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  1. Space, the final destination

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    Frances Wray describes how she turned childhood dreams about travelling to Mars into a career designing and testing components for space missions

    Dreams of Mars Frances Wray is an engineer for QinetiQ Space. (QinetiQ)

    I always wanted to work in the space industry. Initially, my goals were perhaps not so realistic: my childhood ambition was to become the first hairdresser on Mars. But I grew up not far from QinetiQ’s offices in Farnborough, UK, and when I was 15, I discovered that they had a space department. I e-mailed an employee there, hoping to get an opportunity to visit, even just for a day, to observe what they did. Instead, I got to spend a whole week in the summer of 2008 with QinetiQ’s Space UK team, performing a “fit check” – ensuring that the parts work together in a single assembly – on some spacecraft components that will soon be on their way to Mercury. I loved it, and I knew I could see myself working in the industry – I just had to get there.

    Fast-forward to my third year at the University of Manchester, UK, where I studied physics with astrophysics. After noticing that QinetiQ was recruiting a summer intern, I applied online, attended the interview and was soon working within the space department at Farnborough. In a relatively short period of time, I gained a huge amount of experience, and I was thrilled when I was offered a graduate placement at the end of the internship.

    Space hardware

    I have now been at QinetiQ for more than two years and I’ve moved on to a permanent role as a product assurance engineer. My day-to-day work involves making sure the hardware I work on is designed, manufactured and tested to the correct standards. The space industry has a lot of standards that must be complied with – 124 of them for European Space Agency (ESA) projects alone – and they cover everything you can think of, including how to test new parts and handle anomalies.

    My role also has a customer-facing element, which introduces variety and means that I am always learning new things – I need to know what I’m talking about when I speak to clients. There’s some travel involved, too. One day I may be in Farnborough holding a meeting to ensure our team is prepared for a test campaign, while the next I may be at the ESA integration facilities in the Netherlands overseeing work being performed on our hardware at system level.

    I work mainly on electric propulsion systems – specifically, the four T6 ion engines for the BepiColombo mission to Mercury (a joint project between ESA and the Japanese Space Agency, JAXA). These engines use electric and magnetic fields to accelerate ions, and they produce an amount of thrust equivalent to the weight of a £2 coin. That might not sound like much, but in the emptiness of space, it’s enough to manoeuvre a four-tonne craft.

    Technologies like these need to be rigorously tested before they can be put into practice, and my first test campaign was an 8000-hour endurance test on a T6 ion engine. This test campaign involves running the T6 ion engine in a large vacuum chamber at nominal thrust levels. The engine runs overnight and software monitors the facility to ensure that the test is halted if anything anomalous occurs (so, thankfully, our test engineers do not need to work overnight). In some ways, my first test campaign was like being thrown into the deep end, but what better way is there to develop an understanding of the operation of the thrusters? Over time, experience and training have taught me what to look for when inspecting flight hardware.  Examples include understanding pass/fail criteria for solder joints and electrical cable connections, and also looking for cracks in materials such as ceramics. Faults like these could result in mission failure if they go unnoticed.

    Building on knowledge

    Because my focus at university was on observational astrophysics and not engineering, I have had to adapt what I know in order to apply it in the engineering environment. I also had to go through a fairly steep learning curve to understand the intricacies of our design and the test facilities at Farnborough. However, I’ve found that being thrown into situations that require new knowledge, guided by experienced colleagues, is the best way to learn.

    Although I’ve had to adapt my physics knowledge to a new environment, it is incredible how widely applicable it has been. Our two main products at QinetiQ Space are electric propulsion systems and communication systems, and working on them uses very different aspects of my physics background. I remember sitting in my fourth-year lectures at Manchester and identifying topics that I knew would be applicable to my job once I’d graduated. I haven’t yet had the chance to apply everything I learnt (and in some cases, maybe I never will), but it is really rewarding to see my physics knowledge helping me to understand how and why the technology is operating the way it is.

    It is really rewarding to see my physics knowledge helping me to understand how and why the technology is operating the way it is

    Another remarkable thing is the skills I’ve continued to develop around the foundation of my physics knowledge. My communication skills, for example, have developed immensely since I joined QinetiQ, thanks to working with both customers and colleagues. I have also participated in many STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) outreach activities with local schools, which has taught me to adapt my communication style to convey information to people without a strong physics or engineering background.

    As part of the British astronaut Tim Peake’s mission to the International Space Station early in 2016, QinetiQ was involved in supporting the amateur radio (ARISS) contacts between schools and Peake while he was in space. That meant I was part of a team of local space industry experts that visited schools and demonstrated some of the technology behind the mission. The STEM initiative is important to me as I’ve seen, first hand, the value of encouraging young people – regardless of their background, gender and abilities – into STEM-based careers.

    If you are a physics student interested in going into the engineering industry, I recommend you brace yourself for the variety of options a graduate role will bring. You may already know exactly which field you wish to specialize in, but if you don’t, many engineering companies will offer you a range of opportunities in different types of roles (QinetiQ is great at encouraging this). My main piece of advice, however, is to find a job you are passionate about – a job that others will envy simply because you struggle to say a bad word about it. Ultimately, my favourite part is knowing that space is the final destination of what we are manufacturing and testing. Knowing that my work will help shed light on some of the great “unknowns” of our universe is extremely rewarding – perhaps even more so than hairdressing on Mars.

  2. Once a physicist: Rush Holt Jr

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    Rush Holt Jr is the chief executive officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and was a member of the US House of Representatives from 1999 to 2015, representing New Jersey’s 12th Congressional District

    What got you interested in physics?

    I wasn’t always the best student, but I was probably the most eager, and that was true about almost every subject. But somehow, science always seemed the most interesting. I remember having a hard time trying to decide what my major subject should be as an undergraduate, but I thought a lab science like physics would be hard to do on my own, whereas maybe I could do some history and literature and philosophy later.

    How did you get into plasma physics?

    As an undergraduate, I was doing too many things to be a good student – I was involved in student government, sports and theatre – so I didn’t go to graduate school right away. Then, after a few years, I began taking some astronomy courses part time just to get going again. I was at New York University, and the only astronomy you can really do in New York City is to study the Sun as a star, so I began looking at the changes in the spectral lines of the Sun from day to day. Later, I tried some numerical and theoretical calculations for a thesis problem, and it just wasn’t working out, so I fell back on my observations of spectral lines and turned that into my PhD thesis. But I never accomplished that much in solar physics, and after a couple of intermediate stops, I ended up at Princeton in the plasma-physics lab. Solar physics is a kind of plasma physics, so it was not a radical departure.

    You also got involved in science policy.

    I’ve always been interested in how the world works and how people get along, and I never saw any incompatibility between those two things. An awful lot of scientists do, and for that matter so do an awful lot of politicians, but I didn’t. Someone reminded me a few years ago that when I was in middle school, I had my own subscriptions to Scientific American, Science News and the Washington Post, which is the major newspaper of Washington, DC and national politics, so I was going down both paths even then. Later, when I was teaching at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, I began holding informal seminars for students to talk about the science-related policy issues of the day. That’s probably when I started reading Science magazine and joined the American Association for the Advancement of Science – not knowing that 40 years later I would be the chief executive.

    Why did you decide to run for office?

    The short answer is that it was too important not to. Also, both of my parents had held elective office, and my father had been prominent in national politics. He died when I was still in elementary school, but for decades afterwards I would run into complete strangers who, after hearing my name (I’m named for my father), would say, “Oh, your father helped me in this way” or “Your father meant so much to my family”. And I began to realize that, far from being demeaning, politics is actually uplifting. Plus, everybody said, “You can’t possibly win in that district,” and the more they said that, the more I wanted to prove them wrong.

    What skills are required to succeed in politics?

    It helps if you can think your way through complicated problems and express yourself well, in writing and orally, and those are skills that scientists should have too. Also, in politics, you have to like people, and part of that means you have to be willing to overlook some of their faults and frailties. Otherwise you would quickly become, not just discouraged, but really cynical. And you have to have stamina: serving in office was intellectually every bit as hard as science; it was psychologically much harder; and it was physically harder. You’re on the go all the time, with not a lot of rest, and you also have – well, in any business you have competitors, but in politics you have people who are trying to undo you. You need a pretty strong psyche to bear up under that.

    Did your physics training help you in office?

    In a general way, it came in handy all the time, because it helped to be able to analyse complicated problems and figure out the critical path in a process. But as far as actually solving a physics problem or putting my knowledge of a physical process to use in policy – no, not much.

    Any advice for today’s physics undergraduates?

    Work on your communication. There’s no such thing as being too good a communicator and most people don’t come even close. Also, remember that, as a citizen and as a human being, you have a responsibility to apply your skills to the benefit of others. If you’re studying science, you’re probably somewhat privileged, so that gives you a slightly bigger obligation to do something with it.

  3. {box – what physics graduates really do}

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    Physics graduates are employed in a wide range of sectors both inside and outside the STEM field. From our research the most likely jobs for physics graduates are (in no particular order) in the following areas:

    • physical science
    • IT analysis
    • software programming and development
    • business and financial occupations
    • secondary school teaching
    • higher education

    While there are still many more male physics graduates than female, the types of jobs they do tend to be similar. However, by far the single largest occupational group for female physics graduates is secondary school teaching.

  4. {box: where the money goes}

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    A report by the Institute for Fiscal Studies on UK graduate earnings compared median annual earnings for STEM graduates (green); graduates in law, economics and management (LEM, yellow); and other graduates (blue). Box plots show earnings in 2012/13 for women who graduated from UK institutions in 1999. The line in each box represents the median of institution medians, while the top and bottom indicate the 1st and 3rd quartiles and the whiskers are a rough measure of scatter in the data. In general, LEM graduates have the highest earnings, while the difference between STEM and other subjects (primarily humanities) is not as pronounced. The area of the black dots indicates the number of students in each subject. An equivalent graph for men showed earnings approximately 5–10% higher in most subjects.

  5. Taking the long view

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    A new study of the long-term employment prospects of UK science and engineering students suggests that talk of a skills shortage is overblown, with most graduates in these disciplines taking jobs outside science. Researchers Patrick White and Emma Smith discuss their findings and what they mean for current physics students

    (iStock / sorbetto / Mat Ward)

    If you are studying a science subject, you have probably read that industries that recruit science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) students are experiencing skills shortages. In the UK, both the government and employers have described these shortages as reaching “crisis” levels, claiming that a lack of suitably skilled workers is harming the country’s economy and making it less competitive internationally.

    However, such “crisis” reports are not new or confined to the UK. Similar accounts have been regularly published here since the end of the Second World War, and they have also appeared in the US, Australia and several European countries. The common theme is that a current or imminent shortage of highly skilled science workers – often blamed on poor science teaching in school – is a threat to the economic and technological development of the nation.

    One reading of these reports is that the recruitment of highly skilled science workers has always been a problem that is difficult to solve. This would be a straightforward explanation of the situation – except for the fact that not everybody agrees there is, or ever has been, a shortage. Working out what we mean by a “shortage” can be challenging and, unfortunately, we don’t always have the data available to find out how many STEM workers a country needs.

    A problem of supply and demand

    Despite the dearth of good data, governments have generally responded to reports of skills shortages with new and expensive policy initiatives. Because employers are most concerned about the numbers of applicants to highly skilled STEM jobs, the ultimate aim of many of these interventions has been to increase the number of graduates with science degrees. However, there are two big problems with trying to match the supply of STEM workers with demand.


    The first problem is on the supply side. Producing highly skilled STEM graduates is a long-term process. Students can opt out of science subjects at various points and increasing the number of STEM graduates means persuading young people to continue studying the sciences throughout their education. Those who have already dropped the sciences are unlikely (and often unable) to pick them up later. This means that increasing the STEM workforce has to start in the early stages of education. We cannot drastically increase the number of STEM students over the course of just one or two years: plans must be made decades, rather than years, in advance.

    The other problem concerns demand. As we have seen recently, future changes such as those promised by the UK’s vote to leave the EU can have immediate and considerable impact on the economy and, in turn, on the labour market. Among physicists, the decision to renew the Trident nuclear programme will have an effect on future demand for those in certain sub-specialities, as would a decision to scrap it. Whether the proposed Hinkley Point C nuclear power station is built – and perhaps which countries might be involved in funding it – will also have implications for demand. These and countless other developments all affect the demand for highly skilled STEM workers, and they do so on a timescale that is much quicker than the process of producing STEM graduates. This makes matching the supply of STEM workers to the likely demand for them very difficult indeed.

    Even if we could predict an increase or decrease in the demand for STEM workers, we really need to know which kind of STEM workers are needed, and what STEM subjects students should study. Lumping all STEM graduates together isn’t actually that useful: we need to know what subject specialists are needed most urgently. To take the previous nuclear example, a surge in the number of biology graduates isn’t going to help meet increased demand for radiation physicists or nuclear engineers.

    First jobs after graduation

    In our study, which was funded by a grant from the Nuffield Foundation, we aimed to find out whether there really is a shortage of highly skilled STEM workers (and if so, in which areas) by bringing together analyses of the best available data in the area. We first looked at data collected by the UK’s Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) on the destinations of all graduates six months after they have finished their degrees. Every UK graduate is sent questions on their employment status and response rates are very high, at around 80%. Although HESA also collects data on the longer-term career outcomes, these data are based on only a sample of graduates and have very low response rates (22% in 2012), so here we have only used the data on immediate destinations.

    We looked at HESA data from 1994/5 to 2010/11 because it was the best data for making long-term comparisons (the survey changed after 2011). Although the number of students going to university doubled during this period, we found that the patterns of early graduate destinations did not change very much. In general terms, STEM graduates (excluding those studying medicine or dentistry) didn’t have any real labour market advantage over those taking other kinds of degrees, and similar proportions of both groups entered “graduate” jobs (a term that, in essence, denotes jobs that involve some form of managerial, associate/professional or technical expertise). STEM graduates in general were also just as likely as non-STEM graduates to find themselves in positions at the lower end of the occupational scale, working in jobs such as routine sale assistants, caring roles and other elementary functions.

    There were some differences between STEM subjects. Graduates in engineering, for example, were more likely than average to find themselves in highly skilled STEM jobs immediately after graduating, while those with degrees the biological sciences were actually less likely to be employed in such positions than those with degrees in some non-STEM subjects. Physicists were somewhere between the two. In every year we studied, between 5 and 10% of STEM graduates were unemployed six months after they graduated.

    A relatively high proportion (around a quarter for all disciplines) of graduates in the biological, mathematical and physical sciences stayed on for postgraduate study. This could suggest that some of them were unable – or at least felt unable – to get the kind of job they wanted with just an undergraduate degree. In 2010/11,  some 37% of physics graduates stayed on in full-time postgraduate study. If we include those who carried on studying part-time, balancing their studies with work, this figure rises to 46%.

    In the same year, less than 5% of physics graduates who found employment were working as “science professionals” six months after graduating. Another 8% worked as “engineering professionals”, and the same proportion were teachers. A much larger proportion (19%), worked in business, finance and statistics, but the largest proportion (26%) were in non-graduate jobs, with 14% working in sales, customer services or other elementary occupations.

    The occupational destination of students varies considerably depending on the type of higher education institution they have attended. STEM graduates from Russell Group institutions (such as the universities of Oxford, Manchester and Cardiff) had similar levels of full-time employment compared to those who attended institutions belonging to the University Alliance or Million Plus (UA/M+) groups – predominantly made up of former polytechnics such as the universities of Coventry, Bolton and Nottingham Trent. But a larger proportion of Russell Group STEM graduates gained graduate-level positions and they were almost three times as likely to enter highly skilled STEM jobs. Russell Group STEM graduates were also more likely than those from UA/M+ institutions to remain in education. However, similar proportions from both types of university found themselves unemployed six months after graduation (see table).


    Looking further afield

    The other data sets we used in our research were the 1970 British Cohort Study (BCS70) and the 1958 National Child Development Study (NCDS). Both of these “longitudinal” studies have tracked the education and careers of all people born in a particular week of the year these studies started. The 9000 or so participants in the BCS70 are now in their mid-40s and those in the NCDS are in their late 50s. The data collected for these studies allowed us to look at the long-term career trajectories of STEM graduates and to compare them with those of graduates in other subjects and also with non-graduates. This is important because it may take some time for graduates to establish their careers, and people also may move in and out of different kinds of jobs over their lifetimes. Because it is more recent and more complete, we will concentrate on the BCS70 data here, but results for the NCDS study were very similar.

    Our analyses showed that the long-term career trajectories of STEM graduates and those with degrees in other subjects weren’t very different. By age 30 similar proportions had graduate jobs (86% of STEM and 84% of non-STEM graduates) and the most common jobs for both groups were teaching and “functional management” (managerial roles in finance, marketing, sales and so on). As they got older, many of those working in scientific jobs moved out of these roles, often into management positions. People were unlikely to move into scientific positions later in their careers, however, meaning that overall, fewer older respondents worked in science. If STEM graduates hadn’t entered highly skilled science jobs in their 20s they weren’t likely to do so later.

    In fact, we found that surprisingly few STEM graduates worked in professional scientific, research or engineering positions at any time in their careers. At no point between the ages of 26 and 42 were more than 22% working as engineering, information technology and science-related professions (the three key “shortage” occupations) and by age 42 this figure had fallen to only 14%. A comparable proportion (12%) of 42-year-olds worked as teachers and 13% worked as functional managers. Teaching and management were also common destinations for graduates with degrees in other subjects.


    Crisis? What crisis?

    Our research shows little evidence of a shortage of STEM graduates of “crisis” proportions. Although most STEM graduates find work, and most of these jobs are graduate-level positions, only a minority of them work in highly skilled STEM positions; many more work in teaching, business or management than in science. This situation isn’t new, as our analysis of cohort data shows, and looks unlikely to change in the near future.

    If employers are really having trouble filling essential jobs in their science industries, then why are so many STEM graduates working in jobs outside of science? One common explanation is that universities are not providing students with the skills that employers need. But as we have seen, it is nearly impossible to predict what skills will be needed in the future. In any case, universities have to provide a broad, general education; they offer more than just vocational training for particular positions.

    Another possibility is that professions outside of science are regarded as more attractive by science graduates, either because they pay more or are seen as more interesting. There are rarely reports of a shortage of bankers, for example, even though the sector relies on recruiting graduates with the kind of mathematical skills that are common among STEM students. Is it actually the case, as many economists argue, that while there is no shortage of STEM graduates, there is a shortage of those who are willing to work for the pay and conditions that are currently on offer?

    We would certainly not want to discourage any students from studying science. One of us (ES) is a former secondary school chemistry teacher and the other has taught undergraduates in the sociology of science. We both support science education, and we think that having graduates with science degrees is important for the economy but also for society more widely. Having more politicians with scientific backgrounds, for example, would almost certainly lead to better policy decisions in many areas.

    STEM graduates have at least as good career outcomes as those studying other subjects and in some cases slightly better. But we are concerned that the regular scare stories about supposed shortages of scientists may unrealistically raise the expectations of students studying, or planning to study, STEM subjects at university. Science graduates have very promising career prospects – but so do graduates in general. Our research shows that differences in career prospects between degree subjects can easily be exaggerated and that in some respects where you study is as important as the subject on your degree certificate.

    For some careers you will certainly need to have a science degree. But bear in mind that most STEM graduates never work in these types of jobs. Having a degree will undoubtedly help your career prospects, but you should study science because you enjoy it, not because you think it will give you a “leg up” in the graduate labour market. Unfortunately, our results show it probably won’t.

  6. {company details}

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    Glasgow, UK

    Desired degree disciplines/class

    Studentships are available to UK and eligible EU citizens with (or about to obtain) a minimum of a 2.1 or a Master’s degree in physical science or engineering


    Eligible to study in the UK

    How to apply

    Closing date

    All year round


    University of Strathclyde

    Rm 3.36, Royal College Building

    204 George Street

    Glasgow G1 1XW, UK

    Tel +44 (0)141 548 2880/

    (0)141 548 5769

    E-mail or


    • Aerospace
    • Energy & renewables
    • Engineering & instrumentation
    • Mathematics & statistics
    • Nuclear, fusion & energy
    • Software engineering


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