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What my industrial placement year taught me

Updated: Mar 9


Courtesy of our partners at the University of Birmingham, UK.

If there is one thing my year in industry has taught me, it is the value of curiosity. Spending a year away from the prescribed learning of my Materials Science & Engineering course has reinvigorated my passion for the subject, grounded my studies in real-world understanding, and opened my eyes to the complexity, community and creativity of industrial science work.

Since July, I have been working in a research and development position as part of a global product development team at 3M. If you don’t know already, 3M are the manufacturer behind the vast majority of face-masks produced during the pandemic, as well as office staples such as the Post-It note and Command attachment systems. A progressive, constantly evolving entity, 3M’s founding maxim is ‘Science. Applied to Life.’ This year has seen me working in the Automotive Aftermarket Division, applying my scientific knowledge to product developments that will improve the lives of bodyshop technicians.

While university has been on hold for most of my peers, with labs cancelled and lectures held remotely, I have had the privilege of unrestricted access to the 3M site, including allowance to work on projects in the lab independently and alone at the height of lockdown. I have been given responsibility I never expected when I started – I now find myself a valued member of a highly specialised technical team, able to keep up with the intricacies of cutting-edge materials science development. Despite the challenges of the year, I have been encouraged to contribute to the company and the scientific community at large.

Time in the evenings and weekends, suddenly devoid of university responsibility, have become fruitful opportunities to pursue side projects and interests – I have launched a materials science podcast (Out of Material on Spotify), become a digital ambassador for the course, and recently been elected the president of the UoB Materials Society next year. Outside of my growth as a ‘3Mer’, spurred by scientific involvement and numerous corporate training opportunities, engaging in real-world science has unleashed an insatiable curiosity in areas far beyond the bounds of my role and even my degree. I find myself contemplating ‘big questions’, searching for the hidden connections between seemingly disparate topics, and constructing an informed, nuanced and self-improving understanding of the scientific world at my fingertips.

Upon returning to university next year, I will be armed with the knowledge that the way I learn, not simply what I learn, is crucial – while individual topics and theories may seem distant from real-world applications, problem solving and a desire to learn are fundamental to a successful career in any field.

I would now argue that procuring work experience in your chosen field is the most beneficial opportunity it is possible to take at university. My desire to learn has multiplied, I have a focused and driven outlook on my blossoming career, and I have met colleagues, mentors and friends whose lessons will stay with me for life. Too often our studies seem detached from reality – go out there and see it for yourself.

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