The Big Picture
Rehana completed her year-long placement at the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) in Oxford as part of the Masters in Physics with a Year in Industry programme at the University of York.
“STFC has thousands of scientists visiting every year who collect loads of data really quickly. The aim of my project was to create an interface for a specific instrument used at STFC that makes it really simple for users to carry out their analysis of the data.”
Day to day Rehana would come into the office, do some coding, test some functions and then meet with her supervisor to discuss the progress and next steps. “It was almost like I was the software engineer, and she was like a client telling me what other features she would like for her analysis tool”. Rehana was based in an office with other placement students and found this a great way to make friends and find out about the wide variety of work going on at STFC.
STFC’s mission is to deliver world-leading national and international research and innovation capabilities and, through those, discover the secrets of the Universe.
Rehana really liked research in general and before the placement was very much on the track of doing a PhD and going further into academia. “But I wanted to see what the difference was in terms of industrial research and so STFC was my top choice, because it’s a one of a kind facility in the UK.”
During the recruitment process “Everyone seemed really smiley and friendly and chatty, which was really lovely and kind of put your nerves a bit more at ease.” The HR team also put together a LinkedIn placement group. From this the students could connect with each other, which helped greatly for things like finding somewhere to live. “My house was based purely on a common interest in climbing! And it worked out really, really well, because we used to climb like 3 times a week after work.”
“By the end of my placement, we’ve got a complete application! So you can download it on any computer, you can put in your results, you can plot them, you can compare them with multiple other results and there’s a peak detection function which I’ve created to speed up the analysis.”
Rehana’s python training at uni gave her a good base to build on during the placement through implementing other transferable skills she’d picked up during the degree. “Because I’d not done a lot of the work required on the placement before, I needed to research how to do it. I got really good at, you know, implementing those problem solving skills and taking it step by step to find a solution. I think the way I approached everything this year was a lot better because of labs, you have a problem in labs and you’re meant to be figuring it out yourselves and that experience really helped.”
“At university it’s for yourself, you’re working to learn something and you’re getting tested on that knowledge. But here it’s not just for yourself and you’ve got to hold yourself accountable” This has helped Rehana feel a lot more confident in her abilities generally, having had this responsibility for a year. “Before I went into this project, I wasn’t very confident at all and now I’m, like, really quite happy to get down and do some coding!”
And when Rehana needed a break from all that coding she took the opportunity to work on her public speaking skills with a range of audiences. “I volunteered to lead tours, primary school workshops, that kind of thing to help the outreach team. You pull out your liquid nitrogen, you’ve got some little bracelet making stations, a workshop making a UV-proof little box for an alien to live in, that kind of thing, and the kids seem to really really love that!”
“I think I had massive impostor syndrome; I was really aware that all I could do with python was plot a graph! But the more time I spent coding the more confident I got. It was quite nice because there was no immediate deadline, so I just launched myself into a bunch of research looking up what someone else did and then trying it out myself, that kind of thing. It was all trial and error, but you know when things start working, slowly, slowly, bit by bit, you make progress. I felt like I was on top of the moon. I was like; wow, it’s working!! And I ended up having loads of fun!”
Rehana also used to find public speaking a challenge. “I just tend to dissolve into a nervy mess! So, to have the opportunity to practise this quite frequently has helped massively, and you just get a bit more confidence.”
Rehana’s hoping to apply all of this experience to the rest of her studies “I think before this placement I would get really stressed if, you know, things didn’t turn out exactly how I wanted it to in an assignment, like it was the be all and end all. I think I’ve learned more to kind of enjoy the experience as opposed to having blinders on, and just getting really too into your head about it. I’m hoping to keep the 9 to 5 regime so I can keep a good work life balance, because that’s been so much fun to have this year. And it’s actually just taught me to like, really try and make the most of the opportunities uni life has to offer!”
As well as this general wider perspective on things the placement has also opened up new career pathways in Rehana’s mind “I’m more going towards software engineering because I actually loved it so much and I think it is a really, really interesting way of helping research which I kind of had never thought about before. I was always like, I want to do something that helps people, so that means I have to do a PhD. But that’s not true, as I’ve learned, and I feel like the impacts that you can make in other ways are just as interesting and just as cool.”
Would Rehana recommend doing a Year in Industry? “A hundred percent! I think it was first of all, quite a nice break from just studying in general. Secondly, if you pick a placement that you’re interested in it’s a really good way of maybe narrowing down what you want to do a bit more. I think it would have been invaluable whether I did actually enjoy the work I was doing or not, just because I had the flavour of it and know then whether it would be something I would enjoy as a career. And finally, you’ll probably meet some really great people!”