Who Is an Engineer? A Quick Perspective After One Year of a University Engineering Course

Age 16 to 18
Article by Doug Seymour

Published 2011

In my personal statement sent to universities (which students worry about too much) to convince them I was a student worth interviewing, I waxed lyrical about engineering, convinced that I should at least know what it was if I was applying to read it.

For sure, I knew enough to know it was the right choice for me, but I really didn't know what it was, despite significant research.

In the first year of a general engineering course at a university like Cambridge you will get an introduction to structures (mainly truss statics and beam theory), materials, dynamics (including a course on vibrations), fluid mechanics, thermodynamics, electric circuits, digital electronics, electromagnetics, about a quarter of the course will be maths, and there will be various labs. This probably seems like a daunting list, but you have 3 terms in which to do it, and it's all one step at a time. If you are capable of getting the results needed to get in, you are capable of doing the course.

Most engineering students I have met have taken Maths, Physics, Further Maths, and Chemistry at A-Level, but some take Electronics instead of Chemistry if they have that option. The Further Maths is very helpful, as although it will be recapped in the course, you have a good head start if you have covered some of the material before.

Although many people have the title "Engineer", they do very different things. You will almost certainly not directly use most of the subjects you learn in the general part of an Engineering course in your working life; most likely you will focus on one area, but the general grounding is invaluable in giving you a variety of problem solving skills, in learning what areas interest you, and in knowing what other engineers are capable of doing so you can draw on their expertise in the future. Some courses apply in some way to most engineering careers though, for example materials.

You come to realise that there really are almost as many different engineering jobs as there are engineers; that your career may very well change as you learn; that you haven't learned yet the most interesting engineering that you might do.

Engineering is a great field. There are many permanent careers, and also a lot of opportunity to shape your own career, and to work for yourself in some way.

I am less sure now about what I want to specialise in than when I applied! But I am more aware of the options. For example I had never considered electronics, but having been taught the first year, it no longer seems remote and unapproachable. For example I now know how computer memory modules can be made, starting from the raw materials (in one sentence, memory can be made from bistables, which are made from logic gates, which can be made from field effect transistors, which are made from doped silicon). Fluids is also new and interesting. Structural engineering seems like a great area too; a great way to make lasting additions and improvements to the world.

It is quite interesting to look at the specialities that final-year engineers have chosen. In 2009, about a quarter chose mechanical engineering, about a quarter chose structural/civil, about a quarter chose from a variety of electrical/electronic options, about an eighth chose aerospace/thermal, and about an eighth chose energy&environment/life sciences.

In my experience so far, I find that engineers are less likely to be interested in ceremony and vying for social/academic position than natscis (natural scientists) and mathmos (mathematicians). Engineers are doers! There are many great academics in engineering, but also the best engineers are often those who are happiest to grapple with the real world rather than abstract academic concepts. Of course combining both is probably the best way to think about it.

If you come to Cambridge, study hard in the first term and your whole year will be easier. At Cambridge, each term is only 8 weeks, so you always have a near-term change to look forward to. You should expect to work half or more of the Christmas holiday, and most of the Easter holiday. If you have time to read one small paperback in the summer holidays before, read The New Science of Strong Materials by JE Gordon. Although it was published 40 years ago, it's written by an experienced engineer who had a very interesting career, helps with some of the first year new concepts, and starts to give you an idea of who an engineer is.