Academia or industry?

Materials World magazine
1 Jul 2014

Rachel Lawler speaks to two professionals who chose very different career paths.

It’s a choice that many engineers and scientists have agonised over. When entering the work force, graduates must decide whether to focus on education and forge a career in academia, or to move into the commercial world and take a job in industry, or perhaps even branch out into their own business.

RUTH AMOS Managing Director at StairSteady Ltd
After winning Britain’s Young Engineer Award in 2006, Ruth Amos could have taken her pick of university courses in engineering. But instead she took an unconventional route, deciding to start her own business. As part of her GCSE resistant materials course she had designed the StairSteady – a simple, innovative design for aiding the elderly and disabled up and down stairs. The device effectively functions as a moving handrail, making a flight of stairs much easier for those unsteady on their feet.

Developing the product had given Amos a taste of business and she wasn’t ready to sell her hard work on to a large corporation. Instead, the entrepreneurial student founded StairSteady Ltd. Eight years later, the business is still going strong and Amos is working on a range of company start-ups and engineering projects.

She says, ‘My day-to-day tasks include planning, strategy, managing staff and dealing with customers, talking to suppliers and generally overseeing the company. Dealing with international firms often means that emails come in overnight so I start with these first thing’. Juggling various projects, she is always on the move. ‘I split my time across each business so I am never bored. Sometimes things are happening at two businesses at once, so I am running around taking calls, writing emails and attending meetings,’ she says.

Developing her StairSteady product involved a considerable amount of thought into the properties of each material chosen, but always with a commercial focus. Amos explains, ‘I have to make sure each material is not only up to the job, but that it is the right price, can be sourced in the correct quantity or size and can be put under the tension that it needs to take, then I have to consider the packaging’.

Her chosen path is not without its pitfalls. Amos explains, ‘Business is never easy, there is always something to overcome. It’s important to celebrate all the little wins and not let your life be ruined when things don’t go to plan, just find a new strategy.’ But she is passionate about her work and happy with the choice she made. ‘I love engineering and business, so that is what I do. Each of my businesses has, however tenuous, a link with engineering,’ she says.

In addition to her business projects, Amos is an active STEM ambassador and regularly makes visits to schools. She says, ‘I am involved in the Bloodhound project (See June 2014 Materials World), Young Engineers, and Formula 1 in schools. I think role models are a really important part of outreach. STEM should be a key part of everyone’s education and we should be encouraging practical tasks and not just academic subjects.’

Any budding entrepreneurs looking to make a similar move are warned that this path is not for the work shy. Amos says, ‘There are some amazing opportunities out there, but opportunity is just another way of saying hard work’. Despite this, she finds satisfaction in seeing her ideas come to life. ‘It’s nice to think how far StairSteady has come,’ she says.

Dr Tanvir Hussain Independent Research Fellow at the University of Nottingham
Tanvir Hussain took an entirely different approach. He explains, ‘I received a PhD in Materials Engineering from the University of Nottingham, which was followed by an MSc in Manufacturing Engineering. In my doctoral thesis I worked in collaboration with The Welding Institute (TWI) to develop cold-spray titanium coatings.’ He then joined Cranfield University as a Research Fellow and was awarded academic status in 2012. Next, he took responsibility for the MSc course in Offshore and Ocean Technology with Materials Engineering.

In 2013, Hussain took up his current position at the University of Nottingham. Holding a Dean’s Fellowship as an independent research fellow, he says, ‘My job includes conducting research into high-temperature coatings for power generation and developing ideas into research projects through grant applications. I also supervise three PhD students and manage several industry-funded research projects.’ His work is mostly research-based, although he also teaches, with a typical workload of half a module per semester.

Like Amos, Hussain also enjoys varied tasks in his work. A typical day for him includes a combination of running research projects, supervising PhD students and writing research grants and papers. He says, ‘I am a hands-on scientist and I like to spend a significant part of the day in the lab, setting up the next experiment. I also spend two hours a week with students in a lecture theatre.’

While he did consider taking up a research-orientated role in industry after completing his PhD, Hussain decided academia was a better fit for him. ‘Academic jobs offer more freedom and flexibility. In this sector it is possible to find more opportunities and resources to conduct fundamental research that is interesting for individual researchers,’ he explains. For him, working with students is an important part of his career. He says, ‘Teaching is a key part of academic jobs and it is extremely rewarding to be able to train the next generation of engineers and scientists’.

But his true passion lies elsewhere. Hussain is looking to find solutions to the problems of energy generation. ‘To me, research improves quality of life and helps push the human race forward. The big energy challenges motivate me to find new coatings and alloys to reduce carbon emissions,’ he explains.

However, he accepts that his field has its problems. He believes the UK suffers from a lack of public funding, particularly compared to other EU countries. He says, ‘There are not enough research positions for all the brilliant PhD graduates out there’. In the coming years, he sees ageing laboratory equipment becoming a significant issue as well. Hussain recommends checking out relevant events for keeping up-to-date with research. He explains, ‘Typically, I aim to attend at least two international conferences a year, as sometimes it can take up to a year for the latest research to be available in journal papers’. But his most important advice to budding academics is to keep in mind the ultimate outcome of their work.

He says, ‘The best advice I can offer those at the final stages of a PhD or working in post-doctoral research is to consider the impact of their work and engage with parallel projects. It is very important to build a network of scientists who share similar research interests.’ He also recommends students take guidance from their more experienced peers. ‘The journey from a PhD student to an independent researcher can be a very difficult one and a good mentor can help you along the way.’  

What do you think?
Did you choose to pursue a career in academia? Or are you working on your own business? What do you think of the differences between the sectors? Send your comments to or Tweet us @materialsworld