Published: 29 July 2020

Remote working puts focus on time management and self-reflection for placement students

When the UK went into lockdown in March, one group of students were uniquely affected – those on placement. In the Department of Physics, 66 placement students made the huge adjustment to remote working, learning many new skills along the way.

At the time when the pandemic broke, 18 BSc students were midway through their Professional Training placement with employers ranging from publicly funded labs such as Science & Technology Facilities Council (STFC) and the National Physical Laboratory (NPL) to the Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE) and Lloyds Bank. At the same time, 48 MPhys students had recently begun their Research Year placement with organisations as far afield as Japan, Canada and Australia.

As their placements took an abrupt and unexpected turn, students quickly adapted to the ‘new normal’ of remote working – many returning to their family home – and got themselves set up with the software and experimental equipment they needed within a matter of days.

Kay Pearson, Employability & Professional Skills Advisor in the Department of Physics, said:

“Communication has been key during this period. At a minimum, students have weekly meetings with their supervisors and some have daily catch-ups. Those in larger organisations have formed their own virtual coffee breaks with other interns, while regular online seminars and presentations have helped to maintain a sense of community.”

MPhys students – particularly those on experimental projects – have shifted to more theoretical tasks or taken the chance to get ahead with assignments required during their research year such as literature reviews. They have also shared draft programming code on WhatsApp or – more creatively – by using a supervisor’s driveway as a virtual blackboard, enabling social distancing.

Maruf Ali, a MPhys Physics student on placement at RIKEN in Japan, said: “I’ve been fortunate to have access to much of my work during this period, including making electronic circuits using equipment I borrowed from the laboratory, and coding programs on my laptop, however my main experiment had to be delayed until June. For me, the most difficult obstacle was missing the work environment. This has affected my productivity at times, but it has also given me time for abundant self-reflection.”

Kay commented: “Without the structure and routine of office life, our students have had to focus more on their time management and goal setting, developing better resilience as a result. Remote working wasn’t a choice for our placement students, but they’ve learned a great deal from the experience.”

Read about Surrey’s hybrid learning plans and what our students say about learning during Covid-19.

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