Rai Ahmed

Rai Ahmed

Rai Ahmed
"I started my engineering career with a four-year apprenticeship with the University of Bristol, allowing me to study while being paid. Learning practical skills and getting qualified, while also earning a salary, felt like a significant advantage. My apprenticeship programme was also very thorough and varied. "
Rai Ahmed

To celebrate International Women in Engineering Day we're sharing individual stories of women engineers from across UKCRIC member institutions.

Tell us about your role and what you find most exciting about it.

My role is based in a geotechnical / seismic testing lab, equipped with two hydraulic shaking tables (a 6x4m biaxial table and a high-acceleration 6DOF Hexapod), a 6x5x4m soil pit, and a 30T-capacity crane. As you can imagine, we take on large-scale work that’d be difficult to co-ordinate elsewhere – some test items or equipment can be a few tonnes of mass, and/or a few metres across.

I assist with the day-to-day running of the space, setting up experiments, and giving advice on equipment or methodology. I’m also involved with smaller tasks, such as co-ordinating inductions and making sure kit is legislatively compliant.

I enjoy the variety of working on both commercial and research work – commercial tests have tight turnarounds, so test items can be in and out within a few days. Problems need to be solved ASAP – which can be a fun challenge. I also like meeting with the influx of new visitors during these tests. On the other hand, research work is set over a longer and more flexible period of time, but setting up the experiment can take a few months. I do like that each test is different, commercial or research, which adds some change to my calendar.

What inspired you to become an engineer/work in the engineering sector?

I started my engineering career with a four-year apprenticeship with the University of Bristol, allowing me to study while being paid. Learning practical skills and getting qualified, while also earning a salary, felt like a significant advantage. My apprenticeship programme was also very thorough and varied. Even in the present day, it’s helped me identify what areas I’d would or wouldn’t want to specialise in.

I knew early on that I wanted a job that helped people. I’ve been a fan of previous roles where I’ve had that social contact / feeling of accomplishment, which can translate to great personal motivation in tackling larger projects.

I wanted to go into STEM, but never initially considered engineering because of my own preconceptions of the industry. I also didn’t realise technician roles existed, so I assumed engineering was exclusively academically staffed.

As I started my apprenticeship, I was initially very unsure of myself and didn’t have a lot of confidence in my knowledge base – but at a junior level, it’s expected. Over time, I learned more practical skills, became more qualified, and became more confident involving myself in whatever was ongoing in the lab. When people started to seek me out themselves for advice or help, that was when I felt more confident about my work.

How do you balance your professional and personal lives?

When I started working, I found it difficult to disconnect as it wasn’t a boundary I’d been taught. At school, I took on a lot of evening extracurriculars and weekend coursework – we place expectations on ourselves to constantly be available to help, so it was surprising that work didn’t fall into the same category.

I’ve now learned that the vast majority of issues can wait until the next day, which lets me approach a problem from a new angle. My coworkers are in by 9AM, so I can get a second opinion; I can use equipment I wouldn’t have been able to if I was lone working, and so on.

For voluntary work, where I can, I prioritize anything which I feel has a benefit – whether that’s allowing me to network with new people, learn new skills, or just getting involved because I have a genuine interest in the topic. It helps me feel more authentic as I know I’m accepting a passion project of my own volition.

In your opinion is there more that can be done to encourage a greater diversity of people into engineering careers?

Yes. When I started my apprenticeship in 2017, I was one of two female technicians and one of the few people of colour in the faculty. While there’s been progress, there’s still room to grow.

Before I applied, I had a lack of understanding of other roles involved in engineering, which was a barrier. I assumed that engineering was purely academia – which almost automatically ruled out other routes of entry, such as via my apprenticeship.

It's crucial to focus on retaining diverse technical staff once hired. Implementing a mentorship network for newcomers could be beneficial. Last year, I really benefited from a career coaching programme aimed at women of colour across the University, which made me realize the isolation of being the exception.

Progression is key, particularly in encouraging more people of color and women into senior roles by expanding responsibilities organically or considering regrading within teams. Without this, technicians jump from one specialty to another for promotion, but it means building a new knowledge base from square one, which can be daunting and slow.

Having policies specifically written down and accessible for transparency, such as guidance on accommodating prayer times during work hours, or any flexibility offered for caregivers, would ensure consistency and fairness in their application. I feel that this would empower those who’d benefit from such guidelines to confidently request what they need.

What advice would you give for anyone interested in pursuing an engineering career?

Consider ‘unorthodox’ routes into engineering – such as apprenticeships / traineeships, job shadowing opportunities, paid training, secondments, etc. There’s a wide variety of engineering roles which aren’t purely academic which aren’t so overtly advertised.

All technical knowledge can be learned, which will build confidence and experience – having the curiosity to learn and to engage with practical work to expose yourself to new processes is the first building block. My role as a technician is hands-on, so I’ve always looked for opportunities to learn face-to-face from a mentor, usually while being a second pair of hands for a job, which benefits us both.

Speaking as a woman of colour working in engineering, it can feel isolating at times. Look at building a network of people who encourage you to develop and grow – networking events, career coaching, or similar schemes.

Rai Ahmed is a Specialist Technician, General Engineering Lab, at the University of Bristol