James O'Neill

'I get to work on a huge array of projects all over the world...'

  • James O'Neill

Bachelor of Engineering with Honours in Civil Engineering

Master of Fire Engineering

PhD in Fire Engineering

Consultant Fire Engineer, Holmes Fire, Sydney, Australia

James feels fortunate that he is developing a career which delivers all the benefits he could wish for.

'Fire engineering is in high demand and is quite a small field professionally,' he says. 'I get to work on a huge array of projects all over the world, ranging from aircraft hangars to skyscrapers, massive transport interchanges to heritage buildings. The sheer range and overall significance of the projects I have worked on in my first few years out of university is something engineers in other fields may not experience for over a decade of consulting engineering.'

As a fire engineering consultant, James has a wide range of prospective employment opportunities open to him, and he is appreciative of the advantages his study at UC has given him. In particular, his PhD in Fire Engineering has opened doors for him. The main focus of his research was the structural fire analysis of heavy timber assemblies for multi-storey buildings. He has co-authored design guidelines for industry, presented at numerous conferences and had articles published in engineering journals all over the world.

'Postgraduate study offered me some great opportunities in terms of travelling and presenting my research throughout the USA and Europe, and this has definitely aided my career progression,' he says.

James was the sole international recipient of the Society of Fire Protection Engineers Student Scholar Award in 2010, as part of which meant he was invited to give a seminar in America. He also won the Structural Timber Innovation Company PhD Scholarship and the New Zealand Fire Service Master's Scholarship.

He recommends that others looking at a similar career should consider going on to postgraduate study.

'The MEFE course at Canterbury is particularly useful in that it has been tailored to the practical aspects of fire engineering consulting, providing skills that are directly transferrable to your job, and giving you opportunities to start building a network of contacts.'

'At UC, the experience and social setting for postgraduate study is smaller yet much more inclusive. There is a mix of people from all over the world and the teaching environment is more relaxed. It felt much less like study and more like work, without some of the obvious downsides such as project deadlines or normal office hours.'

He adds: 'Postgraduate qualifications are fast becoming a prerequisite for working internationally so it is a great idea to think about the potential options early. In any case, if you have a subject you are passionate about, higher education is never a waste of time. The most important skill I developed while studying was the ability to think critically. The skills you learn at university, especially with an engineering degree, will better equip you for any future career path.'

James currently works in Sydney and says that his job gives him a fantastic work-life balance.

'The essence of my job is to find solutions to problems from a fire engineering sense. I spend the majority of my time marketing to clients in the construction industry. We develop innovative ways of protecting both people and structures from fires, while optimising the construction process to enable our clients to save time and money while achieving improved performance. We work on upgrading and retrofitting existing structures and designing new ones. A large part of my work involves analysing and optimising the performance of steel, concrete and timber structures. It is both challenging and rewarding, and I feel there is room to grow into the different aspects of my work depending on my area of interest.

'My job is extremely flexible and well remunerated, which gives me the chance to travel and enjoy my life outside work. I live next to the beach and spend most of my free time on the water or in the country hiking.'

James is keen to maintain that balance as part of his future plans.

'One of my career goals is to become a leading authority in structural fire engineering and as such start up my own company. Ultimately, however, the most important thing is to achieve a great work-life balance. I feel that my degrees from Canterbury have given me the skills I need to get the most out of my working life, which in turn provides me with the opportunities to be free to pursue my other goals and interests. Apart from travelling the world and seeing more of Australia, I also want to get better at sailing and learn to surf.'

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