Aisling Shannon talks to Smart Futures about her career as a Structural Engineer at the European Space Agency.
Your job title?
Structures Engineer at the European Space Agency (ESA).
What are the main tasks, responsibilities and skills required in your career?
My role is to ensure that the spacecraft gets to where it needs to go without breaking! The launch of a spacecraft is very tough from a mechanical perspective, lots of shaking and noise and a some loud bangs! These shocks and vibrations are the main drivers for the mechanical design of the spacecraft. It is my responsibility to ensure that every part of the spacecraft is going to be able to survive the launch. A lot of analyses are performed to confirm this before we ever build anything.
Describe a typical day?
A large part of what I do is read. As I mentioned a large part of the work is done virtually, so it is my responsibility to read the analysis reports and make sure that every aspect has been considered. Another thing that I spend a lot of time doing is teleconferencing with our industrial partners across Europe. This saves a lot of traveling although there is still quite a few trips for me to France, Germany and England.
What are the things you like best about the job?
The testing of spacecraft hardware is definitely a highlight. To survive the launch, we test for vibrations by shaking the hardware and for surviving the separation from the launcher, we do shock testing.
Of course, there are certain aspects which are a bit boring, mostly the administration parts.
Who or what has most influenced your career direction?
For me, one thing lead to another. In my final year at university, my thesis topic was using an analysis program which normally was not available to undergraduates due to the high costs (at the time) of the licenses. I then had a skill which most graduates applying for jobs did not have, so I believe it helped land my graduate role. I had four placements over two years for this role and again one of those, was performing analysis that is not commonly used. When I applied for my next job, having that skill separated me from the other people applying. Having something unique on your CV will always lead you in interesting directions.
Does your job allow you to have a lifestyle you are happy with?
Definitely. Certainly there is a balancing act between my commitments, personal and professional, but I think it works and I am happy where I am, doing what I do and with the possibilities for the future.
What subjects did you take in school and did they influence your career path?
For Leaving Cert, I did seven honours, Maths, English, Irish, German, Chemistry, Accounting and Economics. Other than Maths, I don’t think they were the best choices for going into an Engineering course, but I just had to work harder in the first year to reach the same level as all the other students who had done Physics and Applied Maths for Leaving Cert.
What is your education to date?
As I said, seven Honours at Leaving Cert, then a 2:1 Honours Bachelor of Engineering in Aeronautical Engineering.
What aspects of your education have proven most important for your job?
I could not pinpoint any one module from university that has proven most useful, however, on-the-job training courses have been really focused in the area that is relevant to me now.
What advice would you give to someone considering this job?
There is not one best route to get to the job I have today. If I talk to my colleagues, all have found different routes to get to where we are now. Definitely you would need a primary degree in engineering, but now I think most companies expect a Masters Degree also. If you want to do Mechanical/Aeronautical Engineering, then definitely doing Physics and Applied Maths this will give you a good head start at the start of your degree. I believe that doing a more generalised degree and specialising with a secondary degree or with your work experience is the best approach. At the stage of leaving school, it is so difficult – if not impossible, to know which career path you will end up on. Keep an open mind and don’t worry if you are not certain on what you want to do or how you get there. It is a gradual process!
What kinds of work experience would provide a good background for this position?
Unfortunately there are not many companies in Ireland that do the kind of work that I do, I left Ireland as soon as I graduated and worked mainly in England before moving to ESA in the Netherlands. ESA does work placements for students and graduate programmes for recent graduates, so check out the website for more information. For opportunities in Ireland, Enterprise Ireland are the coordinating body, who work with all of the Irish companies involved in the space industry, and Enterprise Ireland also support students and graduates so making contact with them could be a good first step into the space industry.