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What kind of engineering is for me?

Switch showing different engineering specialismsInterested in engineering but confused by specialisms? Take a look at our quick guide to engineering disciplines.

Chemical Engineering

Chemical engineering is the use of chemical and biological processes to create useful materials or substances. One famous example is the Haber process, a chemical process which “fixes” nitrogen from the air into ammonia, which can be used to make fertilizers. It’s estimated that a third of the people on Earth rely on this process to have enough to eat, so there’s no doubt that chemical engineering is important!

Chemical engineers create a huge range of substances, including medicines, plastics, fuels and building materials. As well as maths, A-level chemistry is usually required, but some universities offer alternative routes if you haven’t studied chemistry. Chemical engineers need an analytical mindset, as you are working with chemical processes that you can’t see in action.

Read more: Chemical engineering career profile

Mechanical Engineering

Mechanical engineering uses knowledge of physics and materials to create things like engines, manufacturing equipment and vehicles. This can be a bit more hands-on than other disciplines, as you’re working with things you can see moving and interact with directly.

Mechanical engineering will usually require A-level maths and a science, often physics. It will involve a lot of mathematical work, as you need to be able to work out things like forces, stresses and aerodynamics.

Read more: Interview with an assistant mechanical engineer

Electrical and Electronic Engineering

Electrical engineering is exactly what it sounds like: engineering using electricity. However, there are big differences between electrical and electronic engineering. Engineer Michael Chandler explains the differences in this interview.

Electrical and electronic engineers work in lots of different areas – just think of all the different ways you use electricity in a day! The discipline ranges from planning out large power systems like the National Grid to creating microchips and other components.

These disciplines involve lots of maths and physics. You’ll need to be good at working things out using measurements – you can’t see electricity! – but as an electronic engineer you may be able to do some hands-on prototyping and tinkering.

Read more: Electrical engineering career profile

Civil Engineering

Civil engineers deal with the big stuff, like roads, dams, bridges, buildings and canals. As well as designing particular projects, civil engineers can deal with more general problems: for example, finding ways to deal with coastal erosion and protecting buildings from earthquakes.

Civil engineers need a good understanding of materials and the natural world: the things they build become part of the environment, and usually need to stand for many years.

Most courses ask for A-level maths and a science, often physics. You may have more opportunities for travel as a civil engineer: after all, you can’t build a skyscraper in a lab!

Read more: Interview with a civil engineer

What else is there?

As well as the four main disciplines and their sub-specialisms, there are specialisms that combine areas from more than one discipline. There are also newer disciplines based on more recent technology. Here are some examples:

  • Mechatronic engineering combines mechanical and electronic engineering with other areas including computer engineering, control engineering (making sure things work in a predictable way) and systems engineering (managing complex engineering projects.)
  • Nuclear engineering is the study of engineering based on nuclear physics, such as nuclear power plants. As well as the design and maintenance of such projects, it also includes radiation safety, waste disposal and medical physics equipment

If you are certain you want to specialise in one of these areas, you might have to look around various universities to find a specific course. However, remember that you may be able to study the area you are interested in even if it is not a separate course, and some specialisms may require you to do an extra postgraduate course. If you’re not sure of the specifics of a university’s courses, you can get in touch with them directly.

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