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Meet our placement students – what's it like working at STFC for a year?

Every year STFC takes on around 60 placement students, who take a year out before completing their degree to experience working in industry. Students at STFC have the opportunity to work in a wide variety of roles, from placements in the labs at ISIS and CLF, to professional support positions in communications and finance. Placement years are increasingly being offered as part of undergraduate degrees, but what do they involve and why do so many students do them?

Current placement students Churk, Neelam and Josie share their experiences of working at STFC.

Churk Yean Chung - Target Fabrication Engineer Placement Student at the Central Laser Facility (CLF)
Churk is a Mechanical Engineering Student at Imperial College London

What does your role at STFC generally involve?

“I’m part of the Target Fabrication group at CLF. The main project I’m working on is a robotic arm system to automate target manufacture. I’m trying to get a robotic arm to pick up small squares of material and then have them accurately glued to an array, which would then be handed off for the lasers to shoot at. Another thing I do is help characterise the targets that we’ve made, to ensure that they are made within specification.  Finally, I’m also responsible for operating our 3D printer, which involves printing off and often also designing parts that people need.”

What’s the best part of your job?

“I’ve found the small projects where I’m asked to design something to help hold or transport targets the most interesting. These targets are often very small, fragile, and unconventionally shaped and so it’s a fun challenge to find a way to work and design around those constraints. It’s also satisfying to see my design go from a sketch in my notebook to being physically made and then used.”

What’s been the most challenging aspect of your job so far?

“Working with small components (and trying not to drop them). I’ve since got better at using tweezers, but I do remember my manager and I spending a good 20 minutes crawling on the lab floor trying to find a tiny lens assembly I dropped!”

Why did you decide to do a placement at STFC and is it what you expected?

“I applied because I saw robotics and 3D printing in the job description, which happens to be two areas I’m really interested in. I was also attracted to doing a placement at STFC because the nature of the site meant that I would be working on projects for unconventional applications, which seemed really exciting.

“I would certainly call working with micro-targets unconventional. What I didn’t expect was how much freedom I got in terms of choosing how to approach my project, and the support I got to develop any ideas I had. “

Neelam Bohi – Online Learning Content Developer at ISIS Neutron and Muon Source
Neelam studies Physics with Astronomy at the University of Surrey

What does your role at STFC generally involve?

“My role involves making online learning materials for the ISIS-run website e-neutrons.org. I use textbooks and scientific papers to research different topics, and then write content based on that research. The materials are used by Masters and PhD students primarily.”

What’s the best part of your job?

“I like the fact that I get to do a range of things in my job, which allows me to develop a wide range of skills. I enjoy the writing aspect of my job as it’s something I don’t do very often when studying at university. I have also learnt how to use different computer software. This includes software to create the learning materials, and data analysis software that the instrument scientists use here at ISIS.

“As somebody who has used online learning myself for my studies, I would say the best part is being able to help others in a similar way.“

What’s been the most challenging aspect of your job so far?

“A lot of the research materials are of a much higher level than what I’m used to, as I have only just finished the second year of my undergraduate course. I recently attended the International Advanced School of Muon Spectroscopy held here at RAL, which had lectures aimed for PhD and above – I found a lot of the content difficult to understand. However I think it’s good to challenge yourself and be pushed out of your comfort zone, because you learn a lot more that way.”

Why did you decide to do a placement at STFC and is it what you expected?

“I wanted to work for an organisation that focused on research and cutting-edge science. I was expecting a more intimidating work atmosphere, but in actuality, it is quite relaxed. I have found everyone here to be extremely welcoming and supportive, including the other placement students. I was also surprised by the amount of responsibility I and other placement students were given.

“One of the great things about working at STFC is that there are many things you can do that are outside of your job description. For example, I recently completed tour guide training, so I can give tours around the experiment halls to members of the public. There are many opportunities here to expand your skill set and learn something new.”

Josie Taylor – Communications Placement Student in the Particle Physics Department
Josie studies Engineering Physics at Aberystwyth University

What does your role at STFC generally involve?

“Predominantly, I write pieces for the Particle Physics Department (PPD) webpage and create content for the Twitter account. In order to write pieces for the webpage, I get to talk to scientists about their work and projects. For Twitter, after I have an idea, there’s several steps before hitting “tweet”, such as checking with any physicists involved if what I say is accurate, deciding the best time to schedule it and finding or creating something visual to go with it.

“I also try to keep on top of what our collaborators are posting on social media and online, photograph day to day activities and occasionally I help out at and photograph events. I am also always looking into ways to reach more and more people, such as exploring the possibility of a member of staff giving a TED talk, or thinking about what can be done to help students unable to get a place or travel to masterclasses.”

What’s the best part of your job?

“For me it is the perfect way to learn more about something I am interested in without having to attend lectures or get graded. By talking to scientists, I learn in a way that is more enjoyable and interactive than I have ever experienced in a typical university or college learning environment. Anything I learn is a by-product of the work I am doing, so it feels much more effortless. I also have lots of different opportunities here - I’ve been able to attend the Particle Physics Advisory Panel meeting, the UK High Energy Physics forum and weekly ATLAS UK group meetings. I’ve also just been out to visit CERN and I hope to visit Boulby Mine in Yorkshire soon!”

What’s been the most challenging aspect of your job so far?

“Through my role I have met people who are not used to talking to undergraduates about their work and sometimes forget to explain things that are key to understanding what they do. Everyone here at STFC is more used to it, but there is still some gap between where I am and most people here (who finished their PhD some time ago and have only been moving forward since then!) so it can be a lot to take in.“

Why did you decide to do a placement at STFC?

“I saw the job advert and liked the sound of it. Despite having been lucky enough to visit CERN (a collaborator for PPD) a few times when I was younger, I had no idea there was a Particle Physics department. I had assumed that all UK efforts towards CERN came from universities or those who had moved to Geneva and become CERN employees. I don’t think I’m alone in believing this, so I’d like to change this and generally grow interest in the subject, alongside keeping the already established community up to date with what efforts are coming from the UK and what is going on here at PPD.”

Interested in doing a placement year?

Next year STFC is aiming to take on even more students, with 64 placements available across the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, Daresbury Laboratory and Polaris House sites. Take a look at the placements available for 2020-2021.

Last updated: 24 October 2019


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