Working in physics: The route to engineering success

Getting a CEng qualification can be a smart career move for physicists working in engineering, as Michelle Jeandron finds out.

Mark of success

Engineering is a diverse profession that contributes to almost every aspect of modern life — from the design of the car you drive to the structure of the house you live in — so it is not surprising that many physics graduates end up working in this area. When you consider that (according to the Engineering Council UK) engineering is the highest earning profession after law and medicine, and that engineers are also apparently the happiest people around, it is by no means a bad career choice. Although most physicists will probably think that they have a fundamentally different world outlook to engineers, many who work in industry end up being employed as engineers (see "Engineering a better physicist", Physics World June 2006).

Paul Gosling, who works for Thales UK — part of the major French electronics and systems- development group — is a case in point. Gosling originally did a physics degree at the University of Warwick followed by a doctorate in nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy at the University of Oxford. He is now technical director of the Thales UK naval division, which develops new sonar systems to help guide the UK's ships and submarines. "Physics is very highly regarded in our organization," says Gosling, who also takes a keen interest in the training and development of the new graduates that the firm employs. "We tend to recruit physicists and mathematicians because they have the right sort of mental agility: in this industry, one day you're dealing with a very specific problem in sonar and the next you'll be dealing with a mechanical problem with a winch."

According to Gosling, Thales UK is also keen to encourage staff to acquire professional qualifications such as chartered status (although, outside of the UK, the Thales Group tends to place more emphasis on peoples' experience). Certainly in the UK, engineering is an area in which professional qualifications are taken seriously, both by companies and their customers. After a few years spent working as an engineer, most people reach the point where they want to become chartered to help their career progress.

Up to the job
In the UK a chartered engineer is one who is registered with the Engineering Council UK (ECUK). Having CEng status means that you have reached an appropriate level of competence and experience in your chosen field of engineering and, depending on the area you work in, this can significantly improve your career prospects. Owen Stevens, for example, is a physicist turned engineer who is now a director of Subsurface Consultants Ltd, a small environmental and geotechnical consultancy based in Preston in the UK that advises professional developers and local residents on utilizing former industrial sites. He obtained his CEng qualification earlier this year at the age of 35 and feels that it has benefited him significantly. "It's important to have a professional qualification to demonstrate to your potential clients that you have that level of experience — if you're not up to the job, you won't get chartered," he says.

Paul Jarvis, who graduated in physics in 1985 and is now manager of the radiological- safety support group at the Devenport Royal Dockyard Ltd (part of Babcock Marine), became a chartered engineer in 2002 at the age of 38. He agrees that getting CEng status was a significant turning point in his career. "Since becoming chartered I have been promoted from senior safety engineer, to safety-case project manager, and then to my current role where I manage a group of nine engineers," he says. "The company is keen for its employees to become chartered in a relevant discipline."

A matter of experience
To become a chartered engineer you first need to belong to a professional institute that is a licensed member of the ECUK. It is difficult for people with a physics background to get a CEng directly through the engineering institutes because these tend to only recognize BEng and MEng degrees. The Institute of Physics, however, offers its own route to chartered-engineer status for its members. The basic requirements are simply that you have a degree in physics or a related subject as well as about five years' experience working in engineering, two of which have to be at a responsible level, i.e. your work involved managing a project. You also need to find two people to support your application, who themselves must already be chartered engineers.

The route to CEng through the Institute involves producing a technical report and a professional-review report. The purpose of the technical report is to demonstrate that you have compensated for the vocational engineering aspects of a BEng that are deficient in a physics degree, and that you have acquired a level of engineering skill equivalent to that which would be attained during an MEng course. In practice this means describing projects you have done at work, with particular emphasis on the engineering applications and design elements, as well as the business skills that you have used.

This report also needs to demonstrate your ability to undertake individual project work as well as to work in a group. The professional- review report, on the other hand, describes your career to date and details your future plans. "You have to show that you are using engineering principles and that you will maintain that specialist standing in the future," explains Stevens. "The process is quite involved and the information that needs to be supplied can grow to about 10,000 words." Finally, all candidates must attend an interview — usually at the Institute's headquarters in London — with two Institute members who are also chartered engineers. Candidates will be asked questions based on the information they have submitted.

Whether or not an application is successful is decided by a panel of a further five Institute chartered engineers. They assess the information in the reports, the comments of the interviewers and the comments of the supporters and compare all of this with the requirements for CEng set down by the ECUK. While putting together the application itself might only take a few days, it can take several months to complete the whole process, and success is not guaranteed. Most physicists seem to think it is well worth the effort, however.

"I view having a CEng as a validation of my experience and other learning experiences within the engineering field and it also helps me to feel at home within a peer group comprised mainly of engineers," says Adrian Gaylard, a physics graduate from Leicester Polytechnic who is now the aerodynamics technical specialist for Jaguar Land Rover. He recommends all physicists working in engineering to apply for CEng status. "Take the opportunity to have your experience within engineering documented and validated," he says. "The people we work with move on and we lose touch with them; sometimes it's even hard to recall the range of things we've worked on. The process of getting chartered captures this vulnerable data and provides recognition that you have developed a valuable new set of skills."

Chartered engineers can also obtain the European Engineer (Eur Ing) title by registering with the Fédération Européene d'Associations Nationales d'Ingénieurs (FEANI). This qualification is recognized by most countries in Europe and can be helpful to engineers who wish to work on the continent. The application process is similar to that for a CEng, and must also be done through an organization such as the Institute.

Before you can become a chartered engineer, however, you need to obtain the necessary engineering experience, so it is important to choose your first job wisely. Whether you go along the chartered route or not, Gosling thinks that the first few years can make or break an engineering career. "You need to get into a challenging role in the early part of your career and you need to be working with experienced people who can be good mentors," he says. "It's very important to get that first step on the ladder right, so choose the employer and the nature of the work very carefully.

About the author
Michelle Jeandron is Reviews and Careers Editor of Physics World.

This article originally appeared in the November 2007 issue of Physics World

Image credit: Photolibrary

last edited: March 28, 2014

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