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Graduate Schemes, Explained

Graduate Schemes, Explained main image

Eventually, there reaches a point in the life of every uni student, where you have to admit to yourself you won’t be studying forever and it’s time to start looking at possible career options. Once you start browsing jobs pages or visiting your university careers service, you’ll begin to encounter the phrase “graduate scheme” more and more.

On the face of it, what a graduate scheme is seems obvious. It’s a job, right? In simple terms, yes. A graduate scheme is (typically) an entry-level position within an employer and the most common first step for university graduates into the world of full-time work. That doesn’t mean there aren’t nuances, complications and contradictions to be aware of though, so before you start applying for jobs left, right and center, take a closer look at what each graduate scheme actually offers.

What is a graduate scheme?

A graduate scheme is an entry-level job with an employer that doubles in function as a training program, designed to introduce you to multiple areas of the company and build up your experience and knowledge. Usually lasting no more than two years, places on graduate schemes are normally exclusively for employees starting immediately out of university and in many ways are like a normal job. You’re still paid a full-time wage and should receive some (if not all) workplace benefits. A typical graduate scheme will often see you rotate between different departments within a company, working on multiple projects and potentially even being based in various locations.

Who offers them?

Not all employers will have a graduate scheme for new employees, particularly if they are a small business. Industries where graduate schemes are particularly common include HR, healthcare, banking and consulting. Law firms offer something fairly similar, known as a training contract, which we’ll touch on later.

When do graduate schemes open?

You can normally start applying to graduate schemes from the summer before your final year of study. Don’t leave starting the job hunt too late though. It’s a good idea to identify a preferred employer and secure an internship, as this will ensure preferential treatment for your graduate scheme application. In some cases, it’s not unheard of for companies to hire for their graduate scheme directly from the previous year’s internship pool.

What happens when the graduate scheme is over?

In the vast majority of cases, successfully reaching the end of a graduate scheme will lead to being offered a full-time role within the company. Whereas you previously moved between departments and projects, you’ll now be tied to one permanently and may get to express a preference for where you’re placed. This is why it’s important to get a feel for the different areas of the business and what the career progression is like in each role you try. If you end up being put in a department or position you don’t enjoy, it won’t be long before you start applying for jobs elsewhere.

Of course, it’s also possible that you won’t be offered a job. It might be that the company can’t afford to keep all of their graduates on a full-time basis, or that you didn’t impress your managers enough to earn a job offer. Whatever the reason, if this is the case you’ll need to start looking for work elsewhere. The good news is that the graduate scheme will have taught you a lot of skills and information which other employers will be desperate for, and unless you leave on really bad terms you should get a good reference.

What if I’ve decided I don’t want to work there?

That’s OK. Having a graduate scheme place doesn’t mean you have to say yes to any job offer you receive, so, if you’ve decided the company isn’t for you or don’t like the sound of the role you’ve been offered, feel free to walk away. Make sure you’ve got an alternative source of employment lined up though, as you don’t want to be starting the job hunt from scratch once you’re no longer being paid.

You mentioned law training contracts earlier…how are they different?

Law training contracts (which don’t exist in every country so be aware this may not apply) are the bridge between studying to be a lawyer and qualifying as a solicitor. They usually last two years and, like a graduate scheme, involve moving between different departments unless the firm is particularly small. This time is normally broken into four six-month periods, known as “seats”, and it’s quite normal for one of these to be spent abroad or in a satellite office elsewhere in the country.

At the end of your training contract, you may or may not be offered a permanent position within the firm. Because other firms will also be drawing from their own pool of trainees, it can be tough to find work elsewhere if you aren’t offered a job, and this panic definitely contributes to the intense, competitive atmosphere among a lot of trainee lawyers.

Got any questions we haven’t answered? Let us know in the comments below.

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Written by Craig OCallaghan
As editor of, Craig oversees the site's editorial content and network of student contributors. He also plays a key editorial role in the publication of several guides and reports, including the QS Top Grad School Guide.

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