Category Archives: RUG – Researcher

Saying Your Goodbyes

Whenever I left one job to go to another, there usually wasn’t much of a goodbye involved, and even less so as time wore on.

When I left the laboratory of professor Dilewijns, there was an informal get together with the technicians, but as far as I can remember no speeches and no presents. Maybe followed by a few pints in the pub, that’s about it.

The farewell was a little bit more official in Iscor, with a conference room booked and full of people that I’d known and worked with in the technology department. Can’t remember too much about the speech, apart from flattering my audience by saying that South Africa would always have a friend in me. I received a watch as a present, although it can’t have been a very good one, since it fell apart within half a year of me receiving it.

The farewell from Allied Steel & Wire was a bit more awkward given the circumstances, but there was a skittles evening as the Christmas do, which doubled up as a farewell do for me. I must still have the pewter cup its the AS&W logo, but it’s packed away somewhere – I still don’t see the point in putting it on display. In my reply to Tony Franks’ speech I stated that, while I would miss them as colleagues, I wouldn’t miss Allied Steel & Wire as a company.

And that was really the last of the official farewells. When I left Tinplate R&D for Ebbw Vale, it was initially only as a secondment, and by the time the secondment became permanent due to the reorganisation of R&D set-up, there was no-one left to say goodbye to. Likewise when I left Ebbw Vale for Llanwern: by the time I was making the move there were very few people left to say goodbye to.

The move from Llanwern to Port Talbot turned out to be so gradual that there hardly seemed to be any point having a farewell do, because by the time my move to Port Talbot became official, I had already spent quite a bit of time there.

When I finally decided on my retirement, I was so busy until the very last day that all the farewell consisted of going to see a few the closest colleagues and shaking their hand, receiving two £25 vouchers as a thank you for services rendered, and a final email containing the message “So long, and thanks for all the fish” – I didn’t want to come across as too sentimental, and I thought the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy reference couldn’t hurt my geek credentials.


Canteens have been around in most places from my student days to my final days in Port Talbot, although I must admit that most of the time I didn’t make use of their services.

During my days as a student, it was only in my first year, when I was still commuting between Bruges and Ghent, that I made use of the student canteen in the St. Pietersnieuwstraat. In subsequent years I just returned to my rented student room or stayed in the “Plateau” cafeteria as the whim took me. Afterwards, during my time as a researcher, I totally failed to make use of the canteen facilities, even though it was only next door to professor Dilewijns’s laboratory – instead we tended to consume our sandwiches in the technicians room whilst having a lunchtime chat.

The first few years as engineers-in-training at Iscor we often made use of the canteen facilities, although this was more an excuse to gel as a social group of people in a similar situation of immigrants in a foreign country. Later on, I either had my own sandwiches, or had a snack in one of the smaller facilities near the Technology building.

Allied Steel & Wire didn’t really have a proper canteen, just a place where you could buy sandwiches and assorted snacks. That’s why most people brought their own lunch, or went outside to the nearby shops, rather than buy something similar at inflated prices.

At Tinplate R&D the Port Talbot canteen was only across the bridge from Welsh Labs, but even then it was a rare occasion that we gave it a look-in. The option of a canteen did not exist in Ebbw Vale as far as I can remember, so by the time I moved to Llanwern I had got out of the habit of using a canteen and relied on my own sandwiches instead. There used to be a canteen near the far side office blocks, but this one disappeared soon after I joined once the heavy end had been demolished. I heard that there must have been some sort of canteen in the mill end of the shrunken site, but I never found out where it was.

Anyhow, once I returned to Port Talbot I had got so much in the habit of bringing my own sandwiches, that I did not make use of the canteen, either the main one near the site entrance, or the one next to the Hot Mill offices. That changed once I joined the Operational Research team in the AGO, where we got in the habit to either visit the Welsh Labs canteen, the nearby Tollgate park on a nice day, or the main canteen if all else failed. Some team members bought the food on the menu, especially on curry days, but I stuck with the habit of having my own sandwiches.

Which meant that when I moved to the Coke & Iron Admin block, and the distance to the canteen became too large for an easy lunchtime transfer, I continued with the tried and tested routine of sandwiches, apple and can of coke at my desk.

All in all, I can’t really comment on the quality of the good on offer, since most of the time I brought my own. All I noticed was that once Port Talbot stopped subsidising the canteen food, and the prices started to reflect the real cost, many people stopped buying the meals on offer, and either brought their own grub, or stopped coming to the canteen altogether.

Music and South Africa

When I arrived in South Africa, I had just spent several years steeped in the punk and new wave of the late 70s and early 80s, and with sufficient money to build up a sizeable record collection. I think this period also saw the start of the music CD, but at the time this was seen as a niche for artists that shift large numbers of records.

The transition to the situation in Vanderbijlpark couldn’t have been more stark. From being surrounded and immersed in large quantities of modern music, I was relegated to what felt like a backwater. One of the last records I had bought was the latest one by Eurhythmics, a record that took about six months before it made the shelves in South Africa. Clearly a different world from the present-day music scene where downloads are available at practically the same instant across the world.

At the time, the only local music I was aware of was the Afrikaner boeremuziek, which seemed to be somewhat related to the German oumpah music. Most of the time I did not have to suffer it, although at one time some students next door came home on a Saturday night, and decided to continue their night out with some of their preferred boeremuziek tunes. Revenge was sweet when early on Sunday morning I retaliated with “Never made no the bollocks, here’s the Sex Pistols”.

Still, in the more than five years I lived in Vanderbijlpark I probably bought something like between five and ten records. It was not until towards the end of my stay there that I became aware that there was a worthwhile black music scene to be enjoyed, first through a concert from Johnny Clegg & Juluka, and later on from Paul Simon’s Graceland album. Maybe if I had heard of this type of township music I might have sampled some of the local bands – provided that they were available in the white music shops.

When I started to get ready to leave South Africa, I had trouble finding new boxes to pack my albums in, presumably because by then CDs had taken off and were rapidly replacing vinyl – something that had totally passed me by during my time in Vanderbijlpark. I made up for this oversight in subsequent years, but my music collection still doesn’t contain much in the way of South African music, with only the already mentioned Paul Simon album, a Juluka compilation, and an album by Ladysmith Black Mambazo bought after I had seen them perform in the UK.

That’s probably more of a sign of how I had become less involved with the current music scene, and the fact that the transition happened during my time in South Africa my have been purely accidental.

Not a Proper Job

That’s what I found out when I was trying to land a new job after my time in the army : a job as a researcher at university is not considered to be a “proper job” by someone working in industry. Even when professor Dilewijns’ laboratory had close ties with Sidmar, and some of my work (such as the examination of welds on steering columns for Volvo Trucks) would be the type of job carried out by a “proper” company if they had bothered having their own testing facilities.

The strange thing is that, when the shoe is on the other foot, you can’t but help but harbouring the same kind of thoughts about people working at nearby universities. From the British Steel days onwards, there’s been a close cooperation with Swansea university on the EngDoc scheme which for many EngDoc students meant the start of a career at British Steel or its successors.

And still you have this image in your head of professors and other people employed at a university as being somewhat other-worldly and slightly mollycoddled against the hardships of the real world. Why, when I’m half aware that this is at best an overgeneralisation ? And why, when I know from firsthand experience that some worthwhile work often goes on at universities for which industry just doesn’t have the patience or inclination ?

Maybe it’s because some of the work does not always lead to practical outcomes – after all, that’s often the name of the game with open-ended research : unlike the targeted research in industry, it can happen that your research tends to prove to be a dead end.

Also, there’s also the feeling that people’s jobs are not on the line if someone’s activities don’t ultimately add to the bottom line. So in a way, rightly or wrongly, academic jobs are considered to be not in the same league as the hard world of industry. I’m very much aware that these are caricatures, but if that is the idea stuck in an interviewer’s head, then there’s very little you can do about the bias that follows from it.

In practice, what it meant for me was that I was seen as on a par with students fresh out of their studies, only just a few years older. In the end I had to be rescued by the same people whose experience had been rubbished in my failed job search.

A Life in Steel

It’s rather strange how my career has been sampling various aspects of the steel industry, but never any other industry where a metallurgist could gave found a job. In hindsight this seems rather odd. It’s not that I directed all my efforts at finding a job in a steel-related industry, but somehow all the positive responses came from that direction.

First of all, you would have expected that if I took on a job as a researcher, then that would have been with the Laboratory for Non-Ferrous Metallurgy and Electrometallurgy where I did my thesis. In fact, professor Dilewijns took both metallurgy students from my year as researchers, and since there was no similar offer from professor Van Peteghem, I took what was on offer, which was the iron and steel making side of the business (as well as some physical metallurgy).

Once I came out of the army I’m sure I spread the net far and wide, in any possible direction where I could possibly land a job. As I’ve said elsewhere, I was utterly unsuccessful, and was very grateful that I was given a second stint at professor Dilewijns’ laboratory, which gave me the opportunity to find a job whilst being in a job.

During my time there I kept on the look-out for suitable job adverts, again not restricting myself to iron and steel. Still, in the end the one that came up was Iscor, which, needless to say, was again steel. Maybe being a researcher familiar with iron and steel gives you a leg up when discussing things during an interview, but that only helps to explain the outcome of the application round, not the initial direction of the application letters.

When leaving South Africa I had already started sending out application letters, using a helpful student directory that I had acquired beforehand. Again the same thing: many application letters to a wide variety of companies, but in the end of the three offers I had to choose from, two were in steel (Allied Steel &a Wire and British Steel Scunthorpe) and the third was partly related to the use of steel (Inco Alloys). The decision to choose AS&W was purely based on the salary offered, and not on whether it was a continuation of my life in steel.

Once I had to go on the next round of job applications, after my redundancy had been broached to me, the emphasis was probably more on the steel industry, although not completely so. But maybe my credentials and achievements in various aspects of steel making were by now weighing in heavier than other capabilities (such as auditing), and in the end my reacquaintance with British Steel, this time at their Tinplate R&D department in Port Talbot only confirmed the further embedding of my career in a steel environment.

Maybe if I had been more successful finding a Java programming job after my distance learning course with CompuTeach, things might have turned out differently. As it was, there I was trying to find a job with fairly lightweight qualifications in a post-dot com bubble job market, and making very little headway in doing so. Hence I took the life raft to Llanwern, and haven’t looked back since. Maybe if the need had come sooner I could have entered the IT market with more success at a later stage, but first of all my age could by then have counted against me, and secondly, maintaining an attractive pension package was sufficient enticement to stay for as long as I could.

Maybe previous experience really speaks louder than any other factors when you’re looking for another job. At the time I went through the various application rounds I was not aware that I was skewing the direction in which I was applying, but as time went on, a positive response in line with earlier jobs and experience seemed to become a given.