How a work-based dissertation re-affirmed my confidence in my subject, my own ability and my future

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Post by Jonathon Clark, 3rd Year BSc Geography

The second semester of my second year saw the onset of what all geography undergraduates regard with terror, mystique and possibly a touch of (occasionally) misguided optimism: the Dissertation.

Initially, I felt secure – buoyant amongst a cohort of geography students in the same sea of chaos. The BA-inclined were all scrambling to draw up questionnaires for unsuspecting members of the public. The eager physical scientists in the making immersed in geological maps, ready to snap the perfect Facebook profile picture of them standing triumphantly over a patch of ground they had cored, blasted with an XRF spectrometer and talked about in what could be their first pitch to the scientific community. However, I soon found myself falling behind in the race to have my proposal accepted. The deadline for the proposal loomed, drawing ever closer. My page was still blank. With a sense of impending castastrophe for not only my grades but also my pride, I questioned myself thoroughly. Have I suddenly fallen behind? Am I not as intelligent? Does my brain work differently? Is this the sign that maybe this whole thing isn’t for me? It got that dire.

My logic led me to think about what particular aspects of geography appeal most to me. I have never identified myself as purely a physical or human geographer. Rather, from the first geography lesson I sat in my A Level class, I recognised that geography holds a unique selling point over any other subject taught in academia. No, not its so often bragged about breadth and depth, or its great fieldtrips, but its ability as a discipline to be studied not only for the sole purpose of expanding knowledge of socio-economic trends or physical phenomena but also integrating this knowledge to provide solutions to problems which can affect hundreds of thousands of people, every single day. Great! But how can I translate this interest and passion into a feasible project to carry out in the field? I recognised there were several options open to me. Why not see how different rungs of society in Liverpool feel about climate change? Why not see if austerity is impacting wildlife preservation in the Sefton coast? How has political instability in the Middle East affected the renewable energy industry in Britain? It’s strange; looking back, all of these ideas were actually quite possible. Yet, at the time, in the stress of the moment, I felt like there was an overwhelming amount of scale and work involved in pursuing any of these avenues. It seemed I’d taken one step forwards and two steps back…

Hands up if you’re guilty of sometimes clicking delete loads of times to get through a large backlog of e-mails! I know I’ve done it. This particular day, however, I was lucky to not do this as I received an e-mail from Andy Plater regarding work placements available over summer, which could convert into work-based dissertations. I had heard about work-based dissertations in a lecture earlier in the year and dismissed it as a complicated, paperwork-laden option for completing my dissertation. This dismissal was reinforced by the naive belief I held at the time which led me to falsely trust I could come up with a piece of original research on the spot. One of the placements Andy talked about in the e-mail was at a social enterprise recycling company based in Huyton, called Elixir. I read on to learn about what would eventually become a significant part of my life.

Close up gran pick beltElixir was founded by Ben Donnelly as a company which employed ex-offenders, addicts and those who have been out of work for prolonged periods. At their plant, they recycle waste PVCu plastic from the construction industry. Through shredding and granulating it and then shipping it on to manufacturers, the PVCu is completely recycled with zero waste to landfill. The story of the company’s creation really struck a chord with me, and the nature of their environmental and social work appealed to me. Ben had contacted Andy as well as the Centre for Global Eco Innovation (CGE) – a venture run by the universities of Lancaster and Liverpool as well as the commercialisation firm Inventya. Based on the first floor of the Roxby, they normally deal with small- to medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) who have an environmental focus to their work. The universities provide enable the companies to host dedicated graduate researchers and to gain access to research and development facilities to allow the companies to develop new economically sustainable or beneficial products. In the case of Elixir, no postgraduate student had been found at the time to quite suit the nature of the work they were undertaking; Elixir sought to expand from recycling just PVCu to also recycling other types of plastic waste, as well as potentially recycling electronic waste and looking into setting up a renewable energy project.

After a short but intense series of discussions regarding what work I would be undertaking during my internship and how it would produce an academic piece that would constitute a dissertation, the interested parties came to an agreement that I would assist Elixir in setting up a facility at their plant which could process waste LCD televisions and computer monitors. On the academic front, I would employ knowledge of ecosystems and environmental planning to produce an environmental impact assessment and life-cycle analysis of the waste screens.

Shred in magIt was a great relief to have other experienced people steer me in what I would write such a lengthy piece of work about. Through the assistance of Matt Fulton, the CGE project manager, the paperwork involved was minimal. Aside from the regular dissertation proposal I only needed complete some insurance documents and a learning agreement. I also quickly realised that I was gaining valuable experience in an industry closely related to my degree subject. Such experience is highly valued by graduate employers and gave me an edge over my peers who may have edged me out in the game of raw marks, chasing that elusive first class honours degree. It was reassuring.

1798458_3973871241712_1373085539_nThe work itself was a combination of office duties, finance and business report tasks akin to an assistant managerial level and also some hands on work in the plant using machinery and working with the lads on the factory floor. It was insightful, educational, useful and, best of all, fun. Working in such a company let me network with key authoritative figures in UK recycling, energy and environmental bodies and companies. It also let me meet some amazing people who have come from the most horrendous backgrounds possible in this country and overcome challenges that cause you to reflect on how lucky you are to have family, friends, health, food and shelter. After 4 weeks of work over the summer, which culminated in a boardroom presentation to managing directors and investors, I was relieved to see my research and designs given approval and investment (after some minor adjustments – I can’t say I’m ashamed about not knowing what the difference between revenue and profit was, having never touched business studies in my life!). This paved the way for me to take a break from Elixir and use my rapidly approaching first semester of third year to focus on completing the academic element of my dissertation. The summary report and skills diary which compose one third of the work-based dissertation module were completed on the job – another huge benefit if you’re someone who is less academically inclined and more oriented towards reports and action plans as well as practical learning.

Gran bag stand with mattyWith the dissertation progressing smoothly, I was delighted to receive a call from Ben offering me part-time work for the remainder of my degree at the company. Spending a few hours a week at Elixir now allows me to manage the operation I tended to from its design stage right up to its present stage of operation. I can now call myself the proud Waste Electronic Development Manager of a company which is processing several tons of electronic waste per week, which would have otherwise contaminated landfill sites and ecosystems with the harmful mercury and lead contaminants such waste electronic goods contain. The added financial bonus to this work is also helping me pay for my final year fieldtrip to California. It’s truly a win-win situation.

Vib 2Hopefully, this post has cast some light on how a work-based dissertation can be so advantageous to an undergraduate student. It’s no exaggeration to say that it shapes you personally as well as academically. Even if the added fun of this doesn’t interest you and you are dead set on logging pollen in samples from the hills of North Wales or the dissertation seems so far off, perhaps this has given you some insight into the highs and lows and mental battles that you can encounter as you enter the twilight of your degree. I hope to add to this post in the not-too-distant future, where I feel the experiences I have detailed here will help me take a leap into the world of work and benefit me even further.

Dream big and work hard.
Jonny

By the way – I got a first (provisionally)!!

Combining dissertation research and work experience

Canary Wharf, London

Post by Astrid Tooms – Year 3, BA Geography student

In my first few months back at University in second year it dawned on me that I had better think about what I wanted to do after University.  I started browsing various graduate job websites such as Target Jobs and Prospects (these were both useful – if you sign up and indicate your interests both will send you regular updates of relevant job vacancies for internships and graduate programmes).

I decided that I would love to work for a large company with the potential to travel. After making this decision I started applying to many different financial companies, to try and get a place on a summer internship programme for 2012 (as it seems pretty common knowledge that the best way to secure a place on a graduate scheme is to complete a internship first).  After online applications, online testing, telephone interviews and an assessment day I managed to get a seven-week programme with a leading international bank, the hard work had paid off!

Towards the end of second year the word dissertation starting creeping more and more frequently into our lectures and tutorials and we were all beginning to think about what sort of topics we could cover. From the outset it was made clear to us that studying Geography allowed for you to research a really broad range of things! I spent several weeks trying to think of ideas about what to look at, but nothing really stood out for me. It sounds like a total cliché, but one lunch I was having a coffee with a friend and she just simply suggested that I should try and combine my summer internship with my dissertation. This was perfect! Especially due to the fact we had to complete the majority of our research over the summer, and I knew that I would be busy with my internship programme. After enjoying my Social and Cultural Geographies module, taught in the second year, I decided that I wanted to incorporate this into my dissertation. Therefore I focussed my topic on gender in the banking sector. This is something that feminist geographers have researched and written about.

During second year we had a lecture from people at the careers centre about the possibility of competing a work-based dissertation, this seemed like a good idea for me, and I contacted the relevant people to discuss the prospect of completing a dissertation like this. However there were a few complications, so I decided to carry on with my initial idea and complete a ‘normal’ dissertation and use my experiences working at the bank as a means of collecting my research. I would definitely recommend this path, as it seemed like a great idea and the people involved are really supportive.

Prior to starting at the bank, I did a lot of reading and contacted individuals asking them to complete interviews for me, this was a great experience and highlighted many issues and key themes that would later become relevant in the workplace.

Starting my internship was really exciting, however I was extremely nervous. I had never worked in an environment like this before, and the majority of people in the office were extremely experienced in their fields. During my first few days many people asked me about my University degree, and when I said I was doing Geography I think many of them were quite shocked that I had decided to work at a bank instead of being a weather girl or geography teacher! However the graduate recruitment team at the bank had reassured all the interns that they wanted a diverse mix of people, and they had looked for transferrable skills and personal qualities as well as academic subjects during the recruitment process.

From the start I really enjoyed my time working in the commercial banking centre and built good relationships with many of my colleagues, I learnt new skills all the time and I was given real responsibility from day one. Throughout my seven weeks I completed some of my dissertation research, I asked about completing participant observation with my work colleagues (this was fine, however obviously there were strict confidentiality regulations in place). Whenever something happened that seemed relevant I would scribble it down on a piece of paper, then every night I would copy up my notes and explain my experiences. I quickly learnt that its very easy to forget things, and I tried to write down as much detail as possible as you never know what you may need in the future for my dissertation! Recording things in this way also helped me towards the end of my internship when I had to prepare for my performance review, as I had a detailed list of things that I had done, seen or been part of.

Throughout the internship experience, I also got to meet other interns, we kept in touch throughout the process and met up regulalry for work related events and socials. There were two other interns who were from the University of Liverpool.  Towards the end of the internship we also got to visit the bank’s head office at Canary Wharf, which was a great experience! Being part of this community for several weeks was fantastic and I believe it has really helped me with regards to my dissertation; it has given me a better understanding and has helped me view situations from different perspectives. When I completed my interviews I was able to relate to people better as I had witnessed the environment they were used to working in.

Overall I would recommend combining your dissertation with something you are really interested in, it takes up a lot of your time so you don’t want to be stuck doing something that doesn’t benefit you. For me, being able to complete my internship and gather research data was fantastic, I think otherwise I would have struggled to fit everything in or my data would not have been so good. Furthermore, the company was really interested in what I was doing and it showed that I had a genuine interest in the Banking sector. Everyone I spoke to was really friendly and willing to help, and I made some great contacts. Even people who I just spoke to on the phone for an hour offered to help me with my career and gave me great advice.

After the summer I feel that I am in a good position to carry on with writing up my findings, also the bank has offered me a graduate job which is a big relief going into third year.

And most importantly I don’t hate the word DISSERTATION… yet!