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Gaining experience

The public sector

The public sector is both competitive and broad which combines to make work experience a central part of your career planning. There are many opportunities available which will help you to identify which job roles would best suit your interests and skills, as well as making you stand out from the crowd as a proactive and rounded applicant.

Undertaking work experience is also invaluable in developing expertise and all-important transferable skills, which will help you demonstrate your ability and commitment for your chosen area of work.

Finding experience will take time and effort; employers receive many CVs every week so you will have to work hard to stand out from the crowd. You can find out more about how to create a targeted CV through the Careers and Employability website.


Types of opportunities

Below are some examples of the different types of opportunities to gain experience while you study.

Work placements can provide you with an invaluable insight into working life and offer a unique opportunity to apply the sector knowledge you are learning as part of your studies.

Placements will also enable you to develop transferable skills in the workplace, such as communication, teamwork and time management, in addition to finding out more about a specific job role or industry, which will lead to more informed decisions upon graduating.

On some degrees work placements are part of the programme, whilst on others you can choose to complete a placement as one of your modules. Should you choose to undertake either your first point of contact is your placement office in your Faculty.

Learn more about taking a placement


You can also choose to take a Self-Employed Placement. This allows you to work for yourself during your placement year and receive support from the University's Student Startup Team. You will have access to funding opportunities, networking events and workshops.

Learn more about Self-Employed Placements

Employers within the public sector will consider an interest in public issues to be essential - therefore keeping track of developments in the news and issues affecting the public service will be important. Most workers in the sector are also very community minded and therefore engaging in volunteering in a third sector or public sector organisation will help to demonstrate your commitment.

Getting involved in volunteering also gives you the opportunity to develop employability skills and experience a variety of working environments to assist you in discovering the right career path for you. It also provides the chance to network, meet new friends and boost your confidence.

Volunteering enables you to gain practical experience and working examples to support your graduate applications. If you choose to commit a significant amount of time and impress the organisation during your volunteering, they may also provide you with a professional reference.


Volunteer to get practical experience

Being a student at the University of Portsmouth provides you with access to numerous student groups, clubs and societies at the Students’ Union, with the opportunity to offer your skills in a committee position or to just get involved in the range of activities available.

There are a number of political groups and community-interest groups that you are able to sign-up to.

Alternatively, you could approach local organisations, charities or community groups who would benefit from your skills. The transferable skills gained from such experience will be invaluable and enhance any speculative applications you make for further work experience.

The Careers and Employability Service offers current students and graduates access to a Virtual Volunteering Bank, which provides local opportunities to undertake alongside your studies. Similarly, you can access these opportunities through the paper-based bank located in the Careers and Employability Centre.

Examples of potentially relevant roles that the Volunteering Team have previously advertised and recruited to include:

  • Constituency Campaign Volunteer with Oxfam – an opportunity to become involved in the Constituency Campaigner Programme and to develop political campaigning skills to influence local politicians and other decision makers on issues related to domestic and global poverty such as inequality, tax reform, refugees and family reunion.
  • Research and Campaigns Volunteer with Citizens Advice Gosport – coordinating, promoting and becoming involved in all research and campaign activities. Suitable for anyone with an interest in law, legal and welfare systems; human rights and discrimination; and social and community issues.
  • Student Watch Volunteer with Hampshire Constabulary – acting as a representative of Hampshire Constabulary to deliver information to fellow students and members of the community. Aiming to tackle local issues or concerns and working towards making Portsmouth a safer city with greater community cohesion.
  • Transport Policy Support Volunteer with Portsmouth City Council - supporting the transport planning, policy and public transport sections of the team to assist with data collection and analysis, research tasks, and preparing and analysing consultations.

These opportunities will provide you with invaluable experience and an opportunity to develop and enhance multiple transferable skills that you will be able to discuss as part of future applications.


Learn more about our Volunteering Team

An internship is usually a work experience opportunity that is offered for a fixed period or a limited amount of time.

Internships tend to be undertaken by students and graduates who are looking to gain more relevant/sector specific skills and experience in their particular field. These opportunities can be paid for a period of between one to four months and typically take place over the summer, with closing dates generally around January to March, but some can be earlier.


Finding placement and internship opportunities

There are many different specialisms in the public sector and many employers, including the Civil Service, local government, NHS management and the uniformed services. Structured work experience schemes are offered by some of these organisations, while others may respond with a one-off placement to a speculative application.

Some areas to consider when looking for work experience are:

  • Working for a Member of Parliament (MP) - Working as a researcher or administrator for an MP can give you excellent exposure to how campaigns, legislation and government itself works in the UK, as well as giving you the opportunity to begin building a network of contacts. Opportunities may be advertised through an MP’s website or you may need to consider producing a speculative application to secure an opportunity.
    The Working for an MP website is a resource for anyone working for a British Member of Parliament or with an interest in how Parliament works and promotes a range of voluntary opportunities.
  • Local Government - Both political and non-political work experience positions are available within local government, particularly in the current climate of cuts to the sector. Contact the HR department to find out about short-term project research, internships or work-shadowing opportunities. You can find information about your local council through the GOV.UK website.

The Civil Service delivers two diversity internship schemes:

  • Early diversity internship programme – provides first-year students from diverse backgrounds (with an expected minimum 2.2 degree in any subject) with a one-week placement in a government department. This involves shadowing a fast streamer.
  • Summer diversity internship programme – open to applicants in the final two years of their undergraduate degree or who are undertaking postgraduate study with an expected or gained minimum 2.2 degree in any subject.

To be eligible for either of these programmes, you must be from a BAME (black, Asian and minority ethnic) background, or disabled, or socially or economically disadvantaged. If you have a positive appraisal during the internship, the Civil Service will fast track you to the initial online stages of the Civil Service Fast Stream process.

Some Civil Service departments also offer structured work experience in the form of summer internships or 12-month sandwich placements. Examples include the Government Economic Service (GES) for economics students, GCHQ for STEM students and the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO) for those interested in a career in international relations.

  • The European Commission (EC) - also offers five-month traineeships in areas including law, human resources (HR) and environmental policy. Any degree is accepted, but you must have a strong knowledge of English, French or German, plus a second European Union (EU) language.


Other examples of internship programmes in the public sector

Be proactive and try to gather inspiration and ideas from the world around you: join industry clusters and attend networking events. This is a great way to meet people working in the creative industries and will help you with your networking skills. LinkedIn is a useful platform to network with sector employers.

Visit our LinkedIn Guide


You can also speak to your tutors about potential contacts and opportunities for work experience over the Easter period or summer vacation. 

If you wish to instigate voluntary work experience during the vacation periods please refer to the 'External sites' on the voluntary work experience section of our website.

How to approach employers directly

When you approach an employer directly, you send them a speculative application. Speculative applications involve sending a CV and cover letter to an employer to ask if they can offer any work experience, even if the company is not currently advertising placements or internships.

Submitting a speculative application shows your interest in a specific company and your willingness to go above and beyond to develop your skills and understanding of the industry. 

Learn how to send a speculative application

Placement Students Photos - Alan Johann Mayer

Tip to build experience

Make sure you carry out thorough research

Explore the various areas within the public sector before you apply for work experience; knowing what you want to specialise in will help you focus your research and ensure you gain the relevant skills. As a starting point take a look at the job profiles included on the Prospects website to consider the type of work experience recommended and the skills you will need to develop to enhance graduate applications for specific roles.

Use your networks

Utilise your personal networks to find out if anyone you already know working in different sectors can offer a work experience opportunity. When you are studying at university your network also extends to your tutors and other members of Faculty staff who may be researching in the areas that interest you. They may have opportunities or contacts they are willing to share with you.

Making the most of your experience

Once you have secured your experience, it will be important to recognise that you will be working in a professional environment - your appearance and attitude will need to reflect this. Importantly, let your enthusiasm for the opportunity shine through and aim to get involved - a positive, ‘can do’ attitude will help you to stand out.

Many of the professional roles in the public sector will require you to demonstrate an interest in and a commitment to public issues. Therefore, take the time and opportunity to reflect upon your experience. You could keep a reflective log and address the following questions:

  • What did I learn from the experience?
  • What went well?
  • What could I have done differently?
  • What are the longer-term implications of my experience?
  • Has this helped me to explore my options?
  • What are my next steps?

By keeping this log you will also start to build an evidence bank of examples – implementing particular skills and showing knowledge – which can be used in future applications and/or interviews.

Before you leave your work experience

  • Ask if the organisation/your manager will write you a reference to use for future applications.
  • Ensure you have the contact details of colleagues who may act as mentors, sources of advice or may even help with finding employment opportunities in the future.
  • Ask for feedback on your performance – this may include seeking your manager’s or colleagues’ perspective on what you need to do to further enhance your employability in order to be successful in your chosen area of work.

Make sure you have clearly identified what you have gained from the work experience in terms of skills, experience and personal development. You could complete our Key Skills Audit to help you think about the different skill sets you have developed, for example, when you have worked with others, problem solving skills and work ready skills.

Explore the Public Sector Career Guide

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