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  • Writer's pictureChristie Roberts

My University Experience- Placements

Updated: Jan 22, 2023

Some people had placements at uni that they absolutely loved, and came away from knowing that's where they wanted to work when they qualify. Other people, like me, accumulated a list of places they never wanted to go again. At my university, we had 2 placements per year (8 weeks and 12 weeks) and were encouraged to go on 'spokes' to experience other areas, which was where I found my niche in nursing. Other universities have more, shorted placements so you get to move around more frequently.

I get a lot of questions from people on Instagram, usually who are about to start their first placement so I thought it could be helpful for me to condense some of my best tips to help student nurses (although these would also apply to any health and social care student who goes out on placements as part of their course).

First day on placement!

I wanted to start by quickly summarising my 6 placements-

Without further ado, my top tips....

1. Be open minded!

You're not going to love every placement, that's a given, but you will learn something from every one. Some areas will be great for learning opportunities, and others you may have to put a bit of time and effort into seeking out. Mentors will generally really appreciate a willingness to learn, especially if they know it's a clinical area that you don’t really enjoy or are particularly nervous about. Sometimes it gets to a point where you just have to suck it up, think 'right, I've only got 6 weeks left, that's 18 shifts, let's get this bread' and just try to get the most out of every shift. After that, you can write it off as experience and know that you’ve narrowed down where you might want to work by process of elimination.

My first (/only) gift from a mentor after I finished my HV placement. We had a really honest discussion about how health visiting wasn't an area that I was at all interested in, but my mentor praised me at the end for getting to stuck in regardless.

2. Make the most of spokes

There are so many areas of nursing, and it'll never be possible to experience them all, but by branching out from your hub placement, you can start to see more areas. This works particularly well for outpatient and specialist areas, as you wouldn’t necessarily be allocated to these for a full placement. Some of my favourites were going to surgery to see a kidney transplant, a day with epilepsy specialist nurses, and obviously doing several days with the respiratory research nurses which was my first introduction to research! You don’t have to be limited to spending time with nurses either- I did a non-clinical afternoon at a ‘baby café’ during my HV placement, which taught me so much about breastfeeding and local challenges for women in the area.

3. Be prepared for your expectations to change

They do say to ‘plan for the worst, but hope for the best’ and I think this is really useful. You will have preconceptions about each area- either just your gut feeling, or things you’ve heard from other students, but ultimately you don’t really know how you are going to feel on a placement until you get there and experience it for yourself. I was so deflated when I got rehab for my first placement, but this turned out to be my favourite placement, and I was so happy when I got a medical ward, which I ended up hating. I never thought I would work in anything remotely surgical, and then I ended up spending 1.5 years in a predominently surgical ICU. You can’t predict these things, and this really ties into the first point of keeping an open mind for every shift you go into- you might just find a new area that you love!

4. You won't get on with every mentor

I think (hope?) that this has improved now that the NMC has shifted from the mentor system to the practice supervisor/practice assessor system, because it used to be very nerve-wracking knowing you were going to have to suck up to your mentor just so that they would pass you. But the point still stands- some nurses don’t want students, and aren’t really interested in teaching. If you’re in that situation, find someone who is willing to teach. It doesn’t have to be a nurse- I learnt so much from hanging around with HCAs, physios, OTs and doctors (and even medical students or student nurses in other cohorts, as you’re often in the same boat of wanting to learn but not really knowing what’s going on!).

5. Be honest about what you need

My grandpa sadly died a few weeks into my first placement, and with that being my first experience of death I had no idea how to cope. I was so worried about missing placement hours that I went in for a shift the next day after staying up all night crying. I made it about 15 minutes in before I had a total breakdown on the ward and was sent home for 2 weeks compassionate leave. After that, I learnt that you’re not much use on placement if you’re not in the right headspace to be there.

In third year, a close friend died the weekend before placement started, and this time I sat down with management and told them what time off I would need, and also reached out to uni student support to put things in place for mitigating circumstances- this gave me extensions on my placement and essay deadlines so that I could look after myself. So, being honest about your support needs, whether that’s mental health support for an existing issue or something that gets worse during placement, adaptations to your working hours or working environments, it much better to be upfront with what help you might need. It can be scary, but make the most of student support and academic advisors as they may be able to help you with things like emailing placement etc.

6. Set objectives and goals

It’s pretty easy to drift through placement and get to the end and struggle to figure out what you’re achieved. It also then makes it more difficult to get competencies signed. So, it can be really helpful to have a look through what competencies you need signed or what experiences you want and set little goals for the shift, or for the week. Using the SMART format does help, as it gives a really solid framework for goals to be focused and achievable. If you’re struggling with a placement, it can also be quite motivating when you achieve those goals.

(GHCC, 2019)

7. Prepare in advance

As a nurse, there is nothing more demoralising than a student who clearly doesn’t want to be there, and has done absolutely nothing to prepare for the placement. I found this difficult as up until my final placement, all of my clinical areas were so broad and general. But, when I got to dialysis, I made sure to have studied hard about the kidneys because I hate the feeling of not knowing things and I don’t like looking stupid. Particularly in generalist areas, it can be really helpful to ask the clinical area if they have any advice for things you could familiarise yourself with before you start- I used to do this when I went in for a pre-placement visit to meet my mentor and see the unit. That then gives you a bit of time before the placement starts to make some rough notes. They won’t expect you to know everything (you are there to learn it afterall!) but it’s nice when your student has a foundation to build off, and as a student it usually makes you feel more confident when you walk into your first handover and at least some things make sense.

8. You don’t have to know where you’re going to end up!

Some people will walk into uni knowing exactly what area of nursing they want to work in. Some people will have absolutely no idea. Some people will have their minds changed 100% during the course. Whichever camp you fall into, it’s totally okay! I had no idea, and didn’t fully figure it out until halfway through my final placement. Don’t put too much pressure on yourself, and try and have fun when figuring it out. Placement is great for this, spoke placements are great for this, and things like Bank shifts can also help you to figure it out. Worst case scenario, you pick a job and end up hating it- but it is so easy to move areas! You might realise it after a week, you might make it 6 months in and realise it’s not what you thought it was, or you could spend years on a unit only to make a total 180 and move into a new area. Try to see it as an adventure rather than something to dread.

I hope you found this helpful, and can use some of these tips to get thriough placements. One of the msot important things to remember is that every nurse has been through pklacements, and will have experienced the same fears and anxieties, so remember that you're not alone and try to have fun!

Christie x

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