How to choose the engineering job that’s right for you

Written by: Stephen Harris
Published on: 24 Sep 2014

Engineering is a very broad church. Some engineers spend their days in an office designing aircraft or writing code for innovative software startups. Others work on the building sites of skyscrapers or on oilrigs in the middle of the sea. Others toil away in labs building robots that could help change the way we live forever.

Unless your degree is in a very specific discipline, it’s likely your education will have given you a huge range of options to consider. Even if you’ve trained in something like civil or aerospace engineering, your skills will be in demand by a wide variety of companies, big and small, in different sectors.

All this can make career choices seem overwhelming. With so many types of engineering roles available, it can be hard enough just picking the kind of job that’s right for you, never mind beating other candidates to a specific position.

With this in mind we’ve put together a guide to some practical steps you can take to narrow down your options. If you’re unsure where to even begin or just need some guidance in collecting your thoughts, take a look at the following.

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Source: Pelamis
Some engineers work in offices, some wear hard hats, and some do both.

Find out what engineers actually do
You wouldn’t undertake an engineering project without researching the problem, what your options are or what other people have done before, and thinking about your career should be no different.

A good starting point is our series of sector guides to introduce you to the different areas in which engineers work. We also have a wealth of information on different companies and roles, as well as the latest news about new opportunities. Read articles about the latest research in different areas and find out who the keyplayers are.

There are plenty of other resources you can also use, notably company’s websites – our employer A-Z gives a good list of the UK’s main engineering employers. Studying job adverts will also give you insight into what different engineering jobs actually involve.

‘Go online and look at what the graduate jobs are,’ says Fran Shaw, engineering placement manager at Huddersfield University. ‘Read through the job descriptions and get a feel for how R&D (research and development) engineers are different from material engineers for example.’

Decide what you want from your career
Whether or not you know what kind of sector or engineering role you want to go into, it’s worth spending some time thinking about your own strengths and skills will affect the type of company you would work best in.

‘It’s important to ascertain if you’ll reach your potential as a big fish in a small pond or vice versa,’ says Mark Newland of recruitment agency STEM Graduates. ‘Some people thrive in a group project but don’t enjoy autonomy. They might work better in a larger company. Others totally embrace SMEs (small and medium enterprises). They are thrown in at the deep end and thrive on the ad hoc nature of training.’

What aspect of your course do you most enjoy or excel at? Consider if you’d rather work in a design office or spend more time out on site or on the shop floor getting your hands dirty. Think about where in the country (or world) you’d prefer to live and how far you’d be prepared to travel. But bear in mind being flexible and open-minded will give you a lot more options.

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Source: The Graduate Engineer Show
Careers fairs such as the Graduate Engineer Show are great places to find out about loads of engineering roles in one place.

Get yourself to a recruitment fair
Careers fairs offer you the chance to find out more about numerous employers in just a few hours, sometimes without even leaving your university. Some, like the Graduate Engineer Show and the National Engineering and Construction Recruitment Exhibition, are especially worthwhile for aspiring engineers.

If you’re still unsure about what kind of career you want, you can hear about what it’s like to work in a variety of roles, companies and sectors. And if you do know where you’re headed it’s a chance for some more in-depth discussions with your target employers about what they’re looking for and how to win them over.

‘I’d definitely recommend careers fairs because you can meet so many companies you’ve not heard about before,’ says Maria Zaretskaya, who’s now on the graduate training scheme for international engineering firm Eaton. ‘I didn’t know about Eaton until I went to a careers fair. They explained all about the company and the graduate scheme and it really fitted what I wanted.’

Employers use career fairs to promote themselves but may also be on the lookout for people to invite to apply for a job or graduate scheme. ‘I have a long memory – you remember people who stand out,’ says Nikki Bassett, Eaton’s UK HR director. ‘If you’re given a business card it means you’ve made a good impression and it’s worth a follow up.’

Don’t just look at the famous companies
The UK is full of world-class engineering firms that most people have never heard of. If you only consider BAE Systems, Jaguar Land Rover and BP then you could be missing out on opportunities that might well be a better fit for what you want to do

Some might think designing valves sounds boring, but what if those valves are used on spacecraft or Formula One cars? ‘A lot of people aren’t aware of the SMEs and supply chain companies doing very interesting R&D who you may never have heard of but are highly respected within the industry,’ says Mike Grey, head of the engineering futures team at Coventry University.

Including these companies in your shortlist might also give you a better chance securing a job than only considering firms that attract the fierce competition of the thousands of top engineers who graduate every year. ‘Look a bit broader and you’ll find some companies struggling to attract people but that offer an accelerated career path with more responsibility more quickly,’ says Grey.

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Get some work experience
Work experience is vital to getting an engineering job. But it can also be very useful in exposing you to what jobs, companies or sectors are really like and this could give you some direction – even if it’s just confirming what you don’t want to do.

Competition for placements and internships can be almost as tough as for permanent jobs, so arranging short-term work experience or even day visits at local firms can boost your CV for when it comes to applying for a placement and open your eyes to possibilities.

’Placements are a great opportunity to try something out: lots of students find out don’t want to do [a certain job] and maybe have stronger idea of what they do want,’ says Shaw. ‘It’s only by doing and seeing and talking to engineers you’ll know what they do.’

Keep reading The Student Engineer!
Our articles will fill you in on the breadth of engineering opportunities open to you and - once you’ve chosen a career path - how to secure your ideal job. In particular, make sure you look at our sector guides section for a run down of what the different industries do.