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My job explained: Naval architect

naval architectTristan Smith is the person to go to if you want to learn everything you need to know about making a warship in a year. Read on to find out more.

What stage have you got to in your career?

I work for the Ministry of Defence (MoD) where I carry out research on the design, modification, maintenance and operation of ships for the military. At the moment, I also work for University College London (UCL), where I teach a year-long, post-graduate course to engineers wanting to design vessels for combat.

When did you decide to become an engineer?

Pretty early on. I spent most of my childhood taking things apart and then trying to put them back together (and often failing!). The conscious decision probably came when I was about 15.

How long has it taken you to train?

I joined the Ministry of Defence in 1998 and was officially taken out of the training scheme in 2005. So it’s taken seven years to get where I am now. My first degree was four years long and during this time I was sponsored by the MoD, so they supported me financially, employed me over the holidays and placed me in industry to get more work experience. This kind of sponsorship is quite common in engineering, so it’s worth looking out for, if you’re interested in university but don’t have much money.

After finishing my degree, I joined the graduate scheme for the MoD and did the MSc (post graduate qualification), which I now teach. I then worked back at the ministry doing a normal desk job and I’m now working at UCL.

Can you describe a typical working day?

As I have recently had two jobs, I’ll describe them both.

My work as Visiting Research Assistant at UCL involves supporting the professor and helping the students with the design process. I’m also working on my own piece of research for my PhD, where I’ve chosen to look at the impact of wave loads on damaged structures (ship’s with a hole in the side).

At the MoD, my job was more practical. I gave advice on ship structures – frigates, destroyers, aircraft carriers and smaller vessels. If one of the teams in charge of the vessel has a problem and needs technical advice, they contact our department for an answer.

For example, someone might need to launch a UAV (which is an unmanned air vehicle, like a mini-radio controlled plane) from the flight deck and recover it again somewhere else on the ship and we’d give them advice on designing a structure to support that. The work was mostly done at a desk but I sometimes had to visit docks across the UK and we also had meetings looking at new research to solve these problems.

What do you like best about your job?

I like the way it makes me think. I love the problem solving aspect of it, that’s really why I do it. The vessels you work on are pretty awe-inspiring too, giving you the chance to tackle some of the most difficult engineering problems in the world.

Any downsides?

Well, every job has its admin side, which distracts you from the fun stuff. But that said, there is probably less at the MoD than lots of other jobs.

Have you had to face any challenges getting to where you are now?

My pathway has been eased by working for an organisation that has such good training. One of the great things about engineering is that there is lots of great support out there if you decide that’s what you really want to do.

What qualities or skills do you think are important for your role?

One of the biggest problems for engineers is communication skills. You need to convince people who don’t understand what you’re talking about that there is a need for what you’re doing, You need to explain complicated ideas in words everyone can understand. And you need to understand the needs of other people too. You can’t just invent something nobody wants. Communication is right up there with the technical skills you need.

What advice would you give someone following in footsteps?

The best thing you can do is try and understand how to solve problems. Whether it is a hole in a warship or a bike chain that keeps falling off, the way you work through a problem is the key to engineering. So start practicing. Take things apart and try and put them together again at every opportunity!

What difference can engineers make to society?

Well, we have to do something to stop our reliance on fossil fuels, so we need lots of talented engineers with great ideas to help us save the planet. There’s no time in history when that’s been more important.

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