Case study

Data scientist — Tom Peterken

Tom studied for an integrated Masters in Physics and then a PhD in Astronomy, both at the University of Nottingham, before securing a place on the Ordnance Survey (OS) graduate programme

How did you get onto the Ordnance Survey graduate programme?

After my PhD, I knew I wanted to do something technical and researched-focused, but more 'real world' than astronomy. My background meant that data science seemed like the obvious way to go outside of academia, but all the jobs I could see were either in areas which didn't particularly excite me or required experience and skills that I didn't have.

As well as searching for data scientist roles, I started looking at what roles were available at specific organisations that interested me. I've always been interested in geography and maps, so I ended up looking at Ordnance Survey's careers pages. They didn't have any data scientist roles available at the time, but I did see their graduate programme. I sent in an application to see what would happen.

What's a typical day like on the scheme?

For the first six months or so I was learning the fundamentals of geospatial data and analysis, but this was very much 'on-the-job' rather than assessments, exams or reading tutorial books.

The first project I started within a few weeks of joining OS was looking at improving our water network, to try to help the Environment Agency (EA) and other organisations better use our data for flood and pollution monitoring and modelling. I've since done several other projects on transport networks, creating datasets for use by the emergency services, and more recently I've been doing some work in collaboration with the Office for National Statistics (ONS) about characterising retail areas.

I've even had the opportunity to go on secondment to the Joint Biosecurity Centre (JBC), to help with geospatial aspects of the government's COVID-19 response. I'd gone from never having used geospatial data to having my mapping being used in high-level ministerial briefings within nine months.

What do you enjoy most about the programme?

I wanted to do something 'real world' and I don't think anything I've been doing has failed that requirement. Everything I've worked on has been interesting and has had real impact on the country in one way or another.

I've also found that everyone at OS is welcoming and enthusiastic in helping me when I need to understand something, whether that's related to technical details about something specific in our data, or whether it's just that I've no idea how geographic information system (GIS) software works. I think it might come with the territory of doing work we all care about.

What are the challenges?

Working from home in a city I didn't know with no real opportunity to meet anyone has been a challenge. I still haven't met most of the people in the data science team in person, and I've only met the others in my year of the graduate scheme a couple of times. I've got used to it though, and I've been going into the office a bit more recently, which helps.

In what ways is your degree relevant?

You might think that physics and Ordnance Survey aren't that closely related. However, I think nearly half of the data science team at OS are physics graduates.

Physics was my first introduction to scientific computing, working with data, quantitative analysis, statistics, spatial thinking, modelling of complex systems, and so much else in softer skills like report writing, how to deliver a good presentation of key findings from research, and creative and collaborative problem solving.

How has your role developed and what are your career ambitions?

My role has progressed significantly and due to such rapid development, I graduated from the scheme ten months early. I went from having no geospatial experience to being a data scientist making an impact on OS within 13 months, which I was delighted with.

I enjoy learning new things and love to challenge myself in my work, so in terms of my career ambitions, job titles, or seniority, it's not something I think I'll ever have a particular plan for.

What three tips would you give to others looking to apply for this scheme?

  • Don't assume that you don't have the 'right' experience. Everyone on the graduate scheme has taken completely different paths to get here.
  • Have a clear message of what OS can get out of you. Think about what you can offer the organisation that makes you stand out.
  • Have a clear idea of what you want to get out of OS. Think about what your priorities are, what excites you, and what kind of things you want to work on. If you don't know precisely then that's fine - but try to bring some ideas to the table in your application and interview, however vague those ideas may be.

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