Fin Underhill: How I secured a graduate job before completing my studies
I started looking for graduate jobs and internships during my induction week in September 2022. I went through many applications; too many cover letters to count, virtual assessment tests, video recordings, and phone interviews. Most jobs that I applied to had their reasons to reject my application, and that’s the way things go!
One company invited me to attend an in-person assessment centre which was the final stage of the application process. National Nuclear Laboratory (NNL) invited me up to Preston for a whole-day group interview on Thursday 2 February 2023. I’ve wanted to join the nuclear industry since before college and felt so much pressure to land this job, but I was obviously super excited even for getting this far with NNL.
Ellie Sturgess, from the Careers and Employability team at Cranfield, did an outstanding job of preparing my interview skills, technical presentation, and overall confidence for the assessment centre over five 1-to-1 appointments. She highlighted my strengths and weaknesses, showed me exactly what the employers were looking for, and overall was a joy to work with! If you’re getting invites for interviews/assessment centres, the team will help you land the job.
What was your experience of the assessment centre?
Preston is quite a haul from Cranfield, and the drive was looking long. My friend convinced me to drive up the night before the interview and crash in a hotel so I can be fresh faced for the main event, and I’m so glad I did! The drive up ended up taking 4 hours because the M6 was shut between Warrington and Preston. After a long drive, cramped legs, and pot noodle dinner made with the Travelodge utilities, I hit the hay as early as I could.
Waking up early, I had time to exercise, study my practice interview questions AGAIN and run through my technical presentation for the 30th time. That morning flew by, but I was feeling so prepared thanks to the advice from Ellie and from my persuasive friend.
I drove over to the interview with plenty of time to spare and met the first of three other candidates who were also being interviewed for the same job. The guy’s name was Ali, and he was a pleasure to meet. Definitely made the day a lot easier getting along with him! We introduced ourselves and eventually the other two candidates arrived. After a complementary lunch (which, being honest, I was too anxious to eat) and a short brief about the structure of the day, us four candidates made our way to the ‘group interview’.
Us four guys were seated at a table and were told our task. We were the only four survivors of a boat capsizing, and we escaped in a survival dingy with 15 items. We had 20 minutes to rank the importance of these items. Three invigilators were watching and recording how we interacted with each other in a team exercise. Ellie suggested that I should immediately get out a timer on my phone during the group project, and said that no-one ever remembers to do that – I was the only one! (Thank you, Ellie!) One guy didn’t talk much, so I tried to include him and his opinions. I generally encouraged a positive team spirit and didn’t focus on the arbitrary task of ranking the items too hard. After all, they didn’t care what rankings we gave, just how we arrived at our decision. So far, so good!
Next up was the individual interview, combined back-to-back with my technical presentation. This is where the day heated up…
The two interviewers began by asking the standard questions for any graduate role at NNL but moved onto two technical questions to investigate my broader engineering mindset. The first question asked me to explain the flow of a project from start to finish. I handled this one fine thanks to the experience I had in my previous job.
The second question! “Explain the entire operational process of how to machine radioactive material within a glovebox.” What?! I was stumped even by the scenario of the question; let alone the answer they were hoping from me. I made a clunky effort to stumble through my poor response before they intervened with more information to help me reach a logical conclusion. (I was later told that this was the weakest part of my day at the assessment centre, but I really didn’t need to be told. It was rough.)
Immediately after wrapping up what felt like a lacklustre and disappointing interview, my heart was pounding, and my brain was firing on all cylinders. I jumped straight into my 10-minute technical presentation. I had prepared flash cards and A3 pictures (Thanks again, Ellie!) to help guide me through the presentation and they worked a dream. After a minute of adjusting, I fell into routine and crushed the rest of the interview. I began and ended the presentation with a light-hearted (and relevant!) joke to lighten the mood which really helped connect with the interviewers. I asked as many questions as we had time for to show my enthusiasm for the role, and to understand what would be asked of me if I landed the job.
After returning to the other candidates and receiving the final speech from the NNL staff, we said our goodbyes and parted ways. First stop, ‘Spoons’ for a celebratory burger. I began the long drive home to get back to university lectures for the following day.
6 days pass. Nothing from NNL. I get out of a five-hour lecture on heat exchanger network design feeling completely fried, when I check my phone. Missed call. Unknown number from Preston! I immediately called them back.
“Hello this is Finley, sorry I just missed your call.”
“Oh, hi Finley, this is Anna from National Nuclear Laboratory. Do you have a minute to discuss your results from the assessment centre?”
“Yes of course, I’m free now!” (again, heart started pounding around now)
“That’s great. Well I’m happy to say that I have some good news…
“I’d like to offer you a position of Nuclear Scientist at National Nuclear Laboratory.”
I could not believe what I was hearing! I’ve landed a graduate job for September 2023 where I get to work for NNL up near Liverpool!
I’d like to say a special thanks to Ellie, the help you gave me was vital to this whole journey, thank you so much!
If you’re looking for any support with your career journey, from CV help, interview preparation, or additional learning resources, contact our friendly Careers and Employability team for 1:1 advice and support.
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