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Me at Oman Cement Company

by Aisha Jabeen Syed, 2nd Year Chemistry with Analytical Science

Going to university was a big decision. As a first year, on a ‘hard’ and definitely time-consuming degree, like most of the EPS ones are, I was quite sure I would not be able to gain any work experience or partake in any extra-curricular activities. After a long summer break (full of mostly lazing around), the work load from my degree, all the perks (or should I say, issues) that come from living away from home and not to mention the freezing cold (I come from the sunny Middle East), made work experience and skills training seem like a distant dream and an impossibility.

Like most freshers, I wanted to make the most of my university experience, and the first year is a good one third of it. But as an international student and fresher, I did not know many people -I am not what you would call a ‘social-butterfly’-, so was lucky when my first work-experience opportunity came from the School of Chemistry itself. It was the opportunity to help out at Applicant Visit Days. This was an immensely rewarding and enjoyable experience. The chance to work with prospective students, their parents, current students and a very supportive group of staff and academics in the Chemistry Admissions team was all anyone could wish for as their first job. For a quiet and reserved person like myself, an opportunity to work in a familiar environment (my department), was a very good first step. I am glad that the opportunity helped me make a lot of new friends in a familiar environment, as well as get to know my department better. Though it may not seem a very obvious benefit to some, gaining work experience is a brilliant opportunity to get to know more like-minded people!

Another, really useful initiative that I would encourage all freshers to get involved in is the Personal Skills Award (PSA) offered by the Careers Network. I can clearly recall how as a fresher I had a terrible misconception as to what the PSA was about. I heard of the PSA everywhere, but always thought, “Why would I get an award for my personal skills? I am not involved in many activities either, and if it is something that you need votes for then I am pretty much doomed….”. I am extremely glad I booked my induction session in Year 1, else I would have missed this golden opportunity to have something extra on my CV, with little extra effort. The PSA is definitely a scheme worth looking at – there are two pathways and there is so much you can do. I was on the Activity pathway and despite a very hectic schedule, was able to gain half the points needed to complete it in Year 1 itself, without joining a single Society or student group (Yes it’s possible!). For EPS students with busy schedules and hectic lives, this is an opportunity not to be missed. Book your induction session today! 

As spring and summer approached, I frantically started searching for work experience that was relevant to my degree. As I learned from experience, getting a summer internship or placement is quite tough as a first-year. Although the situation may not be the same for all degrees across Engineering and Physical Sciences, most summer internships I came across were for students in their penultimate year, as a certain level of practical and theoretical knowledge is needed, before the student can undertake any form of project. Nonetheless, I soon discovered that many organizations and companies offer Insight Days or Spring Programs to students that are in their first year of study - Unilever, BP, and PwC to name a few. I applied to quite a few of these, and got quite a few rejections as well, but was fortunate enough to be invited to two BP Discovery Days. I attended a Discovery Day at the Saltend Chemical Park at Hull in April and another one in Reading this September. Needless to say, they were very enriching experiences. To be able to see the knowledge you learn at University in practice on a large scale in industry is a joy all scientists and engineers deserve –going through the application process is well worth it!

As summer was almost there, besides revising for exams (which takes top priority in that season for obvious reasons), I explored for internships targeted for first year students. Using the Careers Network (the university’s very own opportunity database), I found a couple, applied for them and received polite rejections. Finally, exams got over, and I had a long summer ahead of me, with no work placement secured. I went back home to the Sultanate of Oman, to a very warm summer (43 - 49°), and continued with the voluntary charity work I had been doing over the winter break. Somewhere in mid-summer, I was able to get permission to observe the work of Chemists and Engineers in the Oman Cement Company (OCC) for 2 weeks. This was again a very interesting and stimulating experience, by God’s grace. You would not imagine the amount of work that goes in to produce decent-standard cement! Despite studying Chemistry, even I did not know that chemists had a role in that Industry!

To sum up, I would like to reiterate the fact that going to University opened a whole world of opportunities for me to make full use of my potential. There are opportunities for all kinds of students, and there are ways anyone and everyone can build up their skills profile, enrich their experience and improve their career prospects at the same time. All that is needed is willingness to take the first step and commitment not to give up.