Career as an electronics field engineer

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Susan Cooper is an electronics field engineer working with the British Antarctic Survey at the Halley Research Station. She works outside on radio masts in Antarctica, when, in the dark winters, temperatures may be as low as minus 30 degrees centigrade.

What does your job involve?

I am responsible for running the Southern Hemisphere Auroral Radar Experiment. This is a radar which looks at the upper atmosphere, along with several other upper atmospheric experiments.

What equipment do you use for this?

For routine testing I use a signal generator for generating test signals and a multimeter to make measurements and test circuits and locate and correct faults. However, the oscilloscope is easily the most useful instrument available for testing circuits because it allows me to see the signals at different points in the circuit. Using this I can monitor signals at the input and output of each system block, checking that each block is operating as expected and is correctly linked to the next.

What is a typical day in Antarctica?

Every day I have to do routine checks of each experiment to check things are working properly, and after that I repair things as needed. Every person here also has to help out with general base work such as cleaning and digging snow for water.

How did you get into this career as an electronics field engineer?

When I was studying for my degree I spent a year in industry working in electronics, testing mixing desks. Then after university, I worked as a software engineer in the broadcasting industry. I wanted to go back into electronics while still using some of the software skills, so this was a logical move.

Why did you choose this type of work?

Coming to Antarctica was something I had wanted to do for years, and when I found out there were electronics jobs here it seemed like the perfect opportunity for me.

What training have you received?

I did radar training for a week on a similar radar system in Finland before coming here. I have also done general Antarctic training such as first aid, mast building and field training.

What hours do you work?

During the Antarctic winter (March to December) we work 9am to 5.30pm on weekdays, but during the busy summer we work 8am to 7pm, six days a week.

What do you like best about your career as an electronics field engineer?

I like the variety and the challenge. I've ended up doing all sorts of things here that I'd never do back home, such as climbing masts when it is minus 30 degrees centigrade. No two days are ever the same.

What are the disadvantages?

Because the job is in Antarctica I don't get to see my friends or family for 18 months. That's quite hard.

What skills and qualities do you need to become anelectronics field engineer?

It's most important to be adaptable and ingenious.We can't just go to the local shop to get any supplies we haven't got, so sometimes improvisation is required. Also, a lot of self-motivation is required to get on and do things when it's very cold and dark outside.

What are your long-term career goals?

I'd like to work as a systems engineer, specifying systems for TV and radio studios.

Susan's route to her career as an electronics field engineer

  • GCSEs.
  • A levels in maths, physics and music.
  • Degree in Music and Sound Recording (Tonmeister).

Susan's electronics field engineer tips

  • Do plenty of research and be prepared for what you are letting yourself into when coming down to Antarctica.
  • Try and gain work experience for a few years before coming here – it makes dealing with the close-knit environment a lot easier.
  • Persevere and be enthusiastic, apply again if you don't get in the first time.

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Salary of electronics field engineer

  • Graduate electronics engineers usually start at around £20,000.
  • Experienced electronics engineers earn around £35,000.
  • The average income for qualified chartered electronics engineers is £45,000.
  • Working overseas in different environments attracts a variety of allowances.

Career as an electronics field engineer

  • Entry as an electronics engineer is usually with a degree in a relevant subject. Entry for a degree course is usually with at least two A levels/three H grades, normally including maths and physics, and five GCSEs/S grades (A-C/1-3), or equivalent qualifications. Students without the necessary qualifications in science and maths may be able to qualify for an engineering degree course by taking a one-year foundation course.
  • he Institution of Electrical Engineers offers a number of engineering degree scholarships each year to women in the first year of their A levels/H grades.

Modified: 16 June 2013

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