Making a big move - career leaps

Materials World magazine
29 Apr 2014

Considering taking a leap of faith in your career? Rachel Lawler speaks to two professionals who have recently taken big steps, to find out how easy it was for them.

Whether you are considering changing industry or specialism or perhaps just moving from a small firm to a larger company, the thought of taking a big step in your career can be intimidating. Fear of the unknown prevents many professionals from moving on and can stifle careers.

But taking a huge step can be hugely beneficial. Professionals with a wide variety of experience are always in demand and the ability to adjust to a new environment will stand you in good stead no matter what lies ahead.

Nigel Evans, Technical Project Manager at AMEC, UK, was previously employed at a small firm. ‘I started out in a technical ceramics company near Wrexham, UK, now part of the Morgan Group working on piezoelectrics such as lead titanate and capacitors,’ he says. After a brief move into academia to complete a PhD in the dielectric properties of materials at microwave frequencies, Evans returned to industry as a project engineer – making microwave and radio frequency drying and heating equipment. Since then Evans has joined AMEC, a multinational engineering and project management company.

Work at AMEC is very different from Evans’ previous experience in small companies. He says, ‘Every day is different. I arrive at work, thinking I know what I will be doing that day, and there will be a new inquiry or issue to resolve or some new project management that needs to be done.’

Taking such a big step in his career also required a relocation, bringing extra challenges to the transition, however Evans soon developed ways to deal with the big change. ‘I found that I could focus on my work better, as AMEC is large enough to have different people for specific roles whereas in smaller firms I found myself spread over a number of simultaneous projects. The biggest benefit was simply being able to do one thing at a time and do it well.’ His advice to those going through a similar transition is clear: ask questions. ‘Don’t just ask someone how to do something, find out who would be the best person to ask. You may be pointed towards a better advisor,’ he suggests. Now settled in his role, Evans is far from done with his professional development. ‘I don’t like the idea of stagnating,’ he says. ‘The world of science and engineering is always changing and keeping abreast of developments is essential. I do CPD for the Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, as health and safety is another fast-moving profession.’ Working at a larger firm, Evans also finds that the environment helps keep him up to date. He explains, ‘I’m in an open plan office with, altogether, probably hundreds of years of experience. It’s hard not to learn something new every day.’

Fellow Institute member and Materials World reader Jessica Middlemiss found herself making a similarly significant move, but in a slightly different direction. After studying for a MEng in Materials Science and Engineering at Imperial College, London, Middlemiss joined Rolls-Royce’s graduate scheme, eventually taking a permanent role in repair technology at the firm. She explains, ‘I was tasked with developing repair processes for components made from titanium, nickel, composites and intermetallic materials. My role was technical, but had a high project management focus. A lot of my time was spent on preparing presentations for stakeholders or budget requests and statements of work.’

By 2011, she felt it was time for a career change. ‘I considered whether I wanted to find a more technical position or move into more project management,’ Middlemiss says. After being offered two separate roles, Middlemiss eventually accepted the role of Senior Materials Engineer working for Dyson Ltd. She explains, ‘I lead Dyson’s UK materials team, getting involved with materials selection throughout all aspects of design and development from first concept through to manufacture. Mostly this involves working with designers, but I also get to do hands-on testing, product improvement and materials research.’

This proved to be a huge change and steep learning curve. For a while Middlemiss was the only materials engineer at Dyson in the UK. She says, ‘For almost three months, I kept a very low profile. Aerospace works in 5–10 year cycles but Dyson aims to get a product from concept to production in less than two years, so the speed took a bit of getting used to. I also had to learn about the material properties of thermoplastics and, of course, Dyson products.’

But these initial problems proved easy enough to overcome – with a little help. She says, ‘I attended a training course to refresh my knowledge of polymers and forged a relationship with fellow Dyson materials engineers working at our manufacturing sites in south east Asia via telephone and video-link.’

Now firmly settled in, Middlemiss is very happy in her current role, with a huge variety of tasks. She explains, ‘Some days it can be a bit like a doctor’s surgery with a steady queue of engineers at my desk, each with different questions about the products and components they are working on.’ Taking a risk and making such a big change was certainly worth it. She says, ‘I had to improve the profile of materials as a key element in the design process and have brought in new processes to ensure we make appropriate materials choices. I now have two engineers reporting to me. I can identify several large pieces of work that have already made a big difference to Dyson and the way business considers and evaluates materials. My career has moved faster with the opportunity to build my own team and shape Dyson’s use of materials. Provided I continue to do a good job, that should open doors in the future.’

Like Evans, Middlemiss is far from finished with her career development. ‘Continuing professional development is very important to me. It gives me confidence in my ability and progression as an engineer. I try to attend relevant training courses and conferences when I can. Once I have gained chartership status, I intend to repay the great debt I owe my own mentors by enrolling on a similar programme – this time as a mentor myself.’

She advises peers looking to make a big career change to find a mentor to help them through the process. She says, ‘Try to find someone impartial to talk through the pros and cons of a potential move. I found it really helpful to develop a short to medium term career plan and used that with the help of my mentor to assess whether the new role offered the right level of growth to help me move up that career ladder.’

Evans’ advice to readers who haven’t made up their minds is simply, ‘Go for it’.

So while these big careers changes undoubtedly seemed daunting at the outset, for both Evans and Middlemiss, the rewards have certainly been worth the risk.