Alumni careers profile - Derek Atkins

  • PhD Metallurgy and Materials
  • Visiting professor at CASS Business School and non-executive director of a number of companies

Video transcript

Duration – 8:16

I’m Derek Atkins, I’m currently visiting professor at Cass University in Insurance and Risk Management.  For many years I worked in the city; I was strategy director at Royal & Sun Alliance and I have a parallel career of writing textbooks for risk and risk management and insurance subjects, probably about 12 of them, people have to do exams in them.

Q1 – How did your time at the University shape and influence you?

A1 – Well I did Industrial Metallurgy, and I did a PhD after my first degree.  I came out I think, in 1971, a long time ago now.  It completely shaped the whole future, but nothing in what I learned.  It was everything else that I did at university that actually shaped it.  Education goes from a broad to narrow focus, and by the time you’ve done a PhD you are in a very narrow bit, then the real world then goes out and opens up in focus, and very few people follow that straight course up the middle of that narrowing focus, but in fact the world isn’t like that.  There is continuous change that you might be able to plan for, and discontinuous change, where things suddenly change coming in from the side.  Drucker always used to talk about that. 

I learned that the most important thing at University was learning how to learn, and then being prepared to train and do other things, and look at things in a very broad way.  And that is my main lesson; you may be very lucky and start off in a specialist subject and have a career all the way through in that specialist subject, but that is very very unlikely.  I used to run the milkround for graduates, and one of the killer questions that I asked was ‘What did you learn at university?’ and often I got completely blank faces in front of me, because so many people think that, I’ve been to university, I’ve got the degree, or maybe a PhD, give me the job now, but really that isn’t the way of the world.  And some of the best answers that I heard were on the lines of I have been at university, I have now learned how to learn.  And I can also use intellectual rigour in challenging anything I hear around me.  Because a lot of people who come from school won’t have the intellectual rigour and if research is put in front of you or a management paper is put in front of you, you accept it, but if you have actually been trained in research you just tear it apart, and you can build a whole career on that

Q2 – Why do a PhD at Birmingham?

A2 – To grow up!  I started my first degree, coming up to Birmingham when I was 17, far too young.  So, by the time I had finished I wasn’t grown up at all, and I just carried on.  There was a grant available and I carried on.  I thoroughly enjoyed it, and I grew up in that time, but it wasn’t a great calling. 

Q3 – How has having a PhD helped your career?

A3 – I got my first job, I became a patent examiner, and they de-specialise you there.  But that was something whereby having a PhD in a technical subject got you into the scientific civil services.  Technically I think, Board of Trade, but that disappeared very quickly because of the European Patent thing, so movement came along.  So, I wrote cold to 400 companies and just said, I have done this in the past, I am prepared to re-train.  It enables you to be different, when they are doing job selections.  If it’s an advertised job there will be lots of applications coming thorough someone’s desk.  All they are looking for is something different, and if you’ve done a PhD you’ll be different, and you’ll be on there.  The important thing is then is to get you in front of the interviewer.  So that’s one thing, it gets you in.

Often, having Dr. in front of your name can be a very good thing, it can open doors, but it can actually frighten people.  It can put people’s backs up, particularly if they think: I didn’t get where I am today by doing a PhD.  So, you can find that there is often expressed or implied antagonism, if you’ve got the Dr.  Same when you become Professor, which I have in my parallel life! 

Q4 – What would you say to a student who is thinking of doing a PhD?

A4 – Do it very thoroughly, but do it quickly, because you can’t afford to be a perfectionist.  You’ve got to be pragmatic, because if you are a perfectionist, doing a PhD, I can promise you that you will never finish.  You actually have to say, this is it.  I was very lucky, I broke my leg at the right time, and I suddenly stopped and thought, well I better write some things up.  And that enabled me to finish in 3 years.  So, you’ve got to really be pragmatic on it, and it may differ these days, but if you are actually doing it part time, it is immensely difficult.  Do this sort of thing early in life, because the later you do it in life the more external pressures there are going to be, in terms of marriage and career and what have you, so do it early. 

There’s just one other thing, please, please learn some basic management and some basic finance, know how to read a balance sheet, because there will always be someone in your organization over the top of you with those skills.  And you will never rise to the top of an organization just on your technical skills, you are being judged as a manager, and please, please do not neglect that area

Engineering students