As part of the first year of the CDT-CMP, I was given the opportunity to work with one of the CDT’s Industrial Partners for six weeks, in order to experience life outside the bubble of academia, and to provide insight into how condensed matter research is used within an industrial and commercial context (or: how to make money with it!). This would be my first experience working in a professional environment, with all the fun and challenges that would entail. Below I’ll give a brief account of my experience working for Oxford Instruments NanoScience, followed by an interview with Dr. Rod Bateman, a leading engineer at the company.
My placement was at the Oxford Instruments NanoScience (OINS) facility in Oxfordshire, in which equipment for creating environments with high magnetic fields and low temperatures for sample measurement is designed and manufactured. I would be working in the systems engineering department, designing the next iteration of a part for one of their products. I was excited to be working on a product that would be used by future Oxford Instruments customers, whether industrial or academic, and would help in performing cutting edge research on novel materials.
The first challenge I faced when starting the placement was possibly the greatest: getting in for 8 o’clock every morning of the week. After I had adjusted to the rigours of the early start, I quickly found myself engaging with the problem. If the product were to be used in experiments with very little room for uncertainty or inaccuracy, it would have to be very well thought out and rigorously tested; the choice of materials, the design and precise physical dimensions of each component, even the uncertainty in dimensions that would arise from manufacture would have to be carefully considered. This project often involved me straying from the physics I was so familiar with and into the realm of engineering and product design. Communication and collaboration were key aspects of the project. I talked to project managers, engineers, designers and representatives of external companies during the course of the placement. Fortunately, everyone I talked to or asked for help was very helpful and were willing to take time out of their packed schedules to help me at a moment’s notice, and to listen to any suggestions or considerations I had.
Academia and industry
Placements are a common way for universities to give their students perspective on how companies operate, which can really help when making the difficult choice of whether to stay in academia or branch out into industry. Some can even find employment or a sponsored PhD out of such arrangements. I talked with Dr. Rod Bateman, Systems Engineering Manager, about the links between Oxford Instruments and academia.
- What is your current role in OINS, and what is your background before joining the company?
Dr. Rod Bateman: I am the Systems Engineering Manager. I look after a mixed technical team running a number of NPI (New Product Introduction) projects.
Before joining OI I undertook a part-time Physics BSc at Birkbeck College, University of London followed by an OI sponsored PhD at Birkbeck and UCL. Prior to my degree as a mature student I worked in some different technology businesses in engineering support roles.
- Do you see demand rising for people with doctorates within the company?
Dr. Rod Bateman: The short answer is yes. Technology businesses benefit from the analytical thinking and problem solving of Physicists. Doing a PhD is also good preparation for R&D project activity as it requires a longer term focus for the duration of the project. But it certainly helps when the student has had some exposure to industry during the first degree or PhD. Life in technology businesses is very different from academia.
- How do ties with universities such as the one with the CDT-CMP benefit the company?
Dr. Rod Bateman: For us [OINS] in particular, there are many benefits. As most of our customer base is in academia, it helps to keep us connected with the customers and with current research trends. Also, we benefit from having the students around working on some peripheral projects but also getting involved in the product development process. They bring a fresh perspective which can often challenge the standard ideas. Also many of the students could be future customers!
- Is there any general advice you could give for someone considering a path in industry after acquiring their degree or PhD?
Dr. Rod Bateman: Mostly, try to get some industrial experience. We see a clear difference in students who have spent some time in industry to those who have not. Those who have are much more “industry-ready”. That doesn’t mean we don’t employ students who have no industry experience, it just means it is usually longer before they are really useful.
My placement at Oxford Instruments NanoScience has been a positive and educational experience, and I learnt a lot over the course of the six weeks I worked there. Communication, working to strict deadlines and an ability to be productive at 8 in the morning are all skills I have taken away from the placement. It has provided me with a glimpse into how technology companies operate from the inside, and the research and development process followed in creating new products for scientific use. The placement will definitely help me in future career choices post-PhD.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License. Oxford Instruments logo © 2014 Oxford Instruments plc. Used with permission from Ziad Melhem. Photo of Torsten provided by himself.