This article looks at how Alasdair Gerrard studied Aerospace Engineering (AE) at a top UK university and now has a job at one of the leading UK companies, Rolls-Royce, without even taking an A-Level in Physics.
Out of all of the people we’ve now written inspiration articles about, Alasdair took the longest time before deciding on AE. Around the time of his GCSEs, he was planning on studying medicine. It was only when he realised that he really didn’t like chemistry that he knew this wouldn’t work. He chose Maths, Psychology, English Literature and Biology as his A-Levels, and still didn’t really know where he wanted to go.
He really enjoyed Maths due to the problem solving nature of it and decided on studying engineering after attending a careers faire organised by a local university which his school attended. He liked how engineering could take the problem solving from Maths and apply it to real life situations, from predicting how a ball would fall when dropped to modelling complex machines like jet engines.
After finishing his A-Levels Alasdair moved to Southampton and joined the engineering foundation year. This is designed to achieve a similar level of knowledge as an A-Level in Maths and Physics so that you have the basis for engineering. There were modules in Computer Science, Maths, and the engineering aspects of Physics. Alasdair also had the same experience socially as the rest of the students starting their degrees – he was living away from home, able to join university clubs, and able to take part in other social activities at the university.
When Alasdair started his degree he was apprehensive that he’d be behind everyone who came from A-Levels in Maths and Physics. However, he actually found his experience easier than that of lots of his course mates as he’d had a year of experience of university and had already gone through the learning curve of moving away from home.
During his first and second years he had a lot of free time. Alasdair took part in lots of societies and clubs and really enjoyed keeping active by playing sports and trying new things. He played a lot of cricket (first and second year), was part of the university triathlon club (final year), and even tried in-line hockey for six months just because his friend asked him to. He was part of the Enactus Society (first, second, third year) which has the aim of helping students to improve the world through entrepreneurialism.
One concern that some students have is that they may have lectures or labs on Wednesday afternoon – this is when most of the sporting extracurricular activities happen at university. Alasdair found that throughout his first and second years, he hardly ever had clashes and his Wednesday afternoons were almost always free.
Southampton gives the choice of one of seven themes at the start of the second year. Alasdair chose the ‘semester abroad’ option and then had to choose between a university in Sweden, France, Netherlands or the USA. He chose to study at TU Delft in the Netherlands because of the spaceflight minor offered there as well as the leading reputation of the university. At the start of his third year, Alasdair moved to Delft as part of the Erasmus scheme. He really liked the city and enjoyed the challenge of learning in a new country. In his time there Alasdair learned some basic Dutch and got to the point of being able to hold a conversation in a supermarket – although over 90% of the Dutch people speak English so you can definitely get by without it!
When he returned to Southampton he had lots of work to catch up on. He wrote his entire third year dissertation in half a year, and slowly found he had more and more clashes with his extracurricular activities (such as Enactus) and his studying. Alasdair also didn’t join cricket in third year because he missed the winter training due to being in Delft. Whilst in Delft, Alasdair also began applying to internships and secured one at GE Aviation in Cardiff. He took a year out of university – meaning he didn’t have to pay the fee of just over £1000, although he did have to pay council tax. Alasdair was glad he did his internship for a whole year instead of just a summer as it allowed him to become much more immersed in what he was doing. He really values the experience and actually thinks that this is what helped him to get his current job.
His favourite topic at university was aerodynamics. This was because it includes some really confusing concepts, but once they finally click it feels really satisfying. Alasdair didn’t really enjoy materials science as much as some of the other engineering modules, but still understood its importance. Another area he didn’t initially like was structures, however when it became more applied – like understanding the aeroelastic effects present in aircraft wings – it got much more interesting.
In October of final year Alasdair began applying to graduate schemes. The application process involved lots of psychometric testing which took up quite a long time and he was glad that he did this towards the start of the year before he got too busy with his final-year studies. Alasdair got accepted on to the Rolls-Royce scheme and has been working there for around nine months. The scheme has three attachments based around Rolls’ engineering lifecycle – Define, Make and Verify. In his first attachment Alasdair worked on the Trent 1000. His second design and make graduate project was based on a problem received from another department – how to remove nuts and bolts from engines to reduce weight, installation/overhaul time, as well as to improve the aerodynamics and reduce complexity of the engine. He is now on his third attachment and is working on the Ultrafan engines. He is really enjoying this and hopes to work in engine performance once he has finished the scheme.
In the future Alasdair would like to be working in a technical role in the Research and Development branch of an aerospace company. He is really interested in jet engines due to their complexity and the high stakes involved in them so wants to be in this area. One thing he is keen to avoid is getting sucked in to middle-management, as he wants to ensure that he is spending his time on engineering – not telling other people what to do.
Alasdair’s advice for choosing a university is to choose one which provides a course with modules that you’re interested in. This is the reason he chose Southampton – it has a spacecraft theme. All of the top universities are broadly similar, so the next most important thing is making sure you like the city it’s in. Also remember that at university you’ll be surrounded by likeminded people, so wherever you go you’ll meet new friends.
Thanks very much to Alasdair for talking about his experiences at university and in the graduate world. Lots of people might not consider the option of spending time studying overseas, so it’s really useful to find out a bit about what it’s like. If anybody you know would benefit from reading this article because they’re thinking of studying engineering – or even just overseas in general – make sure to share it with them. There is also a form below which you can fill out to get these articles sent straight to your email inbox.
This section contains some useful links to things mentioned in this article:
- University of Southampton – https://www.southampton.ac.uk/
- Enactus Southampton – http://www.enactussouthampton.org/
- TU Delft – https://www.tudelft.nl/
- GE Aviation – https://www.geaviation.com/
- Rolls-Royce Graduate Scheme – https://careers.rolls-royce.com/students-and-graduates/graduates