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Polly Mitchell

University of Nottingham

MSci Physics with an optional placement year
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The Big Picture

Polly carried out an Optional Placement Year with ​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​ISIS Neutron and Muon Source, a world-leading centre for research at the Science and Technology Facilities Council. Their neutron and muon instruments give unique insights into the ​properties of materials​ on the atomic scale. ​ ​

“So my project was to design a piece of equipment called a magic box, which is used to polarise neutrons, which basically means you can get more data out of experiments carried out in the beam line here. I have redesigned the box to be smaller and have a few more features and things like that and it’s in production right now! It’s going to be a real thing that scientists from around the world are going to be able to use, which is really cool!”

My Role

Polly’s role has largely been computer-based to develop the new product. “It’s also lots of reaching out to companies and finding people who can do all these really specific technical things.” But the placement has also offered more hands-on experience “I also help out with experiments in the target station which is like this huge warehouse, full of instruments and proton beams and neutron beams.”

There are 5 other placement students based in Polly’s office who are working on different projects. “It’s a really nice atmosphere, because you meet so many people your own age here, and we’re all like a cohort that’s become really, really close.” This helped the transition from uni, but Polly also noted that “It’s a lot more independent than university and you can take the project the way you want it to go. I got to go to France to see another facility as well and I talked to a lot of different scientists and stuff there.”

The company put the placement students in touch via social media so they could connect and get to know each other “It’s a bit tricky to get accommodation in Oxford, it has to be said it’s not the cheapest of areas but through this connection I ended up lived with 3 other placement students, it was a really good house!” Other organised social elements included an induction session, placement student coffee breaks, as well as a day at the end of the 12 months where placement students could present their projects and celebrate what everyone had achieved. “It was really interesting to see what everyone had been spending the 12 months on, there’s such a range of students here.”

The Physics Connection

Polly applied her theoretical physics to the designs she’s been working on “I use Maxwell’s equations and circuit equations and things like that to compare to the numbers my simulations are giving me, and then I can make sure what I’ve done is right, before anything really expensive gets built!” All the modules on scientific computing have also come in useful: “Once you know one coding language, it’s a lot easier to learn another.”

Skills Learnt

Polly found herself developing skills that even her colleagues around her didn’t have! “I’ve never done electromagnetic simulations of any sort. Finite element and all of the new software that I’m using such as CST studio suite and Radia. It was mostly just like trying things out, comparing it to theoretical calculations, and also simulating things that we already had in real life just to make sure that what I was doing was correct.”

Presentation and communication skills were also something Polly had the opportunity to develop. “I had to give several presentations throughout this year, every time I designed something, for example, my final results, that sort of thing.  This would be presentations to scientists zooming in from around the world. I also went to an in-house STFC conference in Coventry where I presented a poster so that was lots of fun. Also, when meeting users of the target station, who are kind of like clients, you have to make sure they’re happy, and they know what’s happening, and you talk to them about their experiment. Talking to that many people from all these different backgrounds makes you feel a lot more confident as well with speaking to new people.”

The Application Process

“I’d never heard of polarized neutrons before, but it sounded cool and interesting and like something I wanted to explore.”

Polly submitted her CV and answered a couple of questions on the application form. Then came an online interview, where the questions come up on screen with a certain amount of time to answer them, followed by an in-person interview and in Polly’s case a job offer.  “The whole application process was really speedy.”

Polly found the automated online interview to be the most challenging aspect but something she’d come across in lots of application processes. It’s challenging responding blindly to questions in this one-way environment. “I thought I definitely wasn’t gonna get the job after that, but I think it went better than I thought.”

What about nerves?

“When you’re at work the stuff that you do really matters, because if you make a mistake that’s going to impact people outside of just yourself. But I think it just takes a bit of time to get used to it. And then when you do make a couple of mistakes the world doesn’t end! And you see instrument scientists and people who are like the cleverest people you’ve ever met also occasionally making mistakes. We’re quite a small, close-knit team, and they were all really helpful and I could show my work to them. The technician, in particular, was such a lifesaver throughout the placement, he called me aside the first day and he was like, ‘I can see you’re panicking, it’ll be okay’.”

The Learning Curve

“I think I’ve realized I get a bit too emotionally invested in my work to the point where I struggle not to take that home, and then it becomes a negative spiral. I just had to learn to separate myself a little bit from that, and not be so emotionally attached, and learn that not everything goes quickly and amazingly all the time, and also to talk to my team when I’m feeling like that so that they know, and they can sort of help me out a little bit.”

“You’re dealing with problems that haven’t already been solved, which is also different to uni and you’ve got no idea how long it’s going to take or how hard it’s going to be.” But Polly has a lot more confidence in herself and less ‘imposter syndrome’ now, “especially towards the end, when you can look back on everything that you’ve done.”

Next Steps

Polly has been offered a part time consultancy role with STFC following the placement, which she is going to carry out alongside her final year at uni. Polly had an inkling that research was the path she wanted to follow “the placement’s just sort of confirmed that. I can handle doing it 9 to 5 and I still enjoy it. So, I think I do want to do a PhD. Now I just need to work out exactly what type of physics I want to do! I’ve already got 2 offers from this job for PhDs so that makes me feel a lot happier about the future and a lot more certain.”

The Final Word

Would Polly recommend a year in industry? “Yes, definitely. It’s really fun. You’re earning a bit of money. You meet lots of new people, and you get a lot more confident in your own work. I think it does make you a lot more attractive to employers, too.”

The reason Polly decided to do a Year in Industry followed her experience interviewing businesses during an earlier placement: “Literally all of them were like you should do a year in industry. When we see a year in industry on a CV, we’re so much more likely to hire someone.”

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