How a year in industry can benefit undergraduates
Support Taking a year out from university to work in industry might seem daunting — but the opportunities it presents are not to be missed says undergraduate engineer, Alex McLoughlin.
After two years studying for her degree in Electronic and Communications Engineering at the University of Kent, undergraduate Alex McLoughlin has taken time out to spend a year in industry. It's been exhilarating at times and daunting at others — but she's loved it. “It's really opened my eyes,” she says.
“Now I can't wait to get a job after I've finished at university.”
Since July 2016, McLoughlin, 21, has been working for energy company E.on and is currently Offshore Vessel Performance Co-ordinator, travelling to different offshore windfarms all around the country to gather and monitor technical data about the performance of crew transfer vessels. She's done so well that her 12-month contract has been extended to mid-August; but, from September, she'll be back at university to complete her final year.
Stepping up to the challenge
McLoughlin was initially accepted onto the company's Offshore Wind Performance Coordinator Year in Industry scheme, which involved completing online tests, a telephone interview and an assessment day featuring different activities, role play situations and presentations.
“Doing a year in industry is part of my degree, but the thought of entering the world of work still made me really nervous,” she admits. “I was worried that I'd be asked to do things that I wasn't capable of; but, actually, it wasn't at like that at all. It was a very gradual process and the first month or so was spent learning about the company and offshore wind farms in general. After that I just got on with the job, and it all came quite naturally. I've attended conferences and meetings and I've learned a lot about how companies in the sector operate.”
“I was worried that I'd be asked to do things that I wasn't capable of, but it wasn't at like that at all."
It has also changed McLoughlin's preconceptions about engineering. “It's not what I thought it would be like,” she says. “I've been doing more of a project management role than a technical role — although there are technical elements to it — which has involved a lot of organisation and planning. It's given me a good foundation to go in any direction. I'd say that was one of the brilliant things about doing an engineering degree. It opens so many doors for you and gives you loads of opportunities.”
Be determined and open-minded
For anyone thinking of taking a year away from their degree to work in industry, McLoughlin has one message: do it. Bring bags of enthusiasm and determination with you, though, because it can be a challenging experience at times. “But don't be scared of that because overcoming challenges is one of the most rewarding parts of the job,” she says.
“Be open-minded. Solutions aren't always obvious, so be prepared to think outside the box.”
Working in a male-dominated environment has never been an issue for McLoughlin. “I knew full well what I was getting into because there are over 90 people on my course at university — and only five of us are women. But that's never been a problem for me and I haven't faced any discrimination. I've been fortunate enough to only receive positive responses about being a woman in engineering. And, anyway, I've always thought: 'I can do engineering, too — so I'm going to.'”
Understanding the bigger picture
For McLoughlin, the best thing about the past year has been finding out how a big company works, and taking the chance to travel and meet lots of different people in different technical areas. “Building relationships has been a great part of the job,” she says. “I've been to Scotland, Germany and all over the UK, and that's given me an overview of the kinds of roles available in this field. I've met so many different people who have taken different career paths and that's helped me understand the bigger picture — something that wouldn't have happened at university. It's also helped me explore my opportunities without having to commit to a full career. I've now got time to reflect on things when I get back to my studies.”
Ultimately, though, McLoughlin is eyeing the possibility of a career in the offshore wind industry. “I think it's a fantastic industry — and certainly a very important one,” she says. “It's the future.”