CERN Departments

There are a number of departments at CERN with specialised interests that offer diverse work opportunities. Below is an introduction to some of the CERN’s departments with information on the kind of skills they look for.

Beams Dept – Controls groups (BE-CO)

The Controls group supports all the accelerators in the CERN complex, including the Proton Synchrotron (PS), the SPS and the LHC. All the accelerators are (or soon will be) run using common systems wherever possible.

The group is involved in the development of all levels of software from embedded, real-time Front End software, up to the high-level software applications used by the accelerator operations team.

They are responsible for providing and managing timing information – both beam timing and machine timing, including a lot of surveillance and machine monitoring work.

The 'lower layer' is concerned with hardware and C++ (possibly embedded) whilst the 'upper layer' is written in Java.

They do a lot of data logging work, for which they use Oracle databases that are maintained by IT, but it means that the CO group includes a number of database experts. Generally, they are looking for students with Linux skills, C, C++, Java, Oracle and CORBA, and mentioned skills in design patterns, DB design and Continuous Integration would be a plus.

Development & Operations Section

They develop operator tools, primarily using Java and/or C/C++. They provide the tools to manage the controls systems, as well as providing tools for software development (e.g. Eclipse). The tools they provide are front-line diagnostic tools for operations, providing detailed analysis of problems and early warning monitoring. As such, quality assurance is a major part of the group’s work, as the tools that they provide are used for operating the accelerators and beam loss/downtime is a major concern for both the accelerators and the experiments.

They are always interested in students with sys admin skills – particularly those with enough knowledge to go right into the kernel.

The section tries to promote a professional software development culture with state of the art development tools. There are a lot of highly skilled people to learn from in the group, so students need only have a basic grounding in C/C++ - the rest they can learn on the job.

Hardware & Timing Section

This section provides the hardware modules for the control systems and the data acquisition (PCIe, Ethernet). They need good hardware designers who can handle both PCBs and HDL (VHDL, Verilog). They will be involved in cutting edge design work. Part of their task is the problem of synchronising control actions to within 10 nanoseconds over many kilometres.

This also means that they develop low-level software, such as the Linux device drivers, for which they need good Linux kernel hackers. They also need good Java and C++ developers to work on the timing problems.

This section is also the main driving force behind “Open Source Hardware” ( The aim is to make designs and software available on an “open and commercial” basis, i.e. they are made public and can be used under license. One of the things needed for this is open source CAD software, which CERN are currently working on. They are looking for students with a strong ability and interest to work on novel hardware designs.

Frontend Computing Section

The key interest in this section is in embedded software engineering. They are involved in R & D for CLIC (Future possible design for a linear electron-positron collider) – they are conducting a feasibility study for the control systems required for such an accelerator.

They are looking for low-level software designers with C++, Java, XML and XSLT skills. Anyone who applies to work in such a group needs to have a strong interest in working very close to the hardware level.

This section sets the standards for the technologies used at CERN – they put in place major contracts and provide support to other groups at CERN. They have developed a real-time software framework that is used widely at CERN (known as FESA). They are also developing the software that goes with the hardware that CERN are making available via the “Open Source Hardware” project. They tend to put PhD students on the CLIC studies they are involved with, whilst placement students are more likely to be working on generic FE software using FESA.

Infrastructure Section

This section is primarily involved in developing the middleware that sits between the Frontend and the control system tools. Their primary need is for good C++ designers, as well as for people who can design GUIs in Java. They develop tools for monitoring and diagnosis of the control infrastructure. The section leader for this particular section is also part of the team that promotes the VIA program at CERN. This is an End of Study program supported by the French government, but which was recently opened to all EU graduates. The jobs can be any discipline and CERN offers around 25 first jobs (two-year contracts) as part of the scheme. The scheme is open to anyone who has just finished studying at BSc, MSc or PhD level.

IT Department

Platform & Engineering Services Group

This group supports the central Linux computing system open to all CERN staff and users (lxplus). They also support some aspects of the Grid (VOMS, for example). They also provide infrastructure services such as SVN, license servers and the CERN-based twiki.

They are mainly looking for computer scientists, although they sometimes need someone with a background in electronics or mechanical engineering.

They commented that UK students have competition from students with more experience from other countries because of the difference in the UK system versus other European countries. In terms of keywords, they look for specific interests like “I know Java/C++/Python”. It can also be helpful if the student mentions in their application that they know how to use particular tools. The Platform and Integration Services Group also look for people to get involved with systems integration, in which case Python or Perl would be needed.

“I am interested in X” is enough to be selected by a keyword search, i.e. Students don’t have to have experience in a particular thing to get picked up by the search, which can be advantageous. If the student has relevant practical experience, be it inside or outside of University, it is very important to mention it.

Grid Technology Group

Unsurprisingly, given the name of the group, they are involved in distributed data management and develop Grid Middleware. When looking for technical students, they rely on recommendations from people they know or the search for keywords.

They are looking for students with basic IT and programming skills. In applicants who have these skills, they then look for a specific area of interest such as “distributed computing”.

Computing Facilities Group

This group is responsible for running the main Computer Centre at CERN. As such they do a lot of sys admin work, operations, installation and monitoring. They are looking for applicants with software development skills and workflow development skills. They look for students with C/C++, Puppet, Openstack, code version control systems (e.g. GIT) and modern scripting language interests/experience. They also look for students with knowledge of databases. The group leader commented that MSc students are best placed for technical studentships in this area, although it was suggested that MEng students applying for a placement year after their third year of study would have an advantage as well.

They also like to rely on personal connections to get informal feedback on the quality of applicants. A track record of providing reliable references is also beneficial.

Collaboration and Information Services

This group is responsible for the development of collaborative software tools (they developed the underlying software for INSPIRE in conjunction with other labs and they also developed INDICO). Their software is primarily open source. They look for people with experience in Python, databases and web design.

They collaborate with other major labs and some non-physics institutes. They also take a lot of technical students.

Database Services

During this discussion it was explained that section leaders are responsible for selecting technical students, whilst the group leader signs off on the choices made by the section leaders.

It was also explained that in terms of longer-term career prospects at CERN, applicants should have a Masters-level degree to get a staff place at CERN – a BSc/BEng is no longer enough. This could be an issue for students on placement who would like a longer-term career at CERN.

This section looks for students with systems programming and integration knowledge/experience/interests. DBA experience is not essential. They look for students with Python, Perl, Java skills; some experience with MySQL would be advantageous.

This group made the point that the work done by students who join their group is expected to be used “for real”, i.e. it is not just an exercise for the students to keep them occupied. As such, they expect the students to be rigorous in their approach to their work.

When looking at student applications, they really do want to know exactly what the student is interested in. It is not a good idea for students to try and hedge their bets in their application. This might not sound like a good idea, but it won’t necessarily restrict their choices. Writing a generic application is not recommended as the people who read them will not know what their specialist skills and interests are. They are most impressed by people who write from the heart about what they are genuinely interested in.

Beam Instrumentation & Engineering

Industrial Controls & Electronics Group (EN-ICE)

This group tends to buy in commercial hardware and then develop it for their specific needs. They work for the accelerators, the experiments and the CERN infrastructure. They deal with large industrial control systems and lab control systems such as the Cryogenics, the interlock systems, power converter controls and the vacuum controls systems.

When looking for technical students the kinds of keywords they look for are things like “process control”, “safety control”, “monitoring” and “interlocks”. They need software engineers, control engineers and people with experience in data acquisition systems for monitoring things like electricity distribution etc.

They are also interested in networking technologies such as Profibus and Profinet, “white rabbit” and CAN (Control Area Network).

Technology Department – Electrical Power Converters Group

The TE-EPC group is in charge of the design, development, procurement, construction, installation, operation and maintenance of electrical power systems for all accelerators, transfer lines, experimental areas and tests facilities at CERN.

When looking for technical students, they look for C/C++ skills, as well as software management skills and design experience. They made the point that the number of years’ study is less important to them, as long as the student has some useful skills and experience. They mentioned such things as requirements capture and proper software engineering skills as being especially important.

This group commented that Doctoral students are also a possibility in this area (CERN has funding for PhD students, but cannot award them, so they have to be done in conjunction with a Member State University. In practice, the student will be at CERN until the last six months or so of their PhD, when they are sent back to the University to write up.). They are interested in advanced control and automation, as well as data analytics.

For this group, they felt that knowing the tools was less important than having the right skills: Problem solving, that sort of thing. They also like to see people who have relevant practical experience in the lab or in industry.

Beam Instrumentation Group – Mechanics & Logistics Section

This section includes Mechanical Engineers, Physicists and Electronic Engineers and is responsible for monitoring and measuring all aspects of the beams. The Section leader is also one of the main players behind the “Brits at CERN” group.

When looking for technical students, they look for low-level software skills (C++/Java), as well as Linux engineering skills.

In the Mechanics area, they do a lot of finite element analysis and a lot of project work. The instruments they design all interact with the beam somehow and it is therefore essential that they study the effect the instrument will have on the beam. This means they are involved in the design and construction of compensators, collimators, as well as wire scanners (there is currently a project ongoing to understand why wire scanners tend to break so easily and hence to find a new way to build them).

In the area of applied Physics, they look at the physics processes behind the issues that are being faced by the Mechanics group. As such, they do work on optical transmission, radiation monitors, Synchrotron radiation telescopes, APDs. They work for all the accelerators, plus CLIC (they put quite a few students on CLIC).

They also develop analogue electronics (low power, high frequency electronics), including simulating the impact of the beam on the electronics. They study the effects of the RF fields on the instrumentation. They also do pure electronics, including the design, layout and fabrication of FE devices, both analogue and digital.

The section leader is a Mechanical Engineer by training and he commented that the Technical Department also do a lot of Engineering. The EN group also need engineers for the vacuum, the magnet systems (standard and superconducting) and the cryogenics. Here, because they are looking for specific skills that are relatively rare, technical students and Fellows who show good potential are often kept on long term.

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