Work experience: A fast track to employment or a waste of time?

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Ever since primary school I’ve been very interested in the sciences and engineering. It’s this interest that brought me to Lancaster University in 2005 when I started a degree in Combined Science. This was a great degree to start off with as it gave me a diverse insight into three subjects I was very interested in – Physics, Environmental Science and Mechanical Engineering. By the end of my first year I knew Engineering was the discipline that interested me most, and this became my focus whilst on an amazing exchange year at Oregon State University in the USA.

Back at Lancaster, having switched to a Mechanical Engineering degree, it became apparent that if my CV were to truly shine I would need some industry experience before graduating. I started researching my opportunities in doing a year’s internship between my third and forth year. My attention was drawn to Airbus, a civil aircraft manufacturer whom I had always been fascinated by. It was an eye-opening realisation that I might actually be able to work for a company like them with the experiences I had gained at University.

I applied to Airbus via their rather long-winded online form. It sometimes felt like I’d never finish this and the whole process (including much procrastination and self-doubt) took me over a month. I also applied to several other companies in case Airbus didn’t make me an offer. Months passed by and I was convinced I hadn’t got the job, when out of the blue I was offered an interview at Airbus in Bristol. Panic set in as I scrambled around my circle of friends in an attempt to put together a reasonably professional looking outfit. I also did a mock interview with CEEC which was invaluable practice for the real thing. I prepared good answers to Airbus’ key competencies; I can’t stress how important it is to get a good handle on answering competency-based questions as these are the cornerstone of many modern interview processes.

I was very nervous for the interview but it was reasonably painless – although they hit me with a couple of technical questions that I hadn’t been expecting. I did my best to answer them, but am not sure how well my (genuine) excuse of missing a lecture on hydraulic schematics for the Airbus interview explained my inability to interpret one! Two days later I was woken by an early call telling me I’d got the job. I was delighted, but joy soon turned to mild disappointment when I discovered I would be paid little over minimum wage for the year. Given that I’d be expected to move to Bristol for the post it made the decision more difficult than I’d imagined.

Nevertheless, in September 2008 I found myself moving into a frankly rather odd house-share in North Bristol, preparing for my first days at a company I’d always dreamed of working for. The first few weeks were very difficult. I didn’t like where I was living, knew nobody in the Bristol area and found the work quite underwhelming to begin with. I found asking for help difficult, and was initially given seemingly menial tasks. I wasn’t really sure who to turn to for more engaging work. I tried to be pro-active in pulling myself out of the doldrums, and soon made friends via the interns e-mailing list at work, and made regular trips back up North to see my family and friends.

The work remained a very up-and-down experience. There were times when I really enjoyed it and got great satisfaction from solving a problem or discovering an issue in my analysis. However I was often left feeling bored or under-used and the monotony of a desk job soon started to drive me mad. I tried wherever possible to get involved with other ‘developmental’ activities, i.e. anything to get away from the desk for an hour. This led me to some of my favourite experiences: flying to Glasgow to help out at a careers fair, helping children with reading at a local primary school, demonstrating engineering principles at the Bath and West Show and even travelling to the Paris Air Show. I also got involved with some interesting projects in my engineering work, doing testing on full-scale landing gears and my personal highlight; testing new control software on a flight simulator in Toulouse. Whilst there, I even got to visit the A380 Final Assembly Line.

So here I am today in my final year at Lancaster, having just taken a job on a graduate scheme with EDF Energy as a nuclear engineer. Whilst I didn’t take a graduate role with Airbus, the internship showed me that I don’t want a solely office-based job, and that I want to travel with work. Fear of the unknown is not necessarily a bad thing. What I did gain from my internship is several great friends, a fascinating insight into the technology behind a modern airliner and a spectacular piece of work experience to add to my CV.

For greater insight into finding that perfect job, check out ‘Competence and Confidence – Applying to Big Businesses’ – a new CEEC course run by Tom.

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