Research and development (R&D): industry sector overview

A research and development job allows graduate engineers to use their skills to push the frontiers of science forward.

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The aim of research and development (R&D) is to improve the current technologies offered by an organisation or to develop innovations that strengthen the organisation’s position in the marketplace. The sector includes many companies that are dedicated research and development businesses that focus on particular fields or areas of work. For example, my organisation works in the communication, information systems and electronic sensors markets. You will also find R&D divisions within many forward-looking, innovative engineering and technology organisations.

Trends and developments in engineering R&D

The pace of technology development is relentless. Keep an eye on the websites of major R&D players within the UK market (such as Siemens and QinetiQ) and read industry publications related to your discipline to keep up to date with the latest developments in fields that interest you.

Key drivers for change and development are typically based on commercial gain. However, climate change and directives such as the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) directive are emphasising the need for researchers to consider sustainability issues within their approach to innovation. In my organisation’s field of research, we are particularly interested in how nanotechnology is changing basic material technology and we are also exploring the boundaries between biological and electronic systems.

What working on engineering R&D projects is like

Working in R&D is very stimulating – we tend to work on many different projects across a variety of sectors and spotting the similarities can often lead to invention. Most engineers and scientists will work in on-site R&D facilities, but you may have opportunities to travel to meet customers, attend conferences or visit sites where the results of your R&D are being implemented or trialled.

The timescales of R&D are entirely dependent on the project. You could work on an urgent programme to deliver equipment to a customer in a matter of weeks or months, or you could work on a project to develop basic technology that will take several years to gain market acceptance. How you work and who you work with will also depend on the type of project. The initial phases of a research project can be staffed by just one or two engineers but during full-scale development the same project could employ up to 100 development engineers.

Getting a graduate engineering job in R&D

You will need a technical degree in a discipline related to the field of research in which you want to work – a high level of academic ability is often necessary. For some research positions you may need the extra qualification of a masters or even a doctorate.

Graduates need to have a firm grasp of the basic principles of their discipline as well as to understand the commercial drivers for technology development. Skills in maths, physics and computing will give you an advantage. One of the most important skills you need to demonstrate is an ability to learn and use your initiative. In the early stages of a research project, it’s up to you to understand and define the basic principles of the problem and work out how you might attempt to solve it. In development, engineers need the skills to work in large teams and be able to meet the deadlines of defined schedules.

Career progression for R&D graduates

It’s typical for graduates to start out working within a project team and receive on-the-job training from the more experienced engineers and scientists around them. A graduate scheme may also offer you the opportunity to attend training in professional skills such as communication and presentation to support your research activities. Career progression in R&D goes hand in hand with developing technical and research competences. While many research engineers and scientists aspire to become technical specialists, it is also possible to move into more commercial roles or project management.

The highlights of a career in R&D

  • Working on intellectually stimulating projects.
  • Pushing forward the frontiers of technology development.
  • Talking to VIPs one day and being in a muddy field doing trials the next!

Thanks to Peter Lockhart for his help with this article. Peter is chief technology officer at Roke Manor Research Ltd. He has a degree in electronic and electrical engineering from the University of Surrey.

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