The first steps on a physicist’s career – from a research trainee to a salaried professional

I have often been asked what physicists do after graduation. It was unclear to me too during my first years of study. Unlike many other education programmes, natural science education at a university level does not does not directly result in a professional qualification. An exception to this rule are of course students who are trained as subject teachers. As in the past, study places in natural sciences attracted the lowest number of applicants this year: (YLE, link to the website made on 26 July 2019). One of the factors keeping the number of applicants down is that few prospective students are aware of the opportunities the sectors present after graduation.

A multidisciplinary work community of experts fosters learning

This summer, I am working as a research trainee at VTT, in the biosensor research team whilst writing my Master’s Thesis. Having a summer job that corresponds to my education is important, since it provides both work experience and a link to working life. I have the opportunity to work with experienced researchers and see how a multidisciplinary team works. It is extremely inspiring to learn about innovations made at VTT and to be a part of an inspiring work community. Working in a VTT research team has also increased my confidence in my own knowledge and skills.

Carrying out research for my Master’s Thesis outside the university was an option that I had considered for a long time already. The opportunity to have a summer job while progressing in my studies is a good combination, and VTT is a superb place for writing one’s thesis. My tasks at VTT are diverse, challenging and interesting. For example, I prepare samples and carry out thermodynamic measurements and simulations. I also study the literature published in my sector and report the results I have obtained. I have also learned to use new software and utilise my programming skills. Furthermore, I can also see some of the professional opportunities afforded by my education. Career development is easier, as I am now better aware of what kind of employee I am and what I can attain with my skillset.

On-the-job learning helps in the transfer from studies to working life

On-the-job training and on-the-job learning have become important parts of the majority of study programmes. I recommend that all students spend some time and effort to find a suitable on-the-job training. Practical training shows how natural sciences are applied in practice, which might be a welcome change to student life. At the same time, you learn many essential skills needed in working life that no lectures can teach you. On-the-job training also enables you to see your own competence and build professional confidence.

What’s more, I can now answer the question of what physicists do after graduation. Some become subject teachers, some continue as researchers in universities or research institutions like VTT. Many find employment in the industry. Natural science education in universities does not provide a professional qualification for anyone else than subject teachers. Instead, the education offers you an opportunity to learn and develop and become an expert in your field. The wide scope of the education fosters innovation and multidisciplinary co-operation. On-the-job training has clarified my thoughts on what I want from my future career. I have also learned that my education gives me the skills needed to work outside the university as well.

Arttu Huikuri
The author is a fourth-year student of physics in the University of Jyväskylä and works at VTT’s Oulu office in the biosensor research team while writing his commissioned Master’s Thesis.

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