Dr Philip Howell
PhD Physics, 2001
Senior Research Scientist, Siemens (Technology Department)
I carry out industrial pre-development within Siemens. The Business Units i.e., the parts of Siemens which develop, manufacture and sell products, contract me and my colleagues to support them in the early stages of their development work and in research tasks which are too specialised for an operational department.
For example, I have helped develop specialised test benches to measure the lifetime of high-tech thermal barrier coatings, developed a prototype app to monitor the performance of a machine tool by analysing its internal data, and modelled the use of thermoelectric modules to generate electricity from waste heat.
What motivates you?
Curiosity and the desire to solve intellectually challenging problems. I enjoy the freedom to structure my day (more or less) as I choose and to develop new skills. For example, I'm currently learning how to apply machine learning techniques to live monitoring of manufacturing processes.
What is the best thing about what you are doing now?
I love the fact that my job is highly varied and interdisciplinary. In any given week I do some or all of the following: write and debug code, carry out lab measurements, analyse data, do some project planning with colleagues, prepare technical and management presentations, supervise an intern, develop and pitch a proposal for a new project... I normally work on two or three topics in parallel, collaborating with materials scientists, engineers, computer scientists, and other physicists, but also communicating with managers. New topics can arise quite unexpectedly: a colleague needed extra manpower for his projects on monitoring systems for robot-assisted welding, so I've been working on that for the last year - at the start I knew nothing about welding, robots or edge computing!
What made you interested in your current role?
When I was a student I hated the idea of industrial research! I was hoping to pursue an academic career in theoretical physics, but during my postdoc I realised that it was important to me to work on something that was less highly specialised and that was relevant to more people. Like quite a few other people with a PhD in physics, I changed tack and became a strategic management consultant (within Siemens). But the work didn't suit me because it was all about process and communication management, with very little about content and intellectual challenge. I was urgently looking for a route back into a more technical role and among other things wrote a speculative application to the materials group within Siemens' central technology department. They offered me a job modelling thermal conductivity of industrial ceramics, which I took up. So it was pure chance, driven by desperation.
How has your career developed since graduating from the University of Birmingham?
I've been in the same job since 2006, which sounds stuck-in-the-mud but my technical topics have been very varied over the years and I've taken on more responsibility. When I started I had a purely technical role supporting a senior colleague, but over time I had more client contact, started planning and implementing projects on my own and took on the responsibility of securing my own funding from clients. I also supervise the occasional Master's thesis. During my PhD and postdoc, I had deep specialism in a very narrow area, whereas now I have modest technical understanding in a wide range of areas (I still have a couple of specialisms though).
Why did you originally apply to Birmingham?
I applied for a PhD in theoretical physics at several universities, and was struck that at all of them the professors praised Mike Gunn, who was head of the Theory Group in Birmingham and who ended up as my supervisor.
What are your fondest memories of the University?
The great atmosphere in the PhD students' office. I wasn't much involved in student life otherwise, unlike during my Bachelor's degree in Manchester - a PhD is a very different lifestyle from an undergraduate one.
Did you get involved in any extracurricular activities as a student?
On Sundays, I went out with the Conservation Volunteers and got muddy doing physical work, cutting down trees, clearing ponds and building fences. It was a very welcome change to doing hundreds of pages of algebra in an office.
What advice would you give to current students studying on your degree programme?
During a physics degree you acquire a lot of technical knowledge, such as how to calculate the energy spectrum of a hydrogen atom, why pressure is lower in a fast-flowing gas and why time dilates when you travel fast enough. It's very interesting, but you probably won't need any of this later, even if you work as a physicist. The most important thing is your ability to break down a complex issue into simpler parts, to identify the critical aspects of a problem, to think in a rational and structured way, not to be afraid of numbers and abstract concepts, and to be willing to learn new things. And these are skills which you develop in every lecture course!
“All jobs have their joys and their frustrations. The joys are the reason you apply for a job, but you should find out about the intrinsic frustrations which come with a job and think about whether they’re a showstopper for you personally.”