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Sustainable world

Building the skills portfolio of physics students through sustainability

Andrew Mizumori-Hirst, School of Physics, Engineering and Technology, University of York, Anne Booth, Department of Physics and Astronomy, University of Sheffield

In this article for AdvanceHE we share how the Department of Physics and Astronomy, University of Sheffield, has embedded skills training, employers and work-integrated learning across the Physics degree. In particular the article explores the ‘mySkills’ platform which has been embedded into modules to integrate social, economic and environmental dimensions into physics student’s project work.

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AdvanceHE members can access the full Lighting the Labyrinth: enhancing student success through the 3Es publication

Digital career resources or a filled lecture theatre are efficient methods to deliver career guidance but are they effective?


By Dr Andrew Mizumori Hirst, Beth Medley and Elizabeth Lansell
School of Physics Engineering and Technology, University of York

published by ASET, the Work Based and Placement Learning Association as part of the Community Knowledge Exchanges series.

What makes career guidance effective is exactly the type of question the White Rose Industrial Physics Academy (WRIPA) are exploring. Just as individuals learn in different ways the same is true of how they acquire knowledge about career opportunities. Students have different ‘invisible barriers’ to acquiring work experience or developing professional networks.

The York WRIPA Team has introduced a different careers guidance approach within the School of Physics, Engineering and Technology, offering a tailored 1-to-1, person-led approach to physics students. Our physics students are academically equipped for technical roles. However, they need to have the self-awareness to align their skill set with particular technology sectors and the confidence to act on the careers guidance. Recognising and acknowledging the diversity of our student cohort and intersectionality drives the focus of this work. We believe this is an equitable way to support our physics students to realise their career potential.

“Honestly, the encouragement you gave me last year to apply for internships despite me thinking I didn’t have the skills really gave me the starting step and the confidence to apply for multiple grad jobs this year”

Community Knowledge Exchanges have been developed to share good practice, specialised knowledge and expertise across the ASET community. ASET Members can view the article (and all the other great ASET resources!) via the community section of the ASET website.

ASET offers members a range of professional development opportunities from Staff Development Workshops to their Annual Conference. They work with colleagues at every stage of their career and offer a range of resources to support members whether you are a professional service colleague or academic researching in this space.

Embedding Industry

into the Curriculum:

Medical Physics

The York WRIPA Team has been working with Medical Physics Module co-ordinator Dr Mikhail Bashkanov in the School for Physics Engineering and Technology (PET) at the University of York to embed industry and employability into the curriculum. A record number of York physicists taking this module have secured places on the NHS Scientist Training Programme

WRIPA embedded alumni into the module from across 5 different hospitals. The alumni talk about their journey on the NHS Scientist Training Programme, what they studied, why they took this path and where it has taken them. The alumni also talk to the students about the latest technologies in the medical arena.  “I found the guest lecturers really interesting as it was a great opportunity to hear from experts in the field.” Caitlin Brentnall Scientist Training Programme.

“Working with the WRIPA Team and their industry and alumni contacts has been invaluable in developing the links to enable these industry focussed elements of the module, helping students to translate rather abstract knowledge into employable skills.”  Dr Mikhail Bashkanov Medical Physics Module co-ordinator

This year, a record number of 10 physics students from the School of PET applied for the Scientist Training Programme (STP) and 6, who had an average medical physics module mark of 77%, have been successful! It is extremely challenging to secure a place on the STP which is is a three-year programme of work-based learning, supported by a university accredited master’s degree.

For the academic year 2023/24 the medical physics module will give students direct access to industry experience and employability information through the re-designed structure of the module. This includes:

  • Visits to MRI/PET, medical isotopes production, accelerator cancer treatment and other medical facilities
  • Real examples of Geant4 simulations
  • Industry lead ‘everyday’ medical physics
  • Course content delivered by GPs

Embedding alumni in the curriculum and industry experience such as the opportunities provided in this module are not only a great way to see if this type of industry is something students want to pursue but also provides great experience and skills development to showcase in recruitment application processes. Importantly, embedded industry in this way gives all students access to this learning experience as part of their studies. “Seeing the application of the physics I’d spent the previous two years learning in a medical context helped me to understand how I could use my skills in a career outside of academia.” Caitlin Brentnall

“We are looking forward to working with other Physics module leads to embed industry and employability elements directly into their module content to widen the opportunity for physics students to understand how their learning is applied in the workplace” Beth Medley WRIPA Student and Business Relationship Manager

James Bowler has been accepted on the Clinical Scientific Computing Scientist Training Programme. This follows his role directly after graduation at a company called Gamma, where he worked as a software engineer and as a business analyst in the telecommunications industry. James shares his experience of the medical physics module:
“This module significantly deepened my interest in medical physics and illuminated it as an incredibly appealing career path. Learning how all the physics I had learnt in the previous 2 years can be applied to improve and save lives was nothing short of amazing!

The module provided me with a core foundation of medical physics knowledge, which played a pivotal role in creating a competitive application and excelling in the interview process. It covered such a great variety of topics such as ultrasound scans, PET scans and ion beam therapy. I would not have been sufficiently prepared for the tough application process if I hadn’t have taken the module.

The Geant4 simulations were by far the most interesting and useful thing that I did in the module. We had to do a project that investigated a variety of different beam treatments, and it was fascinating to see the contrast between the different treatment options.”

Sarah Dignam has been accepted on the Scientist Training Programme and shares her experience of the medical physics module:

“Having already had an interest in Medical Physics before the third year module, the module allowed me to gain a better understanding of the specialisations of Medical Physics within the STP.
The module helped give me a much better general understanding of medical physics which allowed me to elaborate beyond the standard when answering interview questions. It also gave me the knowledge I needed to make my application essay stand out. 
The GEANT project provided the opportunity to learn vital skills in modelling which is used throughout the STP. Also the guest lectures helped give a more detailed picture about what it’s really like to work in health care.”

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 providing careers support for physics students and engaging with business; “these are two complementary roles: students come to talk to me about their career interests and motivation about getting an internship, industrial placement, or a job, we discuss their skills and strengths and I point them to companies that I know that employ physics graduates This also gives me more understanding of what physics students need to have professionally to be suited for a diversity of employment opportunities and, subsequently, we feed this back into what and how we teach at the school. These activities enable a closer relationship between students, the industry and the school”.  

In establishing the placements programme, the School of Physics and Astronomy at Nottingham has drawn on the experience, best practice and processes used at the School of Engineering where industry placements are very much the norm. Olga comments that “the School of Engineering is a “behemoth” of placements at our university while the School of Physics and Astronomy adopted the programme fairly late due to the cultural differences of the disciplines taught: physics being a fundamental science where academic foundation has been a priority, whereas engineering is an applied discipline with a strong focus on industrial applications and therefore, connection to industry.  However, over the past few years there has been real change and the importance of industry experience is fully recognised and appreciated at the School.” 

Olga reflects: “There’s such value in the year-long industrial experience for our students. From exposing oneself to an environment with a different set of responsibilities and challenges, 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.”

Olga uses a digital platform – Mahara – to keep in touch with students on placements and read about their progress. This online portfolio software allows students to keep their reflective log (part of the year in industry assessment), where they record what they learned, the ups and down of the placement and most importantly, keep in touch with each other as a placements cohort, where they see where each one is based, in what role and can chat and share experiences.

Like all universities, the University of Nottingham has a central careers service providing general career support and advice to all students. Olga explains that when the year in industry programme was introduced within the School of Physics and Astronomy, a dedicated role was set up to boost industrial placements for physics students and provide closer support and mentoring, more tailored to physics students where connections to industry may not be so obvious. As well as arranging placements through connections with industry, Olga also runs a diverse range of events. For example, “Physics Futures” events where students meet physics alumni in a round-table networking event, a ‘Placement Kickstart’ event which prepares students for a placement hunt at the beginning of an academic year, and a dedicated careers physics week where final year students are advised about career choice, and are coached on all aspects of the application process. 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 bring industrial connections as well as those that are shared within WRIPA, to the School beyond student placements. Developing industry partnerships has many benefits from potential scientific collaborations and grant applications to more physics specific placements, and summer internships, and short-term research projects.

The benefit of alumni

The Physics Future event that Olga organises, brings Nottingham physics alumni to the school to talk to current physics students. Alumni talk about the vast diversity of jobs and career paths that someone with a physics degree can take. It is an exciting event where alumni from different industrial fields and at different career levels, with different strengths and competencies come to share stories about how their decisions, circumstances as well as how chance played out to shape their career. Olga reflects on the event from March 2023: “we run it as a fairly informal round table discussion. We had two alumni per table and we asked them to take turns and give a two minute pitch about their career and how they got there. There were no power point presentations, no ‘one way’ talks, only relatable stories and discussions that unpack decisions and steps that have led to where these people are now professionally. Alongside a reflection on how a physics degree enabled that. There was networking afterwards, and many conversations. Student engagement is always great and alumni enjoy to give back to the school and share their experience with students One alumnus, representing an academic teaching path and who is now a lecturer said “I cannot remember when I talked to students that much!”

Connections with alumni is one opportunity for students to engage with business. 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 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 build networking and social skills. This is supported further by information provided on the Industrial Experience section on the School webpage as well as the WRIPA Website

“Students have a great opportunity to hear human stories behind the careers from people who were in their shoes just a few years ago. For example, getting confirmation that it is actually typical not to know what to do straight upon graduation and have no clear career destination in mind. To crystallise the idea,  it is invaluable to have a wider network beyond the university to get ideas, and information from people who are not your immediate contacts”. Reaching outside of their ‘normal’ information bubble and linking to new information bubbles encourages students to look for knowledge actively and discover a lot on the way. The benefit might not be immediate, but the exploration is about making steps  to find out where they want to be and paving the directions of travel. 

Another benefit of the dedicated Student and Business Relationship Manager roles is that by working so closely with the students who, become our alumni in industry, WRIPA Academy continues to grow and strengthen the links with industry. Olga notes that: “Individual relationships that develop with students while they study  with time develop into a vibrant network of alumni who are willing to give back to the school. I have lots of helpful, inspiring and motivated alumni to call upon if we want  to organise a new event, test an idea of industrial involvement or arrange an industrial project in the school. People are generally very responsive and willing to help. Alumni stay in touch for years, and, pass the connection to me and the uni of someone in their team in case they leave their organisation.” Olga is keen to explore new ideas where the alumni might contribute to shaping professional skills of the students. This maybe, for example Dragons Den’ style panels, and including alumni in the ”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”.