Engineering degrees and the jobs they can lead to
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When it comes to choosing an engineering degree, there are two initial decisions you’ll need to make:
1. Which type of engineering degree do I want to study?
Most universities offer a number of engineering courses, from mechanical engineering and civil engineering to aerospace engineering and biomedical engineering. You can also opt for a general engineering degree. Head to our article on engineering degree discipline choices for more help on making this decision.
2. Should I go for a BEng degree or an MEng degree?
You will also have the choice of a bachelor of engineering (BEng) degree or a master of engineering (MEng) degree. Head to our article on comparing engineering degree courses to find out how these two courses differ and which one is the best option for you.
The exact subjects you’ll need to get onto an engineering degree will depend on the university and the discipline you’re applying to.
- Maths at A level or equivalent is essential and you’ll usually need at least one other science subject.
- Physics is the most in-demand of the science subjects and is usually either required or preferred.
- Chemistry is typically required for chemical engineering courses and several other engineering courses look favourably on it.
- Further maths is strongly encouraged by universities such as Imperial College London and the University of Cambridge. It is also sometimes named as a preferred subject for electrical and electronic engineering courses.
The grade requirements are often a bit higher for an MEng than a BEng. The University of Manchester, for example, asks for AAB at A level for its BEng degrees and AAA for its MEng degrees. Many universities also accept a BTEC level 3 national extended diploma as long as you also have an A level in maths and have studied the mechanical modules M1 and M2.
If you haven’t studied the A levels required for the course you want to study, several universities offer foundation year courses and, on successful completion of this year, you are often guaranteed a place on the first year of your chosen degree.
The structure and content of an engineering degree will depend on the discipline you’re studying and your university, but you can expect some common elements across all engineering degrees. This includes studying physics, working on design projects and developing computing skills. There is also a strong focus on maths.
You can expect to study mostly, if not all, compulsory modules in your first year and even your second year, which will give you a broad foundation in your discipline. Rob Sadler, a civil engineering BEng graduate from Nottingham Trent University who is now a member of the Chartered Institute of Water and Environmental Management and works as a principal environmental engineer, says: ‘The breadth of the subjects covered has been very useful for my career. I’ve specialised in water but I understand basic civil engineering principles, such as geology, road or bridge design and contract law, so I can now manage multidisciplinary teams.'
In your third and fourth year, you will still study some core modules but you’ll start to tailor the course to your interests and career ambitions by choosing from a selection of optional modules.
You may also study modules related to management, business, ethics and humanities. As engineering is an international industry, many universities, such as Loughborough University and University College London, give you the option to study a language such as French, German, Spanish and Mandarin Chinese.
Sponsorship: it’s worth looking into whether there is any degree sponsorship available to you. This is when a company agrees to help fund your course and offers work placements – and potentially a job on graduation. Read our article on engineering degree sponsorship for more information.
Studying abroad: many engineering departments offer their students the chance to study abroad during their degree. This will usually be for a year, but some schemes last for up to six months instead.
Placement years: engineering students are also encouraged to gain some industrial experience and many universities are keen for their students to take a year out before the final year of their degree and spend it working for an engineering company. This can be called a sandwich year, year in industry or placement year and most major engineering employers in the UK recruit a number of placement students every year. If you don’t want to take a year out, investigate summer internship opportunities instead. Work experience with a company can lead to a job after graduation if you impress.
Aideen Rogers, a chemical engineering MEng graduate from Queen’s University Belfast, did a placement year in between her third and fourth year. ‘I worked in research and design for a food company that produced coffee. I really enjoyed it and I learned so much; I would highly recommend applying for a placement. It is competitive but, even if you don’t manage to secure one, the experience of the application and interview process will help when you go on to apply for graduate positions.’
NB: While some universities will allow you to decide whether you want to do a year abroad or a year in industry once you’ve started your degree, for some universities you will need to decide when you apply via UCAS. The University of Leicester, for example, has separate UCAS codes for its degrees that incorporate either a year abroad or a year in industry.
You can expect a mixture of theoretical and practical work. You will be taught through a variety of teaching methods including:
- Lectures – involve listening to a lecturer talk you through a topic for around 50 minutes and making notes.
- Smaller group sessions – these are often called seminars or tutorials and follow on from a lecture so you can discuss the topic together and cement your understanding.
- Lab sessions – for example, you may be put in a group to complete an experiment. You will be supervised by a lecturer and will probably work in a group of up to four people.
- Presentations – many universities invite leading researchers and engineers to visit and talk to students on a topic.
- Problem sessions – working in small groups, you will be given the task of solving a range of design and engineering problems.
- Workshops – these are often based in a computer lab and will cover topics such as drawing, design, computing and programming.
- Site visits and field trips – this is especially the case for civil engineers. For example, you may be taken on a land surveying course or a geology field trip.
You can also expect to learn through a significant number of projects, which will grow in complexity as you get further into the degree. ‘Practical work ranged from individual projects to group projects and most of it was applying what I’d learned in lectures,’ says Jack Walker, an electrical and electronic engineering BEng graduate from Loughborough University. ‘My practical work included writing and testing code for printed-circuit-board simulations on a computer and building a robot that could solve a maze.’
Depending on your course, you may get involved in other activities that are related to your degree. Aeronautical engineering students, for example, may have the chance to complete a one-week flight testing course. Civil engineers can take part in an event called Constructionarium, which involves working in a team to form your own ‘company’ and construct a scaled-down version of a well-known civil engineering project.
You will be assessed through a combination of written exams and coursework. Other assessment methods may include:
- open-book assessments (similar to an exam, but you can look at your notes and textbooks)
- oral presentations and posters
- individual or group reports based on a laboratory experiment or a design project
- laboratory practicals
- a dissertation.
Project work will be assessed continuously by written reports, presentations and demonstrations. ‘All group projects include a peer assessment too so if you don’t do the work you will receive a poor mark, even if your team does well!’ says Jack.
You can roughly expect up to 30 hours of teaching a week in your first year. On top of these contact hours, you will also be expected to undertake your own independent study to prepare for classes and broaden your subject knowledge.
‘My first and second year involved a lot of contact hours and I studied independently for an additional ten hours or so a week,’ says Rob Law, a mechanical engineering MEng graduate from Loughborough University. ‘As my knowledge base grew, more independent work and coursework was involved. In my fourth year I had around 15 hours’ contact time but spent over 40 hours a week working on a group dissertation.’
Engineering graduates are sought after by a number of industries. The main industries you could work in as an engineer are:
- built environment
- fast-moving consumer goods
- materials and metals
- power generation
- oil and gas
You are likely to take on a specific role within one of these industries, such as a job in research and development, design, production or quality assurance.
While the most obvious career path for an engineering graduate might be to become an engineer, it’s by no means your only choice. For a start, engineering companies need people to work in all areas of the business, including:
- project management
- technical sales.
‘I’ve moved into a sales environment, although it is heavily based on engineering principles,’ says Jack, who now works as a sales engineer. ‘Engineering degrees are looked upon favourably by recruiters so I don’t think it closes any doors in the careers market. Lots of people do jobs that aren’t directly related to their degree.’
Or, if you want to use your technical background in a different industry you could:
- become a teacher or stay in academia and become a lecturer
- go into the legal profession as a patent attorney or train to become a solicitor or barrister and specialise in a technical area such as intellectual property, construction or energy
- work in technical publishing or science journalism.
You can also go in a different direction entirely. Engineering graduates are highly sought-after in many industries including:
- finance, accountancy or banking
- IT and technical consulting
- management consulting
- the public sector
- supply chain and logistics.
An engineering degree will help you build up an impressive skills set. Alongside the numerical and computing skills you’ll inevitably develop on the course, you’ll also work on your teamwork and leadership skills through the group projects that make up a significant part of any engineering degree.
Aideen, who is now a supply chain graduate at Ecolab, also found the experience of report writing very useful for her future career: ‘In my current role I need to write reports on my findings and even give presentations. It’s important to be able to explain technical data in simple, understandable terms as you are often presenting to people that may not have a technical background.’
Some of the other skills you’ll develop are:
- analytical skills
- problem solving.
Alternative degrees to engineering
If you’re still researching your options, you could also think about the following subjects:
- computer science
- product design/industrial design
- engineering management.