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Student insights

How to master your practical work experience

Author: ICAEW

Published: 23 Jun 2023

group young people students office work experience ICAEW

The practical work experience element of your training is not just about counting days. Approach it the right way and it will be the foundation for a successful career.

Practical work experience is the cornerstone of the ACA. “Remember, this is not an academic qualification, it’s a professional one, and therefore it comes with practical experience where you’re picking up real skills in the workplace,” says Nicola Mower, Senior Training and CPD Manager at ICAEW. “It’s so different in real life than it is in theory. Work experience gives you the opportunity to put the theory into practice.” 

The requirements are straightforward – you must complete at least 450 days of practical work experience within six categories at an authorised training employer – but there are plenty of opportunities to make the experience your own.

1. Think about your journey

At the start of your training, talk to your employer about what your work experience is likely to involve. “Consciously think about your journey through the next three, four or five years,” advises Nicola. “Ask what your role is likely to entail now, in 12 months’ time and when you qualify – as well as the opportunities beyond. Obviously, nothing is set in stone and it will evolve as you go along, but it’s good to map out a hypothetical pathway.” 

If you’re feeling disheartened at some of the more basic tasks you might be expected to do in the first few months of training, remember that this is just the start – and it helps to know where you’re heading. Keep that open conversation going with your employer, too – your six-monthly reviews are a great opportunity to take stock of progress. “Don’t just discuss the number of days you’ve worked; talk about the experience you’ve actually gained, and what the next six months is likely to look like,” says Nicola.

2. Stay curious and put your hand up

“Turn up with a curious mind,” Nicola says. “Be open-minded and the rest will follow.” Don’t expect to understand everything straight away – or be afraid to admit that you don’t have all the answers. “Be the person who asks questions,” she says. “No matter how far you get in your career, there’s always more to learn, and this is the time when you can ask as much as you like without looking silly. If you’re too scared to admit that you don’t know, you’re just missing an opportunity to learn.” 

Putting your hand up is also about demonstrating your willingness to take on tasks and develop yourself. “The biggest mistake you could make at this time is to coast or do the bare minimum,” Nicola says. “Think about your longer-term reputation. If you show that you’re committed and eager to progress, you’ll ultimately be offered more opportunities.” It’s important to take responsibility for your own experience, so get out of your comfort zone and volunteer for new challenges. A secondment to another team or a different organisation can be invaluable – you can log up to 50% of your work experience days on secondment to an authorised training employer, and up to a third at an unauthorised employer such as a client’s business. “Obviously you can’t always change the work that’s on offer, and opportunities like secondments are not going to be available to everyone, but there might be more on offer than you think.”

3. Play the long game

For ambitious students who are used to excelling, there’s a temptation to move onwards and upwards as quickly as possible, but training is all about building foundations and mastering the basics. “Play the long game,” Nicola advises. “Even if a particular aspect of your role is not what you aspire to do forever, it will stand you in really good stead for the rest of your career.” Avoid making hasty or uninformed decisions for short-terms gains; instead, recognise the value of the foundational work. “I think any experienced, successful person would look back on this time and either be grateful they did that groundwork, or wish they’d invested a bit more in the basics,” she says. 

If you are feeling frustrated, first talk to your employer, or someone who’s a bit further on in their career. “This is where mapping out that pathway at the start can really help,” Nicola adds. “There’s no fast-forward option. But sometimes a slight shift in emphasis or mindset can make all the difference.”

4. Be true to you

When you’re first starting out, it can be tempting to create a ‘work self’, or hide certain aspects of your life or personality. “While you should of course remain professional, always try to show up as yourself,” says Nicola. “There’s huge power in authenticity. Being true to your background, who you are and what makes you you will enable you to form more genuine relationships with colleagues and clients, and be much more sustainable in the long term.”

There are proven benefits to bringing your whole self to work – not only will you build better connections with others, but you will have more confidence, career satisfaction and, ultimately, success. “It’s not about sharing your life story the minute you meet someone,” says Nicola, “but it’s good to be genuine – and sometimes vulnerable. Try not to worry about imposter syndrome – we all suffer from it at times.” Like any skill, authenticity takes practice. If you don’t feel able to be open, or find it difficult to judge how much of yourself to share, try to identify a role model. “Find somebody you think embraces it well and ask for their advice.”

5. Look after yourself

The ACA qualification can be challenging, so look after yourself and try to stay healthy. “You may be expected to put a lot in at work, and that’s even before going home to do question practice,” Nicola says. “Try to set healthy boundaries for yourself and with your employer from the start. When you’re working or studying at home, make sure you carve out the best environment you can and take regular breaks.”

Eating and sleeping well can make a real difference to your energy levels, while regular exercise, mindfulness and meditation all help to reduce stress (see more advice on looking after your wellbeing and avoiding burnout). If you are struggling with any aspect of work or life, remember that caba offers free lifetime support to all ACA students and ICAEW members. Above all, says Nicola, “Enjoy the journey. I look back on my training as a great time of my life – though sometimes I wish I’d embraced it a bit more! This is such a valuable time. Approach it positively and make your own experience.”

Find out more about practical work experience requirements.

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