Case study

Associate research engineer — Declan Wilcock

Declan studied for a degree in Aeronautical Engineering at the University of Bristol. He now works for the National Composites Centre (NCC) as an associate research engineer

How did you get your job?

I've always tried to pick up as much experience as possible outside of education - whether it's through work experience, my own personal projects or volunteering. I think this extra experience helped me get a place on the Lockheed Martin graduate scheme after I finished university. The scheme took two years and allowed for rotation around different disciplines, one of which was structural analysis. After the scheme finished I decided I wanted to specialise in structural analysis so I applied for a job with the NCC, which is an industrial research facility specialising in all things composites.

Although I had some analysis experience I still had (and have) a lot to learn - especially about composite analysis. The NCC is committed to helping me develop and so it was important to show that I had the right attitude towards learning.

What's a typical day like?

As a structural analyst, most of my work is office based. I make computer models of structures to predict how they will behave. In a research environment the applications of the things you are working on are often experimental or unique and so a non-standard or 'creative' approach is needed.

I'll often leave analysis jobs running overnight on my computer so the first thing I'll do in the morning is check the results. If there's something I'm not expecting then I have to investigate and determine what's going on. Once I have usable results I need to translate them into a readable and understandable report for the customer.

I work on a few projects at once so I might have some progress meetings (both internal and customer) to attend. There will be other people from different departments working on the same project and we need to interface with each other - this might include checking on some physical testing happening in the lab or getting technical advice about a particular manufacturing process.

In the afternoon I'll prepare any models that I'm going to leave running overnight. This includes working with a lot of specialist finite element analysis (FEA) software. If the FEA software doesn't already do what I need it to then I might have to code my own analysis routines. Depending on how exotic the thing is I am trying to model, I might have to review some academic papers or technical reference books to understand the theoretical basis of what is going on and make sure I'm heading in the right direction. Then it's time to submit my jobs and leave the computer to do the leg work.

What do you enjoy about your job?

I enjoy working on exciting, innovative projects that are on the cutting edge of technology. Research projects are generally shorter in nature and so there's always something new and interesting to work on. It's nice to be challenged and to have to think creatively about how to solve problems rather than just following a script.

What are the challenges?

Working on novel projects with short timescales means there is pressure to come up with solutions without the wealth of historical backup available for more standard tasks. It's important to be adaptable, open-minded and willing to ask for help from those with more experience than you.

In what way is your degree relevant?

Although I work in a specialist field, a lot of the modules of my generalist degree have been relevant. It helps to know the general context of the products, items and theories that I'm working with. For example, when analysing a gas turbine blade, it helps to know where and how it will be used in order to define realistic structural load cases. This could include knowledge of propulsion, system integration, aerodynamics, fluid dynamics, thermodynamics, engineering maths and manufacturing processes.

The non-technical aspects of my degree also really prepared me for the world of work. Things like working in multi-disciplinary teams, working under time pressure, being adaptable and technical report writing.

What are your career ambitions?

As my career progresses, I'm starting to specialise more in structural analysis (and especially of composites). The more experience I have, the more responsibilities I'm given.

I hope to become chartered and then to be a technical authority for lightweight aerospace structures. In general I just want to keep being challenged and to keep working on new and interesting projects.

How do I get into this line of work?

For any job I think you need to show you are generally committed to the field. Take as many opportunities to gain experience outside of education. This will make you stand out in an interview and will give you something to talk to the interviewer about.

It's ok if you aren't sure exactly what you want to do and there will be lots of opportunities for you to try different things. However, think carefully about the type of company that you want to work for.

When looking for jobs, get as much information as you can so you can make an informed decision. People are generally happy to help enthusiastic young people when they can, so attend job fairs, ask question and have questions ready for your interviewers when you get to the interview stage.

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