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Thriving and surviving in fieldwork placements

ACWA Inc - Monday, September 04, 2017
No matter what it’s called - fieldwork, practicum or work placement – it is one of the most valuable experiences you can have while studying. It is an opportunity to put theory into practice and practice into an organisational context; all while being guided and supervised by an experienced practitioner. Placements are the link between theory and employment. Done well, fieldwork will boost your confidence and ensure a smooth transition to a post-study career.

During the course of your study you will be placed in a real workplace, often referred to as the host agency, where you will have the opportunity to develop your skills under professional supervision. A fieldwork placement provides the context within which to understand the complexities of practice beyond what case studies and role playing can provide. Learning about the workplace and the demands on practitioners will give you a realistic insight in to the workforce and better prepare you for it.

Students on placements are neither employees nor volunteers; they take up a unique position in an organisation to learn how theory and practice coalesce in the workplace to create skilled practitioners. A placement is an extension of your theoretical learning and as a student you will be supervised to ensure that your practical experience prepares you for work with a range of clients. It is your opportunity to ask questions and make best use of your supervision.

If you want to learn more about our fieldwork placement standards you can do so here however, for this post, our focus is on how you can prepare for your fieldwork, bring the right attitude and make it work for you, even after it’s over.

Tips for getting the most out of placements

Prior to placement

Before you start your fieldwork placements there are a number of things you should consider and prepare for:
  • Managing your budget - if you are working while studying you will need to plan for how your placement will affect your employment. You may, for example, have to cancel shifts or take unpaid leave to meet your fieldwork obligations. If this is likely to cause you serious financial difficulties speak to your education provider well in advance to learn what support, if any, is available in your circumstances.
  • Finding out what is expected of you - make sure you read your fieldwork placement handbook or manual before your placement begins. This may sound like obvious advice but who hasn’t put a lengthy document aside ‘for later’, or agreed to terms and conditions without a second thought? The manual tells you exactly what your TAFE/university and host agency require. This may include reflective report due dates, appropriate work wear, host agency hours of operation etc. Read the handbook carefully to help you deliver a good first impression and avoid easily preventable mistakes.
  • Recognising a bad placement – this relates to the previous point and you should know what to expect in a placement. You are undertaking fieldwork to help you develop your professional practice skills and your responsibilities should be at the relevant and required skill level for your qualification. Case work, for example, does involve paperwork but you should not end up as a de facto admin assistant or receptionist. Manual work and personal care work should not make up more than 5% of a diploma level placement.
  • Keeping in contact with your education provider during placement – your education provider will assign a fieldwork placement officer to act as your liaison and visit you on site. At least one visit should be in person although others may be via phone or video chat depending on the circumstances. Find out when and how these visits will happen as well as how to contact this person if a problem arises. Getting this information before you start your placement can reduce stress later.
During placement

Whether a placement is a good or less than good experience is often out of your control. There are, however, a few things you can do yourself to get the most out of your placement:
  • Listen to instructions – again, this may seem obvious, but placements take place in real workplaces that provide services to real and often vulnerable clients. There will be times, especially early on, where your supervisor may want you to sit in on a client interaction and simply observe. Fieldwork should never be purely observational; however, watching experienced staff manage complex situations can help improve your own practice. At other times, and particularly as your placement progresses, you will be expected to participate and even demonstrate initiative. If you are unsure if you are supposed to join in or just observe, ask.
  • Ask questions – you are not expected to know everything straight away and asking questions actually demonstrates your eagerness to learn. Having said this, be thoughtful in when and where you ask questions - directly in front of a client may not be appropriate so write down your question or make a mental note to ask later. It is also perfectly human to forget things, so if you need a reminder ask someone, no matter how embarrassed you may feel. For simple questions though first check any induction material the agency has given you, your personal notes and the organisation’s library of policies and procedures that you would have been expected to read.
  • Don’t be too hard on yourself – remember a placement is an extension of your learning; mistakes will be made and that’s okay. If something does go wrong, it is important to let your host supervisor know and try to understand how it happened and can be prevented in the future. You are working towards becoming a professional but no one is judging you to that standard yet, so be kind and don’t do that to yourself.
  • Reflect on your experience - relate it to the theory that you have learned so far in your course. Think about the impact of practice on clients, the effects of such things as social exclusion, racism and the denial of human rights. Think about ethical practice and how you will deal with dilemmas when you are an autonomous worker in the field.
  • Avoid comparing your experience to that of other students – some students have placements that go beyond their expectations and others will find themselves placed within service fields, or with agencies and supervisors, that do not suit them well. While course providers do their best, naturally some placements will work out better than others and afford greater opportunities. Sharing stories with one another can be a great bonding and learning experience but don’t get too caught up with what other students are doing. Focus on embracing your own experience and getting as much out of it as you can.
When it’s over

When your placement is completed you should still draw upon the experience to help contextualise the remainder of your theoretical education. To get the best from your experience:
  • Continue to reflect on your placement – you would have been doing this throughout your experience but stopping to debrief once it’s all over can give you another perspective on things. Your reflective reports will likely prompt you through most of this but you should also reflect personally and honestly about your performance and your expectations. This will help you prepare and possibly alter your approach for your second placement later in the course.
  • Use your placement experience to help you apply for work – once you graduate make sure to highlight your fieldwork experience on your resume and during the recruitment process. Whilst you will not have industry experience as a new graduate your fieldwork can be used to show you have already developed key skills. Think about examples that can demonstrate your claim and show your value to a potential employer. This is also a great way to prepare for interviews - recruiters often rely on behavioural questions when hiring people new to the field. You may be asked to give an example of when a client rejected your advice, or a situation when you were under pressure and be asked to describe how you managed the situation.
  • Maintain your industry connections – having contacts in the sector can be a huge advantage when it comes to a starting a career. The people you worked with whilst on placement may be able to offer you advice, mentorship, or even provide a reference or recommendation for you in the future.
If you have already completed your first placement, or did so long ago, leave any words of wisdom you have for future students in the comments section. We may even update the post and add them in!

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