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How to Become an Engineer: The Ultimate Guide

27 January 2022

How to Become an Engineer: The Ultimate Guide

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If you’re thinking about a career in engineering, this guide is a great place to start.

We’ll take a look at everything from which GCSE and A-level subjects you’ll need, to work experience, key skills and university courses. 

We’ll also explore the different branches of engineering, including examples of some of the most influential engineers from history. 

Hoping to follow in their footsteps? Read on!

 

Engineering Careers

 

What does an engineer do? 

 

Most people are familiar with the term engineer (you’re here reading this guide, after all!), but surprisingly few really understand what the job entails. 

So, what exactly is an engineer?

An engineer is someone who builds, tests, designs, or maintains a whole range of structures, machines or systems. These might include bridges, tunnels, buildings, roads, cars, planes, computers, chemicals, artificial intelligence, space equipment, electronic devices, software, sports equipment, food, artificial body parts… the list goes on. 

Ultimately, an engineer is a problem solver: they use maths, science or technology to find solutions to the challenges within their field. 

Want to know more about the day-to-day work of an engineer? Check out our blog: A Day in the Life of an Engineer, where we interview a top engineer at Rolls Royce!

Engineers are increasingly in demand, in the UK and across the world

Different types of engineering

 

Traditionally, there were 4 kinds of engineering. Now there are more than 50! Below is a short guide to the broader areas.

Mechanical Engineering 


Mechanical engineering is the designing, building and maintenance of machinery.

A mechanical engineer can work in a variety of industries, including railway, robotics, automotive, aerospace, energy, computing, biomedical, manufacturing and construction. 

It’s one of the oldest branches of engineering - originating from the industrial revolution in the 18th century - and one of the most diverse. 

A mechanical engineer that changed history: James Watt (1736-1819, Scotland) invented the Watt Steam Engine, which played a huge part in Britain’s industrial revolution. The unit of power ‘the watt’ was named after him in honour of his achievements.

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Electrical and Electronic Engineering 


Electrical and electronic engineers work with electrical systems and equipment: designing, developing, testing or maintaining them. 

Though the 2 disciplines are related, there is a difference. In simple terms, electrical engineers deal mostly with the production and distribution of power (electricity) on a large scale, whereas electronic engineers focus on smaller electronic circuits, e.g. the electrical components within a computer.

Industries where you might find electrical and electronic engineers include telecommunications, IT, gaming, robotics, automotive, manufacturing, transport and defence. They are involved in the making of all sorts of things we use on a daily basis, from toasters to mobile phones. 

An electrical engineer that changed history: Edith Clarke (1883-1959, USA) was the first female electrical engineer to be employed professionally in the US, and her work on power infrastructure was hugely influential. She invented a ‘graphical calculator’, a tool that helped engineers solve equations needed to understand power lines. It helped to stabilise America’s rapidly growing power grid and was arguably a precursor to the ‘smart grid’ technology that powers the world today.

Civil Engineering 
 

Civil engineers are all about construction: they design, build and maintain the world’s infrastructure. This might be buildings, roads, bridges, power supplies or sewage systems, among many things.

A civil engineer that changed history: Gustave Eiffel (1832-1923, France), a specialist in metal construction work, founded the company that designed and built Paris’ world famous Eiffel Tower. He also designed the steel framework of New York’s Statue of Liberty!

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Chemical Engineering 


Chemical engineering involves taking raw materials and transforming them into something that can be used (e.g. taking solvents or silicone and making them into deodorant). 

Chemical engineers help produce a huge range of everyday items and materials, from medication to food, cosmetics, cleaning products, textiles, paper and plastics. 

Because chemical engineers are concerned with the industrial processes needed to make these products, they are sometimes called process engineers. 

A chemical engineer that changed history: Carl Bosch (1874-1940, Germany) was instrumental in transforming the world’s agriculture and food production practises. He did this by implementing the Haber-Bosch process (which converts nitrogen and hydrogen from the air into ammonia) on an industrial scale. Ammonia is one of the key ingredients of synthetic fertilisers. Unfortunately, we now know that ammonia can be very damaging to the environment. Nevertheless, around 50% of the world’s food production relies on ammonia fertiliser!

How to Become an Engineer

 

Is engineering for me? 


Before you start planning for your future in engineering, it’s important to take the time to consider whether it’s really the right career path for you. 

First, you’ll need an aptitude for maths and science. Maths A-level is essential if you want to study engineering at university, and a science subject is usually required too. If you can also think creatively this will work in your favour; engineers constantly need to employ “out of the box” thinking to get the job done. 

Engineering degrees are challenging, but there are plenty of reasons why it makes an appealing career path. 

You’ll be highly employable - engineers are increasingly in demand, in the UK and across the world - and will have the chance to positively impact the world we live in. 

Earning potential is also high: whilst starting salaries average at around £24,000, the average income for an engineer is £48,000, 62% higher than the UK’s national average. Top salaries can reach £150,000 or more!

InvestIN’s Engineering Programmes provide the perfect opportunity for you to try out engineering before leaving school. Explore a 747 jet with aerospace engineers and tear down a petrol engine with a professional from Rolls Royce! 

Interested in learning more about the industry? Check out these engineering stats.

What GCSEs do you need to be an engineer? 


If you want to be an engineer, there aren’t many choices you need to make at GCSE, as the integral subjects - maths and science - are compulsory anyway. 

Just remember to opt for triple science if your school offers it. You’ll almost certainly need to take science at A-level, and separate sciences will prepare you far better than the combined/dual-award alternative. 

Strategic options may include a technology subject or ICT. But this is a great opportunity to choose subjects you really enjoy. You’ll feel much more motivated to study what you’re interested in, meaning you’re more likely to do well. 

You’ll need at least 5 GCSEs at grade 4 (C) or above (including maths, science and English) to secure a career in engineering, but a really strong set of test results will help improve your chances. University courses are competitive, and the entry requirements are typically very high. 

What A-levels do you need to be an engineer? 


Choosing your A-levels is an important step in your path to becoming an engineer. 

A-level maths is essential for almost every engineering course in the UK. After that, the subjects you pick will depend on the kind of engineer you want to be. 

A science subject is often mandatory. A chemical engineer will, naturally, need an A-level in chemistry, whilst physics is usually required for anyone applying to mechanical or electronic engineering courses. 

Combinations of maths and science subjects are usually the most popular with aspiring engineers. Further maths is a useful way to build on your core knowledge of the subject, and is often looked on favourably by universities. Practically speaking, some sort of design technology A-level could also prove useful, as could computer science, ICT or electronics.  

Check the individual requirements for the course you want to take on the university website. 

Here’s what Bhavik Bhatt, a thermofluids engineer at Rolls-Royce and speaker on InvestIN’s Engineering Programmes, had to say about his A-level choices:

“I was a bit of an anomaly at A-level. I did the usual maths, further maths and physics because that’s what most universities require for aeronautical engineering. But then I also did chemistry, 3D design, French, computing and astronomy. The last two were just the AS-level. I’ve racked up over 1000 UCAS points. Would I recommend it? Probably not. I actually think 3D design taught me the most about the engineering process. In terms of designing something from scratch and seeing it become reality, compared to maths and physics, where you read a book to pass an exam. In terms of recommendations, I would say maths and physics are pretty much compulsory for engineering. Apart from them, I would say do something you really enjoy.”

Click here for more advice on choosing your A-levels

The ability to think creatively is a real asset in engineering. Every project is different, and a little creativity will help you find innovative solutions to the problems you face.

Engineering work experience 


Secondary school work experience isn’t as essential for engineering as it is for medicine, but it is a good way to demonstrate your commitment to the subject in your university applications. It can also help you decide whether engineering is the career path for you, and which branch you might want to pursue.

Some companies offer virtual work experience schemes, though the application process can be long and competition is fierce. If you can’t find a placement specifically related to engineering, think about what similar fields you could explore. 

There’s all sorts of experience that could prove useful. Consider which skills are essential to engineering (more on this below) and what kinds of placements will allow you to develop them. 

Experience at a local primary school, for example, could help you acquire key communication skills, whilst a week with an accounting firm could demonstrate your aptitude for maths. 

“My first job ever was a week’s work experience in year 10, working at Maplin’s electronics.”

Bhavik Bhatt, Thermofluids Engineer at Rolls-Royce

If you’re looking for a way to gain invaluable experience and demonstrate your passion to universities, try InvestIN’s Engineering Programmes. Not only do they provide a unique insight into the industry with immersive simulations, seminars, site visits and Q&A panels, they also include personalised career coaching, with advice from top engineers on how to break into the field. 

Engineering skills 


So, you’ve got the right GCSE and A-level subjects, and we’ve gone over what work experience you’ll need. 

But what about the key employability skills you’ll need to excel as an engineer?

Beyond the technical knowledge that you will acquire when completing your academic training, there are a number of soft skills that are essential to the role. Below, we take a look at a few of the most important, with tips on how you can start developing them now.

Problem Solving


Engineers are problem solvers by trade! Whether they’re finding a renewable energy source to combat the effects of fossil fuels or inventing a piece of medical technology to regulate an erratic heartbeat, engineers are constantly applying their specialised knowledge to solve the problems around them. 

How to improve your problem-solving skills: 

Hobbies, clubs or societies that encourage you to think logically are a great way to develop this skill. Why not try maths club, coding or chess?

Teamwork and Communication


Though some of your time as an engineer will be spent working independently, you will inevitably have to work with a team of different professionals to get a project done. Being able to communicate effectively with them is essential. 

How to improve your teamwork and communication skills: 

Team sports like football, basketball or hockey offer ample opportunity to develop teamwork skills. If team sports aren’t your thing, volunteering at a food bank or homeless shelter could be another good way. To practise good communication you could join a debating society or tutor younger students (bonus points if it’s in maths or science subjects!).

“Technical understanding is hugely important, but beyond that you need communication. You’ll often need to be able to speak about technical things in layman’s terms.”

Charlie Fraser, Electric Vehicles Communities Champion, Octopus Electric Vehicles

Creativity 


The ability to think creatively is a real asset in engineering. Every project is different, and a little creativity will help you find innovative solutions to the problems you face.

“In engineering, there is a lot of variety and freedom. Freedom of expression, freedom to be creative…At university, you would study various topics, do coursework and do lab experiments. But there was always an answer. Those experiments had been done hundreds of times before. Whereas, in the professional world of engineering, you’re never working on something that’s been done. There’s always a novel solution, problem or question that you need to figure out.”

Bhavik Bhatt, Thermofluids Engineer at Rolls-Royce

How to improve your creativity: 

There’s more to creativity than the typical creative subjects such as art, music and drama. Skills like problem solving, data analysis and experimentation can all be creative as well.

Of course, writing, playing an instrument and artistic pursuits such as drawing and painting are great ways to practise creativity. But you can also challenge yourself to learn something new every week, collaborate with different people, and read as much as you can. 

Why not keep a creativity diary? Jot down new ideas when they come to you, no matter how small. You might be surprised how often you employ creative thinking! 

Attention to Detail


You’ll need to have a real eye for detail if you want to be an engineer. There’s no room for error when you’re working on large-scale projects; mistakes can be expensive, not to mention dangerous!

How to improve your attention to detail:

Part-time work, hobbies and clubs could all help you enhance your attention to detail. Why not try writing a blog or editing the school newspaper? Additionally, practise focusing whilst doing school work. Focus is closely linked to attention to detail: try to limit distractions, avoid multitasking and put your phone away. Brain games and apps like Peak and Elevate are also highly useful in developing this skill. 

Want to learn more about the key skills employers look for? Check out our blogs: Skills Advice from 20 Top Professionals, 8 ways to Improve Employability at School + Expert Advice and 6 Essential Time Management Skills Every Student Needs.

Choosing the right branch of engineering for you


If you want to study engineering at university, choosing what specialism you want to pursue is your next step, and it’s one of the most exciting decisions you’ll have to make!

There are dozens of disciplines to choose from, each catering to different interests and skill sets. Take a look at the list below for inspiration, and do your research into each one. 

  • Mechanical engineering
  • Electrical and electronic engineering
  • Chemical engineering
  • Civil engineering
  • Software engineering
  • Structural engineering
  • Biomedical engineering
  • Environmental engineering
  • Automobile engineering
  • Industrial engineering
  • Aerospace/aeronautical engineering
  • Robotics engineering
  • Architectural engineering
  • Marine engineering 
  • Nuclear engineering
  • Agricultural engineering 

 

Struggling to decide? 

Take some time to consider what you’re most passionate about and where your skill set lies. 

Got a way with computers? Software engineering may be your calling. Always been enviro-conscious and looking to build a sustainable career? Environmental engineering could be the path for you. 

Some students choose to study general engineering at university and then specialise later on. This can be a good way to keep your options open: you’ll gain a broader understanding of what engineering has to offer and will have more time to decide which direction you want to go in if you’re not sure now. 

Engineering is a diverse field full of exciting opportunities. Make sure you take the time to explore which path you want to go down.

What qualifications do you need to be an engineer? 


Once you’ve finished school there are 2 different paths you can take to qualify as an engineer. 

Studying engineering at university 


Most aspiring engineers study engineering at university, whether it be general engineering or a course related to the field they want to go into (electronic, civil, mechanical, etc.). It is sometimes possible to enter the field with a related degree (e.g. computer science or maths) though you might have to do additional training. 

Engineering degrees in the UK are usually 4 years, with some including a year in industry. Some universities offer a combined undergraduate and masters degree in one 4-year programme. 

Deciding where to study is a big decision! Make sure you do your research into the different courses on offer, and think about whether you'd like to live on a campus or in a city. If you need some help, check out our ultimate guide to choosing your university

Top universities for engineering in the UK


University ranking tables can be useful resources when deciding where to go. Not only do they show which institutions rank highly for academic excellence and international reputation, they also have scores for things like entry standards, graduate prospects and student satisfaction. 

Check out the table below for the top 10 universities to study general engineering in the United Kingdom, along with the A-level grades you’ll need to get in. 

Correct as of 10/01/2022. Source: The Complete University Guide

Applying for a particular specialism? Check out the top universities for mechanical engineering, electrical & electronic engineering, chemical engineering and civil engineering.
 

Engineering Apprenticeships


If university doesn’t appeal, or isn’t possible, the other option is an engineering apprenticeship, which you can apply for with a range of different companies and organisations. 

If you’re accepted, you’ll receive practical on-site training whilst simultaneously working towards an engineering qualification. Some apprenticeships even give you a degree. 

Apprenticeships tend to last between 2 and 4 years (though degree apprenticeships can take as long as 6) and entry requirements vary depending on the organisation. Some you can apply for at 16 with a minimum of 4 GCSEs at grade 4 (C) or above. For others you’ll need strong A-levels in specific subjects. Make sure you check individual requirements for the schemes you want to apply for as early as possible so you can prepare! 

There are several advantages to the apprenticeship route, the most notable of which is that they’re paid. So, not only will you save on university costs (your employer will pay for your tuition), you will also be able to earn as you learn. 

Apprenticeships also offer the chance to qualify through  hands-on, practical experience rather than more formal education. If you struggle with traditional academic environments, this could be the path for you. Having said this, balancing work with study can be challenging, so you’ll need to be prepared to work hard!

There are now a huge number of companies that offer engineering apprenticeships, including BMW, Royal Mail, KPMG, Virgin, Mars, Network Rail, Rolls Royce, National Grid, the Army and more. Have a think about the sectors you’re interested in and the organisations you admire before you apply. 

You can use your extracurriculars to gain important knowledge and experience. Joining relevant clubs and societies will help you develop key skills

What can you be doing now to prepare for a career in engineering?

So you know the qualifications you’ll need to become an engineer and the different routes into the field - but what can you be doing now to prepare? 

“Find something about engineering that you really enjoy. For me, it was a bit of a gamble going into my first day, having chosen aeronautical engineering with no real exposure to it beforehand. I sat down in Aerodynamics 101 and thought ‘If I don’t enjoy this, it’s gonna be a long couple of years’. Luckily, I did. So the advice I’d give is, if you think you might enjoy something, go out and try it first.”

Bhavik Bhatt, Thermofluids Engineer at Rolls-Royce

  • Do your research! Engineering is a diverse field full of exciting opportunities. Make sure you take the time to explore which path you want to go down and what specialism you might want to pursue. Guides like this one are a great place to start, and the following resources may also prove useful: 
  • Study hard! Engineering is notoriously challenging, and university entry requirements can be very high. To obtain those top grades, you’ll need to dedicate enough time to your studies.
  • Ace your extracurriculars! You can use your extracurriculars to gain important knowledge and experience. Joining relevant clubs and societies will help you develop key skills. Why not try coding, or writing a STEM-related blog? 
  • Up your skills! Focus on building the key skills essential to the profession. Join clubs or organisations, volunteer or find part-time work to get started. But don’t feel pressured to push yourself too hard; if you’re feeling overwhelmed during term time, use your holidays to upskill yourself. 
  • Gain valuable experience! Find relevant work experience if you can. If you’re struggling to secure engineering-specific experience, search for something in a related field, or apply for a scheme where you’ll still develop important engineering skills. Did you know InvestIN’s Engineering Programmes have no application process? Book now, no questions asked!

And finally… 


Good luck!

We hope you found this guide useful and you have everything you need to kickstart your career in engineering now.

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