In our latest researcher career case study, Chris Lusty shares his experience of working as a research and design engineer
What do you do day-to-day in your current role?
My main role is design and development of custom mechanisms for novel robots. A lot of my time is spent in CAD. For a new unit or mechanism I start with developing the first-principles kinematics, which sets out the key parameters such as the motion paths and ranges of any degrees of freedom for the mechanism, together with key geometry and positioning of dynamic elements including springs and actuators. I then work through the detailed layout and design of components and assemblies ready for manufacture, and detailing of pneumatic and electrical actuation methods. The designs typically then go through a cycle of manufacture, testing and improvement until the unit performs as required.
In addition to this, I also work on exploring the patentability of the designs and solutions generated in our team, and collaborate with pattens lawyers to pursue applications where appropriate.
Give a brief overview of your career history to date, and any steps you feel were important to you
Following my MEng degree, I undertook a PhD in the area of Machine Systems, specifically focusing on the use of magnetic bearings for vibration control in high-speed rotating machinery. After graduating, I stayed on in the same department on a postdoc research project, this time focused on the design and application of flexural hinges for precise motion control.
When my postdoc project finished, I decided to explore beyond the academic world, and took a job in the Research and Technology department of a large aerospace manufacturer. I spent a little over 18 months there, working on the development of an automated manufacturing system for next generation civil airliner components.
I then moved to my current role, where I work as a research and design engineer for a small, hi-tech robotics company.
How do you use the skills from research in your current role? What skills do you think are most needed in your current role, and do you have any thoughts on how researchers can be developing these?
In my experience, assuming you have a reasonable proficiency in the fundamentals of your field, employers have limited interest in specific skills. Much greater value is placed the less tangible combination of your characteristics, experience and approach to your work.
Consider the following questions: can you hold an intelligent conversation on a topic you have little direct experience of? Are you comfortable taking on projects you have no idea how to achieve, and figuring it out along the way? Are you persistent when you hit the inevitable difficulties and failures in the projects you undertake? Are you effective at independently seeking out and making use of resources that will help you - be that people, equipment, software or information?
The point is that the right people - the ones who can answer yes to this type of question - will adapt, learn and pick up any specific skills they need along the way.
The valuable characteristics here are your ability to willingly tackle an unfamiliar, unstructured challenge, and to use your initiative, perseverance, and anything else you can find to get the job done and make it work.
The only way I know of to develop these "skills" is through experience. You have to get your hands dirty, take on a challenge or project, and hack away at it until you eventually have a working solution. It’s very helpful to do this in the company of people who are better at these things than you - not so much for their direct help (which would contradict the point of the exercise), but more for the gentle nudges and pointers that keep you on the track.
Of course, your research project(s) most likely make a good example of such a challenge, but don’t be limited to that. You’d probably pick up much the same "skill set" by trying to break out of prison, or survive being shipwrecked on a deserted island. The point is that you shouldn’t sit around worrying about what skills you need to be "working on". Instead you need to find problems, challenges, and things you know little about, then jump in and get comfortable being out of your depth. The skills will look after themselves, building as you go.
What advice would you have for researchers interested in similar roles, including how and where to look for vacancies
I’m not sure that this is quite the right question - at least it never was for me. Having reached the stage of your career where you are in academic research and looking for your next step, the mechanics of how and where to search for jobs will not challenge you.
For me, the salient question was how to find opportunities interesting enough to actually be worth applying for. In this light, it’s less about searching for jobs, and more about searching for inspiration. Instead of trawling through beige, boilerplate job adverts served up by vaguely dystopian algorithms, trawl through everything else instead. Search for companies, projects, research groups, products, events, news and rumours that catch your interest, then click the links, follow the breadcrumbs and figure out who it is working on these things, and then where the opportunities exist. Your search can include all the well-known job-search avenues - digital and analogue - but just make sure to keep the focus on the interesting stuff: what’s being done, built, attempted, achieved? How and by whom?
Structuring your approach in this way yields several advantages: in the first place, your search becomes genuinely interesting, and thus you are much happier to spend time doing it. It also gives you a much wider net - you are no longer searching just for a job advert that seems "OK", but searching for somewhere you actually genuinely want to work - and that means that literally everything, everywhere is in your search path. You will quickly find there are a number of places that pique your interest, and leave you keen to put in an application, even thought they might not be advertising right now. You also have a much better chance of actually finding your future work interesting and fulfilling if you discovered it through a direct search for the interesting and fulfilling, rather than simply for "a job".