Working at CERN: A career opportunity in a place like nowhere else on earth

For those who might not be in the know- at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, physicists and engineers are probing the fundamental structure of the universe. They use the world's largest and most complex scientific instruments to study the basic constituents of matter – the fundamental particles. The particles are made to collide together at close to the speed of light. The process gives the physicists clues about how the particles interact, and provides insights into the fundamental laws of nature.

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(Image credit: CERN)

The Large Hadron Collider (also known as the LHC) is the world’s largest and most powerful particle accelerator. Some would argue that this is what CERN is all about – however, while it may be CERN’s biggest physical achievement to date, there’s so much more to CERN than you could possibly imagine. Opportunities for engineers and technicians at CERN are manifold and incredible, at the cutting edge of technology and engineering in domains ranging from radiofrequency, electronics, mechanical and civil engineering, to electrical, computing and materials science. People at CERN additionally benefit from a unique work environment: challenge, purpose, imagination, collaboration and quality of life define what it is like to work at CERN. The benefits and experiences you can acquire during your time there are vast.

Based in Geneva and sitting across the French and Swiss border, CERN is one of the most diverse employers out there. Located right in the centre of Europe, CERN has over 110 nationalities working side by side, not to mention the various levels of expertise encountered on site. In the canteen you could be enjoying lunch alongside students, physicists, technicians, members of the Directorate but also pioneers of particle physics and Nobel Prize winners. In 1989, British scientist Sir Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web whilst working at CERN.

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(Image credit: CERN)

CERN is not just about physics. In fact, only 3% in CERN’s entire staff are physicists with the majority of staff being engineers, technicians and support staff to design, build and operate the accelerator complexes and systems for use by the world’s physics community for their research. For example, if your area of expertise is in electrical engineering, radiofrequency and electronics, then CERN could be the best opportunity you have ever thought of.

I spoke with Sonia Infante, leader of the controls section of the electrical network at CERN. The size of this network is phenomenal; it’s the size of a small city. And that’s just to supply CERN with the power they need. Sonia said: “I love the informal environment at CERN. It’s not intimidating here. My biggest challenge when joining was probably moving from an industrial supervision system to a CERN-made system: it is commonplace for CERN to devise its own solutions and one needs to go with the flow and adapt and participate in evolving them.”

Her colleague Stefano Bertolasi, leader of the electrical network projects section, goes on to say that it’s difficult to target graduates: “We target people with backgrounds in power engineering. Today most students are more interested in electronics or informatics. Graduates in electrical engineering are getting rarer.”

Working in the electrical engineering field at CERN can be a 24-hour job. There will be three people on standby to make sure things are working at all times. However, this would be for one week at a time, so you won’t be expected to be on call constantly!

On my visit, I also had the chance to visit the Radiofrequency installations which gave me a real feel for the sheer size, scale and complexity of the work carried out here, with so many exciting challenges and opportunities for engineers and technicians in STEM fields. I wish I had had the chance to see more of CERN, but as rich and diverse as it is, this would have taken weeks!

Working at CERN provides you with a fantastic work-life balance. There are many measures in place such a teleworking, family support structures and many clubs and things going on around the site all year round that make for a great social life. It’s also an easy place to reach whether you elect to live on the French or the Swiss side of the border, with a good public transport network and cycling paths.

If you don’t want to live abroad long term – don’t worry!

Moving abroad for work can be daunting – but it can also be exciting. You can read my article here on the perks of moving abroad for work and why you should consider it. If you’ve still got some concerns about picking up your life and shifting it across the continent – don’t be too afraid! CERN supports all newcomers in integrating and settling in the region and you will soon find that the work, environment and location provide for a unique experience you won’t regret. Contracts at CERN are offered on a limited duration basis. Typically for five years, opportunities for indefinite contracts exist but the culture is for knowledge acquisition and transfer so many come for the five years and then move on with a fantastic addition to both their work and life CV.

If you would like to know more about a student, graduate or professional opportunity with CERN, click here to take part in one of the world’s largest scientific experiments.

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