MPhys Theoretical Physics 2017 Graduate - Graduate Project Manager, RAL Space
I came to St Andrews to start my undergraduate degree in 2012, I started off aiming for Astrophysics but along the way made some changes and graduated in June 2017 with an MPhys in Theoretical Physics, keeping some Astro modules alongside my eventual specialisation in condensed matter & quantum physics.
I now work as a Graduate Project Manager at STFC RAL Space in their Imaging Systems Division. RAL Space is the 'Space Department' of the Science and Technologies Facilities Council, which is the funding council that funds astrophysics and fundamental physics research, as well as running a number of facilities. RAL Space is based at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory (RAL) on the Harwell campus in South Oxfordshire which also houses a number of other space industry companies.
I work with a team of engineers who design and build the electronics for camera systems on spacecraft, looking after the schedule, budget, resource management, bids for new work and ensuring delivery dates are met. My days are varied, I can be attending progress meetings with engineers, writing reports for customers, writing bids for grants, presenting bids for new work, and occasionally running round making sure everything is in order for a customer visit. I've learned so much in a short space of time, about both Project Management and electronics, and my experiences in St Andrews, both academic and otherwise, led me to developing the necessary skills for my current job.
During my final year I applied to PhDs, but having done my final year project I decided that it wasn't the right time for me to continue in research, and that I wanted to do something more deadline driven and people orientated, but still related to science and technology. After some time out after graduating I secured the Project Manager job, drawing on many of my St Andrews experiences both in the application process and now in my day-to-day job.
During my time in St Andrews I became heavily involved in student representation, from being a class rep, to School President and then Faculty President, sitting on the Students' Representative Council and the University's Academic Council. Through these roles I had to liaise with other students and all levels of staff, collecting and reporting feedback and working towards solutions that worked for everyone by communicating effectively and appropriately with each group. I still use these skills today when communicating with colleagues of varying levels of seniority and external customers.
I also held a number of roles in society committees, predominantly AstroSoc, which gave me the opportunity to organise events and trips, working within budgets and practical problem solving when things inevitably didn't quite turn out as planned. I also loved being involved in many of the School of Physics & Astronomy’s Outreach events, from the big Science Discovery Day to smaller school and summer school workshops, demonstrating conservation of angular momentum with the spinning chair, making comets and helping with soldering of electronic circuits. This is something I have brought into my job as STFC encourages all graduates to get involved in its public engagement programme.
Additionally in St Andrews I found some time to enjoy Scottish Country Dancing with Celtic Society and play with the Women's Cricket team. All my extra curricular activities meant that I got to work with a wide range of people in a lot of different contexts, and that I had to manage my time effectively to still get all my work done to my best standard. This juggling of priorities is something that has proved very important in my working life, as I'm often involved with many different projects all at once and being able to rationalise and prioritise has been an important skill.
Although I am not actually doing science myself at the moment I am still exposed to a lot of research at STFC. The academic side of what I learned at St Andrews means that I can understand and appreciate the science goals of the spacecraft cameras that my division make and make the most of tours of the other facilities on site and the frequent guest speakers. These opportunities combined with the social side of my workplace through the graduate scheme, the Recreational Society and onsite sports (including a summer rounders league!) mean that I am very much enjoying this next chapter!
I thoroughly enjoyed my time studying Physics at St Andrews, and will always be proud to be a graduate. I learned so much more than just the science and left with a wealth of experiences and friends that I've carried into my post graduation life. I'd recommend to everyone to make the most of all the opportunities St Andrews can offer!
MPhys Physics 2015 Graduate - Business Analyst, Sky
Throughout school and my early university career, I had a hard time deciding what I wanted to do when I graduated. With an analytical mind, I was very fond of physics and so pursued an MPhys Physics degree at St Andrews. My five years studying was a fantastic experience. The guidance and support provided by the physics department was exceptional; I felt welcomed from day one, and felt such a strong sense of community upon leaving. The town of St Andrews itself is truly unique; its nickname of 'The Bubble' is befitting for a place where the university makes up so much of the town. The societal and sporting communities mean there is always something going on during free time, but equally there are quiet spots to get on with those crucial deadlines. This perfect balance in university life would be difficult to find elsewhere!
With each summer whilst at university, I tried to gain a new experience of work. I firmly believe that each summer taught me something new and directed me towards my current career: performing business analyst and project manager roles within the Change Delivery department at Sky.
I spent the summer of 2013 working as a scientific researcher within the Marine Biology Department at the University of St Andrews. Within this role, I applied my physics background in order to attempt to model the variation in oxygen concentration inside a shoal of fish. I worked with people who were extremely inspired by their work; the determination to discover and reshape the thinking of the scientific community was admirable. Unfortunately, I soon realised that I did not have the same mind set. I enjoyed studying physics, but I was motivated by short, fast-paced deadlines where I could continually see progress of my work.
I then started to look into applying the problem solving and lateral thinking skills I had developed throughout my degree in a more corporate setting. At first, I looked into applying for internships in the banking and financial sectors. However, it soon became apparent that those businesses moved relatively slowly with their projects. I knew I would not be motivated in work, and needed a business that had a little more innovation associated with it.
Martin pictured with members of Malte Gather's research group, where Martin did his final year MPhys project.
I had a friend who was a programme manager within the Change Department at Sky. She spoke about Sky as this exciting, rapid roller-coaster ride where no day and project was the same. I managed to get myself a two-week placement in the department in the summer of 2014 and became truly enamoured of the company's ethos.
I applied for the graduate programme as soon as I could, and was delighted in successfully capturing a place in the department. In hindsight, I see my education at St Andrews as the largest contributor in making my application to Sky a successful one. The physics department developed my numerical, analytical and problem-solving skills, as one would expect from such a mentally challenging subject. However, the St Andrews curriculum gave me much more: the opportunity to develop softer skills such as communication, teamwork and leadership. Modules often placed you in teams with colleagues to work on projects, where the roles within the team were rotated. Individual and group presentations were also a common theme, an aspect of the curriculum I found extremely engaging! The module that springs to mind most is 'Transferable Skills for Physicists' (PH3014) – easily my most recommended module to do at St Andrews.
My graduate programme lasts for two years, under the assumption I take a permanent role with the company upon its completion. I will rotate throughout my time with Sky, working on five different projects which cover the breadth of their business; be it improving billing methods or delivering exciting new products. I will perform a mixture of tasks including: requirements gathering; project timeline mapping; stakeholder interaction and most importantly collaborating with colleagues across different departments to ensure projects are delivered to the high standard Sky associate themselves with.
I would recommend a degree at St Andrews to anyone, especially one in the Physics department! I actually like St Andrews so much that I commute to work from here!! I've truly grown up during my time in the town and met some incredible people who have shaped my personality forever. I've left the university feeling confident in my ability and, most importantly, prepared for my future career.
- Sky recruitment pages
- University Careers Centre pages on internships and work experience
- PH3014 module synopsis
- School of Physics and Astronomy at the University of St Andrews
MPhys Physics 2014 Graduate - Radar Development Engineer, Edinburgh
I spent five years studying for an MPhys in Experimental Physics at St Andrews. During the summers I undertook a number of summer placements in the Electro-optic group at Selex ES in Edinburgh. These were great opportunities to get involved in research and development of new airborne laser systems and get hands-on experience with cutting edge technology. During these placements I learned many new and very useful skills from programming and modelling to detailed analysis, and softer skills like working in large interdisciplinary teams. My final year project was with the millimetre wave research group in St Andrews studying the Micro-Doppler Effect. This led to an interest in radar and its many engineering challenges which arise from trying to detect objects against a background of stray reflections, noise and other EM interference.
The experience which came from my project and placements was invaluable when it came starting work as a graduate at Selex ES. I now work in the radar group developing the next generation of Electronically Scanned radars, a concept discussed in the 3rd year Electromagnetism course which I can now see being put into practice.
During my placements I became involved in the Selex mountaineering club (known as the Ferranti Mountaineering Club for historical reasons) to climb on a few crags around Edinburgh over the summer and have since travelled all over Scotland to walk and climb.
BSc Physics 2014 Graduate - High-Tech Software Industry, Silicon Valley, CA
Originally from Greece, I joined St Andrews in September 2010. And I remember that back at the time I was terrified! Not only was my English not that great, but I had also taken a leap of faith when I decided not to join the majority of my high school friends at some University in London, and adventure myself in the great north! Four years later it turns out that this was one of the wisest decisions I ever made. No matter where I look, no place provides the amount of opportunities, guidance and support we received.
One such opportunity arose during my third year, where I was given the chance for an exchange year in the Silicon Valley. This became the second life changing experience during my studies as I realized that this is probably where I want to live my life.
Meeting Professor Peter Higgs following both of us graduating at St Andrews.
St Andrews has shaped my personality during these four years, and not only taught me physics but also very important life lessons. I have learnt not to be afraid to travel, to get outside of my comfort zone and leave everything behind to try new experiences.
Just after my graduation in June 2014, I flew to Shanghai to work in a program that I discovered during a presentation in the Economics Society!
While I was working there a friend I made while in California recommended me to Apttus, my current company, which is a Silicon Valley Software Startup that provides "Quote to Cash" solutions to Businesses. Apttus’ products consist of Configure-Price-Quote (CPQ), Contract Lifecycle Management (CLM) and Revenue Management modules built on the Salesforce 1 platform. These essentially allow businesses to streamline their quote, contract and revenue management processes in the Cloud. Each specific implementation of the products is quite involved and requires many steps from defining the customer's business needs to configuring their Salesforce instance with Apttus' products.
As an associate, my role consists in configuring the solutions for clients as well as supporting the Project Managers and Technical Architects in any possible way. The incredible diversity of the products is one of the factors making my position really challenging and exciting at the same time: There are a myriad ways to get to a certain solution and each client presents a different challenge!
Even though my position is not directly related to physics, all the skills I acquired during my years in Scotland are invaluable. The ability to internalize and iterate upon a lot of complex information, the determination and ability to work long hours as well as the technical way of thinking and problem solving skills are all competences that I have gained thanks to my studies.
This is not all however, as thanks to the diversity of the physics curriculum, which has allowed me to get a good amount of experience in several programing languages, I am now able to pick up a language called Apex in order to work in the development section of my current department.
St Andrews has opened the doors for anything that I would like to do in my career. It also taught me golf and allowed me to make lifelong friendships. The emotional ties I created with Scotland and the University are for life, which is why I have now also applied to the Caledonian Club that celebrates Scotland in the heart of London!
I hope and am confident that St Andrews will continue to perpetuate its incredible culture for the next generations of students as anyone who goes to University should be given the chance to have as much of an amazing experience that I had!
MPhys Astrophysics 2012 Graduate - Aerospace Design, Martin-Baker Aircraft Co
I grew up in Strasbourg, France, and moved to St Andrews in 2008 to study Physics and Astrophysics at the University of St Andrews. Thanks to my degree, the Physics and Astrophysics faculty, University societies, and St Andrews in general, I was able to learn about a wide range of new topics and stretch myself intellectually. This has all prepared me with skills which have resulted in being very useful throughout my life and professional career so far. The transition to university was for me, coming from a different country with a different language, anything but easy. Nevertheless, the counselling support of the Student Support Services and the Physics and Astronomy staff have been essential for my health and growth as a student through my degree.
Academia enchanted me while conducting my own research during my master thesis project on the investigation of hydrocarbon equilibrium and disequilibrium chemistry in the dusty atmospheres of oxygen-rich objects, such as Brown Dwarfs and giant gas planets. This project, supervised by Dr Christiane Helling, was part of a European research effort to understand the electrification and chemistry in extraterrestrial atmospheres.
I soon became fascinated by astrophysical fluid dynamics, which includes blast waves, accretion, stellar winds and disk instabilities among others. I decided to transfer to the University of Cambridge in 2012 to study fluids in the context of the aerospace and power-generation sectors of industry. I undertook a comprehensive program of graduate teaching and research (M.Phil. in Energy Technologies), for which I was funded by an Airbus Group scholarship. In this broad program, students have the opportunity to learn and integrate multiple engineering disciplines.
I then pursued and completed my Ph.D. in 2017 in the Energy and Fluids group in the Department of Engineering of the University of Cambridge on the numerical simulation of liquid fuel injection and atomisation in jet engines (fluid dynamics/multiphase flow modelling) and improving combustion for which the complexity of the physics involved has curbed the research growth in the field. This Ph.D. was part of the University Gas Turbine Partnership between the University of Cambridge and Rolls-Royce plc. and gave me a first taste of an industrial client interaction.
I was one of the 2015 Amelia Earhart Research Fellows, which is a Fellowship awarded by Zonta International to Women in the Aerospace Industry. At their annual convention in 2016, I was invited to represent all Amelia Earhart Fellows and give a keynote speech to around 2,000 women.
I feel hugely for all the organisations who have generously funded my research endeavours all these years, by putting trust in my abilities and research interests. As well as for the several sponsored awards from societies and international organisations, the first one of which being Selex Galileo who rewarded me the prize for the best Masters Astrophysics thesis back in St Andrews. They all have encouraged me to improve academically and pursue further research.
My current research and development job at Martin-Baker Aircraft Co. Ltd. focuses on occupant modelling with particular interest in biodynamic modelling of the head/neck system and its dynamic response to an ejection scenario, which is still a missing link in effectively assessing the safety potential of ejection systems and their occupant. With the addition of small female aircrew to the ejection seat population, and with the addition of helmet mounted displays to ejection seat aircraft, the risk of neck injury has become one of the principle concerns to the ejection community. The goal of addressing significant scientific and practical issues of notable challenge in the aerospace industry while conducting innovative research is particularly rewarding. My role in the company feels very similar to my Ph.D. work. I need to be familiar with the research literature, my work is quite solitary but I need to interact as well with various departments within the company and with people outside the company. Our results will likely be presented at conferences and in journal articles.
My Ph.D. also gave me outreach opportunities alongside my research, such as teaching and STEM ambassador activities within Engineering and the local community. My wish to contribute to the system was prompted by my experience during my time in St Andrews where the Student Support Services made such an impact on my life. This is something I am continuing under the Martin-Baker banner.
MPhys in TP/Maths 2012 Graduate - Post Doctoral Researcher, HZB, Berlin
I spent four fab years in St Andrews studying for an MPhys in Theoretical Physics and Mathematics. I look back on the time very fondly but every year at exam time I am reminded of the panicky posts I used to write about exams. This year I found a post from my first year that read "Emmy Sharples is worried physics isn't for her!" And I wished I could go back in time and tell myself not to worry, Physics is for you and if you could see yourself now you would be proud.
That "worried first year" is now in a permanent staff member at the Helmholtz Zentrum Berlin (HZB), in April 2019 I successfully defended my work and was made a permanent member of staff. I am a sub-project leader in the SRF group working on the upgrade of BESSY II (our existing synchrotron) to BESSY VSR which will allow us to offer variable pulse length beams to our users. My main focus is the design, development, procurement and testing of the fundament power couplers for BESSY VSR. This involves the in-depth electromagnetic design of the couplers to ensure optimal operating conditions for the accelerator. In the future, it will mean testing and commissioning the couplers so they can be installed into the BESSY II ring where they will provide the RF power needed to accelerate the beam. In addition to this I have responsibility over a number of large scale procurements, both for the couplers and for the cavities that the couplers will power. In the future this will hopefully lead to me moving from sub-project leader to a project leader with my own small team.
Emmy pointing out accelerator components during a tour of the BESSY II ring.
It seems strange to have come from theoretical physics to working on an accelerator, but during my time at St Andrews I had the opportunity to do two summer research placements, which sparked my love of research, one theory one experimental. It was my placement working with the Nanophotonics Group that had the most impact. We were testing a new method for etching photonic structures and it involved a lot of cleanroom hours. As a theorist I thought I wouldn't be able to do such an experiment placement, but I loved it. From that point on I knew I wanted to stay in Physics and do research.
My PhD bridges the gap between where I was when I finished my undergrad and where I am now. When I was applying to PhDs I wasn't sure if I had the experience for more experimental research projects. However, my time at St Andrews provided me with the knowledge and skills to do what I wanted to do. In October 2012 I started my PhD in dispersion engineering for electron accelerators with Lancaster University Engineering at the Cockcroft Institute, which is the UK's number one accelerator research facility. My project involved designing novel accelerator components using metamaterial elements. During my PhD, I travelled all over the world to conferences on accelerators and metamaterials presenting my own work. Due to the way St Andrews treats its joint honours program I had already gained a lot of experience presenting work from one field to those in another and managed to win several prizes for my presentations.
The support, encouragement and opportunities provided by the physics and astronomy department at St Andrews University transformed that doubting first year into who I am today and I have so much gratitude for everyone who helped me.
BSc Astrophysics 2012 Graduate - Accountancy, Edinburgh
I chose to study astrophysics because I had every intention of becoming a rocket scientist and someday working for NASA. However, as I went through my degree, I realised that although I had a passion for science and learning, my main skills seemed to centre around people – whether that be meeting others, working with them, talking to them – and not purely based around academic abilities as I had previously thought.
During my degree, the subjects that I enjoyed the most outwith my core modules were Transferable Skills for Physicists and ID4001 (the interdisciplinary communication module). These allowed me to use the knowledge I gained in my degree and taught me the best ways to communicate with other people – whether that be the primary 1-3 children I taught or my peers.
Coming into the 4th and final year of my BSc, I was unsure what to do with my future. The options of a communications-based masters were appealing; however I wasn't sure I wanted to commit to doing another year of university before going out into the "real world". I liked the idea of continuing to learn – I don't think I'll ever lose that thirst for knowledge, but also wanted to start earning money, and was very aware that a masters and even PhD in physics would definitely not have been the right direction for me.
I then started looking into ways of gaining more qualifications whilst still getting paid, and came across the idea of doing accountancy. I went to the Careers Centre's accounting and finance fair, picked up a copy of the Times Top 100 guide to graduate employers, turned to page one and started applying!
Fortunately for me, I was successful in gaining a job working for PwC, an international professional services firm. Working for them seemed to give me the best of both worlds – a move to Edinburgh (following in the footsteps of both my sisters), a salary, but also the opportunity to complete my CA qualification to become a Chartered Accountant. I knew a few Chartered Accountants, and they had such a wide variety of jobs and pretty different careers, so I knew that following this path wouldn't be closing any doors to me.
At PwC, I worked in their public sector audit department. This meant that I performed both internal and external audits for a variety of public sector clients. Internal audit is all about testing clients' controls – making sure that they are doing the best they possibly can to run a smooth and efficient business, and making sure that the business is as secure as possible. External audit is where you check their financial statements and ensure that every figure, every judgement and everything they disclose is accurate, is complete and giving the shareholders a true and fair view of their accounts. This job was great for me as a new graduate – I was in an intake with 29 other graduates, so I got to experience the world of work whilst still being in a group of like-minded other graduates. There was a brilliant social life, which helped with the change of pace from university, but I also got to work with all sorts of different clients – from members of the accounts team at a small charity right up to the financial director of an NHS board. I also got to build on research skills I had gained from my degree to ensure I always knew what I was talking about to clients, and also used my transferrable skills to work out how best to discuss some fairly technical financial concepts with my clients.
As well as it being my first job, and giving me valuable client experiences, PwC also put me through my CA training with the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Scotland (ICAS). This is a 3 year programme where you combine studying towards three levels of exams with gaining relevant work experience to come out with a qualification which is the equivalent of a masters degree with the added bonus of it being internationally renowned (there are over 21,000 CA's across the world), which again would give me the ability to perform a wide range of careers.
When I qualified as a CA in September 2015, I did a 6 month secondment into student recruitment at PwC. I found this a massive challenge – for the first time I was leaving something mathematical and focussing more on building on my soft skills. As well as the standard recruitment procedures, I also got to host some audit skills sessions – teaching prospective employees what an audit was, and giving them an insight into what a career at PwC would be like. Towards the end of my secondment I realised that whilst I was enjoying having a more interactive role, I missed numbers and the data analysis that I was used to from both physics and audit.
Fortunately for me, at this time a lecturing job came up at ICAS. This seemed like the perfect combination to me – I would get to use my people skills and teach students, but would continue to be learning – whether that is a whole new subject (I currently teach 5), or the changes in legislation or standards that take place each year meaning we have to continually update notes. I applied and was thrilled when in April 2016 I took up my new job. I am loving my time at ICAS – I have the chance to be involved in writing teaching materials, taking classes and am constantly building on the knowledge from my time studying.
Even though I have left physics behind me, I don't think the skills which it taught me, or the thirst for knowledge which first led me to physics will every go away. Although no one ever asks me to calculate the distance to stars any more, or describe quantum mechanics, I have been able to put into practice so many of the skills that you need just to make it through a day of a physics degree! Being used to handling large numbers, and understand them easily means when I am faced with a new, complex idea at work – both when I was in audit and now, I am not phased by this at all. I also got used to thinking up solutions to issues when we were in physics labs – and education and the way of teaching is changing so rapidly that this is a great skill to have. I was also used to working long hours and having to take on a lot of information – which was useful not only in my work for PwC but also when I was studying towards my professional exams – being able to concentrate from 9am until 5pm is a lot easier when you have been doing this through most of uni!
The way the other people I currently work with have made it to here have all been very different, but I think that the route I have taken has given me skills which would have taken me many more years to learn – after all there's not many people who are lecturing graduates as they go through their professional exams when they are only 26!
My four years studying physics were probably the hardest of my life – it's an incredibly challenging subject and I struggled with going from being the top student in school to being in a class with the most intelligent people I've ever met. However, the support I got from the department, and from my classmates (who all became like my brothers and sisters over the 4 years) gave me the confidence to go out into the wider world and know that whatever challenge was thrown at me, or whatever situation I was placed in, I would be able to tackle it head on and hopefully come out unscathed at the other end!
Plus, I'll never get tired of being at accounting events and, when asked where and what I studied saying "I did astrophysics at St Andrews!"
MPhys Astrophysics 2012 Graduate - Astrophysics PhD research, Nottingham
I spent a very happy five years studying an MPhys in Astrophysics at St Andrews. The university provided a huge range of opportunities to develop my knowledge and understanding in a wide range of subjects. For example, I picked up two French modules in my first year as well as the Maths, Physics and Astrophysics modules required for my degree. The Physics department also offers a wide range of courses, both theoretical and practical, which allowed me to learn about different areas of physics and find out which areas I was particularly interested in. The range of courses also allowed me to pick up many new skills; such as learning several programming languages through computational labs; or circuit building to produce a radio telescope. This all culminated in my research project in final year where I chose to work on starburst galaxies with Dr Vivienne Wild. This project really sparked my interest in extragalactic astronomy and encouraged me to apply for a PhD.
Lizzie at the Jodrell Bank "Galaxy Maze Garden" with the Lovell Telescope behind.
I am currently in the first year of a PhD in extragalactic astronomy at the University of Nottingham. My research is on the topic of protoclusters; finding them and then measuring the properties of the galaxies within them. This allows me to look into a not very well understood area of astrophysics that really intrigues me: how galaxies change from star-forming spirals into older, redder ellipticals.
One module which has proved useful time and again both at St Andrews and so far in my degree at Nottingham is Transferable Skills for Physicists. Throughout the module I learnt to: search for appropriate journal articles; write research reviews; give presentations and write a telescope proposal. Having spoken to students from other institutions, the opportunities offered by Transferable Skills in St Andrews are not offered everywhere and the early introduction at undergraduate level has prepared me well for my postgraduate position. Hopefully later this year I will be putting my proposal-writing skills into practice in order to apply to use one of the telescopes at the European Southern Observatory sites in Chile.
My PhD also gives me opportunities alongside my research, such as demonstrating in undergraduate labs as well as outreach events to the local community. For example, I am volunteering with the university planetarium: the Inflativerse. This was also prompted by my experience during my time in St Andrews; helping out with the planetarium at university open days as well as visiting local schools. Now with the Nottingham planetarium I have already had the opportunity to visit a local primary school, as well as help out at a BBC Stargazing Live event in Leicester.
Thanks to St Andrews generally, and the Physics and Astronomy department in particular, I have had the opportunity to stretch myself intellectually; learn about a wide range of subjects and to become involved in many different societies. This has all prepared me with skills which will be useful not only for my PhD but for wherever my career path takes me next.
MPhys Theoretical Physics 2011 Graduate - School Teacher, London
I spent four interesting and enjoyable years at St Andrews. I relished having the opportunity to spend every day thinking about physics and explaining the world around me.
However, I had always had an interest in teaching and sharing my love of physics with other people. As part of our 3rd year transferable skills project my team were given the opportunity to go into a local high school and explain the physics behind hovercrafts. This was a fantastic opportunity as it gave me the chance to try teaching physics in the classroom and think about what made good and bad teaching.
In my third year I also received a university travel grant to allow me to teach English in Mexico, during the long summer break; the picture shows me with one group of young people. This experience cemented my interest in education and I relished the challenge of trying to teach students who didn't speak my native tongue.
After graduation I took up a place at Oxford University on the PGCE course. During this year I learnt not only the theory of teaching but also was able to put my ideas into practice in front of real classes. The first lesson I ever taught was terrifying, now I look back on it and think "How can I have been that scared?".
I now work at Caterham school (which is just outside of London) and love the daily challenge of explaining physics to my students (I actually get to discuss quantum!). As well as the teaching side of my job I participate in a variety of extracurricular activities. These range from going on Duke of Edinburgh expeditions with students, working as a boarding assistant in one of the boarding houses and developing a programme to get girls enthused in science (the physics of jewellery was a big sell).
I strongly recommend teaching to anyone who enjoys working with children and loves the challenge of explaining physics to anyone. You'll certainly never be bored!
MPhys Physics 2010 Graduate - Clinical Scientist (Radiotherapy), Manchester
I had a great time in St Andrews completing my MPhys degree. I couldn't imagine a better place to study – it's so friendly and all of the staff are very helpful and interested in making sure students are getting the best out of their degree. I really enjoyed learning about physics in depth and pushing my limits. However, I think the most useful modules I did during my degree were probably ‘Transferable Skills’ and a physics teaching module ID4001. Both of these modules gave me more opportunity to look into areas I was interested in and to explore more ‘real life’ situations where you have to work with a range of people and learn to explain physics ideas to people with different backgrounds. These experiences showed me that I really enjoy teaching and communication and that I wanted a job that involved these things but also included physics work and ideally still some research work.
Based on these preferences I started looking at possible careers and looking for work experience. I was already interested in medical physics and when I realised that it is a very varied job that does include a lot of teaching/training as well as some research and development work I decided it was the job for me. After doing some shadowing in hospital departments I applied to both the Scottish and England and Wales medical physics training schemes and after graduating took up a training place at King's College Hospital, London.
I trained in London for two years, which included an MSc in Medical Physics and Engineering and three placements in clinical departments, as well as opportunities to attend and present at national conferences. I loved my time on the training scheme – I learnt a lot in a short period of time, both theory and practical skills, and made some great friends too. It was a steep learning curve as it included new aspects of physics as well as learning a lot about anatomy and physiology but we had a lot of support from more senior staff and could learn a lot from practical work and observation in our placements.
After completing the basic training scheme I had to do some more ‘on the job’ training before being fully qualified in my chosen area of medical physics. I chose to specialise in radiotherapy (the treatment of cancer using radiation) and to take a position in Glasgow. After completing this further training I took up a permanent job at The Christie in Manchester where I work as part of a large team of physicists, radiographers, and doctors.
My work in radiotherapy is very varied. Routine clinical work is centred around ensuring that patients are treated safely, which includes performing measurements to ensure that the radiation dose we deliver to patients is correct, optimising individual patient's treatment plans, and responding to physics queries about a patient's treatment. I am also involved in R&D work such as developing new treatment techniques, testing new equipment, and optimising current practices. This work allows me to present at conferences and there is also the possibility of submitting papers for publication (although admittedly much less opportunity for this kind of thing than a pure research job!). However, one of my favourite aspects of the job is that I also get a wide variety of opportunities to get involved in teaching, training, and outreach activities. These opportunities can vary from working with trainees within the department, volunteering at science fairs, teaching on lecture courses, etc. and can be tailored to your own interests. I think these kinds of opportunities are really important in keeping your work life interesting, for example I was recently able to go to India to teach on a lecture course there, which was a fantastic experience as you can see from the photo below!
Lecturers on a Medical Physics course in Kolkata, India.
Medical physics is definitely a career I would recommend to anyone looking for a varied work life, who wants to do very practical work and work with a wide variety of people. For more information have a look at the links below.
- Training scheme - England and Wales
- Training scheme - Scotland
- General information about medical physics in the UK
MPhys Physics 2010 Graduate - Astronomy PhD research, Edinburgh
There are some factors (about 9000 good ones, now!) that entice us Scots to stay North for our University education. Fortunately the Physics department in St Andrews offers an education and experience to rival that of anywhere.
My St Andrews degree didn't just open up the door to my current position, but provided opportunities throughout my four years. The first opportunity was to challenge myself – the flexible degree structure allowed some of my cohort and I to take 2nd year physics and maths courses in our entry year. This theme continued throughout the degree, whereby a modular degree structure ensured core knowledge was gained while elective modules allowed interests to be pursued to a higher level (I chose some advanced astronomy classes).
Perhaps my best time at St Andrews was the time I wasn't at St Andrews! In my second year, I was selected for an exchange year to the University of Texas at Dallas. Being put forward and supported by my home department made this possible – it allowed me to experience the US, and its education system, which was otherwise unreachable to me. Study abroad years are of course relatively common, but the one-to-one help and support provided to me must be more remarkable.
I was lucky enough to be able to choose in the Masters year of my degree a project with Duncan Robertson and Dav Macfarlane, looking at radar remote sensing of volcanic ash clouds. Being immersed in the research environment of the school drove the success of the project. The work was published in a journal letter, and gained me a top three finalist place in the Science, Engineering & Technology NPL Physics Student of the Year Award (2010).
Having got hooked on research and with a good degree, a PhD seemed a sensible next move. In interviews, my degree was seen favourably, particularly the large fraction of practical classes – Honours level Computational Physics and Physics Labs, and Masters level Astronomy Data Analysis – that I had been able to take alongside the standard physics lecture courses. A summer project working on airborne meteorology research instrumentation with the UK Met Office also helped me in finding a PhD position – my selection for the Met Office project was in turn thanks to experience in instrument/computer interfacing in the Physics Lab classes.
As of writing, I have just completed the first year of a 3.5 year PhD in high-redshift astronomy at the University of Edinburgh (Royal Observatory Edinburgh). Following the theme of combining science and instrumentation, I am working on two complementary projects. Working with Ross McLure and Jim Dunlop, I am investigating the history of star formation in the first galaxies to form in the universe – about 500 million years after the Big bang, or some 13 billion years ago. With Gillian Wright of the UK Astronomy Technology Centre, I am part of an international team readying the Mid Infra-Red Instrument for launch on the forthcoming James Webb Space Telescope. JWST will, with its unprecedented size, allow these first galaxies to be observed with precision and sensitivity far surpassing that which is currently possible from space or mountain-top observatories.
It should be clear that I am grateful to the School for the opportunities it has provided, then and now. But one final thought: undoubtedly my PhD work would be more challenging, if at all possible, without having sat some advanced astronomy classes in my final undergraduate year. In fact, I had not fulfilled all the prerequisite requirements for them – so a "thank you" to the School for the individual attention in allowing me to pursue my interests all along the way.
MPhys Physics 2008 Graduate - Biomedical PhD research, London
Susan graduated in 2008 and a few months after this was awarded the "Best Physics Student in the UK" Prize, having been nominated by the School after her major successes in her final year project.
The "Science Engineering and Technology Student of the Year" award have been running for a number of years, and are organised by the "World Leadership Forum" in collaboration with a number of professional bodies.
Susan did her final year MPhys research project supervised by Prof Kishan Dholakia in the field of optical vortices and optical tweezers. Her title was "White Light Takes Hold: Diffraction and Trapping".
Susan impressed the judges with the synopsis of her project that she had written in an article style, and at her interview. The prize was presented at a gala dinner in the Royal Lancaster Hotel in London.
Susan is pictured here being presented with her trophy by the Managing Director of the National Physical Laboratory, Steve McQuillan.
She says: "I was very flattered to be nominated by the University for this Award, and then to actually go on to win felt amazing!
My project involved investigating the use of white light for applications in micromanipulation the phenomenon of using forces from a tightly focussed light beam to hold and manipulate objects, like a sort of microscopic tractor beam. Being able to undertake my Masters project within the Optical Trapping Research Group was great as it allowed me to benefit from the expert knowledge and skills of the other researchers within the group, as well as having access to state-of-the-art equipment and facilities.
I am very grateful to all the academic and support staff at the University who gave me such a huge amount of friendly support and encouragement throughout my degree, especially my supervisor, Prof Kishan Dholakia, for his enormous amount of enthusiasm and encouragement.
St Andrews has been a fantastic place to study, grow and develop as a scientist and I think this award is a tribute to the fantastic teaching and support available within the Department and the University as a whole. I am very sad to be leaving such a wonderful town, but I couldn't have hoped for a nicer end to my degree!"
Susan then did a PhD in the Optical Tweezers Group in the Department of Physics at University College London. She investigated the use of laser beams with interesting polarisation structure for applications in optical trapping. After completing her PhD she moved to Osaka University in Japan where she is a postdoctoral researcher in plasmonics and nanophotonics.
BSc Physics 2006 Graduate - Actuary, London
When I arrived at St Andrews, ready to start my Physics degree, I had very little idea what I wanted to do when I was finished. Except that I knew I probably didn't want to go into research, I was too mercenary for that. Instead, I spotted a pile of careers books on a table outside the door to the labs, one of which was entitled, "Actuaries". It sounded very interesting, and after some further reading, I decided to apply for internships early in my 3rd year, and that summer started working for Hewitt Associates in London. The great thing about my internship was that I was very much treated as a new graduate would be, doing real work for real clients. After a multi stage selection process, involving an interview, numerical and verbal problem solving tests, a presentation, and of course the 9 week internship itself, I was offered a graduate job for the following year. I also began to wonder if the Transferable skills for Physicists module had in fact been designed with the help of a recruitment consultant, so similar was it to the selection process! The following year, after graduating with a BSc Hons in Physics, I began my career with Hewitt (again), training to be an actuary, working in the field of pensions consultancy.
According to one definition, an actuary is "a business professional who deals with the financial impact of risk and uncertainty". Most of the work that I am involved in deals in some way with estimating what the cost of providing a given person's pension will be. The actual cost will depend on a multitude of things: inflation, what returns the company will receive on its investments, and when the pensioner actually dies, to name but a very few. And while it's true that I doubt I'll ever find a use for Schrödinger's equation in the actuarial world, there's no doubt the concept of an uncertain value is something any physics student will be happy with.
When I arrived at Hewitt, I was assigned to perhaps 8 or 9 clients, or companies that Hewitt advises on their pension schemes, and the majority of my work comes from these. Each client has a "team" of about 5 people assigned to it, which means across my clients I get to work with a lot of different people. Some of the work is fairly common, an example of which would be calculating an individual member's Transfer Value. This, put simply, is calculating the expected cost of providing the member's pension, a value that legally they are entitled to move from a previous employer's pension scheme to their current one. In my first few months, I probably did at least one of these a day. As I've become more experienced, and new people have joined, I now tend to check other people's transfer value calculations, as much as I do them myself. Which gives me more time to take part in the less "standard" pieces of work we do for our clients, a few examples I've given below:
Recently, legislation changes meant that a pension scheme member could take more of their pension as a tax free lump sum when they came to retire. One of my clients wanted to know what the implications of this had been on their pension scheme. And so, we had to use data on recent retirements to perform an analysis on what the retirees were actually doing, and how much of a long term saving the pension scheme gained when they gave up pension for an immediate lump sum.
For another client, we were tasked with providing an estimate of what the recently established Pension Protection Fund's annual levy for the scheme might be. Hewitt uses standard models for this type of work that can be repeated across clients, but there's still plenty of work in turning the client specific data into the inputs that the model needs. Data manipulation is not perhaps the most glamorous of jobs, but it is important and more interesting than you might think, as it does sometimes take a fair bit of ingenuity. Especially when, as is usually the case, you don't have all the data you might ideally have wanted, and have to make assumptions that you think won't underestimate the levy. Coming from a Physics background, the idea that your results can only be as accurate as the initial data, was another concept I was quite familiar with.
Of course, I wouldn't be able to tell you about being an actuary without telling you about the exams. Qualifying as an actuary takes an average of about 5 years, and the exams are not easy! Nor is balancing studying and working full-time particularly easy, but it is a big part of training to be an actuary, and Hewitt lends a helping hand, as it does for all its graduates. The cost of sitting the exams (for the first attempt, and for any subsequent attempt you pass) is covered, as is study materials and tutorials. And especially useful is the bank of study days that Hewitt provides, to allow you time to study for the exams. In the run up to my first set of actuarial exams, I find myself "working" 4 days a week in the office. Although that's not to say I work any less on my study days! It's hard work, but definitely worth it.
I hope I've been able to give you a fair description of life as a first year actuarial student. And more to the point, I hope I haven't put anyone off! I've only just started down the road to qualification as an actuary, but I'm enjoying every minute of it!
Note:- Finlay is willing to communicate with any St Andrews students who wish to discuss with him an actuarial career. Bruce Sinclair can provide contact details.
- Hewitt Associates merge with Aon Corporation
MPhys Theoretical Physics 2006 Graduate - Research Team Leader in Psychometrics
Apart from being close on an alphabetically ordered list of fields, physics and psychology are rarely seen together; however a few months after graduating I was to find out there were huge overlaps between the two areas.
I entered the world of psychometrics in a rather unusual way. After sixty-six applications I was becoming frustrated at how difficult it was to find employment. My degree classification was not high enough to get me though selection processes in my initial choice of career, and my degree subject meant several organisations informed me I was over qualified. Stuck in the middle of the two ends of the spectrum and unsure where to turn; I decided to embark on a completely different career as a Personal Assistant.
My first step to change career was to gain work experience shadowing an Executive Assistant. On the first day I was to discover the skills I had developed during my time at St Andrews had use outside of the classroom. A sample of questionnaire data from an evaluator designed to measure personality was awaiting analysis. The consultant psychometrician was late in submitting their report so I was asked to see if I could obtain anything from the numbers. Pattern recognition is at the heart of theoretical physics so I was more than happy to attempt to find something.
I was amazed, and continue to be amazed, at the harmony between responses from large groups of individuals. When asked simple questions about behaviour, subsets begin to form and it becomes easy to classify how an individual will be likely to respond to given scenarios. I remember being taught once to think of quantum behaviour like human behaviour - there is an uncertainty associated with how a particle will behave. Here I was doing the same process in reverse. The techniques developed to describe quantum mechanics could also be used to describe people.
After providing a simple summary of how well the responses to eighty questions were correlating with one another, the man I was assigned to assist decided he had other things I could help him with. Three years later, via a circuitous route, I had found my place, making use of my qualifications.
I now head a small research team with the same company, Insights Learning and Development Ltd.
Insights' corporate statement is: "Igniting Corporate Spirit".
The Insights Research Team supports this statement through its purpose which is to:
• Redefine the Field of Psychometrics - Ensure our offerings are of the highest standard
• Maintain the Insights' Ethos - Be guardians of Jungian Psychology
• Build a Research Ethos - Engage our communities and promote knowledge transfer
• Enable the Sales Process - Be a route to market
I have been very fortunate to find a job which allows me to work in an area which utilises the best of my abilities and help others to do the same in their world.
My main pieces of advice to students embarking on their journey to employment are:
• Never lose faith - physics really does describe everything so the skills developed will allow you to make connections in all areas.
• Be open to new ideas and opportunities - I never would have predicted I would be working for a company which specialises in enhancing relationships, improving performance and changing personal and professional lives forever but I'm having the most fun doing so.
• Work in an area which inspires you with people who you look forward to seeing each day - you'll spend most of your life at work so make sure you enjoy it!