It's all about advancing the frontiers

In engineering, having a degree is just the start - for the best jobs, you need a postgraduate qualification
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The Independent Online

Engineers today often work at the frontiers of the possible. Whatever they are doing - whether it be developing new technologies, solving problems in new and more cost-effective ways, improving the materials or energy efficiency of processes, and so on - engineers have to be innovators.

Engineers today often work at the frontiers of the possible. Whatever they are doing - whether it be developing new technologies, solving problems in new and more cost-effective ways, improving the materials or energy efficiency of processes, and so on - engineers have to be innovators.

To keep advancing the frontiers, many have to be involved in research. Moreover, engineering is becoming more specialised, and growing numbers of applications are covered only through postgraduate courses.

According to the Engineering Council's 1999 Survey of Professional Engineers and Technicians, more than a quarter (26.9 per cent) of all chartered engineers have postgraduate qualifications, and one in three of these have a doctorate.

A significant number of those taking postgraduate qualifications do so in mid-career, so there are fewer postgraduate engineers aged under 35 than there are between 35-54.

David Wright, the professor of electronics at Exeter University, describes the value of a postgraduate research degree to an engineer. "We look upon it as advanced training and preparation for people interested in a career more oriented to research and development than an undergraduate course. But it's not just that, it also helps people develop analytical and experimental skills which will allow them to do all sorts of other jobs better."

He considers it an advantage if someone has a few years' outside work experience before taking a PhD degree. However, he recognises that it can sometimes be "a problem for people who have taken permanent employment to give that up to live on a student bursary. That's not always very attractive."

But, he continues, "More mature students usually do very well. They are often more dedicated and they have that extra bit of experience which helps them in the project."

He suggests that would-be students choosing a research course should be working in an area which they enjoy - "one that they have a real interest in. "It's quite an arduous task to do a PhD, particularly in the three-year limit. You also need to choose a place with good facilities for carrying out the research in the area in which you want to work. If you are looking at it as a stepping stone in a particular career, make sure that it is the right stepping stone."

Dr Svetan Ratchev is a lecturer at the University of Nottingham and responsible for postgraduate research at the school for mechanical, materials, manufacturing, engineering and management. He says postgraduate research "develops independent research skills in terms of identifying problems and knowledge gaps, and then developing methodologies to solve those problems".

Asked whether postgraduate research is best undertakenimmediately following a first degree or after a few years of working experience, he says that work experience "is helpful, but both options are valid". He explains: "Obviously if you have a bit of industrial experience, that gives a different perspective of life and people can immediately relate the research problems with the practical value."

His advice on choosing a postgraduate research course in engineering is similar to that of Professor Wright. "It depends on personal interest. You have to like it, that's the first requirement. You have to do it with a long-term purpose, not just for the degree. It is the start of a research career, not the end of it."

One problem he identifies is that "the public perception of an engineering doctoral degree is probably not as strong as in other countries in Europe. There is a lot of value in the courses we develop, and sometimes that value is not entirely appreciated by industry. For example, in Germany it is normal for PhD students to go straight into industry and have an enhanced career there. While here we sometimes find that those with PhDs have a restricted choice, often oriented to academic development. Having said that, it is changing. Some of the leading companies nowadays are appointing larger numbers of new recruits with PhDs and a research background."

This point is also made by a professor who prefers to remain anonymous. "Engineering in the UK isn't perhaps as forward-looking as in other European countries, the US and Japan. The PhD is undervalued by engineering employers in this country. If you want to work in Silicon Valley, for example, you need a PhD. Whereas here, many companies don't give higher salaries for PhDs."

On the other hand, the Engineering Council's survey shows those with a postgraduate degree are more likely than those with a first degree to be working as company chairmen, chief executives, managing directors, other directors or as consultants. And last year the median starting salary for newly qualified graduates with a PhD or DPhil was £2,000 higher than the median for all graduates - the highest premium of all.

Postgraduate engineering programmes not only teach the latest technologies but are now utilising them to deliver their courses - making them more accessible. For example, Dr Hazim Awbi is a senior lecturer in the building services engineering department at Reading University and chairman of Roomvent 2000, an international biennial conference hosted by the university.

"We have quite a number of postgraduate degrees in the department which are quite different from other MSc degrees. A new initiative, funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, encourages people from industry to study for higher degrees on a part-time basis. We are developing some internet-type modules for distance learners."