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Engineering Postgraduate Research – the ins and outs

This week’s guest post is from Maria, who organises Bristol Girl Geek Dinners. She tells us about life as an engineering researcher, studying for the EngD and why she loves living in the south-west.

I am a postgraduate researcher with the University of Bristol and Rolls-Royce plc. The topic of my research is Non Destructive Evaluation which is the evaluation of something without destroying it, or indeed harming or altering it in any way. An example from the medical world is ultrasonic scanning in prenatal care. The aim of my research project is two-fold: to understand how ultrasonic energy interacts with complex-shaped cracks in metal and to design an inspection technique to test for such cracks.

What is an EngD?

I am on an EngD (Engineering Doctorate) scheme, which many people are unfamiliar with – including many in the engineering world. An EngD has the same academic standing as a PhD but with a very strong industrial focus.

Like a PhD, it requires a novel contribution to knowledge and you must write a thesis and pass a viva voce exam.

Unlike a PhD, you are linked very closely to a company and, in many cases, are actually based on the company’s premises for the majority of your studies. You must also attend about twenty weeks of taught courses – some related to your research area and others to professional development.

My daily routine

I can divide the work I do on a day-to-day basis into three groups:

  1. Performing experiments in a laboratory; after the practical ‘hardware’ work I use computers to analyse my results.
  2. Programming and running simulations to avoid having to perform endless experiments!
  3. Preparing reports and presentations, e-mailing, reading journal papers etc.

No two days are the same which makes getting bored very difficult! However, it is a big challenge to use my time well. I often work on many strands of my project simultaneously and it is important to not let the more interesting areas take up most of my time! Because the work is novel and the tasks not tried and tested ones, it is often hard to determine how long certain things will take, before actually doing them.

The perks of being an engineer

  • Engineering research has many perks. Creating a novel solution to a problem is very rewarding, even if on a day-to-day basis it is sometimes hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel.
  • After an undergraduate degree consisting mostly of lectures and exams, and before entering the workplace where I will probably have quite a rigid job description, it is great to be able to spend four years being my own master. Of course, there are deliverables and targets to achieve, but how I tackle them and how I spend my working hours is very much up to me.
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EngD student Maria spoke at an NDT conference in South Africa.
  • An additional perk of doing an EngD in particular is that I am simultaneously gaining experience in working in academia and in industry and I have access to supervision and resources at both the university and the company.
  • I get to solve a real problem of industrial significance by performing rigorous scientific work.
  • Finally, travel! In just over two years I have been to conferences and meetings in France (three times), Germany, China and South Africa. They were all fantastic opportunities from a research and a cultural point of view.   This is probably a few more trips than average but I would say that most engineering research postgraduates have to the opportunity to travel a few times, including trips out of Europe.

Studying engineering in the south-west

The south-west of England is a fantastic place to be as a young engineering researcher. There are many excellent universities in the area and there is easy access to the London ones too.

There are a lot of collaborative initiatives such as the Bristol Robotics Laboratory and the National Composites Centre. Many world class engineering companies have facilities in the area and these fund research and offer job opportunities to graduates.

And, of course, there is a strong engineering heritage with icons like the Clifton Suspension Bridge, Concorde and the SS Great Britain.

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