No substitute for (work) experience has placed a mole inside one of the country’s leading titles to discover what it is really like being a student on work experience on the sports desk of a national newspaper. Our findings are shocking: work experience works. Read our insider’s account here exclusively

After quite some time writing copy for an audience of one (my lecturer), the opportunity to research stories that might actually inform the masses was mouthwatering, so I booked a week’s work experience on the sports desk of a national newspaper and boarded the train to London armed with story ideas, a notepad and a Dictaphone.

To begin with, the experience was slow-paced. I was given small tasks and completed them as efficiently as possible. At every opportunity, however, I worked on articles of my own and began e-mailing them to the sports editor. Some were ignored, some weren’t. Within a couple of days, I was sent on my first real assignment.

I found that the sports desk was staffed by approachable, friendly individuals, who went out of their way to help me. Granted, most of my tasks were those deemed unattractive to paid staff, but who was I to complain? I stayed humble, asked as many questions as possible and made sure I did every task thoroughly.

Work experience is about trust. The faster you can earn it, the faster you rise up the food chain and get your chance to be published. If you’re asked to find the square footage of every cricket ground in Australia, do it. Don’t be afraid to ask for assistance, but show initiative. Use the phone. Get it done and then re-check it 10 times.

At the end of my week, I was asked to stay for two more. Feeling gradually more comfortable, I began pitching ideas in editorial meetings and was soon being offered more attractive stories. “The key is becoming indispensable,” a wise friend once said. “Find an idea that fits your publication and take control of it yourself.”

As a student doing work experience, by working for free, you might be seen as taking a job away from others. You are also open to “exploitation” when the placement passes the two- or three-week mark.

And of course, there are down sides. The loss of income through the paying summer job I rejected cost me a few good weekends. That said, the additions to my portfolio, combined with the huge number of new entries in my contacts book (take down every number you use) cannot be underestimated.

Ultimately, work experience is what you make of it. If you sit timidly waiting for tasks to come your way, you will not make an impression. Equally, if on your first day you put yourself forward as the next Simon Barnes, you’ll fall flat on your face.

But if you genuinely want to break into sports journalism and develop your skills, it’s priceless.

As part of the SJA website’s new Training and Courses section, we have an entire page of advice and contacts for work experience. Click here to read more

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