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University choices : Post Graduate and Masters courses

Over the past few posts I’ve been discussing how to choose the best university course and the relative merits of traditional versus specialist motorsport courses. The final part of that discussion is to consider post graduate courses and whether a second degree or doctorate can give you the advantage you need to get a foothold in Formula 1.

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Photo Courtesy of Loughborough University

I’ve read several posts on motorsport forums recently where members have confidently pronounced that nearly everyone in an F1 team has a PhD, even the mechanics and the lollipop man. Is that really true? No, it is not true. In fact, to suggest that it is would be total nonsense!

Hopefully you’ll be glad to know that the majority of people do not even have a first degree in Formula 1, never mind a PhD. Different roles require different qualifications of course but the truth is that there is no need to have a post graduate degree for any job in F1. It is in fact relatively uncommon. Arguably the 2 most successful engineers of recent times, Adrian Newey & Ross Brawn only have 1 degree between them and it has not done them any harm at all.

The question is therefore, even if it is not an absolute necessity, will having a post graduate qualification help you to get a job in F1 and is it worth spending the extra time and money on your education to get one?

What is it worth?

When considering whether or not to study for a post graduate degree I would carefully consider what exactly it is that you wish to do in Formula 1. As any of you who read my blog regularly will know, I and the majority of the motorsport community place great emphasis on experience and those who have been out and made their own opportunities outside of the education system will typically be seen as having a better balanced resume than someone who has not. Whilst we look for academic excellence, we also need real world skills and someone who only has an academic based background may struggle to convince an F1 recruiter that they have what it takes to work in F1. The fact that you have a post graduate degree will not make you more attractive than someone who only has an undergraduate degree if they have a better experience profile than you.

The ideal candidates for F1 tend to be those who have solid educational backgrounds but have also mixed that with either racing or similar outside pursuits where they have been able to demonstrate independence and initiative. The academic and research world is very thorough (it has to be) but Formula 1 works much closer to the 80/20 principle where 80% of the gain comes from 20% of the work and the speed of ideas and turn over of attempts typically leads to a higher rate of progress. If a gain is found it may well be that we don’t fully understand why or where from but getting caught up in detail is often counterproductive and pure academics can find this frustrating. It’s a different approach.

With this in mind, you may find that F1 teams are even wary of those with long and prolific academic backgrounds, especially if it has not been complemented with work experience or relevant outside pursuits. It’s one of the main reasons why there are so many opportunities in F1 for people without degrees because real world skills are held in high regard. You can be over qualified so be careful.

Post Graduate specialisation

Whilst I believe that real world experience beyond a first batchelors or masters degree is more valuable than further academic study for motorsport in general there are instances where a post graduate degree can help to hone your skills and give you relevant experience forgetting a first job in racing.

In a previous post I compared the relative merits of tradition versus the new breed of motorsport degrees and concluded that a tradition degree complemented with real world experience is still the best regarded blend of experience for a graduate looking for work. I did acknowledge however that this real world experience can be very hard to find, especially for those living outside of the traditional motorsport strongholds of the UK, US and Central Europe. It is in these instances that I think motorsport degrees come into their own because many have been well managed by their institutions and have forged strong links with industry and provide the opportunity for those valuable real world experiences. If you have not been able to experience motorsport at home then a post graduate course may give you this chance.

As a post graduate degree, a motorsport course can be a powerful complement to a good traditional first degree. A candidate who has been able to prove themselves at a traditional academic institution and then gained further practical skills and specialisations in a motorsport related post graduate degree such as those offered by Cranfield and Oxford Brookes Universities can be a very attractive proposition for an F1 team. This route seems to have been a successful one in recent years and I have come across several very good people who have been down this route. It is certainly something that I would consider if you do not have any real world racing experience.

Where academics excel

As I have discussed already, the fast paced nature of F1 typically differs from the thorough and concentrated nature of pure academic research. The way that the majority of an F1 team works is most suited to those who have a high turnover of ideas and an impatience for results. There are however certain areas within a team where deep thought and complex understanding are required to develop the necessary tools and provide answers to move the team forward.

Vehicle Dynamics, Stress Analysis(FEA) and Aerodynamics are typically the specialisms within the team where you will find the majority of PhD qualified people and this is because the underlying theories and physics that govern these disciplines are by their very nature not easy to pick up and understand. In these parts of the teams the complexity of the subject matter means that an engineering intuition is often not enough to make the correct decisions and the need to develop in-house computer modelling and simulations is key to making the correct decisions and judgements about future developments. In these cases, PhD qualified and highly academic individuals can come into their own and are highly prized assets for many teams. These positions are few and far between but as the teams grow, they have become more and more prominent. I have known several people who have worked in motorsport then returned to academia to further their knowledge and fundamental understanding in order to become one of these specialists and gone on to great success. The trick is to maintain a real world perspective alongside the pure academic work because an element of translation and practical judgement is always necessary.

The real success stories in F1 are those who can carry that balance of practical and theoretical knowledge to the highest level and know when to use each one to their maximum effect when most appropriate. That sounds obvious but those people are truly hard to find and worth their weight in gold. If that person is you then my team would love to hear from you…

Where to go from here

Over the past few weeks, I have tried to give a balanced and honest opinion of how your university choices can affect your potential career in Formula 1. If you haven’t read them already, you can find those related posts by searching for “University Choices” in the sidebar. I hope that series of posts has been useful. If you have further question you can use the comments section below to get in touch with me.

Recent developments with the Caterham and Marussia teams being placed into administration have had an effect on everyone in the industry. I have friends and ex-colleagues who have been affected by this directly and it is a very sorry situation. We all hope that investors can be brought in or new buyers can save those teams from closure and that those jobs can be kept open.

The media is full of stories of crisis and impending doom for the sport but standing back I think a bit of perspective is required. Formula 1 is like any other sport in that it is a competitive and ruthless environment. Sport is about winning no matter whether it is football, tennis or Formula 1. When a football team is relegated from the highest division or a tennis player is injured, competing teams or players do not come to their aid by giving them money or new players or lowering their own form so that they can still play. This should never be the case and F1 should always be about the best teams and the best drivers competing. If a team cannot be competitive on its own then perhaps another team or group of people should be given the chance to take its place. This is the natural order of things.

Where I, and the majority of people believe the problem lies is the fact that an artificial rewards system exists in that the larger and well established teams are disproportionately rewarded by the commercial rights holders, over and above the natural reward for being successful by themselves. It is a fantastic situation for those at the front but it creates a form of protection which rewards poor practice. Whilst I believe protecting unviable and uncompetitive teams in the lower order is wrong and those teams should be allowed to fail, protecting teams at the very top by the same mechanism is just as wrong and is a barrier to new and potentially successful team entering and establishing themselves.

F1 is a very complex business outside of any sporting consideration and this problem has existed for decades not just the last few seasons. The current system is wrong, there seems little doubt. Where the solution lies is hard to say but I’m a great believer that good will come from this short term pain and that F1’s survival is not in doubt. There are too many intelligent and passionate people in this industry for the sport to fade away and collapse completely. We have seen these types of problems many times in the past and it is part of the natural evolution.

A career in motorsport is still possible and should still offer a long term prospect for anyone who has the dedication and passion to make it work. I would not be put off by the media stories, but keep working and striving towards your goal as you never know what period of prosperity or success lies just over the horizon.

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Best of luck and here is to a safe and exciting finish to the season.

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