Working while studying

Newsletter articles

1 Feb 2014

Employment Studies Issue 19

Matthew Williams, Research Fellow

Matthew WilliamsWork during study is a common experience for around half of all students. Recent IES research examines this issue in some detail, looking at what motivates students to do this, the kind of work they do, and what they gain from this.

Why do students work while studying, and what do they get out of it? These were among the key questions IES and our research partners at NatCen asked of 59 of the respondents to the Student Income and Expenditure Survey (SIES) 2011/121 in a qualitative follow-up research study. Working alongside studying is common, with at least half of all students taking on paid work at some point during their studies; this new work builds on findings from the SIES to gain a deeper understanding of the motivations to work, the nature of work undertaken, and the challenges and benefits of working alongside studying in higher education (HE). The individuals sampled for the study were full-time students in the 2011/12 academic year and were known to have undertaken paid work. They were drawn from a range of backgrounds, including those studying in English and Welsh institutions, in higher education and further education institutions, those who received grant-based financial support and those who did not. Approximately half of those interviewed were still studying (current students) at the time of the interview in spring 2013, and half had graduated and were in the labour market (new graduates).

What jobs do students do, and why do they do them?

The research provided a detailed insight into the nature, timing and drivers to work and thus enabled the identification of four types of student work activity:

  • paid work (‘student work’) which tends to be part-time, generally unrelated to the course, and not regarded by the students themselves as a career job. This is the most prevalent type of work;
  • university-based work, working with or for universities, this tends to be paid, aimed at students, yet is sporadic and typically involves only a few hours;
  • voluntary work, which is unpaid, and tends to involve a regular commitment and to be organised by the student themselves; and
  • work placements, usually unpaid, but these tend to be a compulsory part of a course and facilitated by the university or college.

Student work driven mostly by financial need, flexibility and convenience

Student work, which is the most common type of work, is driven primarily by financial need: to meet an immediate or critical need; to cover a shortfall in other forms of student support; to top up income to provide a better student experience; or to help towards future goals. It also enables students to share the responsibility for meeting the costs of their study, provides them with a sense of financial independence, and develops skills in managing finances.

Many students undertake paid work as shop assistants and customer service assistants, bar and waiting staff, and care workers – jobs that are towards the lower end of the non-manual occupational spectrum. However, these jobs meet many of the needs that students have for flexibility and convenience. Students are often able to change shifts to fit in with their timetables, or around deadlines and exams, and may be able to move the location of their jobs between term time and vacations. The importance of flexibility is illustrated by this student, who was working in supermarket:

‘… the job right now is really flexible. Like if I need a day off to go to university, they'll give it to me, or if my lectures have changed times then they'll change my shifts and stuff like that…. if I have exam dates and then I need to be able to change my shifts to go to my exams or if I need some time off 'cause I've got an assignment due in, they're generally quite good with that.’

This type of work also gives students some variety from university life – time out from their studies; the opportunity to meet new people, and also different people from those they encounter in university social circles; opportunities for new experiences; and a means of alleviating boredom (particularly during vacations).

Employability the key factor in unpaid work placements

Employability considerations are part of the mix of reasons for undertaking paid student work, but for most students this is a secondary if not tertiary reason. However, employability considerations are key when taking on unpaid work placements, particularly if students have to give up paid work or juggle placements alongside paid work.

Generally, students appreciate the opportunity to undertake a work placement but not all students do this. Some are not offered the opportunity, whereas others may decline placements because they feel that this would extend their course unnecessarily and delay graduation, that placements are not appropriate for their career goals, or that they already have sufficient work experience.

The quality of paid student work is judged very differently to the quality of placements, and that of graduate work. Good student work is about flexibility (in terms of hours), convenience (in terms of location), and ease (easy to do and easy to acquire). Large supermarkets, retail firms and restaurant and bar chains with branches around the country appear to understand the needs of students and can offer roles with the characteristics that students are looking for. Good placement work, however, is about relevance to course and career aims, making a useful contribution, and having the ability to practice skills and knowledge in a safe environment.

Working after graduation

Good quality graduate jobs are those roles that are related to one's study discipline or intended career, and tend to be fulltime, better paid and offer more challenge, responsibility and opportunity to use and further develop graduate skills. However, not all graduates move straight into these jobs, and the research identified two other types of work that new graduates undertake: stop-gap work, which mirrors or is a continuation of student work, and provides graduates with an income whilst they look for something more aligned to their career goals or save up to continue with further study; and transition work, which tends to be full-time, offer networking and/or training opportunities and may evolve into a graduate job over time or lead to better opportunities.

An overview of the work journey of students during and after graduation is shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1: Typology  of student work and graduate work

What do students gain from working?

Despite the fact that students may have different motivations for taking on paid and unpaid work while studying, the perceived benefits are similar in terms of improved longer-term employability and improved opportunities for graduate employment.

Students believe that employers want more than just academic qualifications: work experience, regardless of relevance to course or career goals, shows them to be ‘well rounded individuals’ with a range of life and work experiences and interests, labour market insight and familiarity with work routines, able to cope in different situations and interact with people from a variety of backgrounds, fit into organisations quickly and signal to employers that they are motivated, resilient and reliable. All work provides benefits but relevant work (to the programme of study or intended career direction) may help to ease the transition between studying and graduate work after leaving higher education.

Work is perceived to develop and demonstrate a number of attributes and transferable skills that students feel employers will value, such as the ability to work in a team, communication and interpersonal skills, independence and self-confidence. For an overview of these, see Table 1.

Table 1: Transferable skills and attributes that students felt may be gained through working while studying

Student work can also provide a number of practical outputs: prepared CVs; experience of application and selection processes; experience to draw on in job interviews; opportunities to develop networks and contacts; and employer references.

1The Student Income and Expenditure Survey (SIES) is a series of surveys that provide the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) and the Welsh Assembly Government with the most detailed, comprehensive and authoritative assessment of the financial position of students in higher education in England and Wales. These surveys have been undertaken at regular intervals since the mid 1980s and enable the government to measure the impact of changes in funding and support for students over time, and to develop appropriate student financial support policies and mechanisms. IES, in partnership with NatCen, has undertaken the past three waves of SIES. The most recent wave is SIES 2011/12 and can be accessed here.