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Working lives

Keith Madelin, 58, is professor of civil engineering at the University of Birmingham.

Route to the job

I left school at 16 and joined Dudley Council as an engineering learner. I was paid £5 a week - but this was better than being an articled pupil, with your father paying the borough engineer for your training. I studied part time for an HNC and municipal diploma and then followed the tradition of moving to gain experience, including studying for an MSc in traffic engineering at the University of Birmingham. I became county surveyor of Shropshire in 1982. In 1995, most of my department was transferred to the private sector, so I was out of a job. After six months of self-employment I joined the University of Birmingham as a professor of civil engineering.

Expectations

My expectations were mixed, since it was my first experience of an academic job. My task was to support the highways group and to develop the new topic of infrastructure asset management.

The highways group already had a strong international reputation but, surprisingly, was less well-known in the UK. I hoped that my industrial links would help to publicise existing research and develop new projects.

Reality

The department is now operating a collaborative venture with consultants WS Atkins and Scott Wilson to exploit current research and we have also developed joint projects with other consultants and contractors. An early hunch was that highway maintenance management knowledge could be transferred to railways. Meetings with railway engineers confirmed that, and we now have a number of joint projects with the rail industry, including Ecotrack, developed by the European Rail Research Institute, but adapted by the research team for use on UK railways.

Advice

Aim to have wide experience and be prepared to work in new areas.

Being one of the first into a new area has its risks, but if you are confident of your own ability and do your homework, then you can influence the development and application of knowledge rather than being limited to tried and trusted methods.

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