Headshot of Vijay Chand

More than just a Physics qualification: Vijay’s reflections

2023 Physics alumnus, Vijay Chand, shares his reflections on his time at University from swapping Edinburgh for Vancouver in his year abroad, to making the most of work experience opportunities alongside his studies…

Hi Vijay, looking back at your time at Edinburgh, can you tell us about your student representation roles and what they involved?

At University, I was a physics student representative twice, and in my final year I also served as the chair of the Student Staff Liaison Committee (SSLC). The most interesting part of this experience was seeing up close how the School of Physics and Astronomy worked. The SSLC was an opportunity to give vital feedback for improvement to the school.

During my time as student representative, I gathered feedback in-person and via group chats about how the structure of our degree programme could be improved. As my degree programme was relatively new within the school, we identified a range of issues which we wanted to improve, and as student representative, I took them to the SSLC meeting. After thorough discussion at the SSLC and an internal review, the School decided to accept one of our suggestions, and change the degree weighting for the Physics with a Year Abroad programme for all new students starting in 2023 onwards. At the same time, I chaired the SSLC meeting and was responsible for collecting student concerns via email and creating an agenda which was shared with the Head of School, Head of Teaching and the administrative staff. In the meetings I would announce agenda items in which students and staff were then able to have a wider discussion. Additionally, in the interest of managing meeting times, I would intervene if the discussions became unproductive and reached no resolution. I was also responsible for confirming the meeting minutes and further resolutions/steps decided in the meetings.

What I quickly learned in these roles was the importance of conviction and confidence in my own arguments and beliefs. I realised that despite the University having prestige, it also required constructive criticism to enact change like many organisations. It was therefore important to not only represent my own ideas but also those of my fellow students. That’s a notion which will extend further beyond any individual role I’ll ever have again.

It’s great to hear that you also worked as an Enterprise Ambassador. What were your main takeaways from this role?

During my second year at University, alongside my studies, I worked at Edinburgh Innovations as an Enterprise Ambassador. With the experience of hindsight, I can say this was an extremely invaluable experience. Edinburgh Innovations fostered an incredibly diverse community with a range of both ambitious and intelligent individuals. In this role, I supported students by directing them to resources on enterprise development and helping host start-up and networking sessions. The role gave me excellent insight into entrepreneurial approaches to problem solving by meeting and working with rising talent within Scotland. I also had opportunities to take leadership roles in organising Peer Assisted Learning (PALS) events and suggesting and exploring new ideas for events. Throughout the role, I also gained valuable experience networking with individuals who already had successful start-ups and companies. This helped me realise the untapped potential that still exists for upcoming entrepreneurs and the challenges they face. The role allowed me to develop new skills by participating in a team which was focused on continuous innovation.

How did your year abroad experience contribute to your professional growth?

During fourth year, my year abroad in Vancouver was in the form of a work placement as a computational research assistant at Canada’s National Particle Accelerator Centre. I wasn’t sure what to expect going into the year, but it was definitely a pivotal point in my career journey. Being truly independent in the work force allowed me to find aspects of working life which I loved and those which didn’t work well for me.

Due to Covid-19, I worked primarily from home at the beginning of my placement. As the restrictions eased, I was able to transition to working onsite in the Theory department. The research environment was very relaxed and gave me a significant amount of time for independent work. I was responsible for the full development of a C++ framework called the Dirac-Hartree-Fock. This was meant to be an extension of my supervisor’s nuclear structure codebase which expanded functionality to allow for high accuracy atomic structure calculations. I had weekly meetings with a small team of academics from TU Darmstadt, MIT and TRIUMF about the progression, testing and future direction of my research. Additionally, I also had the opportunity to engage in academic conferences and seminars about the other research being done in my department. After I returned to University, I continued to participate in the weekly research group meetings and provide support to new students by helping them setup codebases, answer theoretical questions and run calculations. I also regularly gave my insight into their calculated results and suggested future next steps for their projects, in addition to being a full-time student myself.

I realised I loved working with programming and code, but I wasn’t particularly keen to work in an environment which was predominantly isolated. I’m attracted to roles which have a component of team-based activity and collaboration. This is also something which helped me gain perspective on why a PhD wasn’t right for me.

However, unequivocally the most important part of my year abroad was the interpersonal skills and confidence which I gained. My confidence developed dramatically during this period, not due to my achievements, but rather due to knowing that I now had the ability to work through my own mistakes. It helped me develop confidence in my own ability to handle unexpected challenges in life outside of academia. Additionally, living in a new culture shaped my perspective on life, opened me up to new interests and provided an opportunity to make meaningful friendships.

How did you manage your time with all your various work experience opportunities alongside your physics degree?

I find managing time to be notoriously difficult. It can be easy to get carried away with procrastination. During university, I completed two masters projects, two internships, two years as a student representative, two summer projects accredited by the university, one year as a full-time Computational Research Assistant and one year as a part-time Enterprise Ambassador, but I still find time management really, really hard.

I think the key is developing your own unique strategy which works for you. I found that building a routine for myself and writing down important dates into a weekly calendar worked well for myself. I compensated for my weak points. I’d allow myself plenty of time to get started on tasks and remind myself that if I didn’t do the work early, I’d end up just doing it in a stressed environment. I realised that the strongest motivator for me was not wanting to be in a stressed situation and due to that missing out on enjoying my own personal time. There are also lots of great resources and discussions online which helped me build a foundation of knowledge on how to manage organisation and time management.

What advice would you give current students, especially those from a widening participation background?

As a widening participation student, my advice for fellow students would be to participate in as many opportunities as possible. The amount that I have learned from experiences outside of university has been immense and I would consider it to be equally as helpful as my time in academia.

During my second year at university, I was able to participate in the university’s widening participation Insights Programme. This event involved the opportunity to travel abroad for one week and meet a range of university alumni to gain exposure to different careers and industries. Initially, I was meant to travel to Hong Kong, but due to Covid-19 this was changed to an online event. During the programme, I engaged in a range of activities including creating a team-based research project in which we reviewed the impact of Covid-19 on UK industries such as retail, healthcare, and agriculture. Additionally, I was also awarded the Robertson Trust scholarship which was aimed at removing barriers to higher education and supporting students from underrepresented backgrounds within Scotland. This was jointly funded by the University of Edinburgh and allowed me to engage with a number of scholarship specific programmes on personal and leadership development. It also gave me the opportunity to make meaningful contacts in different career pathways and rapidly develop my skills through regular reflective essays each semester.

The advantage of gaining any work experience allows you to grow your individuality through being trusted to deliver a task which prompts a sense of responsibility and self-belief in your own abilities. In this process there is no doubt you will face challenging times, however the rewards that you’ll receive, I’m sure will go beyond anything formal teaching will be able to provide. I also think that developing a wide array of interests is also important and I’d recommend students always make time to enjoy their personal lives whether that be travelling, sports or reading. Furthermore, the balance between leisure and work is something which you’ll have to continue maintaining beyond your studies so setting up good habits now is good practice.

Some more practical advice which I’ve found to be life-saving is to create a document listing the projects you’ve worked on, and all the skills you’ve used after completing a work placement or internship. A lot of the work that I completed was varied throughout my five-year degree; due to that I found it hard to remember specifics. Keeping a record of everything made the process of writing a CV and cover letter much easier. Additionally, it made updating my LinkedIn profile a very smooth and easy process.

Another important piece of advice is that you should try and take a step back and reflect over everything you’ve achieved. It’s important to give perspective to your accomplishments; sometimes it can be easy to get caught up in the negativity of the moment and thoughts of inadequacy. However, it can be an incredibly difficult path to be on a widening participation journey, and in those moments, you should recognise the excellence and scale of your achievement despite the challenges of your background.

Vijay, what does the future hold for you?

Now that I’ve finished my studies, I am looking to develop a career within software and IT. I’m particularly attracted to software development, IT consultancy and HPC engineer roles. I’ve also been following my own interests and teaching myself front-end development and 3D data visualisation. Before jumping straight into the work force, I’ve also been spending some time travelling to give myself exposure to new experiences, getting a better idea of what I enjoy, and really hammering down what my future priorities and targets are.

Thanks Vijay for such an inspiring post and highlighting how work experience can be gained through different opportunities – you can connect with Vijay on LinkedIn at Vijay Chand. We have advice on How to get the most out of LinkedIn on the Careers Service website.

Another approach to making connections is via Platform One, where you can find friendly people who share a connection with the University. These include alumni, staff and students who are happy to answer your questions and share their experiences with you. Joining Platform One is straightforward: you can sign up to create a profile using this link.

Vijay also highlighted the importance of time management – the Institute for Academic Development has a range of tools and tips to help you organise your studies.


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