Jobs in Data and AI: Find a placement to increase your employability.

Career Advice
06 December 2021 | Career Advice | Guest Author


Jobs in Data and AI: Find a placement and increase your employability.

Data is the driving force for businesses across all industries these days. But, if you’re reading this, you probably already know that. You may have already studied data to some extent and are now looking to leverage your knowledge to find a job.

The good – and bad – news is, you’re not alone: the number of undergraduates studying computer and data science subjects in Scotland is rising, with enrolment at university level having increased by 20% since 2015 to over 17,000 students, with similar increases throughout the UK. Additionally, the UK Government has included continued support for postgraduate students in its National AI Strategy announced earlier this year.

But with so many students – whatever their graduate level - looking for work in this sector, how can you stand out to potential employers?

“Experience” is the go-to response, but that can be hard for students to obtain – which is what makes a placement such a good opportunity.


What is a student placement?

A student placement, or internship, is a work-based training scheme that students undertake as part of their undergraduate or postgraduate degree.

There are several placement schemes operating with varying structures.  One of these, The Data Lab Masters programme hand-matches each student with a company in Scotland to ensure their skills are compatible with the business’ needs, and that the business can provide the required support and guidance to the student. During these placements, students become part of the organisation for up to 3 months – they join a team of employees to solve a challenge the business has identified and they are paid for their time.

Placements are available in a range of sectors, so long as it relates to the degree subject. For example, students studying degrees in Artificial Intelligence, Financial Technology, or even Urban Analytics are eligible to participate in The Data Lab’s Industrial Placement Programme. However, as data is used by all businesses, the placements could be in any industry from pharmaceuticals to energy, financial services, academia, public sector, or food and drink. One-to-one support is provided to the students throughout the placement with both academic and industry supervisors assigned to every project.


What does it mean for my CV?

Entry-level jobs were once the standard for graduates. However, many recent graduates are encountering a catch-22: employers want people with experience even for entry-level positions, but graduates can’t get that experience until they’re hired. A recent analysis of 3.8 million job listings on LinkedIn corroborates this: on average, 35% of “entry-level” job postings requested at least three years of experience – rising to 60% when looking solely at roles that relate to software and IT.

This is partly due to technological advancements. Increased automation has led to the disappearance of many traditional, administrative-based entry-level roles. Employers now need people with experience to fill even entry-level jobs.

As a result, the starting point in a career is now higher up the ladder than it once was, but there’s a gap in what new graduates offer and what businesses need. A placement helps to close that gap, in many instances acting almost as an internship-cum-entry-level role.

In other words, you’ll supplement your education with practical knowledge, gaining CV-worthy professional experience with close supervision and guidance along the way. At the same time, the benefits to the host organisation include access to new talent, often new skillsets and a fresh mindset.  For many, the placement provides the opportunity for organisations to implement projects that otherwise may not have happened due to a lack of time, resources and/or necessary skills.  For some, the placement leads to recognition of the requirement and value of the role resulting in a more permanent job offer made to the student.


What does it mean for me?

The experience gained during a student placement speaks for itself, but there are added benefits, particularly for those who have gone straight to postgraduate studies from their undergraduate degree.

Post-university life is very different from that of a student and adjusting can often be a challenge. Something as simple as understanding the professional dress code or adjusting to the 9-5 schedule can throw new starters off their game.

Placements also increase students’ confidence in their own skills and abilities, something with which many new graduates struggle. This is especially important as they may wrestle with the lack of immediate feedback in the workplace and increased accountability compared with their time in education.

The transition to the workforce means moving to an entirely new environment with a different culture; placements prepare you for that without assuming you have any prior knowledge. Many students are matched with a mentor as part of their placement, to help them succeed.

Benefits are clear, too, for those who already have a few years’ work experience. A placement means they will graduate with sector-relevant experience on their CV, even if their background is in an entirely different field.

From a data perspective, placements can also mean an introduction to real data and the challenges that it brings.  It is common for students at both undergraduate and postgraduate level to complete their studies having only had the experience of working with clean, pre-prepared teaching data.  For many, it can come as a huge surprise when presented with a real, uncleaned dataset for the first time. There is much to learn by way of how to tackle this real-world data and also the preparation and often large amounts of time required cleaning data before it is deemed fit for purpose.


Do businesses care?

In short: yes! Businesses are actively seeking to close the gap between knowledge of data and experience in the sector. The May 2021 Quantifying the UK Data Skills Gap report found that 46% of businesses have been struggling to fill roles that require data skills. A placement puts you in the perfect position to help them do so.

But it’s not just about the work you’ll do as part of your placement. Completing a placement shows prospective employers that you have experience of corporate life and have the complementary skills required to be successful in the workplace: communication, critical thinking, and problem-solving are all important skills that university qualifications alone don’t show.

With thousands of students graduating each year and competing for jobs in data and technology, a placement can help you stand out and make employers take notice of your application.

There are currently a number of Masters scholarships available on The Data Lab Masters programme starting January 2022, which include the opportunity to undertake a paid industry placement as part of your studies.  There will also be a new round of scholarships announced in early 2022 for the September 2022 start.

Heather Thomson, Head of Skills at The Data Lab


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