Embedding a virtual placement and professional mentoring in an MSc module to support student employability

Dr Sarah Cardey, School of Agriculture, Policy and Development
Year(s) of case study activity: 2012-13


9397A virtual placement was created with the C4D Network, allowing student taking Communication for Innovation and Development within the Graduate School for International Development and Applied Economics (GIIDAE) to benefit from professional mentoring and networking, improving their employability as a direct result.


  • Set up a placement opportunity for students taking Communication for Innovation and Development.
  • Enhance the employability of students after graduation through developing their skills.
  • Give students experience of networking with professionals in the field.


Students on degrees within GIIDAE had asked for internships and opportunities to gain experience with development practice, which would in turn enhance their employability after graduation. While this was a goal shared by GIIDAE, the workload of students and logistical factors with regards development practice made it difficult to implement a physical placement scheme. As a result, a virtual placement and access to professional mentoring were sought as a practicable alternative.


The C4D Network is a community of professionals working in the field of communication for development. Through the C4D Network a “virtual placement” was created, with a communication portal run out of Oxford, allowing students to collaborate on development projects and network with communication for development professionals.

Prior to the mentoring sessions, a focus group discussion was held with students to assess what they were hoping to get out of the mentoring sessions so these could be tailored to best meet student needs and expectations. In the sessions with Jackie Davies, the founder and Executive Director of the C4D Network, students were assisted with the creation of profiles on LinkedIn and the C4D Network, and also in tailoring CVs for certain roles or organisations, reflecting the needs students had oriented.

The students also attended a networking event, and were given specific tasks so that they were active participants in the event. Students were specifically introduced to people, giving them the opportunity to learn how to network and present themselves in a professional light.

The final activity was for students to create material that could be featured on the C4D Network website. Two creative pieces were set as assignments, with the idea being that once these had received feedback they would be revised to make the pieces suitable for online publication.


Student employability was definitely improved by the scheme, with many students having received employment in communication and development roles, and one student having been headhunted through the LinkedIn profile they created as a result of the scheme. Incorporating a professional mentoring and virtual placement scheme has allowed students to develop skills in areas which central to their finding employment beyond graduation.


Students provided positive feedback on the scheme, and responded particularly well to the mentoring sessions. Beyond the direct benefits to students, the monitoring sessions were beneficial as they allowed skills that students developed in the classroom to be highlighted as skills that should be presented on their CVs, and also identified areas in which the curriculum could be enhanced in order to better develop these employability skills.

The networking event was valuable, as in feedback students expressed appreciation of the opportunity to meet people who worked in organisations in which they were interested. There was, however, a reticence among students to introduce themselves and make connections, and during the debrief session students reflected that it was difficult to network, and that they had missed good connections because of their reticence. While learning that they needed to be more proactive when networking was an important lesson for the students, this suggested that more networking support was required.

The creation of material to be featured on the C4D Network website was ultimately unsuccessful. The nature of the class makeup was such that students did not have experience of writing a blog post, and the final content of the assignments reflected this. Whilst, from an academic perspective, having students conduct an unfamiliar task was beneficial, for the goal of publishing material on the C4D Network website the assignments were of insufficient quality. With student workload within GIIDAE being high, it was not feasible to have students make necessary revisions while expecting them to complete other assignments. As a result, it would be necessary to make changes to this aspect of the scheme.

Follow up

The virtual placement and mentoring scheme has continued to be offered within GIIDAE. In addition to the virtual placement, there are now a number of physical placements in Oxford with the C4D Network available to students.

As a result of having run the scheme more than once, it has been possible to make changes to the curriculum to reflect student needs that were made apparent during the pilot year, and has brought forward the inclusion of material. To overcome student reticence, networking has become a more focal aspect of the curriculum, as has engagement with different forms of media, including social media.

Assessment on the course has been better adapted to the workload of the students. Rather than having students produce blog posts, students now produce a research paper, with the opportunity for developing this for external publication.

Running the scheme has made it more apparent which skills industry requires from University of Reading graduates in the field of international development. As a result, it has been possible to create workshops to improve these skills, and ensure that Communication for Innovation and Development remains a relevant and current degree programme.

Developing the module ‘Persuasive Writing’ and considering the professional development of our students

Dr Cindy Becker, Literature and Languages
Year of activity: 2014/15


11299In order to allow a module offered within the Department of English Literature to map onto the needs of the professional world, a PLanT project was created to gain input from professionals on the development and delivery of the module. As a result, a number of areas were identified in which students would benefit from additional guidance in preparing them for their post-University careers.


  • To develop the module ‘Persuasive Writing’.
  • To increase links with professionals.
  • To ensure that professional development opportunities for English Literature students are provided.


In October 2014 the Department of English Literature introduced a new module in Persuasive Writing (EN1PW). The module is intended to educate students in the art of writing away from academia (letters, reports, newspaper and journal articles, political speeches, press releases, marketing copy and online material). It was decided that, as the module EN1PW required students to consider writing that is undertaken in a professional context, it would be valuable to gain some professional input in its development and delivery. Additionally, the Department is keen to increase its links with local commercial and professional contacts.


Working party meetings with students were held, and then a lunch for members of staff, students and professional representatives was provided so that discussion of the module and how it might map onto the skills expected of highly employable and successful graduates could be facilitated. Following the lunch students and staff met again to consider a course of action for 2015/16.


The project successfully identified a number of areas in which students would benefit from receiving additional guidance. It was decided that in order to provide guidance, handouts and other supporting material would be produced by PLanT students, with staff advice. These areas included: guidance for students on how to promote themselves in the job market across different sectors; how to maximise skills; making core study areas count on a CV; how to write a personal profile for a CV; the structure of writing and how to remain focussed on the central message; overcoming worries about making the most of time and opportunities at university; and learning more about work experience placements.

The University of Reading will be piloting a Peer Assisted Learning (PAL) scheme in the coming year, and the PLanT students have all expressed interest in being involved if EN1PW is chosen as one of the pilot modules.

An unexpected outcome was that one student was offered professional mentoring as a result of the contact made at the lunch.


The PLanT project worked well because it worked on a simple format and a manageable timeline. As a result of the findings of the project, the Department of English Literature is considering introducing a new module at Part Two on ‘Public Rhetoric and Persuasion’. This would sit neatly alongside the existing Part Two module Communications at Work as a natural follow-on module from EN1PW.

The project also highlighted that English Literature students needed some free professional development training courses, which could be provided by colleagues across the university. The Department is considering providing training sessions itself for its students to help them in their professional development in areas including: early career planning; presentation and writing skills; managing a social media presence; effective methods for group work; and how to produce a business case or funding bid.


Professional Track – University of Reading