Work Experience and Career Prospects: Are They Related?

There is a range of evidence to suggest that engaging in work experience is conducive to greater career success, although this effect does vary between industries. There is an opposing view, however, that argues individuals may pick up a greater range of skills through additional academic preparation, and that work experience is ultimately a tangential and potentially harmful experience when considering long-term career outcomes. It is useful to weigh up the ways in which industrial and academic settings prepare individuals for professional environments, as it may provide some insight into what is the most appropriate course of action for students to take.

The education system and work experience opportunities are ostensibly different ways of preparing students for a career in the competitive labour market that is a staple of modern, post-industrial economies. Each method of career preparation has been shown to endow students with different skillsets, something that can be considered to have a stark impact on future opportunities, and ultimately career success. Kelley and Gaedeke (1990), as cited in Gault et al. (2000), identified 6 key skills considered significant in determining career success. These were: oral communication, written communication, problem solving, analytical skills, computer applications, and leadership/teamwork skills. Work experience was shown to be more effective in preparing students in 4 of these 6 skills, with the latter 4 being the ones that work experience was more effective in passing on, as shown by data in Gault et al.’s 2000 study. This may mean that such skills are a key differentiator for employers when evaluating graduate suitability for roles in their organisations. When considering the current, unparalleled, level of competition in the labour markets for graduate roles, these skill differences may have an even greater role to play in determining career success. In High Fliers’ report on the current graduate market, they find that compared with a year before, the volume of graduate applications has risen by 41%, “making this the largest-ever annual increase in applicants recorded by the country’s leading graduate employers” (High Fliers, 2021, p.28). It is, therefore, easy to recognise the importance of these differentiators, and how they can result in greater prospects, conducive to greater future career success. It should be taken into account, however, that each industry has its own nuances, with particular skills requirements.

It is difficult to talk about skill preparation and its relevance in determining career success, as it does not consider differences in skill requirements between industries. Each industry will likely have its own skillset requirements that are nuanced, meaning that whilst a higher level of teamwork proficiency may be useful in one industry, it does not necessarily translate across industries, perhaps ones where the work environment is more isolated. To refer back to work done by Kelley and Gaedeke (1990), cited in Gault et al. (2000), educational preparation shows a greater propensity to prepare individuals in oral communication and written communication than work experience, and as a result individuals may benefit more from remaining in the education system than seeking such experiences. Using graduate recruitment data from the High Fliers Report, some industries seem to prefer alternative recruitment methods than finding candidates via work experience, with technology (31% of recruits), consulting (10%) and the public sector (12%) recruiting a relatively low proportion of graduates through experience schemes (High Fliers, 2021, p.31). This is perhaps explained through a preference for individuals with a greater level of academic training, which would then further imply that skills such as oral and written communication have a higher value placed on them by organisations within the industries. This demonstrates the idea that specialising and investing in particular skills may improve the chances of recruitment and career success, and that work experience is not necessarily the most profitable method for doing this. Nevertheless, it is necessary to consider how different industries may use different recruitment strategies in order to recruit graduates, and the impact this might have on measures of career success, particularly extrinsic ones.

Different industries recruit graduates in different ways, and this is an important consideration when determining the value of work experience in career outcomes; it is simply not enough to consider the skills that are taught and how they may hold different values between industries. High Fliers indicate in their 2021 report that industries each recruit markedly different proportions of recruits through work experience programmes, which combined with data on median starting salaries can show how, in the pursuit of extrinsic career success in the form of income, work experience can be an extremely profitable pursuit. They show that in Investment Banking and Law, 73% and 70% of graduates are recruited through work experience programmes respectively (High Fliers, 2021, p.28). Furthermore, High Fliers’ report includes information on median starting salaries, and it is perhaps no coincidence that Investment Banking and Law rank as the two industries with the highest starting salaries, at £50,000 and £46,000 respectively, compared with the median for all starting salaries for graduates, which stands at £30,000 (High Fliers, 2021, p.19). This makes sense, as employers wish to evaluate candidates to the greatest extent before making a sizable financial commitment in employing them. This argument is reinforced by data from Gault et al. (2000, p.50), who show that those that those who engage in internships earn on average 16.9% (or $4,600) more than their non-intern counterparts; this is a significant difference, and underscores the argument that work experience is conducive, to a greater extent than educational preparation, to greater career success. This line of reasoning does however discount the role of intrinsic success and job satisfaction in determining absolute career success; the difference in measures of intrinsic success between those who engage in work experience and those who don’t should be examined, as well as potential economic penalties faced when choosing work experience over academic preparation.

Despite Gault et al. (2000) finding interns to be financially rewarded in a handsome manner, it should be noted that absolute career success is not determined solely by income. Intrinsic measures of career success can in the long run be a more accurate representation of career success, as it accounts for the level of satisfaction in a role. This, for many individuals, will likely be a more influential factor than income in determining how long they wish to remain active in the labour market. Gault et al. (2000) find that there was no significant difference in intrinsic measures of career success for interns when compared with non-interns. However, when asked about overall job satisfaction, interns were said to have a higher level of job satisfaction non-interns, although Gault et al. find this to be “related exclusively to satisfaction with extrinsic reward measures of salary and benefits”, demonstrating how recruits may have a somewhat myopic view of their career success. This potential overemphasis on work experience as one of the central variables in determining career success is further underlined by alternative data provided on starter salaries provided in a University of Essex study, cited in a 2017 article by Jamie Doward of The Guardian. The study finds that 3 and a half years after graduation, former interns are likely to be at an economic disadvantage when compared with those who went straight into paid work, to the tune of £3,500 on average. This is a marked economic penalty, and illustrates how inconsistent work experience is in improving the chances of career success for young labour market participants. In fact, a cynic might make the argument that work experience programmes are a cheap method of accessing brilliant talent from elite educational institutions; a more moderate observer might suggest the opportunities are tangential, and distract from actual career progression, as argued by the University of Essex’s Dr Angus Holford, cited in Doward’s 2017 article.

Graduates who partake in work experience opportunities and those who prefer academic career preparation experience somewhat different career outcomes as a result. The extent to which a student should select a particular route should be decided by the industry they wish to forge a career in; those interested in careers in investment banking and law would benefit from work experience, whilst those seeking employment in the public sector and technology industries would benefit from alternative employment prospect enhancement. The key finding here is that variation between industries in earnings, recruitment strategies, and skillset requirements have a great influence on how beneficial work experience is in improving career prospects. This is reinforced by the idea of salaries being a good point of comparison in determining career success across all industries, with the subjectivity of intrinsic success making meaningful comparisons a difficult undertaking.


Highfliers Research Ltd (2021) The Graduate Market in 2021 Ch.4 [Online] Available at:

Doward, J (2017) Unpaid internships: are they damaging your career prospects? The Guardian, 29 July [Online] Available at:

Gault,J, Redington, J and Schlager, T (2000) ‘Undergraduate Business Internships and Career Success: Are they related?’, Journal of Marketing Education Vol. 22 (1) pp.45-53

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