Career foundations

Work experience gives students the opportunity to learn valuable skills – but how has this been affected by COVID-19 and is the situation improving?

building blocks animation

The first taste of work experience I had in the industry that I had pinned my future career hopes on was in year 10 of secondary school.

As a 15-year-old from a small village who had only ever been to London for rare day-trips, I was beyond excited and more than a little terrified to spend a week travelling in and out of ‘The Big City’ on my own to experience life at a small radio station.

I was fortunate to be able to stay with family who lived on the outermost reaches of the tube line to be able to take up the opportunity, and had my first experience of commuting, tackling my irrational fear of escalators (it’s the height that gets me), and attempting not to get lost – which I failed at, managing to get a tube going in the wrong direction twice.

It was a foundational five days that lit a fire for media, motivating me through the next few years of GCSEs and A-levels. In the years following, treasured opportunities helped me decide on my next steps, learn from more experienced professionals, and develop a capacity for drinking an inordinate amount of tea. I also learnt that a box of ‘thank you’ biscuits goes a long way.

This is a scenario that I can imagine might be similar for those who, like me, have gone on to pursue a career that they first set their sights on as a teenager. Whether journalists chasing the dream of a byline, or an optometrist whose first view of the profession came from an encouraging practitioner, Saturday job, or week of work experience.

A regrettable initial side effect of the pandemic was that those valuable work experience opportunities were paused or withdrawn for many students – understandably so – as workplaces prioritised safety for employers and patients and reacted to changing restrictions.

Now though, the future looks brighter, and conversations with students and employers suggest more opportunities are out there.

This was something OT began to explore last year, as we heard concerns around pre-reg and clinical placement availability. There was a sense that opportunities had reduced or dwindled following the pandemic, potentially making it more difficult for those students at the outset of their careers to get a sense of the world they would be stepping into, and the kinds of professionals they wanted to be.

While opportunities might be emerging now – and this is an encouraging sign – that doesn’t change the feeling some students have had over the past few years, that opportunities have been harder to come by.

After all – I’m sure many of us can relate to the feeling that our personal worlds have shrunk since March 2020, and can appreciate that, though universities have done an incredible job of adapting and ensuring students have the best experience possible, life on campus may not be what students pictured as wide-eyed school-leavers.

One student told me recently: “I think that some people are concerned that they should have more to show on an application,” adding that the pandemic has taught them not to take university clinics, and the opportunities they present, for granted.

This is a topic we’re looking to revisit and unpack for the next report in the COVID-Generation series, exploring the impact of the pandemic on those optometrists in the earliest stages of their journeys.

We want to hear your stories as first and second-year students seeking or securing work experience and applying for pre-reg, or from employers offering these opportunities. Please do get in touch.

OT  asks...

For first and second-year students, what do you feel the opportunities are like for work experience in optometry currently and over the past year?


  • There are limited opportunities

    1 33%
  • There are significant opportunities

    0 0%
  • There are some opportunities

    1 33%
  • There are no opportunities

    1 33%