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Studying space science

space science studentJanice Hendry talked to us when she was finishing a space science degree. She describes the hurdles she’s overcome and her hopes for the future.

When did you decide to become a space scientist?

During my second year at uni. I found I enjoyed building the detectors, satellites, etc. more than the science/data they collected. In my second year I also took a course from the aerospace department and became hooked.

Was there anything or anyone in particular that inspired you?

Space. I’ve been interested in space since a young age. It’s a fascinating area with so many things to still learn, to discover, so many factors unknown and new challenges to design for.

How long did it take to train?

My university degree is four years. I will embark on a graduate training scheme in October when I start my job. Looking at it, my training will never end, but most of it will be on the job and won’t really take any extra time.

What did the training involve?

My university training is a mixture of lectures and lab work. I also had to do a long written piece on a topic of my choice in the third year. In my final year, I did a project looking at hollow cathodes – these are the devices which power spacecraft.

The graduate training will involve short courses spread out over the two years on topics such as presentation skills, team work, negotiating skills, project management and other related business/person skills.

Can you describe a typical working day?

I have a maximum of three lectures a day (all after 10am which is great) and get one full day a week off. Having said this, I do have lots of testing and work for my project, so during a testing day I would be up at uni by 9am, getting the equipment set up, then I attend any lectures I have before going back to the lab.

What's the best thing about your course?

Flexibility. Although you have a lot of work to do – it’s up to you how you organise it. If you feel like having a day off – you can without having to let anybody know, but you tend to pull longer hours closer to exams and deadlines.

What do you like least about your course?

Exams. I doubt anybody likes them but they are a means to an end. There are certain modules you dislike but are compulsory so you unfortunately just have to plod on with it and let the good ones out weigh the boring ones.

What have been the challenges in getting to where you are now?

At school, university wasn’t mentioned or expected, fortunately, when I got to college they persuaded me to apply. I wasn’t planning to – no one in my family has been to college, let alone university, neither of my parents have any qualifications. So they weren’t able to help with any homework/coursework.

My mum is also physically disabled so I had the added worry about my mum if I went to university outside of London. My mum wasn’t to keen on the idea at first – not because she wanted me to look after her or anything, but she had always looked at working your way up through working not studying. I almost didn’t go, but with help from my teachers at college I applied to study physics.

Another thing which many see as a “difficulty” is that there are few females who take physics but on the plus side, you had plenty of blokes to choose from! If anything its helped as people remember you better.

Another hurdle to overcome is of course money. My mum was unable to support me through university. I overcame this by working during each holiday and had a part-time job during term time. I managed to get two relevant work experience placements, one at QinetiQ and the other at Roke Manor. It’s hard work juggling both study and jobs and I’m still leaving in debt, but it’s been worth every penny, well pound(s). My first year’s salary after uni is greater than the entire debt I’ve accumulated throughout university, so I should be able to pay it off easily.

What personal qualities do you think are important for your role?

Patience, enthusiasm, enjoyment for your topic, and a technical mind. I am a strong believer that you should enjoy what you do, and therefore think this is probably the most important quality – personal enjoyment of the subject.

What skills do you think you need?

Good communication and team working skills are vital. Very few projects will be individual, and you will therefore need to communicate to your other team members as well as the person supplying the money for the work, i.e. the customer.

What advice would you give to someone thinking about following in your footsteps?

Go for it. If you enjoy the subject, don’t let peer pressure, stigma, stereotypes, money or anything else put you off.

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