How Did You Get Into Nuclear? - enjoy the journey

Olivia Thompson

Head of Skills and Development

National Nuclear Laboratory


Early Years

How did I get into nuclear? Well, that’s a story that probably spans back to the choices I made at school (although at the time I had no idea what my future career aspirations were!). I had always enjoyed science and just before commencing my GCSE’s I was offered a week-long work experience placement with a local chemical company. I found the week quite daunting- I hadn’t realised the scale of operations within the organisation and it was very different environment to school. But I really enjoyed the week and it definitely set me onto a path to undertake Science A-levels. During the summer holidays of my A-level studies, I contacted the organisation and offered to work for them as an intern. It was a bit of a shot in the dark and I didn’t really expect them to offer me an employment opportunity, but very fortunately they did and I spent the summer working in the labs, visiting plants and taking samples from the local environment. I also got involved in many corporate activities, giving an excellent flavour of what it was like to work in the industry and best of all they paid me for my efforts!


The end of that summer was one of those crossroad moments. The opportunity made me question whether I wanted to go to university at all. I got a taste of having a salary and being relatively well paid compared to my peers. I also had a lot of support from my new work colleagues, with who I had become friends with. Unfortunately, apprenticeships weren’t an option then so I had to make a decision: university or work.


The company was going through a significant transformation program and was soon to be acquired and merged with another organisation. The Managing Director reached out to me and gave me a gentle push to go to university and to keep my career options open, but offered sponsorship in the form of paid work back at the site during the Christmas, Easter, and Summer holidays if I wanted it, but there was no obligation. It was a fantastic offer and so I went off to Bristol University to study Environmental (Geo)Science but spent most of the holidays coming back to Cumbria to work.

Time at university

Whilst it was a tough decision to go to University. I was curious to get a taste of what life was like outside West Cumbria, where I had grown up. I also had a desire to go and live in a city, to experience the culture and diversity that comes from student life.


Upon arriving at university, I was fortunate that the group of friends I met on the first day I stuck with throughout, even though they had a different upbringing, most had had a private education and lived in fairly close proximity to the city and hence they knew Cumbria as the Lake District. I also realised that few of them had had work-experience relevant to the degree course they were studying. I used that to my advantage and excelled in the practical lab-work aspect of my course. I also kept impeccable notes, having had first-hand experience of the value this brings when writing up findings and analysing results.


My personality type at this time was very shy and introverted. Perhaps, looking back, I may have felt a bit overwhelmed being in a big city, being quite far away from friends and family. However, I’ve always been fascinated by other cultures, I love to travel and through my degree course, we got to visit some amazing countries. I swapped walking in the Cumbrian fells to collecting volcanic samples from Mount Vesuvius and from undertaking quality assurance tests to sampling contaminated groundwater in Rio Tinto! I loved being able to combine my academic interests with working outdoors and this really helped to develop my own self-esteem and confidence as well as further opening future career paths!


I made a conscious effort to take all university experiences in my stride and I built on the little bit of confidence I had from the work experience I had undertaken to explore other career options and embrace as many extracurricular activities as I could. I was really into sport and Bristol had fantastic facilities, clubs and societies which offered such a large range of activities, all of which were on my doorstep. As a student, I started running (initially so that I wasn’t late for lectures and later as a hobby), cycling, open water swimming and scuba diving and completed my first triathlon, just behind former Olympian Tanni Grey-Thompson, which I surprisingly really enjoyed.

All in all, I loved my time at university and took a lot from the experience. However, I went through university not knowing what I wanted to do afterwards. So, I arrived at graduation day, and had an "oh my gosh, what am I going to do next? moment" My parents stood next to me, proud I’m sure, but also, perhaps concerned that I hadn’t a set vocation or forward plan. I knew there was the potential of the job back in Cumbria, but I now felt conflicted. The university experience changed me so much that I wasn’t sure either about the role I could walk into or in-deed in returning to Cumbria. So, I decided to do a Master's Degree and put off getting a “real job” for a bit longer. But I decided to have a change of scenery and a different university experience at a campus university rather than city centre and I completed my Master’s degree at Lancaster University. Again, I met a great bunch of people very early on. And, again, I made the most of where I was and what it offered.


The Master's course was great in that it had a firm emphasis on integrating academic learning with industry experience. So again, I found myself doing quite a lot of real-life work placements, and opted to obtain the qualification by research. After developing Major Accident Prevention Plans for an Electro-plating company in Manchester, I completed my dissertation with the BNFL Research and Development Branch; modelling electrochemical changes in conductivity associated with the formation of Caesium and Strontium precipitates- My first taste of nuclear science and my first real touchpoint with the nuclear sector which was quite embarrassing, as growing up, every day on my way to school I could see the top of the Windscale Piles, I had also seen the massive construction of THORP right through the early nineties, and everyone else's parents seemed to work at Sellafield, but embarrassingly I didn't really know much about the nuclear industry. I set about reading up as much as I could so that I could put my research into context and I became fascinated in this enthralling facility called Sellafield. To me, this colossal place was amazing- a first of so many kinds with science and innovation intrinsically linked together. I may have started my Master's programme with a quite blinkered view of nuclear science but my eyes were wide open by the end of it!!!


Full-time employment

Its perhaps no surprise then that I accepted a role in the Modelling and Simulation Team at Nexia Solutions, the former BNFL R&D department. Scared, nervous, excited are some of the emotions I felt on my first day. I didn't know what to expect, but I felt that there was a lot of expectations on me. I was under a new type of spotlight in that I wasn’t an intern, a student or even a graduate. I had joined a prestigious research company and I had a role to deliver. Unfortunately, I didn't have the support that comes from being part of a graduate programme or part of an Early Career cohort. I joined the industry at a time where there hadn't been much recruitment for a long time. So, in the office environment, there weren't many people in my age bracket. And when you are female, in your early 20s working on a nuclear-licenced site it felt at times quite isolating, but at the same time, I was never put off by this. I looked around my teammates in awe. They had infinite more knowledge and experience than I did, but they were happy to share this and all of them took time out to explain things to me simply, to give me background intel on the projects I was assigned and they showed me that there were various ways to approach research projects. So, whilst I struggled to comprehend the learning journey I was just starting on, I had fantastic mentors in the form of each and every one of my teammates, who without knowing it, were helping me in so many ways.


From Technical to Management

I spent seven years as a research scientist. During which time I had a habit of volunteering to take on extra roles and responsibilities and I also had a habit of volunteering for projects based at the power station sites- some particularly un-glamorous and some really quite challenging. I crammed many different types of projects into what was effectively quite a short space of time. But this gave me a fantastic breadth of knowledge and a good overview of the nuclear industry before becoming a business manager. I think perhaps in any scientist’s career there comes a point where one has to choose whether to take a management career or stay technical. What I really enjoyed was working with people. And so, I relished the opportunity to give management a go. Luckily, I felt NNL offered the opportunity to return to a technical career if management didn’t work out, effectively I could test the waters and see if people management was my thing or not.

In preparation for the Business manager role, I received some formal training. But with a management role, there are inevitably lots of challenges, for which you can’t learn about, gut instinct often takes over and you need to think on your feet. My new small, but perfectly formed team were based at four different locations in the UK. So, there was the challenge of going through the motions of ensuring they were connected, acquainted with each other and were working together effectively, whilst trying to build trust and earn respect from them. Easier said than done. And I probably broke every rule in the good manager's rule book as I navigated the inevitable emotional roller-coaster which comes with being exposed to changes and in trying to please everyone whilst meeting business deliverables. However, I was blessed in that I had a former line manager, friend and peer who had walked the walk before and who was always on hand to give me mentoring support and bits of coaching as and when I needed it. He picked me up when my confidence was low and made me feel that I could be successful, even when I felt conflicted. My team equally were amazing, their patience with me as a new line manager with my well-intended but poorly judged decisions taught me so much. That emotional support was probably more valuable than the formal training I received and is something that I will never forget.


Separately, around the same time, I started to support broader equality and diversity initiatives. It was at this time I felt like we needed to do something quite tangible to improve diversity in the industry. Taking on this team management role, I felt that more than ever now, that I could do something to support the girls that were coming into the industry and to help open the doors for others who perhaps didn’t see it as a possible career option.


Women in Nuclear

Looking back as a line manager I reflected on my early experiences as a female joining the industry. I was petrified when I first swung my legs over the barrier entering an “active area” for the very first time. Wearing cumbersome protective equipment and hearing the continuous tick-tock of the criticality alarm I felt nervous. Of course, I’d completed all the training and I’d practised how to do it properly, but crossing that barrier for the first time alone was a moment I won't ever forget. The changerooms were empty, few females worked in the active area and so I could hear my heart pounding. At the time there weren’t many females who worked in the active area, especially at some of the older power station sites which were entering decommissioning and so frequently I would be the only female or one of very few on a site of hundreds of men. Whilst I didn’t have any negative experiences at all, I realised that I didn't want anybody, especially anybody in my team, to feel that there wasn't somebody they could talk to, or ask for advice and I wanted to show young girls that many women had exciting careers in the nuclear industry. I also wanted to see more women take on leadership roles and steer the industry forward.


So, a few of us came together, and that's how Women in Nuclear started. A group of females from a large variety of professional backgrounds all shared a common goal to attract and support women in the sector. Our first meeting was kindly hosted by a consultancy company in London. I remember sitting in these beautiful offices, with views over the river Thames thinking about how wider the nuclear sector was to the nuclear laboratories, plants and power stations which I had been based at. I also realised that whilst I thought that having a decade of experience under my belt would allow me to talk with conviction and with some authority, I felt under-qualified and under-experienced. In short, I was surprised by a whole range of other careers the sector had to offer that I knew nothing about. But what I didn't realise is how other people saw me. This self-awareness and self-doubt I had was holding me back. I wasn’t a shy, introverted student, I had something to say and was helping to create a platform to shout about it.


Human Resources

Observing the evolution of the Women in Nuclear organisation and the skills the other board members had I recognised the need for me to understand more about business planning, corporate governance, and strategy development. These were elements of the business world that I had no experience in and I was really interested in learning more. I embarked on a mission to do an MBA, juggling the degree with both working and family life. It was challenging to say the least but it also helped open the door for me to take a role in NNL’s strategy team and then into HR. I found the transition from a scientist into the wider professional services area to be interesting and enlightening. Ask me ten years ago, would I ever thought I'd be working in HR and no, absolutely I would never have even thought about it. But, I love it, it's brilliant. I get to work with even more amazing people, as I have done throughout my entire career. But the bit that's perfect for me is that I get to see people grow and develop right from the start of their careers, and I can help influence that. That's a huge privilege.


I especially enjoy watching the dynamics and the behaviours of the younger people. How they find themselves in the workplace, how they make some of the mistakes I've made, and how some of them manage to navigate those pitfalls much more expertly than I ever did as an Early Career person myself or now, with the experience I have gained. Hopefully, I can help give them a range of experiences and development options so that they can navigate the career path the way they want with confidence.


Working Mum

Having two children within a three year period means I took appreciable maternity leave periods. I think that this is another area where some people may put you in a box and there’s still a stigma associated with career progression for working mums. It came as a bit of a surprise to me but I loved maternity leave and I really relished the opportunity to take stock and reflect on the things I really valued in life. I did a bit of career development whilst I was off. Reading books that I had collected and never got a chance to read and I took time to think about my career development and the choices I had made. I decided on my return to work that I would push back on the things that I couldn't add value to, but I felt obligated to do. This made me focus and I returned to work with a new focus, drive and enthusiasm.

During my second maternity leave, I felt confident to do some additional studying and I brushed up my HR knowledge whilst juggling episodes of Peppa Pig! It just made me feel a little bit better prepared to come back into the world of work and set me off in what's perhaps now quite a different career direction that I never thought of doing. In my current role, I’m responsible for delivering the people, skills and capability strategy to ensure that the business can respond to future challenges. I also oversee our equality, diversity and inclusion agenda- combining everything I enjoyed about all my previous roles together into one…what’s not to love?


Reflection

I've always been a goal-setting kind of person, and I've always pushed myself and challenged myself to improve. In my early career, I was in such a rush to progress all the time, and I packed a lot into whatever time I've had available. Now, with the benefit of hindsight, I think it's okay to sit back, take stock and relax a little bit. It’s not my natural personality but I realise now just how important it is to put the brakes on sometimes and not to steamroll ahead!


From my perspective, many people who make it to the top of their careers do so by working their way up through the ranks: walking the walk and talking the talk. I think that's important. It gives credibility, and it helps you understand your field in a way that is authentic. If I had my time again, I don’t think I would change any aspects of my career path. Having a science background and building close relationships with colleagues, no matter their age, their diversity, their outlooks on life, all helps to enrich you and has played in my career progression.


Always trying to see the positives in everything; to seize opportunities and to be curious are three motto’s that I try to live by. The advice that I would give to my younger self would be to do everything with a smile, it's important to be happy in your work life and to be kinder to myself- I’m often my own worst critic and that doesn’t help anyone or anything. My nuclear career has been as broad and diverse as it has been interesting and insightful and I hope other Early Career’s people who perhaps, like me did not set off with a clear career path can muddle their way through, like I have. The nuclear sector is as exciting now as it ever has been!


Olivia Thompson