Research labs provides excellent advancement opportunities
John Hayes posted on May 23, 2013 |
Quasi-academic environment allows ambitious engineer to wear many hats early in his career.

Quick Facts

Name: Paul Simmons

School: University of Texas Cockrell School

Degree: Masters of Engineering Management 2012,B.S. in Mechanical Engineering 2007

Job Title: Engineering Science Associate, but he’s really a Senior Design Engineer and Quality Manager

Company: Applied Research Labs at the University of Austin, a company with ~700 people

 Industry: Research, Defense

 Compensation: 75,000 – 95,000

What do you do as a Design Engineer?

As a Design Engineer, Paul is one of the people designing sonar systems for ships, submarines and unmanned vehicles.  All of these have to work underwater, which is a tough environment for electronics. 

On any given day, this means Paul may be making designs on a CAD model, working with machinists or external machine shops to get prototypes made, getting quotes from vendors, providing customer support, traveling to Pearl Harbor or Seattle to install a system on a submarine, or resolving design issues in review meetings. 

For example, the ARL team recently ran into a design issue with a series of electrical conductors or “traces” that transmit data from the high pressure environment on the outside of an underwater vehicle to the low-pressure interior of the pressure hull.  To ensure that all the trace impedances matched, the team determined that all 80 traces had to be equal in length.  That was going to be difficult because the exterior of the boat hull is convex and all traces had to connect to a central hub inside the hull. 

One solution would have been to make a separate hole through the hull for every trace, but that would have greatly increased the risk of leakage.  An alternative was to bundle the traces into packages to make fewer holes.  In the end, the team found a new material to seal around the holes that allowed them to create as many holes as they needed without risking more leaks.  This example is the sort of challenge many design engineers face.

What do you do as a Quality Manager?

ARL’s customers are beginning to ask for production units rather than just designs and prototypes.  Paul’s education and proven skills enabled him to tackle the challenge of introducing low-volume production to this research facility. 

To go from prototypes to small runs, Paul talks to machinists about how to build the parts.  He analyzes production processes to see what can be improved and then documents the best processes so that they will be applied consistently across multiple units of the same product. 

What is the compensation for an engineer in a research lab?

Compensation is in the range of $90,000, including contribution to a pension plan and other benefits.  Like other quasi-government jobs, it affords a lot of perks like job security and benefits.  While other sectors like Oil and Gas pay more, there is a lifestyle choice to live in Austin and work in a really cool research atmosphere.  Paul is happy with this trade-off.

Why did you choose to follow the path you did?

           Paul started at ARL as an intern while he was an undergrad, so you could say this is his first job.  He worked at ARL for about 3 years before starting his Masters in Engineering Management.  At the start of his career he was doing introductory design work such as designing components, tooling, manufacturing procedures and test procedures for sonar systems.


While working as a design engineer he recognized that there are a lot of non-technical skills that an aspiring manager needs to be successful.  Business topics like personnel motivation, project management, risk analyses, negotiation strategies and countless others are not taught in most undergraduate engineering programs.  Paul has found that these skills are just as important as technical knowledge in today’s engineering world.  That led Paul to pursue the University of Texas Cockrell School’s Graduate Engineering Management program.


As Paul said, “Let’s face it, we all know that great engineers often make poor managers.  Just because you can design complex systems and program advanced algorithms, that does not translate into being able to effectively manage people.  Having the ability to be effective at both is what makes great leaders, and great leaders are what differentiates one company from another.”


What advice would you give to a younger engineer who is considering a career like yours?

            Paul’s advice is, “If you have the opportunity, drive, and determination to go through a few more years of school – DO IT!” 


Paul’s career trajectory has made him a firm believer that engineers with a solid background in business management are a great asset to any company.  He says that with a Masters in Engineering Management, “You will possess the tools to solve today’s complex problems that make you stand out above others when it comes to getting a job or climbing the corporate ladder.”

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