Like most other people you come across on engineering courses, I had always enjoyed the more objective subjects of maths and science in school. By the end of sixth form, I was finding topics I could relate to real life applications much easier; this led me to think a more applied course would be a better fit than a mostly theoretical one. On top of this, I always enjoy being hands on and understand things much better this way.
Putting these together you would assume my choice to go with an engineering subject would be straightforward but choosing which discipline to study proved to be rather confusing due to the number of different options. Always one to pick the difficult route, I then decided to complicate things further by looking through the entire A-Z course list on the UCAS website. Fortunately – if somewhat surprisingly – this did actually help under ‘M’, Metallurgy piqued my interest, as I had recently discovered a family member had been a specialist in this area for several decades. Soon after this, I had read into the wider field of materials and then came to an open day at the Department of Materials here at Loughborough. Here, the feel of the campus and discussions with academics made my decision much easier.
From the start of the year, the department placement administrator sends out regular email updates including potential opportunities and information on events going on around campus. Many of these events are run by the university Careers Network, who also send out their own updates. When it comes to the application process, the careers network offers a variety of resources to help with looking for roles, putting together a CV, constructing application forms and anything else you may be able to think of. Something I found particularly useful were the bookable 1:1 meeting slots which I mostly used to refine my cover letters.
Further down the line, the Careers Network can also help with practicing online tests, assessment centres and interviews. External companies are brought in to help run some of these practice assessment centres, and the university’s advisors will also provide practice interviews for a specific company if provided the appropriate information (one of my course mates had an interview which was conducted as if for a specific role at JCB).
Ultimately it is each student’s responsibility to find and apply for their placements, however, as can hopefully be gleaned from the above, an abundance of help and advice is given for every stage of the process.
My placement was for 13 months in the Metals side of the Materials and Processing Analysis (TWA) department at BMW Hams Hall – on the outskirts of Birmingham. This role involved laboratory analysis of parts which had caused issues somewhere in the engine plant.
Being mostly on an ad-hoc basis, people from around the plant would bring in parts or issues requiring the team’s specialist knowledge and equipment to investigate. For example, this could involve 'simply' carrying out hardness tests on a part to see if increasing tool wear could have been caused by a certain batch having a higher hardness. In many cases, the job would be brought by a quality engineer who simply needs results to test a theory they have come up with. However other jobs required a much more detailed investigation due to the magnitude or complexity of the problem. Some of these more complex jobs involved complete failure analysis of a broken part or the examination of problems occurring in more specialist processes such as the heat treatment stations.
In the lab I was able to put into practice knowledge from lectures in my first few years – mainly theory around alloys, heat treatment and mechanical properties. The role combined this knowledge with practical and technical skills, with jobs requiring initial visual and contextual examinations, specimen selection and sectioning, sample preparation, results analysis and concise reporting.
The tasks I carried out gave me freedom to test what I already knew, but also required me to learn as I went – all while working to a deadline. I realise this may sound quite high-pressured but it is important to remember it benefits no one to throw work at someone without knowing if they can complete it to the appropriate standard. I.e. I was expected to put in the work and deliver results, but help was always given when needed as the standard of my work reflected on the team as a whole.
Soon after starting my placement it became apparent the most significant difference between university and industry is the style of communication. At Hams Hall, the colleagues from other departments bringing in the jobs had various levels of knowledge in the area of materials; so everything must be communicated in a shorter and less elaborate manner than is expected at university. All communications also had to be tailored to the specific audience as the recipient’s job role governs the level of detail they would require. This is not at all to say that people in certain roles won’t be able to understand something, rather a case of (for example) the machine operator might need a short conversation to get the message across so they can quickly make adjustments, whereas a quality specialist may require a more formal report to enable them to fulfil their processes and write up conclusions. Working in the lab team gave me plenty of time to start developing my effectiveness in these different styles of communication.
One of the best things about my placement was because of the case-by-case nature of the work, the role differed each day. Most days would involve the planning out of tasks for the current jobs (or 'requests' as they were known) in progress and the brief discussion of this with colleagues to offer or ask for help if needed. From there I would then try and work through the process as methodically as possible: starting with initial problem examination; moving through to mechanical testing and microstructural analysis before ending with the report write up. I would also usually do some work each day on the process improvement project I had been given, although the amount of time spent on this would vary depending on the general TWA workload.
What was vital in this role was the need to be able to quickly begin investigations when the highest priority requests came in. These jobs would mostly correspond to serious production line stoppages and would often be brought in with no warning, but with high expectation and pressure. A significant part of this skill was always following a certain structure in the investigations, making it easier to stop and start requests quickly – or hand the work over to another team member. This was important as a higher priority job coming in would rarely be an acceptable reason to push back deadlines for the work already in progress.
After graduating, many engineering students go into roles that have no requirement for the specialist area of knowledge from their studied discipline. The main draw of doing a placement for me was having the opportunity to try a specialist role to help judge what kind of job I would like to eventually end up in. To this end, it was very successful as I now know I would prefer to retain an element of materials engineering.
Also, even without the DIS qualification (Diploma in Industrial Studies) itself, having a year of experience in an engineering workplace helps enormously in job application processes. Of course, the additional employment on a CV will help in getting to an interview in the first place, but once there the industry relevant experience will also help with answering questions and having examples to back them up.
I have had many proud moments at Loughborough, but I feel my greatest achievement is not a grade or one specific occasion. Instead, I believe my best has been in every time I have successfully worked through problems with course mates and come out feeling more confident on the other side. In my first two years, my familiarity with much of the maths content of our modules enabled me to assist several others who had a less maths-heavy background. Likewise, when I have struggled with more 'intense' theoretical aspects of modules course mates have stepped in to help. It is this pulling together and knowing how and when to use each other’s strengths that I consider my (/our) greatest achievement.