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Student and Business Relationship Managers

The White Rose Industrial Physics Academy (WRIPA) is a collaboration between university physics departments in the North of England and businesses. It was created to provide physics students with the opportunity to gain graduate attributes and work experience that better prepares them for graduate-level technical employment. The outcome will be an increased number of physics graduates in technical careers.

In this WRIPA profile we talk to Dr Olga Fernholz, one of our Student and Business Relationship Managers. Olga has worked in this role at the University of Nottingham since 2017. Each university within the Academy has a Student and Business Relationship Manager such as Olga that students and industry can talk to directly.  

Linking students & industry

Olga explains that her role is centred around mentoring and careers support for physics students as well as business engagement; “these are two complementary roles: I have conversations with students about their strengths and interests and I know companies that employ physics graduates and so I link them up, and it also gives me more ideas and understanding of what physics students need to have professionally to be suited for a diversity of employment opportunities and that, subsequently, trickles into what we teach at the school. These activities enable a closer relationship between students, the industry and the school”.  

In Nottingham they have drawn on placement experience, best practice and processes used in the engineering department where industry placements are very much the norm. Olga comments that “The School of Engineering is a “behemoth” of placements at our university and the School of Physics and Astronomy was a late-comer to placements, but over the past few years there has been real cultural change and the importance of industry experience is fully recognised and appreciated at the School.” Olga uses a digital platform – Mahara – to keep in touch with students on placements and keep an eye on their progress. This online portfolio software allows students to keep their reflective log (part of the year in industry assessment), which allows students to log their learning, the ups and down of the placement and most importantly, to keep in touch with other placement students in their cohort, see where they are and share their experience.

Olga reflects: “There’s such value in the year-long experience to our students from exposing oneself to an environment with a different set of responsibilities and challenges, from interacting closely with experts in the team, adjusting to the pace of a business organisation, to discovering one’s professional strengths and seeing broader opportunities for the future.”

Like all universities, the University of Nottingham has a useful central careers service providing general support for all students. Olga explains that when the year in industry programme was introduced within Physics, a dedicated role to manage and boost industrial placements for physics students was established. As well as arranging the placements through industry links, Olga now also runs a diverse range of events, for example a ‘Placement Kickstart’ event at the beginning of an academic year, and a dedicated careers physics week for the final year students early on in the year. Students can also make use of the WRIPA organised physics-focused recruitment and placements fair that takes place each October. Olga’s dedicated role within the School of Physics and Astronomy means she can connect  industry to the School. Developing these industry partners has many benefits from  arranging more physics specific placements, and summer internships, organising summer research projects in the school and supporting students through recruitment processes.

The benefit of a great alumni

The Physics Future event that Olga leads brings in Nottingham physics alumni to the school to talk to current physics students. Alumni showcase the vast diversity of jobs and career paths that someone with a physics degree can take. It is an exciting event where alumni at different career levels and from various industrial areas, with different strengths and set of professional competencies come to share stories about their decisions, and the chance and circumstance that played out to shape their career. Olga reflects on the event from March 2023: “the way we do that is via round table discussions with two alumni per table we ask alumni to take turns and give a 2 minute pitch about their career and how they got there. There are no power point presentations, no ‘one way’ talks, only relatable stories and discussions that unpack decisions and steps that have led to where they are now professionally, with a reflection on how a physics degree enabled that. There is networking afterwards and the student engagement is always great. One alumnus, representing an academic teaching path and who is now a lecturer said “I cannot remember when I talked to students that much!”  

Making such connections is one opportunity for students to engage with business via an alumni connection. Other opportunities exist such as the LinkedIn Nottingham Physics Alumni group facilitated by Olga. Olga explains; “such events and platforms allow students to connect with people outside of their usual social bubble in a supported manner.” Olga feels this is achieved so successfully by avoiding unnecessary formalisation and allows students to explore career paths they didn’t know existed, learning to connect and engage with new people, and generally building networking and social skills. This is supported further by information provided on the Nottingham dedicated sub webpage as well as the WRIPA Website

“Students have a great opportunity to hear the human stories behind the careers from people who were in their shoes a few years ago. For example, it’s actually quite normal to not be sure where your individual journey will take you! It’s invaluable to have this wider network beyond an individual university to share knowledge, ideas, information with a group of people who are not your immediate contacts”. Moving outside of their ‘normal’ information bubble and linking into new information bubbles encourages students to actively look for knowledge. The benefit might not be immediate, but it provides stepping stones to find out where they want to be and potential directions of travel. 

Another benefit of the dedicated Student and Business Relationship Manager roles is that by working so closely with the students who then, in turn, go onto be the alumni in industry, the academy is able to continue to grow and strengthen the relationship and links with industry. Olga noted that: “The individual relationships that develop with the students help to develop a vibrant alumni network who are willing to give back to the school. I have lots of helpful and willing alumni contacts to call upon if we want to implement a new idea or industrial project in the school. People are generally very responsive and willing to help. Alumni stay in touch for years, and, for example, pass the connection to the uni on to their wider team when they leave an organisation.” Olga is keen to explore new avenues where the Alumni might be able to strengthen the ties between students and industry further. For example, through ‘dragons den’ style panels, or including alumni in a communication skills module to provide an industry perspective. 

Being part of the academy

Being part of WRIPA means that each Student and Business Relationship Manager is connected to the other partner universities for support, idea sharing, best practice development and a wider network of connections. Olga explains that the partners are “not in competition with each other, and therefore this opens up access to more opportunities for our students. Of course different unis do things differently but we can discuss ideas on a WRIPA wide level”.