#RaisingProfiles for National Women in Engineering Day 2016 – An Interview with Megan Coghill

Megan-Coghill

In honour on National Women in Engineering Day we wanted to discover more about what it’s like being a female engineer, so we sat down with Megan Coghill, an Optical Engineer with Thales UK.  After graduating from university, Megan now works in Glasgow and embarked on her career via the company’s graduate scheme.  She has been working with Thales UK for three years, and is extremely passionate about helping inspire others to consider a career in the field. 

Did you know what engineering would entail?

I had the same misconceptions about engineering as many other people do (i.e. that it’s all about mechanics and more suited to men), and I began working in procurement after leaving university, but got bored very quickly because it wasn’t enough of a challenge.  I missed feeling stretched so I think I gravitated towards engineering because of that.  The thing that keeps me here now is the feeling that I’m making a difference, and that I’m always learning and growing.  There hasn’t been a day since I started where I haven’t learned something new.

What do you do as an Optical Engineer?

In essence I design camera lenses; it could be a small handheld camera or laser, or a complex system of cameras for submarines or tanks, anything really, it’s a very diverse role.  I also love it because not only can I see the actual lens that I’ve helped design and create, but I also get to see the images that lens has captured, so it’s a really visual reminded of what my work has contributed to and the impact it’s had. 

Did you know what Optical Engineering involved when you applied?

I had no idea; when I saw the job I thought there’s no way I’d get it because I wasn’t qualified, I actually went to apply for a different job, but someone else was appointed, so I just took a chance an applied for the optical role.  I think women are less inclined to apply for roles where they don’t have ‘all’ of the necessary skills, but men will give it a go.  I never would have had the confidence to apply if I hadn’t missed out on the other job, but now I’ve come to realise that you don’t always need to have the exact qualifications because you learn a lot as you go along.  As it turns out optical engineering was a great way to combine my two passions of photography and science, so it worked out really well.

What’s the best thing about being an engineer?

For me it’s the variety of the work, and the fact what I do has a real impact.  Because my role is very specialist, I get to work on all the projects we do, so I’m very busy, but it means my days are so varied, and I never get bored.  I also love the fact that what we are doing is really changing peoples’ lives, and people often assume that engineering is all about the technology, but there’s also a really human element to it, which I think a lot of people don’t realise.  Everything we do is intended to help people, so we have to consider the human impact.
However because what I do is so specialist it also means that sometimes, if I come across something I don’t know the answer to, there’s not someone I can ask for help.  But that being said, it does force me to find the solution myself, and it’s great when you do finally find the answer, and I think having that independence and self-reliance has really helped build my confidence.

Do you find it difficult as a female working in a male dominated environment?

Not at all, everyone I work with, male or female is very supportive.  At first, I think because of the age difference between me and the men I worked with (the average age is 55), there was some difficulty in knowing how to interact with each other, but now I’m just one of the team and everyone is really supportive of each other.

Who do you admire in the engineering world?

I was very influenced and inspired by the women in engineering and science, and in particular Jocelyn Bell Burnell who is an astrophysicist.  She gave a talk in my hometown about her career, and I found her so inspirational.  It was great to hear examples of the amazing things that can happen, but also some of the pitfalls, and things to be aware of as a woman in engineering.

Have you had the opportunity to get involved in any promotional activities?

I’ve attended quite a few STEM Ambassador events, which I really enjoy doing.  We recently attended a science event in Scotland, and we often invite school children to the site to learn about engineering.  I think it’s so important.  I was fortunate because I was exposed to engineering my whole life; one of the main employers where I grew up is an engineering company, and my dad was an engineer, so I’ve grown up around it.  But I think if you don’t have that exposure you probably wouldn’t get involved or even consider engineering, so I’m very keen on spreading the word.

Do you feel there’s a particular culture within engineering, or do you think it depends on the company or team?

Overall I think there is a culture of practicality and curiosity; in physics the focus is very much on analysing everything to get the ‘right’ conclusion, but in engineering it’s more practical and about trying things out.  I do think that it differs between disciplines; I imagine the culture in software engineering or systems engineering is very different to optical, and I’m sure it varies between companies and teams too.  But one thing I’d never considered is the opportunities you have as an individual to shape the culture in your team or department.  There are some aspects that exist already, but I feel like I’ve had many opportunities to make a difference.

If you specialise in a specific area of engineering is it easy (or even possible) to move into different areas?

I actually think it depends more on behaviour than technical skills; you have to learn what you like and what you do well and use that knowledge to progress.  For me I always thought I’d enjoy the technical side of engineering most, but I’ve come to realise that I actually really love working directly with the team and interacting with different people; so I think you need to shape your own role into what you want it to be.  But overall the skills you learn as an engineer (e.g. critical thinking and organisational skills) apply across so many disciplines, and it’s definitely not as restrictive as you might think.  Young people need to know that the choices they make won’t necessarily last forever, and there are always ways to progress, grow and develop.

Are there any resources you could recommend to those interested in pursuing engineering?

I actually can’t think of any; when I was studying I’d read Science Magazine which would offer insights into different careers, and the paths you could take, but I’ve not found a similar resource for engineering, although that’s not to say it doesn’t exist.  For me what I liked was reading personal blogs from people working in the field, it gives you a more open and personal view on what it’s like, and for me it’s helpful to know that people are going through the same struggles – I find that very comforting. 

What tips would you give to young people thinking about engineering as a career?

Even if you think you have an idea of what engineering is, it’s probably not the whole picture, so make sure you find out as much as you can.  I know that it’s hard to get connected with people in engineering, but if you don’t know anyone personally go to open events, ask questions in online forums, or find a friend of a friend of a friend to talk to.  And never be afraid to ask questions, most engineers are really passionate about what they do and are happy to talk about it.  I know for me personally I was pleasantly surprised at all the things I discovered when I started working in the field, and finding out what it’s really like, and I want to share that, and I know a lot of other engineers feel the same.  So just keep asking questions.