Inspiring Futures at NPL

It’s a common misconception to think young people aren’t “excited” by science. In the past year alone we’ve spent millions of pounds making things explode, powering fancy lasers and launching astronauts to space. We haven’t done so well at recruiting specialist teachers or careers advisors, or even supporting the ones we already have. As a result, we’ve created a generation of students who have lots of questions but not many people who can answer them. Inspiring Futures run a series of subject specific ‘Meet the Professionals’ events for 16-18 year olds who are determined to find out more. Inspiring Futures are different to your typical ‘outreach activity’. They don’t just cover STEM subjects and they’re not only located in Greater London- in the next month alone you could hear about careers in Financial Services in Edinburgh, TV & Film on the Southbank and Pathways to Medicine in Glasgow.

Rather appropriately, today I was speaking to future physicists at the National Physics Laboratory (NPL) about looming university applications and career prospects with physics degrees. Who would have thought NPL didn’t have enough physicists?!? I was honoured to be there and amazed by the young people who attended, travelling hours from their homes across the South East for some Easter holiday science chat.

A-Level choices: The integration of GCSE and A-Level students made for a good dynamic in our small group discussions, where students shared their experiences of the 16-17 ‘transition’ so far. I studied Maths, Further Maths, Chemistry, Physics and Art, and I think it was good for the students to hear they didn’t have to give up their creative pursuits for a future in science. As these were the future physicists, astrophysicists and engineers of the future I emphasised the importance of keeping Maths going as long as they could. Maths and Further Maths are arguably the most important, useful and impressive A-levels you can do- they’re gold dust in employer’s eyes. For the ultra-organised internationally renowned scientists of the future, mastering a foreign language will be imperative. At Inspiring Futures there were IB students who were already studying Mandarin, alongside A-Level students in French and Spanish.

How easy is the school – university transition? I left school bound for a Foundation Course at Art School, where I paid nothing (< 18 at time of application) to be put in a warehouse full of international students (paying tens of thousands of pounds) and an uninspiring art teacher (1 per 60 or so students). Perhaps it was being spoilt by the art teachers at my secondary school, but this didn’t seem entirely like the creative space I’d imagined. During the first few weeks I was completing and submitting my application to study physics at university, armed with my A-Level grades and maths revision book (I was determined not to forget how to integrate over the 12 months). I spent the summer before university studying History of Art, Italian (and recapping FP1, 2 and 3) in Florence where I lived with an Italian landlady and visited a lot of churches. Without knowing it, I think I did a lot of growing up in that year. I spent my sixth form following Pete Doherty around dingy night clubs in Camden, getting ridiculous phone bills and making fake IDs. I went into the physics department at Imperial on a mission to learn as much physics as I could. Over the four years (and the beginning of my PhD) I rarely missed a lecture, I never skipped a homework and I went to every voluntary class work session and tutorial. I absolutely loved university- being around excited, interested minds and being taught by some of the biggest names in science. In short, the ‘big-step’ up work-wise is more than balanced by the enormous step-up inspiration wise. You’re not being taught by someone who isn’t being paid enough and just wants you to leave school, but someone who genuinely wants you choose their research area and make a discovery. It’s worth having to do your own washing/ cooking for.

Is a physics degree difficult? Honest answer: there is a lot of maths at the beginning, so come armed with your calculator and some determination. I think you cover all of further maths within the first term, which is great, because it leaves the next 11 to concentrate on the physics. You build your physics degree as a series of modules, so you can choose super challenging ones like General Relativity and Advanced Particle Physics, you can focus on Astrophysics and Space or you can learn about Hydrodynamics and Shocks. You graduate as an expert in whichever aspects of physics you’ve chosen, with academic connections to some of the best research groups and universities in the world.

How do you get on to a PhD? From the daunting UCAS form they knew a bit about the difference between 3- and 4-year courses, and wanted to hear about how employability prospects varied between the two. It honestly depends on what you want to do. If you want a career in the city (which the majority of physicists do) a 3-year course, and an impressive history of summer internships at banks, will be more than enough. The numerical, logical and analytical skills you gain a physics degree leave you leagues ahead of other graduates when entering the city. If you’re keen for research, industry or R&D, a 4-year course is definitely the better option. In the final year you do a 7-month research placement, working on a scientific question with a team of PhD students and post docs. It was the first time I’d been given real freedom in a science lab- granted I didn’t have full swipe card access to all the good stuff, but the ability to be creative in scientific experiments takes physics out of textbooks and into your own hands. When the keys to the half-a-million-pound laser system and swipe card access came with my PhD, I was over the moon. After the research placement (an ‘MSci-year’), the academic whose team have trained you are reluctant to let you go- you may have made an impressive discovery, mastered a new skill or have become a global expert in what you do. They will work like crazy to secure funding to get you to stay. And then you get PAID to do the physics you’ve always paid to do. So my advice is to look around widely for your MSci project, figure out what does and doesn’t get you excited and find a research group with whom you’d be comfortable spending a lot of time. For those that aren’t sure during their final year, DTCs (or CDTs), Doctoral Training Centres, where you complete a one year MRes (Masters of Research) followed by a 3-year PhD are the way forward. Whilst you figure out what you might like to research you’re taught the basics of a specific discipline (i.e. Plastic Electronics), and are taught by a range of academics with different PhD projects to choose from. You’re also in a small ‘cohort’, which is kind of like your class at school.

How flexible are the hours? A PhD is probably the most fun you’ll ever have as a scientist. You call the shots work-wise: you can do experiments whenever you like, travel the world to talk about your research and work with the most intelligent people you’ll ever meet. You can also decide what time and when you go in. I love the lab super early in the morning. Lots of people work on the weekends or by nightfall.

What can they do now? We had a long chat about what the students could do to prepare for university applications and life at university. I told them about the millions of science challenges and competitions they could be entering, the IOP, RAEng, RSC, RI and IET evening lecture series, science festivals and the summer schools/ work experience placements. What’s really important is to keep an ‘experience diary’ (call it what you will ;)) where you track all the people you meet and the science you hear about. What admissions tutors want to hear is who and what inspired you, and what it made you ‘feel’. It’s not ‘just enough’ to have been to a museum, seminar or debate- how did you respond differently to the hundreds of other people in the audience?

Please e-mail me if you have any more questions about studying physics, applying for a PhD or going to university.

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