UCL Career Frameworks



Neil Hughes, Head of Technical Staff for the Department of Earth Sciences

Neil Hughes - Research
I am currently the Head of Technical Staff for the Department of Earth Sciences where I am responsible for managing the technical staff and the technical needs of the department.
In addition to my management duties, I primarily work as a Mechanical Engineer providing high level mechanical engineering design and development skills to build state-of-the-art scientific instruments to facilitate the department’s research groups. Much of the research apparatus in my department are unique prototype high pressure systems which have been developed in house by myself and my engineering colleagues.

The work is very diverse and consists of many roles and responsibilities including the management of the engineering and technical aspects of major research projects and research laboratories involving supervision and training of academic staff and students in the effective and safe operation of potentially dangerous laboratory equipment.  The troubleshooting of complex research equipment to ensure continued running of experimental research programmes. The design and development of highly specialised state-of-the-art scientific novel instruments, using Computer Aided Design (CAD) and Finite Element Analysis (FEA) software, to high performance, quality, and safety standards. 

The preparation of detailed engineering drawings to high standards ready for production and the production of high tolerance components using a variety of mechanical workshop machinery including CNC operated and conventional machines. This varied engineering role along with my management responsibilities encompasses many of the job families to some extent but leans heavily towards the research family.

I started out at UCL in 1986 when I joined the Universities apprenticeship program as a Mechanical apprentice, after always having a big interest in Engineering at school.  The apprenticeship delivered extensive training in the use of all machine tools and techniques for precision manufacture. Throughout the apprenticeship I worked in a number of the Universities workshops in different departments including Physics & Astronomy, Electrical Engineering, Chemical Engineering as well as a spell in the design office in Physics and Astronomy learning technical drawing and Computer Aided Design techniques.

On successful completion of my apprenticeship I moved to the department of Earth Sciences (or Geology as it was known then) working as a mechanical technician supporting the department and its research groups.  In my time as an apprentice and mechanical technician, I also undertook further part time studies, achieving Ordinary and Higher Diplomas and an Honours degree in Mechanical & Production Engineering.  These studies allowed me to further enhance the essential practical skills that I had learnt during my apprenticeship, to give me the expert knowledge to design and develop prototype high pressure systems.

Over the years, after gaining more experience, expertise, and responsibilities I was subsequently promoted to an Experimental Officer and then Senior Experimental Officer.  These were academic related grades, as my role was recognised as essential to the academic team for enabling the research by delivering prototype scientific equipment and contributing to academic publications.

I would advise anyone looking to follow a similar path to make the most of any training opportunities that come your way to enhance your qualifications and knowledge. In such a role technology is always advancing and you want to keep abreast of developments to maximise your knowledge to improve on how things can be done. There is a wealth of technical talent working within UCL, who often don’t know each other exist, that is where the Communities of Practice are of huge benefit to share knowledge, equipment and generally support each other. I would encourage people to seek out their relevant Community of Practice and join.