Back to school

Materials World magazine
3 Jul 2017

Kathryn Allen speaks to three professionals about the benefits of further study to professional development. 

This month’s professional development theme – chartership and membership – encompasses the idea of continual professional development (CPD). This can be achieved via many routes, with further study being a popular choice. 

Materials World spoke to three professionals who have undertaken further study at various stages of their careers to find out how it has affected their professional development. 

Mehrzad Delfan-Azari began his career as a marine engineer, working on oil supertankers for British Petroleum, before moving into aerospace and industrial gas turbine component manufacturing. He worked for Howmet Alloys and Howmet Casting International, UK, predominantly in engineering and operational management, before working as an Operational Director for a competitor, and finally joining Rolls-Royce PLC as a Plant Manager for its Bristol Casting Facility. 

Delfan-Azari’s involvement in developing processes to remove non-conforming thermal barrier coatings from gas turbine engine components encouraged him to develop his understanding of advanced aerospace materials and their interactions during thermal barrier coating applications by undertaking further study – specifically, short courses in Extreme Surface Coatings and Failure of Materials and a PhD research project in Ultra-High Pressure Water Jetting at Cranfield University, UK. ‘The application of this research study has enabled us to recover sufficient quantities of our gas turbine components, previously rejected for coating non-conformity to overhaul, to date, ten gas turbine engines. This research study is also being reviewed by our European Patent Attorney for patent registration,’ said Delfan-Azari.  

Despite not seeking career progression in terms of a change of position, according to Delfan-Azari undertaking further study significantly affected his role. ‘I am now a very active member of the reclamation team within our turbine supply chain unit. Our endeavour has not only averted disruption in our engine build lines, by increasing manufacturing capacity in our investment casting and machining facilities, but it has also enabled our organisation to fulfil its obligation in global materials sustainability. This study has also given me the additional confidence to lecture at workplaces and at Cranfield University.’ 

Delfan-Azari said he would definitely recommend further study, in the form of industry-specific short courses or university education, providing the expertise gained could be applied effectively to the workplace. 

Some people are put off returning to education as a mature student fearing they have been out of education for too long to cope with the workload, or will be out-of-touch with their fellow students. However, Delfan-Azari said, ‘I found that having industrial experience gave me the ability to grasp complex theoretical concepts far easier and quicker.’

Short courses 

Having begun her career in the pharmaceutical industry, Susan Impey returned to study to complete an MSc in Materials Science and a PhD in Metallurgical Engineering before joining Cranfield University as a research officer. In her current role, Impey undertakes research in surface coatings and engineering, supports the materials characterisation facility, teaches and directs the Manufacturing Technology and Materials postgraduate masters programme and teaches on Cranfield’s short courses including a corrosion
training programme. 

Discussing her return to university after a stint in industry, Impey told Materials World, ‘For me, university education was the start and also turning point of a career, enabling me to pursue further interests. I have been fortunate to graduate over 150 students at all stages of their careers, some moving into very technical areas and others adding to an already firm knowledge base. It has been a pleasure to watch individuals grow in confidence and generate new opportunities or fulfil long held aspirations. I have also found that university provides support to me as an individual with opportunities for further learning in leadership and skills development.’ 

Short courses, like those taught by Impey and undertaken by Delfan-Azari, are offered by many UK universities and can further professional development. It is important to check the accreditation of the courses, particularly for chartered members seeking to include them as part of their CPD. According to Impey, these types of short courses can develop confidence and increase opportunities, including networking, for people at all stages of their career. Impey said, ‘Short courses are intensive and, as at Cranfield, a number of these courses with assessments can form an award-bearing programme.’

Asked if she would recommend further study to those in industry, Impey said, ‘Always. Any continued professional development flags to senior managers that you are interested in new developments as an individual and to the business. A short time away from day-to-day [working] activities gives time to focus, think, reflect and re-energise and is beneficial on a number of levels.’ 

Transferrable skills 

Mark Craig also returned to university education after working in a metallurgical laboratory for Plasma & Thermal Coatings, UK, and for Alloys International, Australia. After gaining an MSc and a PhD in Advanced Materials at Cranfield University, Craig became an Academic Fellow in Surface Coatings and Engineering, before returning to industry and taking up his currentposition. 

On returning to university, Craig said, ‘Since completing my MSc and PhD I have a much more developed sense of critical thinking, which has been a key skill in a technical management role. In addition to this and after meeting so many specialists in so many varied fields across the world, I am now very much aware of how little I really know.’ 

According to Craig, university and research institutes can benefit career progression at all stages, offering access to expertise in the form of teaching, mentoring, consulting or research and equipment that may not be available in industry. ‘Technology is forever evolving and it is only by attending short courses and conferences that we are able to stay abreast of such advancements and exploit them for our own good within our own companies,’ said Craig. 

The degree to which further study can be beneficial depends, for Craig, on the relevance of the course to an individual’s workplace and whether the skills gained can be used. ‘I personally think that more formal qualifications are better [than short courses] as they are more rounded and allow a better understanding of the theory and practical side of a given subject,’ said Craig. 

However, for some people seeking professional development it is not feasible to leave work to study, even if only for a short period. ‘Balancing study with employment has always been a challenge. Occasionally individuals leave an employer to pursue their ambitions to create new employment opportunities, while many students study part time when working in industry. To enable UK employers to upskill their current workforce, a new Apprenticeship Levy is available for use via approved apprenticeships. This includes development of individuals in senior technical positions as they move into leadership positions. This shift to employer-led training should enable individuals at all stages in their careers to study whilst in work with a structured programme,’ said Impey.