Friday, 18 November 2011

What Happens Next?

The room was stark and sterile, strip-lit with the harsh light of my presentation illuminating the dust over my left shoulder.  I produced my prompt cards from my bag and nervously began to give my first ever conference speech.  As I delivered my talk, my pace slowed down and I relaxed into it as I realised that it wasn’t all that intimidating at all - but for all the wrong reasons.  My amplified voice boomed across the 400-seater venue to a total of about ten people dotted about, peering disinterestedly from the gloaming at the periphery of the hall.  As I finished, polite applause was followed by an pregnant pause as the session’s co-chairs asked the assembled lost-souls if they had any questions for me.  They did not.

If I’d had an inkling that academic engineering was not for me, then that was the nail in the coffin.  Life is punctuated by those moments which make the effort worth it, courting a lady to be awarded your first kiss, enduring maddening revision sessions to be awarded a good degree and rehearsing your interview performance to be awarded that dream job.  After 3 years of reading, researching and collaboration, my conference presentation was a thoroughly dunked, doused and drenched squib.

So, I’m coming towards the end of my PhD, writing up my work and hoping to get that out of the door as fast as possible.  What jobs could I do?  One of my colleagues approached me the other day, “here is a job that only you or I could do,” he enthused.  “It’s at Land Rover and requires knowledge of RF, analogue systems and FPGA programming.”  Interested, I pressed him on what sort of work was being offered.  “Touch-sensitive door handles.”  I responded with a look of confusion.  “Here, let me show you.”

“Hmm,” I mused, “I could do that, but I would have to live hating myself forever.”

Where are the great British engineering feats these days?  The government has promised “more infrastructure” but a couple of power plants and a bit more broadband are hardly the bold, visionary projects like the motorways or National Grid of the Great Depression era.  The Severn Barrage has been killed off and capital spending has seen the deepest cuts.  Most appropriate to my skills would be developing systems for 4G wireless technologies like WiMAX and LTE.  However, business interests have meant that these systems won’t be ready in the UK until 2013 at the earliest, as the networks demand extra time to bleed the revenue potential of their 3G networks dry.

In the past, my favourite jobs have been for SMEs whose directors are passionate about what they are doing and whose employees are interesting  eccentrics.  The sort of people who will listen to my random thoughts and rants for at least a minute before glazing over.  Maybe I should join Bristol Cycle Couriers, I like cycling around Bristol and they’re clearly mad!

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