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Sam Elks

University of York

MPhys (Hons) Physics (with a year in industry)
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The Big Picture

Sam completed a Year in Industry placement at Sellafield as part of his Experimental Physics Degree with an integrated Masters. “From cleaning-up the country’s highest nuclear risks and hazards to safeguarding nuclear fuel, materials and waste, our work is nationally important.” Sellafield Ltd 

“So I was in a team that was the first contact for supporting a plant, if there was an issue we would have a matter of hours to either find something which backed up our thoughts or we would need to write something afresh, or things would get shut down. From a business point of view it’s a waste of money, time, and resources to shut things down, so it’s not ideal but safety always comes first. Fortunately, such issues only happened a few times throughout the year!” Outside of dealing with these issues Sam’s team wrote and supported papers outlining various pieces of work to help with the decommissioning process.

“I’m very interested in atomic things and nuclear, I got the opportunity to meet lots of people from various other companies as well. And what I know now is that it’s such a well respected company in the area of nuclear energy because it’s played such a key role, not just in the UK, but from a global perspective as well. To be able to have Sellafield in your CV is such a boost towards getting employed in nuclear energy.”

“For me personally, I was able to take so much time and look at all of the safety aspects. And it’s crazy how much safer nuclear is even compared to coal and oil from a radioactive point of view. It’s just so incredible to have been able to get paid to learn all of these things!”

My experience at Sellafield 

In addition to the usual CV, application, interview process Sam also had to complete other health and background checks. “The main thing that they want is their employees to be honest and almost honest to a fault.”

“So for the first few weeks of the placement, it was just learning about all of the processes. There’s lots of very helpful plant tours that you could go on to help give you an insight. They are very happy to give you time to go and talk to people, so really give you a good insight into how all of the different bits interconnect with one another.”

“From that month on, I was working on a paper which was estimating radioactive material to make calculations so that when people were going into the area to use detectors to characterize manually they had an idea of what was in there and could be appropriately prepared.”

Sam worked onsite in the offices 3 days per week, “But then up to 2 days working from home, ideally, you’d be in person for the meetings, but there’s the capability there for you to zoom if you needed. So very, very flexible.” Although Sam’s role was largely desk based there were opportunities for him to be more practically involved on site using equipment and see the physics in action first hand: “Early on I had the opportunity to be on a night shift where I would be wearing a respirator and taking air flow readings.” 

There were regular team meetings to share what people had been working on and if they had any issues as well as see what was going on in the company more widely. “And lots of teams did things outside of work, so we went to brunches or went out clubbing, went out for meals. We had an inter-team 5K race, people go and play football together. So like, a really, really friendly environment.”

“There are lots of places to live, and they are quite cheap, particularly compared to York! However, places would go pretty quickly, so you needed to be on the ball. Most people walked to work but there are buses and ‘helping to bike to work’ schemes as well. It’s by the coast and relatively well connected to places in the area at least. Having a car is very helpful to get into other areas of the Lake District though.”

The Physics Connection 

The nuclear knowledge Sam gained from his degree certainly came in handy, “So Alpha, Beta and Gamma, but also looking at what different atoms would decay to as well. The important thing that I brought to the team was the underlying physics knowledge, to know what equations to apply, so to do half-life equations in particular.”

The Professional Skills Stuff 

The placement has allowed Sam to develop a number of useful skills for working in industry, “Thinking for myself, and independent thinking and learning for sure. And there was a coding language which I’ll almost never use again but just getting the skills of picking up a new language will be useful for later. I also did a range of presentations, such as talking about the paper that I’d written, and explaining what I’d done to a committee of people so that they would be happy to sign it off.”

Sam’s impact

“I did a few other projects as well, but with the one specifically helping to decommission the building, my work helped decrease the amount of time and money needed to be put into the running down of this specific area whilst increasing the safety.”

What about Nerves? 

Sam was initially nervous about starting ‘work’ with the set hours and such “But you get into the swing of it very quickly. I was nervous for meetings as well, but it was very obvious that from the start pretty much I was respected in my opinion. So like, within a month or less I felt very settled and had lost my nervousness.”

The Final Word

Coming back to University; “I’ve already been working in the library or at home most days and so I reckon I’ve already done more independent studying and learning this year than I did in the first 3 years of my degree. So, the work ethic has been really helpful for that! But it doesn’t mean that you need to forget about the social life at all, like, I’m still involved in 3 different societies and things outside of university. But it’s given me the time management skills to plan how to do all of that.”

“I impressed them enough that I have been offered to go back and work for them after I graduate! It is quite a remote place to work, it means to get to York by train takes about 6 hours or so and to get to other places it’s therefore further. And most places are at least a 3, 4-hour drive away, so seeing friends and family is quite difficult to do in person, it’s definitely something to take into consideration.”

“It’s ‘only a year’, being able to go away in the year and industry, and see if you like it, if you don’t, then you still can complete your degree, go somewhere else for a graduate role for a year, 2 years and then you’ve got even more experience.”

So, would Sam recommend Year in Industry? “Absolutely! Absolutely. Some people I know are concerned about, like, losing the friends that they’ve made but I still came back to York, and still kept up with those friendships, and even made new ones on the placement. I gained so much confidence in my work and ability, and skills, and also lost a lot of that nervousness that I had about going to work.”

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