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DERA IS the single largest employer of scientists in the UK. Formed by the merger of a number of Ministry of Defence research establishments, it is now a government agency - providing scientific and engineering research and development for military and, increasingly, civil use.

Although the organisation's roots lie in military defence, DERA's activities are increasingly becoming focused on adapting and developing military technologies for commercial clients as MOD budgets are cut back. As a result of this and its size, DERA employs a staff of 12,000, and its annual turnover currently exceeds pounds 1bn. The good news for graduates is that the organisation needs to take on more than 500 of them each year.

"Think the unthinkable" is the organisation's graduate recruitment theme. "We are looking for people who can prove they look beyond the surface, people with inquisitive and innovative minds," graduate recruitment co- ordinator Caryn Baker explains. In return, DERA offers unrivalled opportunities to work across a broad range of technical business areas, from aviation, chemical and biological defence through electronics and human sciences to signals, processing and space technology.

One of DERA's many roles is providing specialist test and evaluation equipment for the UK forces. The organisation played a vital role in developing the UK's first jet engines. More recently, it has become involved with research and development projects for commercial clients such as BMW and Rolls-Royce. DERA has one of the world's few facilities able to test engine performance at speeds of up to Mach 2.2 in the subzero conditions encountered at high altitude.

Carbon fibre, liquid crystal display, flat-screen television, portable thermal imaging, ocean mapping, modelling technology and satellite propulsion systems are some of the advanced technology fields in which DERA scientists work. Formula One designers are some of those who have used DERA's wind- tunnel facilities.

DERA's aviation scientists developed a concept for ultra-thin loudspeakers able to be concealed as paintings on a wall, or within TV or PC screens. Meanwhile DERAMan, one of the world's most intelligent crash-test dummies, was developed by DERA to measure damage to the brain from impacts to the head, enabling physical responses from impacts to be quantified simultaneously.

At the core of DERA's activities, however, are its defence-related research and development projects. DERA scientists have been closely involved in research into air, sea and land systems as well as electronics and structural materials. Then there's the weapons testing and work on developing the Eurofighter 2000.

DERA does not operate a centrally structured graduate programme. Instead, it invites applications from science and engineering graduates to its graduate recruitment department which then distributes details of the strongest candidates to each of DERA's 13 technical departments which, in turn, approach, select and recruit candidates direct.

"Graduates apply to work with DERA in a particular technical area," Ms Baker explains. "Although they can state preferences such as where they would like to be based." DERA has 17 major sites throughout the UK and a further 33 or so smaller ones, including test facilities.

The bulk of those taken on through this process are science and engineering graduates with first degrees. Others include maths-related graduates, M.Sc. and Ph.D-holders. A smaller number of more senior personnel and management roles are open to arts and humanities graduates, depending on the level of work experience. Recruitment occurs throughout the year and vacancies are increasing as DERA's business grows. Ms Baker says: "We do not operate assessment centres and while those appointed do participate in an induction course, successful candidates start work on live projects very soon after joining the organisation."

Even so, competition is fierce - with applicants outnumbering vacancies by 10 to one. DERA competes for the best graduates against commercial sector employers such as British Aerospace, Ford and Nissan - particularly for IT and software engineering expertise. However, the bulk of those taken on by the organisation each year are physics graduates and computer scientists.

Successful graduates join DERA in the role of research scientist or research engineer, working in project teams from day one. Initial progress as well as longer-term career development is managed on a one-to-one basis by a mentor known as a resource manager. All are encouraged to present research papers at relevant technical symposia.

"Recruits must take responsibility for their own career development and training, although they are supported by a structure which nurtures talents and encourages training," Ms Baker adds. DERA helps graduates to gain chartered status within the organisation - the DERA chartered engineer scheme is accredited by the Royal Aeronautical Society, among others - and membership of a professional body, as well as sponsoring participation in Ph.D or MBA programmes.

Starting salaries are up to pounds 18,500 p.a., depending on qualifications and experience. Potential salaries a few years into the job are difficult to gauge, however, as promotion is not automatic within this structure. Staff must compete for job vacancies, which are advertised first internally.

Those wanting to move eventually into a managerial position are now able to combine administrative and technical roles within the organisation. "This is a significant appeal to many people who in the past opted not to move up the ranks because they wanted to remain 'hands on'," she says. The progression from entry level is towards the role of project manager.

DERA's immediate plans include developing a number of science parks to encourage the transfer of technological expertise from the military to local industry and universities.

"We aim to be at the cutting edge of research and development and can offer unparalleled opportunities to graduates wanting to work in an innovative environment," Ms Baxter says, claiming that the only comparable experience would be pursuing a career in academia. "More and more, now, DERA's work is not just concerned with inventions but inventing and innovating within the time and cost constraints of the consumer."