your studies however and you’re getting credit back home then it hasn’t all been for nothing. This can take some time to set up but it is something that pays dividends. I strongly recommend anyone interested in volunteering or interning overseas during their studies to make every effort to get it credited back home. That way, even if it’s not what you’d hoped, you’ll still get something really useful out of it.

Standing out in the job market can be tough. Image: Flickr
Standing out in the job market can be tough. Image: Flickr


Even if it’s the experience of a lifetime it’s important to have an exit plan and fixed end date. Maybe you’ll get offered a job out the other end or another opportunity will come along but plan for what you can control and budget accordingly. It’s a very risky strategy going overseas and hoping a job will materialise at the end of an internship. If one does then great, it’s a bonus, and one you can properly consider as you’ve already planned coming home or where you’re heading next. Agree on this date before you arrive and ensure your host organisation and your university (if applicable) are also aware.


Volunteering can be an excellent opportunity for networking and setting up future opportunities and these might be outside of the organisation you’re currently with. Look out for any chance to meet interesting people in the field and talk to them about their organisations. It’s also a great time to figure out if you like doing this work and like living wherever you are. Maybe it’s not for you. I’d much rather figure that out volunteering for a couple of months than after starting a twelve month contract.

A volunteer experience can be an awesome boost for your career. However it can also be a complete waste of time and money. Plan properly, budget well and do your research and you’ll maximise your chances of having the most positive experience. You don’t really know what you’re getting yourself in for so remember, plan for what you can control, and think laterally.


Noah Taylor is an Australian post-grad student based in the Middle East. He is establishing his career in humanitarian aid and writing about the experience. Noah has a background in monitoring and evaluation and project development. He has worked with international NGOs, government, consultancy and served in the Australian military. Passionate about excellence in the humanitarian sector, civil-military coordination and hummus. You can follow him on Twitter @NoahTayls.

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2 thoughts on “Students: How to ensure your work placement is a useful experience

  1. […] Students: How to ensure your work placement is a useful experience […]

  2. […] experience is mutually beneficial for both the host community and themselves and do some thorough research beforehand. For those already working full-time, finding the time to diversify skills and develop […]

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