Postgrad Lives: "The challenge of passing each year is very rewarding"

Interview by Steve McCormack

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The Independent Online

Matthew Penny is studying part-time for an MSc in engineering in the coastal environment at Southampton University. He earned a degree in ocean science at Plymouth University in 2001.

Why coastal engineering?

After my first degree, I got a job in facilities management at a college, doing small-scale jobs such as refurbishing classrooms, but I’d always wanted to work in the environment sector, so in 2005, I got a job with the Environment Agency at Blandford in Dorset, initially part of a flood-management team, but then I moved to a more engineering-based role doing inspections on flood and coastal defences. Since the Environment Agency was then setting up new coastal teams, I pitched it to them that they might put me through this Masters course, which they agreed.

What does the course involve?

It’s a mix of engineering principles applied to the coastal environment and the geomorphology side, such as sedimentation. And it also deals with long-term strategic questions for the coast, which ties in with what we do at the Environment Agency. The course straddles the civil engineering school and the school of oceanography and earth sciences at the university, and is split into about nine self-contained modules, each consisting of lectures, coursework and exams. There’s also a field trip connected with each module. For me, without an academic engineering background, I would say the engineering part of the course has been the hardest, but the university help you get up to speed by making you do civil engineering modules that those with an engineering background don’t. My A-levels helped me cope with the maths content, which is quite high.

How’s your week organised?

Initially, I tried to do the course over two years, but I soon realised that the amount of coursework made it unmanageable for me, so I moved to three years. The Environment Agency give me a day’s study a week, which I have generally used to attend lectures. The other four days I work full-time, so all other academic work has to be done in my own time.

Who else is on the course?

There are between 12 and 15 people who join every year, and the vast majority of them are doing it full-time, about two thirds carrying on from a first degree and refining an area of expertise, and the rest coming back to study having worked in the industry.

Have you enjoyed it?

It’s been very enjoyable, even though in busy periods with coursework due in, and exams, it can be stressful. The hardest part is actually fitting it all in around work and the rest of my life. But the challenge of passing each semester and each year is very rewarding.

Now, I’m coming to the end, I’m looking forward to it all being over.

But I’m just starting the big push to get my dissertation done over the summer. It’s on something called the sediment budget for a stretch of coast in West Dorset, which involves trying to balance the sediment carried by the longshore currents with the sediment stored on the beach and coming down from cliffs. The Environment Agency need to know this because they manage these beaches.

Where do you hope the course will take you?

In the long term, I want to get a job with one of the Environment Agency’s coastal teams. There might be a project I can work on that’s linked to my dissertation.