My favourite thing about studying mechanical engineering is the diversity of work involved in solving problems

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Kate Tomlinson
PhD student
PhD in Mechanical Engineering
After completing a degree in mathematics as a mature student, Kate decided to continue her studies and joined the University of Sheffield as a postgraduate student, applying her skills to a PhD at the Department of Mechanical Engineering.

Her research project is focused on the development of a bi-material method of life extension for railway track components, which involves modelling plastic flow, residual stress and fracture mechanics within railway rails.

She tells us more about her experiences of postgraduate research and how she spends her time as a PhD student here at Sheffield.

Can you tell us more about your background and what you studied as an undergraduate?

I joined the Department of Mechanical Engineering at The University of Sheffield with a first-class degree in mathematics from the University of Derby, where I studied as a mature student.

I really enjoyed my time studying for my bachelor’s degree and went on to receive the Head of Department prize (computing and mathematics) for best student undergraduate achievement.


During my time at Sheffield, I have had the opportunity to develop many skills through both my PhD project work and the doctoral development programme (DDP).

Kate Tomlinson

PhD in Mechanical Engineering


Why did you choose the University of Sheffield for your PhD?

During my undergraduate degree, I particularly enjoyed the applied areas of mathematics and the research involved in my final year project, where I was working to solve a unique problem. This experience led me to decide on postgraduate study, as I wanted to apply my skills to a real-world problem.

Whilst exploring postgraduate opportunities, I visited the Department of Mechanical Engineering at The University of Sheffield and I was impressed with the facilities available and the level of research produced.

I was really pleased to go on to secure a PhD project with the Department and was warmly welcomed. I’ve always felt like my background in mathematics is valued.

What do you particularly enjoy about studying mechanical engineering?

My favourite thing about studying mechanical engineering is the diversity of work involved in solving problems. My project involves mathematical modelling in a variety of systems supported by data produced in experimental work.

Tell us about being a postgraduate student here. What’s a typical week like for you?

There's not really a typical week, as each week varies depending on the needs of my project. However, my general cycle of work involves reading, planning, developing mathematical models, running experiments, analysing the results of the experiments, and returning to the modelling. I also have regular meetings with my supervisor where we discuss current results and next steps.

What is your favourite thing about Sheffield?

My favourite thing about Sheffield is the unique and friendly atmosphere, created by the diverse mix of staff and students within the University.

Can you tell us a bit more about your project and what you are working on?

My research project is concerned with developing a bi-material method of life extension for railway track components, which involves modelling plastic flow, residual stress and fracture mechanics within railway rails. The work is funded by a joint grant from Network Rail and EPSRC, and I have meetings with Network Rail to make sure the work is targeting areas they need.

Rails are typically heavily loaded by train wheel contacts, with the full weight of a locomotive (around 70 tonnes for high speed or 120 tonnes for freight) supported on just 8 wheels - and each one of these wheels only has a contact area with the rail around the size of a 20p coin.

The high pressure at these contacts is designed for, but it pushes the limit of material performance. With the new materials I'm investigating, it could be possible to make the rails last longer. This could cut the amount of timelines that need to be closed for maintenance and reduce costs.

What are your plans for the future and how do you think your experience at Sheffield will help you in your career?

During my time at Sheffield, I have had the opportunity to develop many skills through both my PhD project work and the doctoral development programme (DDP). I hope that this will lead to a future career in research.

Do you have any top tips for students thinking about postgraduate study in Mechanical Engineering at Sheffield?

I would highly recommend postgraduate study at Sheffield. My top tips would be to first ensure that you choose a research area which interests you as you will be investing a lot of time into it.

Secondly, good communication with your supervisor is extremely important - they can offer advice and guidance and are key to your progression.

Finally, make sure you talk to your research group and other postgraduates as they can also provide support and share ideas too.

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