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My job explained: Mechanical integrity and materials engineer

mechanical engineering materials integrityGina Coventry works for Rolls Royce, testing and examining the materials used to build jet engines. She talks about her degree, day-to-day work, and life as a female engineer.

What does your job involve?

Materials and stress engineering are all about understanding the behaviour of the materials used in machinery (in my case - jet engines), and predicting how components will deform or break during use. This type of engineering is key to the safety and cost of running many types of machine.

My job includes three main strands: understanding the behaviour of materials, creating methods for other people to use to analyse components made from those materials, and training those people in how to use the methods.

Can you describe a typical day?

I work in an open-plan office of around 60 people. Our office is divided into bays of four, and we are quite lively and conversational in the team. In my team we are four men and three women, unusually equal numbers for an engineering team.

My day involves a lot of work on the computer, investigating the results of tests on small specimens of material, trying to understand the trends in behaviour and the possible reasons for it. I also write spreadsheets and other computer programs to simulate this behaviour.

This work is regularly interspersed with meetings, of which some are one-on-one with my supervisor or colleagues to go through my work or ask questions as they arise. Other meetings are with groups of people to talk about particular issues or projects I might be involved with. I’m generally working on several projects for different people at any one time.

What made you decide to do engineering?

I found it difficult to decide what I wanted to do at university, although I always knew I wanted to go. I got good grades across the board, and no subjects in particular stood out for me. I enjoyed modern languages, especially French, and I also knew that I preferred the sciences to the arts, even though I found them harder to understand, because I didn’t like writing essays and the amount of reading required. I preferred the style of exams and learning in science. I also realised that, although I liked English and languages, I could come back to them in the future, but if I left science and maths I would never pick them up again.

I chose engineering as the broadest science I could do to keep my options open and avoid having to specialise too much. I therefore picked a university course in engineering science, which covered things like mechanical, electrical and structural engineering before specialising later.

What qualifications did you get?

I did A-levels in maths, physics, French and an AS in English Language, then went on to do a masters degree in engineering science. Most places which offer engineering courses now will offer a masters degree, which is a four-year course. It used to be the case that you had to do a three-year degree then a masters on top, but on my course everyone automatically did the four-year course.

Lots of employers now ask you to have the full masters degree. My current employers, Rolls Royce, ask that anyone joining their graduate trainee scheme has a masters rather than just a three-year degree.

What is the training like?

I joined Rolls Royce as a graduate trainee straight from university and worked for two years on the training scheme before starting in my first permanent role. The training scheme I did splits your time into three-month placements in a range of areas within the company. This gives you a good overview of the company as a whole before you choose where you want to start for your first ‘proper’ role. It also means you are doing real work from the start.

The advantage of joining as a graduate trainee in a big company like Rolls Royce is that they take on lots of trainees together. This means that even though you may have to move towns there are a lot of other people in the same boat, so you have a ready-made set of friends.

What personal qualities are important for your role?

Time management, and the ability to plan and prioritise are crucial skills. One of the projects I was working on required a lot of management skills. I was working with components inside aeroplane engines, trying to make them lighter. This is really important, as the lighter the engine the cheaper the plane is, as it uses less fuel to keep it in the air. Unfortunately by making things lighter you also reduce their strength.

My project was to set up a test programme to work out how these components might fail. I was designing the tests, liaising with the department doing the tests, getting the results back and analysing the data – it all took a lot of organisation. I had to make sure that each job was done at the right time, and it involved a lot of project management. Patience and perseverance are useful too - for when the numbers just don’t work out the way you want!

At the end of the job I had to present the results and train people in what I had learned, which meant I had to have good people skills. The ability to present and discuss your thoughts and results clearly is key to the job.

Have there been any challenges in getting to where you are?

Nothing specific. Choosing an engineering degree is not an easy option, but the challenge is rewarding and well worth it.

Some people think it must be hard to be a female engineer, but actually if you are confident there aren’t that many challenges. The company which sponsored me through uni was very male-dominated. In a 105-year-old company, I was the first female engineer they had ever had! Working on the shop floor was interesting. Men on the floor would swear then point me out and apologise for swearing in front of a woman. Sometimes it could be annoying, as I’d rather they didn’t treat me any differently, but they were just trying to be polite.

In an office-based environment it is much less obvious, and as a woman you don’t stick out like a sore thumb as much. Even when the differences are noticed, it’s not usually a big issue, it’s just that some people find it hard to get their heads around. You just have to be confident and take all of the opportunities available, and you can’t go wrong!

What advice would you give to someone who wants to follow in your footsteps?

Just do it. There is nothing to stop you if it’s what you want to do.