Daniel Pyke shares his story on changing career paths

Materials World magazine
1 May 2016

Daniel Pyke shares his experience of training in a new field mid-career and offers advice to those thinking of diverting their career path.


Like many, when I finished my academic studies I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to do. If I asked my peers on graduation day what their plans were, I doubt there would be a great deal of correlation with the eventual reality. That isn’t to say my university – Sheffield, UK, didn’t prepare me well for the world of work – simply that most of us hadn’t experienced the good, the bad and the ugly of the myriad careers on offer. 

I earned sponsorship by British Steel during my degree, which allowed me to be better off while studying, but most importantly gain valuable experience in the workplace. I was later sponsored by the Scunthorpe steel site. I have to confess, I didn’t relish the thought of working in this steel town and so resolved to avoid it where possible, negotiating to have work placements at different sites, research facilities, steel mills and strip plants. Looking back at this decision, gathering experience of such a wide variety of products was one of the better ones in my career. Having a little knowledge and contacts in various areas has allowed me to look perhaps more clever than I actually am.

If I were to give any career advice, it would be to start building your network of contacts early and invest a little time in keeping it up to date. You never know when it will come in handy.

The early days

Back to the ‘Snakes and Ladders’ of my career – I achieved a first class masters degree in Materials Science and Engineering and looked at various positions from management consultancy to research. I landed a job with my sponsor company in steel R&D through a happy accident. Like most people graduating, I’d submitted what seemed like endless application forms to various companies. At an IOM3 event, I bumped into my sponsor company’s university liaison. He told me he was disappointed that I had not chosen to apply for a position with British Steel after all the successful work placements. I had actually applied and my application had ended up at the wrong location. Without that key contact, my career would have started out very differently. 

The role in R&D was a little different to the one I expected. Some of the projects I was involved with were on long time scales – in one of the high-temperature creep testing laboratories where I worked, test durations could be measured in years. The investment in training to make me a more useful and rounded employee was excellent, but I got a little frustrated with some of the long-term projects. The most interesting work was the small chunks of consultancy for external clients – failure investigations were my favourite. These projects stretched my mind, required a degree of lateral thinking, and delivered almost immediate results. As this was just a small portion of my work, something had to change.

Beginning a career change

My partner had joined a different leg of the same company and knew that they were looking to recruit. The work she was involved in seemed interesting, doing varied consultancy for the rail industry such as failure investigations and short-term project work. My interest was captured and, despite some misgivings, I applied and began my rail career.

The role was refreshingly different. Projects were often measured in days rather than weeks, months or years. The interaction with products in the real environment was, to me, intoxicating, and the opportunities for on-the-job learning were immense. Of course, there were downsides too – working at night when track could be accessed, the myriad projects and customers to juggle on a daily basis, and with a small team. But, on the whole, this is probably the most rewarding change in role I’ve had to date. Practically all of the training was done on-the-job, turning me from researcher to consultant in weeks while learning about a new subject matter, which is a process that never really ends. Much of my rail related work surrounded how to make rails last for longer through better asset knowledge and improved maintenance and repair techniques. 

To aid career progression, I eventually decided with a heavy heart to leave the team. I joined the opposite end of the rail life-cycle (producing new rail – rather than condemning old ones), at the new rail production facility at Tata Steel Scunthorpe – currently in the process of being sold and re-branded back to British Steel – the very same steel town that I’d spent so much effort as a student avoiding. I became the Technical Manager for the new rail inspection and finishing plant, overseeing that every rail met its intended specification. Close client liaison was an instantly transferable skill, which helped immensely in times where things hadn’t gone quite according to plan. The close working relationships with fellow staff and customers got me out of numerous sticky situations. Having open, honest working relationships with customers may seem obvious, but it takes time and effort to achieve credibility and trust. Businesses don’t usually deal with other businesses – it is people dealing with people that deliver results.

Progression and management 

After years inching up the standards in terms of product quality, throughput and yield, I got itchy feet again, and steps up in an organisation undergoing significant contraction were few. I was offered a role in R&D management, working for a previous customer, and, perhaps slightly left-field, a temporary secondment in the rail marketing area. By now, I was considered a ‘rail technical expert’ but I could write what I knew about marketing on a postage stamp.

So why pick a temporary, sideways move over a permanent and better-paid role? I still ask myself that sometimes! The truth is, I spend a third of my waking hours at work, so I need to enjoy it and be stimulated by it. Learning a whole new skill set, getting to use my creative skills and helping to shape the future of our business tipped the scales in its favour. Obviously, other people might choose a different path. 

My advice is to nail down what you honestly value. While it is always tempting to look at the headline salary figure, don’t underestimate the value of the whole package – the flexibility of working hours, the company perks, the time spent travelling, the career progression prospects and the team you’ll be working with.

Taking a career turn

In the end I took the ‘temporary’ marketing role and after some intensive learning on the job and formal training, I was able to perform in my new role. The irony that I now spend my working life trying to get people to buy new rails, having spent much of my career trying to make sure they didn’t have to, is not lost on me. You could say I have turned from poacher to gamekeeper.

I took my technical background and used it to strengthen the team’s skills while others kept me on-track with their marketing knowledge. It is interesting to note that one of the accolades for a research or technical career is being published in journals, winning awards for papers or filing patents. It wasn’t until I moved into rail marketing that I achieved all of these things. So, even if your career takes a few twists and turns on the way, you should never try and forget the past – use your unique view on things to best advantage. 

Tips for retraining from the National Careers Service

Get to know yourself – your strengths, values, interests and ambition.

Planning ahead will make your transition smoother and more achievable. Research is vital – make sure you know as much as you can about the job and if it is right for you. Job market information can help you assess whether there are jobs and growth in your desired career where you live or if you will need to consider relocating. 

Consider seeking professional advice on your next steps – there may be funding and options that you didn’t know were available to you.