Work placement student Stephen Wells: “what use is that esoteric theory? Er, howzabout that extra terabyte in your hard drive?”

This year’s IOP Top 40 Work Placement students have now completed their placements and we’re finding out what they got up to.

Today it’s the turn of Stephen Wells, who has just gone into his 4th year of an MSci Physics degree at Queen’s University Belfast. This summer he spent eight weeks on placement at Seagate Technology in Londonderry.


Headquartered in Silicon Valley, Seagate is the industry leader in the manufacture of hard disc drives, being the first to sell 2 billion hard drives by 2013. The plant at Springtown, Derry has been in operation since 1993, making, and now recently researching and developing the recording heads that read and write the data on the storage disc itself. The making of these heads is a highly technical nano-scale process: 1000 production steps are needed through two rugby pitch-size fabrication clean-rooms before they are ready to be shipped downstream for assembly into a complete hard drive. This plant is one of the most cutting-edge and unique on the planet, only five other factories perform a similar job. Indeed, it is said that one quarter of the world’s hard drives feature this component made in Derry.

My project for the placement consisted mainly of data collection and statistical analysis in order to characterise and screen for a particular known defect of the data-read part of the head. I would say that statistics would not have been an area of science in which I would have much prior experience, therefore I welcomed the chance to learn and experience their real world practical use, particularly in regards to my possible future career which would be as a professional researcher.

One of the most useful experiences of my placement would be working in a private sector company with shareholders to please. With most academic research being performed in traditional mainly publicly funded academic institutions, the insight in to corporate culture was invaluable. The pace of working life was quite refreshing; indeed my supervisor had two patents filed this year alone.

Certainly the experience has altered some of my preconceptions about careers in physics. One point that (sometimes unfairly) can be aimed at physics is the question: what use is that esoteric piece of theory to anybody? In reply I can say perhaps it’s that extra terabyte in your hard drive.

Advice to future students: beyond making sure to be on time and work hard, I would suggest that socialising is a very important part of your placement. While you may only be there a short time, gaining insight into the job as a career is invaluable, along with the possible networking opportunities that may arise. And of course: it’s always nice to make friends!

1 Comment

  1. Iop work placement is helpful for young scientists especially for those with the zee to comprehend, in their various field of study.

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