Cally Collier, Year in Industry student at the University of Leeds

Cally Collier

What does the company do?

Atkins is one of the World’s leading design, engineering and project management consultancies. They work across a wide variety of sectors, such as aviation, nuclear, rail, renewables and future energies, marine and coastal, urban development, roads and bridges, and water and environment.

There are Atkins offices all around the globe, including many offices spread around the UK. Atkins are a consultancy, so staff complete work on projects for external clients. My placement was within the Water Management Consultancy in the Oxford office. The water team at Oxford, part of the wider ‘Infrastructure’ practice, consisted of around 20 colleagues all with very different roles. These roles included hydrogeologists, geomorphologists, ecologists, Geographical Information Systems specialists and environmental engineers.  

What is your role within the company?

When I had the interview for my placement, the role was primarily intended to be providing GIS support across a variety of water-related projects. In terms of GIS, some examples of work I completed included;

  • Creating an erosion risk map for two catchments in the Lake District. This project work was for the Environment Agency.
  • Mapping the water features (e.g. boreholes, springs, wells) within a given area, along with the environmental designations in that area. These maps were to assist in a Water Features Survey for Severn Trent water company. 
  • Producing individual maps to display each of the options to be included in the 2019 Water Resources Management Plan for Southern Water.
  • Using satellite imagery and OS maps to create maps and extract information for a riparian management zone project. 

Whilst a large proportion of my time was spent completing GIS work on different projects, this was not my only role. As Atkins is a consultancy, work was varied across a many different projects, tasks and timescales. I completed some tasks that only took a few hours, and worked on some projects over the entirety of my placement year. One of my main roles was as SharePoint lead for the Water Resources Management Plan project. I had never used SharePoint before the placement, but was introduced to it and asked to manage the site for the project. This involved managing all of the files on the site, and communicating with clients from external organisations, such as Southern Water and the Environment Agency, to give them access to the site and solve any issues they were having. Other non-GIS related project work I participated in included data analysis for a river augmentation scheme, creating a costings spreadsheet for a catchment management project, and mapping Thames Water’s sewer network on the programme ‘Infonet’.

What did you enjoy the most and did you get involved in any interesting projects?

As mentioned previously, the nature of working for a consultancy meant that I had the opportunity to work on so many different projects and learn a range of different skills. Through my work on the Water Resources Management Plan, which I worked on over the entire year, I was able to really understand the processes and work that goes into producing these plans for water companies, which I definitely did not realise or appreciate before I was exposed to it. It was really interesting to see how water companies are planning for the future and how many different elements of work, from stakeholder consultations to supply-demand balance forecasting, go into this detailed process. Through my work on this project, I was able to participate in numerous meetings, both internally within Atkins and externally with the Environment Agency and Southern Water. I really enjoyed being able to meet and network with new people; a skill that I know will be extremely useful in the future.

As a Physical Geography student, I love getting out in the field. I was able to attend site work on two occasions during my placement. One involved collecting data for a Water Features Survey for Severn Trent Water, which involved asking Severn Trent customers about their water supply, and visiting and measuring private boreholes. Another site visit involved taking water quality measurements at a reservoir. I also had the opportunity to go on a week-long field trip to the Lake District. Unfortunately I was unable to attend, but my fellow placement student did.

A highlight of my year in industry was simply experiencing office life and working with many different colleagues every day. I was fortunate enough to join a genuinely wonderful team of people with whom I got along with really well and formed many lasting friendships. 

Why did you want to undertake a year in industry?

My main motivation for undertaking a Year in Industry was simply to gain more experience and broaden my skillset to enhance my CV. I was always extremely uncertain about what I might like to do after graduating, and I was aware that the only experience on my CV up until Second Year was part-time work alongside my studies. I thought that the best way to gain some insight into potential career paths, and to make my CV stand out post-graduation, was to get some real work experience in a company. 

What do you think you have got out of this experience so far? 

Participating in a placement year greatly contributed to both my professional and personal development. Through working in an office, my communication skills advanced greatly. On a daily basis, I was required to write clear and professional e-mails to colleagues and clients, verbally communicate both over the phone and with colleagues in the office, listen attentively in meetings, and confidently express any of my own ideas or questions.

The placement was also extremely beneficial in terms of my organisation and time-management skills. Working for a consultancy meant that I would be working on many different projects at once, and so I had to plan my workload carefully to ensure that all of the work was completed by the deadlines, which were sometimes tight. I also had to manage how much time I was spending on each project, so that the project manager could manage the budget. This taught me how to focus and conduct work more efficiently, which will be valuable during my final year at university and beyond.

I also gained numerous technical skills during my time at Atkins. By using ArcGIS daily, I became a lot more confident with the programme. I was able to build on the skillset I developed during university modules, and further develop this through working on such a wide variety of projects. I had very helpful and patient colleagues who were always willing to provide assistance and, through my regular use of the programme, I found that I understood the programme much more than I had at university. I was also introduced to new programmes, such as QGIS and Infonet, and participated in an optional training course for coding in Python. 

In terms of my personal development, I am much more confident than I was before my placement. Working in an office exposes you to many different personalities and working styles, and I had to learn how to communicate effectively and work with many different people on different projects. I also had to communicate with external clients via email, telephone and in meetings, which improved my ability to communicate professionally and network, skills which be valuable in the future. I was very fortunate to be part of such a welcoming and friendly team, and was given an extremely supportive line manager.  I got along very well with my team, both professionally and socially, and I have formed many friendships that have continued since leaving Atkins. 

Do you have any tips and advice to current students thinking of undertaking a year in industry?

One of the main things I would say is that perseverance is the key to getting a placement. Placements can be extremely competitive, and it can be really disheartening when you get rejected or don’t even get any response from an application. Applying to placements can take up a lot of your time, which can be difficult to manage when you’re also juggling university work. I’d say that it’s definitely more important to pick the placements that you really want, and to ensure that your applications are tailored and high quality, than to just spam the same cover letter to lots of companies.

Also, I would say that, although there are set ways of applying to placement schemes, usually through online applications and tests, don’t be afraid to take a more direct approach. When I looked online at Atkins, the website stated that there were no placements that matched my degree. However, I knew that I was really interested in the company, so I researched them thoroughly, wrote a tailored cover letter, and posted it (along with my CV) to the Oxford office directly. I was told by my line manager that this was something that really impressed them.

I am a more well-rounded, confident person, with a broader skillset than I was previously, and I owe that to my placement. I am grateful that I had this experience before graduating as I feel more aware of what working life is like. To fellow students, I would recommend that, whilst not always easy, this experience is worthwhile in developing both professionally and personally.