Published: 4 March 2014

Viewpoint: Work-based dissertations

Recycling

Geography undergraduate Jonathon Clark has been exploring the benefits of doing a work-based dissertation:

The second semester of my second year saw the onset of what all geography undergraduates regard with terror, mystique and possibly a touch of misguided optimism: the dissertation.

Initially, I felt secure – buoyant amongst a cohort of geography students in the same sea of chaos. The BA-inclined were all scrambling to draw up questionnaires for unsuspecting members of the public. The eager physical scientists in the making immersed in geological maps, ready to snap the perfect Facebook profile picture of them standing triumphantly over a patch of ground they had cored and blasted with an XRF spectrometer.

But I soon found myself falling behind. The deadline for the proposal loomed, drawing ever closer and my page was still blank. My logic led me to think about what particular aspects of geography appeal most to me, but how can I translate this interest and passion into a feasible project to carry out in the field?

I recognised there were several options open to me. Why not see how different rungs of society in Liverpool feel about climate change? Why not see if austerity is impacting wildlife preservation in the Sefton coast? It is strange; looking back, all my ideas were actually quite possible. Yet, at the time I felt like there was an overwhelming amount of scale and work involved in pursuing these avenues.

This particular day I received an e-mail from Andy Plater regarding work placements which could convert into work-based dissertations. I had heard about work-based dissertations in a lecture earlier in the year and dismissed it as a complicated, paperwork-laden option for completing my dissertation. This dismissal was reinforced by the naive belief I held at the time which led me to falsely trust I could come up with a piece of original research on the spot.

One of the placements Andy talked about in the e-mail was at a social enterprise recycling company based in Huyton, called Elixir. I read on to learn about what would eventually become a significant part of my life.

Elixir

Elixir was founded by Ben Donnelly as a company which employs ex-offenders, addicts and those who have been out of work for prolonged periods. At the plant, they recycle waste PVCu plastic from the construction industry. Through shredding and granulating it and then shipping it on to manufacturers, the PVCu is completely recycled with zero waste to landfill.

The story of the company’s creation and the nature of their environmental and social work really struck a chord with me. Ben had contacted Andy as well as the Centre for Global Eco Innovation (CGE) – a venture run by the universities of Lancaster and Liverpool, and the commercialisation firm Inventya. Based on the first floor of the Roxby, they normally deal with small to medium-sized enterprises who have an environmental focus to their work. The universities enable the companies to host dedicated graduate researchers and to gain access to research and development facilities which allow the companies to develop new economically sustainable products.

Elixir sought to expand from recycling just PVCu to also recycling other types of plastic waste, as well as potentially recycling electronic waste.

After a short but intense series of discussions regarding the work I would be undertaking and how it would produce an academic dissertation, we came to an agreement that I would assist Elixir in setting up a facility at their plant which could process waste LCD televisions and computer monitors.

Through the assistance of Matt Fulton, the CGE project manager, the paperwork involved was minimal. Aside from the regular dissertation proposal I only needed complete some insurance documents and a learning agreement. I also quickly realised that I was gaining valuable experience in an industry closely related to my degree subject. Such experience is highly valued by graduate employers and gave me an edge over my peers.

Elixir

The work itself was a combination of office duties, finance and business report tasks akin to an assistant managerial level and also some hands on work in the plant using machinery and working with the lads on the factory floor. It was insightful, educational, useful and, best of all, fun. Working in such a company allowed me to network with key authoritative figures in the UK recycling, energy and environmental sector. I also met some amazing people who have overcome challenges that make you reflect on how lucky you are to have family, friends, health, food and shelter.

After four weeks of work over the summer, which culminated in a boardroom presentation to managing directors and investors, I was relieved to see my research and designs given approval and investment.

The summary report and skills diary which compose one third of the work-based dissertation module were completed on the job – a huge benefit if you’re someone who is less academically inclined and more oriented towards reports and action plans as well as practical learning.

With the dissertation progressing smoothly, I was delighted to receive a call from Ben offering me part-time work for the remainder of my degree at the company. Spending a few hours a week at Elixir allows me to manage the operation I tended to from its design stage right up to its present stage of operation. I can now call myself the proud Waste Electronic Development Manager of a company which is processing several tons of electronic waste per week, which would have otherwise contaminated landfill sites and ecosystems with the harmful mercury and lead contaminants such waste electronic goods contain. The added financial bonus to this work is also helping me pay for my final year fieldtrip to California.

It is no exaggeration to say that a work-based dissertation shapes you personally as well as academically and I hope this has given you some insight into the highs, lows and mental battles that you can encounter as you enter the twilight of your degree.

By Jonathon Clark

This article was originally published on the Geography blog.

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