Christine Thorogood

Junior Science Apprentice, National Physical Laboratory

Christine Thorogood
Image: National Physical Laboratory

Where do you work?

I’m just coming to the end of an 18-month junior science apprenticeship with the National Physical Laboratory (NPL) – the UK’s national measurement institute.

We spend nine months in two different departments, carrying out research and supporting the work of the team.

Initially I worked in the Mass & Force department, carrying out force measurement calibration services for industry. I was trained on all of the deadweight and hydraulic force machines ranging from 2.5 kN to 30 MN, which are calibrated against the measurement standard for mass, the kilogram. Next I joined the Electronic Interconnection group, which focuses on improving the emerging technologies within harsh and high-temperature electronics, wearable technology and electrochemical performance in coating barrier systems.

What’s the work/study balance like?

We work in our individual departments on Monday to Thursday, and on Fridays we’re taught by an external training provider, CSR-Group Ltd, who come into NPL to teach us. We’re working towards a BTEC level 3 in applied science and also an NVQ level 3 in laboratory-associated technical activities. This balance allows us to gain professional qualifications while working.

It’s my responsibility to plan my time and put in extra hours where necessary. That can be challenging, especially when there are pressures from deadlines that come at the same time. However there are a lot of people supporting me and I’m encouraged to ask for help from teachers, team members and peers.

Why did you choose this apprenticeship?

I always wanted a career in science and the idea of carrying out scientific research in one of the world-leading national measurement institutes really appealed. We could work with experts and be trained on new technologies while being paid to be there!

There are also opportunities to enhance our continuous professional development and learn how to apply ourselves in the work environment. A major attraction for me was to represent the NPL apprenticeship at outreach activities. I am very passionate about enthusing other young people into a career in science.

What qualifications did you already have?

I joined the apprenticeship scheme aged 18, having just completed A-levels in physics, mathematics and fine art. The apprenticeship is offered to young people aged 16–18, so the minimum requirements are at GCSE level.

What skills have you gained?

As well as working towards the BTEC and NVQ qualifications, I’ve gained multiple skills in a range of technical training, procedures and health and safety training.

I’ve been trained on complex instrumentation in the laboratories ranging from three-storey-tall force measurement devices to scanning electron microscopes and gained my level 2 in dimensional metrology training (an internal training course).

I’m trained on the operation and safe handling of lifting, including manual handling and operating cranes, and I’ve completed the LabVIEW Core 1 training course and applied this to data acquisition. We’ve been taught to use Microsoft packages and how to present and communicate effectively with confidence. We also completed a 12-week mindfulness course, which has improved our wellbeing within and outside of the workplace.

How has the apprenticeship benefited you?

It’s enabled me to fulfil more than I ever could have imagined. I’m a respected member of the team, and have been given responsibility to plan investigations and experiment with my ideas. I’ve been supported and encouraged to get involved with as much I can to gain a range of new skills.

Working as an apprentice has confirmed my love for science and has provided me with an excellent basis to build a career as a scientist.

What advice would you give someone considering an apprenticeship?

Don’t be afraid to go down the apprenticeship path. Apprenticeships are evolving and are in every industry you can imagine – you just have to find the one suited to you.

University is always going to be an option for any time in your career but apprenticeships offer the hands-on training that employers really value. You will gain professional training and qualifications, work experience and get paid while you learn.

I also recommend getting in touch with the employer – find out what they do and if they offer any opportunities that you can get involved with beforehand, such as events for young people. This will help you to get a feel for the environment and can support your decision.

How did you choose your apprenticeship?

I live locally to NPL in Teddington (south-west London), and have attended science courses held there, so I knew a bit about what they do.

After A-levels I was applying to study physics with astronomy at university when the NPL apprenticeship was suggested to me. Once I read the job description I thought it described everything that I wanted to do: work in a lab, carry out research, continue learning and have the opportunity to promote science to others.

I discussed my options with my friends, family and teachers, but was still afraid of the unknown – I had no idea what to expect. I got in touch with an NPL apprentice who convinced me that it was the right option for me. You can go to university at any age, but this was a one-chance opportunity and I wanted to be a part of it.

What next?

I have a full time position at NPL as an assistant research scientist when I finish the apprenticeship. I’m also going to continue working towards the extended diploma in the level 3 BTEC in applied science (worth 3 A-levels rather than 2).

I will continue working while planning my professional development, whether that involves going to university or going a different route.